Winter is a time of contrasts—of dark days punctuated by bright, almost harsh, sunlight and deep, cold shadows. Brisk walks, briskly walked, and cozy sojourns on the couch beneath the softest blankie in the house. And with several feast days in the span of two months, lots of shopping, baking, and eating, eating, eating.
The stores now have all the winter produce you expect, right next to the berries and tomatoes looking weirdly out of place, perhaps because I know how far they’ve traveled to be there. The farmer’s market gives you a clearer picture of the seasons wherever you are. And what they are full of right now are sturdy, dark leafy greens. Great bunches and bushels of them, gleaming darkly in numerous shades…threatening you with good health in this season of joyous excess.
Depending on from where you hail, the green of the moment might be chard, mustard, collards, or bok choy, with kale currently enjoying the most fame. I have heard it said that kale chips and salads are largely passé, but ANY leafy green in a creamy, cheesy gratin will always be classique—especially on the holiday side table.
Now, I realize that many people balk at these large and lanky leaves. They’re just so GREEN! So bitter! So wild! But a gratin tames and civilizes them, enrobing their dark natures with a saintly white mornay sauce—a beautiful study in contrasts. Few things are more satisfying.
This recipe employs an unusual technique to simplify preparing the greens. Most recipes have you blanch the washed greens in a huge amount of salted water, then “refresh” or “shock” them in a correspondingly huge bowl of ice water—drudgery work if ever there was. But there is a better way. Cryoblanching is a technique whereby you freeze the greens (or indeed other veggies) and then thaw them. Once thawed, they are limp but still bright green, exactly as if they’d gotten their hot and cold baths. Now the folks over at Serious Eats, where I first read about this, would have you freeze the leaves in a single layer. Truthfully, I’ve had perfect luck by stuffing them into a bag, smooshing the air out, and freezing the lot. Easy, peasy…
Winter Greens Gratin
As mentioned in the post, this method uses the cryoblanching technique of preparing the greens, saving you from the hot-water-cold-water dance. Many recipes of this type top the gratin with breadcrumbs, and while I think that’s a fine idea, I tend to leave them off since I love the leftovers on a piece of toast!
Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish
1-2 bunches lacinato kale (1/2-1 lb.), frozen, thawed
1 large bunch white ribbed chard (about 1 1/2 lb.), frozen, thawed
2 shallots, (3-4 oz.), cut in half, sliced thinly
5 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 Tbs. butter
1 Tbs. flour
1 c. cream, heated
1/4 c. Gruyère or Parmesan cheese, finely grated
dash of nutmeg OR cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp. salt
a few grinds of black pepper
Lay thawed greens on a large towel, roll up, and twist hard to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Chop as finely as you desire, and place in a large bowl.
Preheat oven to 450°. Sauté shallots in the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat till softened, a few minutes. Add garlic, and sauté a minute more. Sprinkle over the flour, stir in well, and cook a minute or two. Pour in the heated milk, whisking constantly till smooth. If you have a high-heat silicone spatula, it’s great for getting into the corners of the pot.
Turn to very low, and cook for 18 to 20 minutes, till thick and creamy, stirring frequently. Stir in the cheese and seasonings, stirring till melted. Pour over the greens, and stir really well—the greens will have stuck together when pressed in the towel, and the vigorous stirring makes sure they’re all coated with the sauce.
Pour into a 1-quart baking dish, and sprinkle with more cheese, if desired (I always seem to desire exactly that!). Bake 25 to 30 minutes, till bubbly and the top is nicely golden-brown. Cool at least 10 minutes before serving.