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Scalloped potatoes without guilt

"Scallop" is a funny word in the world of food. It's not only a shellfish but a thin slice of veal or other meat, and it's a delicious potato casserole. A circular pattern seems to be the common theme, a quick pass through the dictionary suggests. But whatever its form, a scallop is a welcome thing to see on the dinner table.

I think of scalloped potatoes in particular as a dish for holidays and special occasions. All that heavy cream! All that cheese! We're talking about a serious attack on your recommended daily ration of saturated fat.

But an article in the current issue of Cook's Illustrated, my favorite cooking magazine, suggested a simplified variation - titled "Weekday scalloped potatoes" - that reduces both the fat and the preparation time of the traditional version.

Additional inspiration came during a Valentine-season dinner at Le Relais, our city's top French eatery, where my wife's filet mignon came with a startlingly good side dish, a tiny but delectable portion of thin-sliced potatoes in a scallop-like presentation, delicately but intensely infused with fresh sage.

This set up an intriguing kitchen challenge: Could I create a new dish by combining these two approaches? Plus, keep it simple enough to make sense for a busy cook to handle after work. And ideally, back the fat down even further to achieve a sensible side dish, counting on the sage (and other aromatic players) to fill in the flavor gap left by reducing cream, butter and cheese to the status of mere condiments.

Here's my best effort. We liked it well enough to try again, and I managed to knock it out in an hour, keeping the rest of the meal (lamb chops and fresh spinach) simple enough to handle while the potatoes were in the oven.

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

2 medium baking potatoes, russet or similar
1 sprig fresh sage or to taste
1 or 2 bay leaves
1 large clove garlic
1 cup chicken broth (or vegetable broth)
1/2 tablespoon butter
Cayenne (optional)
1/2 tablespoon butter
About 1/2 cup whole milk
1 ounce (about 1/4 cup) grated Cheddar cheese


1. Peel the potatoes and cut them crosswise into fairly thin slices, using chef's knife, food processor slicing blade or mandoline. I found the very thin (1/8-inch) slices recommended in Cook's Illustrated too thin; they fell apart in cooking. Slicing them 1/4-inch thick worked better for me ... and required only half the cutting time! You'll want to hold the slices in water while you're working so they won't discolor.

2. Preheat oven to 425F.

3. Although most scalloped potato dishes call for sauteeing aromatics, then cooking them with the sliced potatoes in cream, I used a different approach to avoid fat and to infuse aromatics into the potatoes before assembling the dish for baking: Put the sliced potatoes in a saucepan with just enough broth to cover. Add the sage, bay leaves and smashed garlic clove (and salt to taste if the broth isn't sufficiently salty), and bring to the boil. Cover and simmer the potatoes very gently for 5 minutes or a little more, checking frequently with a fork to get them just tender. Remove from heat, drain the broth and discard the aromatics.

4. While the potatoes are simmering, heat the milk (I actually used a mixture of skim milk with a little cream) almost to the boil on stovetop or in the microwave. Grate the cheese. (I used Cabot sharp white Cheddar from Vermont, by the way, but feel free to use the Cheddar of your choice, or try substituting other cheeses - Gruyere, for instance, or grated Parmigiano. The key, in any case, is to use enough to add flavor interest but no more than you need to make a light topping that doesn't weigh down the finished dish.)

5. Lightly butter a glass or ceramic casserole dish, and put the potatoes in. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, freshly grated nutmeg and a homeopathic dash of the optional cayenne if you wish, and pour the heated milk over, using just enough to come close to the top of the potatoes. A half-cup or so should be plenty. Top with the grated cheese.

6. Put the dish in the oven, uncovered, and bake for 15 minutes or until it's hot and bubbly and the top is starting to brown. (You can increase the heat to 450 or even a little more for a few moments to hasten browning at the end).

7. You can serve and eat it immediately, if your mouth is lined with asbestos. It's best, though, to let it cool a bit, during which time the liquids are absorbed back into the potatoes and the flavors seem to intensify. I suggest timing the dish so it comes out of the oven 10 or 15 minutes before dinner, which also frees you up to handle finishing touches on the other courses.

WINE MATCH: I matched our wine of the evening to the main course, picking a modest Bordeaux (Chateau La Rose Metairie 2000 Haut-Médoc) to match the lamb. It went fine with the potatoes, though, the Cheddar topping coming up to match the wine, while the scent of sage sang harmony with the wine's natural herbaceousness. If I were seeking a direct match for the potato dish, though, I would go with an aromatic Italian white, a quality Pinot Grigio from the Northeast or one of my Southern Italian favorites, Greco di Tufo or Fiano di Avellino.

WEB LINK: The good news is that Cook's Illustrated has a high-quality Website. The not-so-good news is that you won't find the current issue's recipes there; and to get to the content-rich parts, you have to pay a subscription fee. I let my online subscription lapse after a year, feeling that it didn't add real value to the print magazine. Still, if you're not familiar with this excellent magazine, the site is worth a look, at

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Thursday, Feb. 20, 2003
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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