Try a no-fuss, last-minute holiday gratin

With Thanksgiving a little over a week away, most of us still are fleshing out the menu. Plus, there are all the December events to think of.

In the month to come, a vegetable gratin is something to keep in mind. For one thing, a gratin usually can be prepared at an earlier time, then baked just before serving. No fuss, no last-minute mussing of delicate, vegetable concoctions.

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Besides, anyone who's experienced a gratin becomes an instant fan, in large part because of the intensely flavored, crunchy top.

The term "gratin" literally means "crust" in French. Most often, the crust is formed by a top layer of cheese, breadcrumbs or a combination of both that has browned during baking. With its prized, golden-brown, crusty coating, a casserole of macaroni and cheese, for example, is about as pure as gratins come. But the cause is pure chemistry.

French scientist L.C. Maillard was the first to describe the browning phenomena. Since 1912, it's been known as "Maillard browning," which refers to a complex reaction that takes place between certain sugars and proteins when heat is applied.

In a nutshell, richer flavor ensues — as does rude behavior among diners angling for an extra spoonful of that fabulous coating atop broccoli gratin. Everything from baked goods to fried foods and roasts benefits from Maillard browning.

Social misconduct aside, let's hear three cheers for Maillard browning. Now you know why vegetable gratins can be so tasty.

Recipes for vegetable gratins cover a wide flavor spectrum. Vegetables that render a large amount of water, such as spinach and other leafy greens, may be gratineed without much extra liquid, if any. However, vegetables with less moisture need additional liquid.

One traditional method is to spread a layer of milk-soaked, stale bread in the bottom of a baking dish. Spread vegetables over this, then top with more bread-and-milk mixture. The lower layer of bread provides a steamy environment for vegetables to cook without drying out. Meanwhile, the upper bread dries and browns to a delectable topping.

Cream, cheese or cream-cheese-egg combinations are additional ways to maintain a moist interior and still produce that lovely, golden top.

So without further ado, here are a few of my favorites, which, as I said, can be prepared at an earlier time, then finished just before serving. They'll hold quite nicely once removed from the oven. Even when you're ready to serve the gratin but can't until Uncle Harry finishes his "Elk and the Motor Home" story, at least the vegetables won't be suffering.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at

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