Monday, November 12, 2012

MacGyver It: No-Bake Leek and Potato Pseudo-Gratin

I think it's safe to say that winter has arrived in Astana.

While the locals continue to warn me that it will "get colder" and that "it's not quite winter," we've had two continuous days of snowfall and falling temperatures.  In my book, that is winter.  Yesterday's snow was the kind I love: the slow, steady snowfall that embraces the world in its quiet fluffiness and is best enjoyed with a long afternoon walk, ruminating on lines from Robert Frost.  Today is less Robert Frost, and more Machiavelli.  The wind, which whips and howls its way across the open steppe, forces you inside with its harshness, where one can do little but endure its ruthless cacophony.  It's the kind of weather I imagined as a child reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's "The Long Winter," marveling at how terrible the wind must have been to make mild-mannered Pa shake his fists in frustration at it.  It's the same mixture of wonder and dread I experienced reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, knowing that even the worst Midwestern winter could barely compare to that bone-numbing brutality.  

Lucky for me, I'm neither a pioneer, grinding flour in a coffee grinder, nor a Soviet prisoner trying to survive day-to-day life in a gulag.  Still, after a particularly nasty walk from the bus across the ice-covered parking lot, pushing and shoving against the relentless wind, I decided that I needed some comfort food; leeks and potatoes instantly came to mind. Of course, what I wanted to make was this amazing Potato Leek Gratin that I've been addicted to ever since I discovered the recipe on the NY Times food page.  But with no gruyere, no baking dish, and no reliable oven (the oven temperature fluctuates based on the number of burners running), I knew this was a prime opportunity showcase my MacGyver skills.

First of all, I actually had leeks in my possession, which itself was a minor victory of crude linguistics.  (My excitement in learning the Russian word for leeks quickly abated when I realized no one at the bazaar this weekend understood the word, so I had to resort to asking for "big green onions" instead).  This was going to happen, I told myself, even if it was going to take hours to cook.  Basically, I ended up preparing a one-pot stove-top version of the gratin, minus the gruyere and the thyme.  While this version lacked the gooey warmth of the gratin, the leeks and potatoes cooked beautifully on the stove over low heat, and fulfilled my craving for comfort food on this blustery, snowy night.  

Obviously, if you have access to an oven -- and gruyere -- you shouldn't miss out on making the original recipe, but know that it is possible to make a less-complex version with just a handful of the same ingredients.  

Here's what I used: 2 leeks (halved and sliced thinly), 3 potatoes (peeled and sliced into rounds), salt, pepper, cream (1/3 cup), 2-3 cloves of garlic (minced), olive oil and butter (1 tbs of each)

1. Saute the leeks in some butter and olive oil for 5-7 minutes over medium-high heat. I used a medium-sized pot for this.  

2. Add garlic and cream to the leek mixture.  Stir and cook for about a minute, then remove from heat and place in a separate bowl.

3. Wash the pot, and return to the stove over low heat.  Add the rest of the oil and butter, then arrange half the potatoes in rounds at the bottom of the pan.  Salt and pepper the potatoes.  


4. Spread half the leek-cream mixture on the potatoes, then arrange the remaining potatoes on top of that.  Sprinkle salt and pepper over the potatoes, and then add the rest of the leeks.  Cook for 35-40 minutes over low heat with the cover on.  


  1. Ah! It look fabulous! I am going to have to pretend that I too live in sub-zero temps and make this. Well it is almost very cold here in Texas--38 degrees was our low. Mm..I hope you are not twisting hay to keep yourself warm:)

  2. Sounds awesome! Two quick questions - 1) if using guyere where would that come in? And 2) do you think I could use creme fraise instead of cream (just bc i happen to have some that needs using up) or would that do weird things texture wise you think?