Gratins; the easy A+ side dish for the family Christmas dinner.

Can you imagine the savory crunchy bits of baked sauce or cheese left around the perimeter of a casserole? Who can stop themselves from scouring over the crispy morsels that are left behind in the dish?

The answer? No one. If you are looking for a universal Christmas dish that everyone is bound to enjoy, then look no further.

The French coined the name for a baked top layer,  which is  “gratin”. Gratins’ consist of breadcrumbs, cheese, sauce, or sugar layered on top of savoring pastas, potatoes or even deserts.

The origin of the word is quite interesting and dates back to the 16th century. The French verb, “gratter” means “to scrape”. Likewise, The term, “le gratin” has been used to refer to the “upper crust” in society. In modern uses, “au gratin” refers to a dish with a crunchy caramelized top layer.

Although the gratin originated in France, small twists and different recipes make it easily adopted in Italian cuisine.

When I was home this weekend, I went to one of my favorite locally-owned family restaurants, called Oregano’s. Upon looking on the menu, I noticed that they served a dish called baked cauliflower gratin. Needless to say, we ordered it as our appetizer.  Absolutely Delicious!

After eating, I spoke to the owner Larry Mancini about the history of the dish and why the dish is a healthy alternative. He started off with,

“Oh…well, it’s the healthy mac and cheese!”

Truly, he is right in this statement. The cauliflower becomes so soft and pasta like that it hardly even tastes like a vegetable. Surrounded by the creamy cheddar base,  it can easily be mistaken for a not so healthy dish.

He went on to tell me that he has had this recipe on the menu for over Twenty years because it was one of his mother’s favorites. Having done his fair share of research and experimentation, he explained that there are multiple gratin dishes. The oldest of these mouthwatering dishes is called, gratin dauphinois; it is just sliced  potatoes in a garlic cream sauce coated in butter and sprinkled with breadcrumbs.

He mentioned that with cauliflower, roasting it will caramelize it, and lead to a sweet and savory taste.

Another reason why gratins are so loved is that they are so easy to make! They can be prepared with anything from cauliflower to asparagus to pasta; and not to neglect, deserts as well! Coating fruit and cream in sugar and popping it in the oven will torch and caramelize the sugar. Can you say heaven? I can!

Attached is a cauliflower gratin recipe that I recently made myself and loved. It adds a goat cheese topping, which further defines it’s salty flavor.

Gratins’ are also easily modified to fit food allergies. There are gluten free options, as well as vegetarian alternatives to fit everyone’s specific needs.

If you need that extra appetizer to add to your eloquent Christmas dinner, simply add a gratin. The result? Delectable crispy and creamy goodness to pass around the table!

Looking for a rich probiotic to enhance recipes? Greek yogurt is the answer. 

Yogurt can be a creamy addition to enhance most Italian dishes.

However, most traditional yogurt products contain a high concentration of artificial additives and ingredients that can work against the natural digestive process.

What’s worse? High fructose corn syrup, a common sweetener, has a very high glycemic index and aspartame contains methanol, a substance that is toxic even in the smallest amount.

Despite it’s numerous downfalls, yogurt has enhanced many recipes for its creaminess and flavor. Italian dinners, and in particular, Italian sauces, have been greatly intensified with the use of this creamy ingredient.

The search has inevitably been for a higher grade and more nutritious substitute to the fatty cow yogurt.

Greek yogurt, as opposed to regular yogurt, not only provides a thicker, more creamy alternative, but also is loaded with protein and probiotics (the healthy bacteria).

It fits the college student’s budget since it is inexpensive, while also improving digestion, immunity and may even reduce the symptoms of lactose intolerance, according to the Journal of Applied Microbiology (2005).

This relatively new superfood is commonly used for yogurt parfaits, tzatziki, smoothies or in nutritious popsicles, but did you know it can also make for a wonderful creamy Italian sauce?

I recently tired Creme de la Crumb‘s Greek yogurt Alfredo sauce and was astonished not only by the supreme flavor, but also the protein it added merely by using Greek yogurt. I can assure you, give this a go and you will never go back to the store bought cans.

Photo adopted from (Nikodem Nijaki,creative commons)

 

The essential oils

Throughout time, people have been testing a wide variety of oils in their frying, baking and sautéing endeavors; plant, animal and synthetic fats are a few oil options.  However, when it comes to mastering Italian recipes, the quality of the oil is the very basis for success. The search is inevitably for something light and tasty, but also wholesome.

As we move away from animal fats, new scientific evidence from The Journal of the American College of Nutrition suggests cholesterol-free vegetable oil from oilseed crop is the best option. These include:soybean, sunflower, rapeseed, cottonseed, and peanut oils.

Most of these vegetable oils have levels of oleic, linoleic and linolenic acids that significantly exceed that of palmitic acid, and nutritionists now generally recommend that preference is given to such oils in the human diet.

Oleic and linoleic oils are unsaturated, fatty acids that won’t compromise your health, but still have the same satisfaction in the stomach.

In order to maintain a healthy kitchen, steer away from high levels of cholesterol and saturated fatty acids in cooking oils. Partially hydrogenated, Crisco and Canola are just a few that should be avoided due to their contribution to cardiovascular disease.

The next time you wish to whip up an Italian dinner, pay special attention to the use of the oil. Such a small change can dramatically improve the taste as well as your overall health.