Comfort Food: Au Gratin Potatoes & Ham
If you search “comfort food” on Pinterest, you will see a steady flow of pictures of macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, soup and casseroles. Most comfort foods are warm and involve at least one starchy element. Cheese is a common ingredient (there is joy in the gooeyness). Those foods that require a fork or a spoon seem to beg for you to slow down and savor each bite.
engaging the senses
What is it about certain foods that even the thought or scent of them can instantly lift the spirit and relax the mind? Warm chocolate chip cookies can put a smile on a discontented face. A steaming bowl of soup and a grilled cheese sandwich can take the chill off of any brisk day. Finding a restaurant that prepares chicken and noodles (served over mashed potatoes, of course) so much like the one your mom use to make triggers a stream of cherished memories.
If you ask people what their favorite comfort food is, you may get a very traditional answer, like those previously mentioned. Sometimes the answer may be a dish or dessert that is so unique, it begs for a story to be told. The commonality in all responses will be the look on their face as they explain why: the eyes close softly, a slow inhale and exhale ensues and a smile of remembrance is sure to follow.
Comfort food is nostalgic. There is an emotional, physical and/or spiritual attachment with it that transforms food into an experience that is relived with each bite. My mom makes a very simple casserole she calls goulash … ground beef, elbow macaroni, mixed vegetables, tomato sauce/soup … that my brothers and I are certain tastes better because she has baked it in the same pink casserole dish our whole lives. Of course, it is “so good” because she knows exactly the proportions of ingredients and just the right baking time, but we will always associate the best goulash with that pink dish.
the comfort of casseroles
While debating which recipe to share for this post, it didn’t take long for this one to come to mind: Au Gratin Potatoes and Ham.
This casserole has all the elements necessary: it’s warm, full of potatoes and cheese, and each forkful is deeply satisfying. It is also attached to a very fond memory. When my boys were little, they would come into the kitchen as I was making dinner and ask “What are you making?” That day, in the middle of my preparations, I quickly responded, “Au Gratin Potatoes and Ham”. They both were silent (a rare and noteworthy event), scrunched up their faces and then said, “ROTTEN potatoes and ham?!?!?”.
After a brief discussion of what “au gratin” means and a promise that I would never serve them anything rotten, this recipe became a dinner staple for our family. A spinach salad with apples, pears, cranberries, red onion and cucumbers compliment the ham and potatoes perfectly.
When it comes to comfort food, it doesn’t matter that we don’t all choose the same dish. It may be pancakes. It may be fried chicken. It may be pie. What matters is that we pay attention to what gives comfort to others and to ourselves.
Prepare it. Savor it. Enjoy it … together.
Au Gratin Potatoes & Ham
- 2 pounds white russet potatoes about 6 medium
- 2 cups diced ham
- 3 tablespoons salted butter
- 1/2 cup diced onion
- 1 tablespoon flour heaping
- 1/2 teaspoon Black Pepper
- 1 teaspoon ground mustard
- 1 teaspoon dried parsley
- 2 cups 2% or whole milk room temperature
- 2 cups shredded cheese (cheddar, Swiss, Monterrey Jack, etc), divided, room temperature
- 1/4 cup dry bread crumbs
- 1/2 teaspoon paprika
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
- Peel and slice potatoes and layer with the ham in a 9”x13” pan.
- Melt butter over low heat in a skillet, add onion and sauté until onion is tender (3-4 minutes). Whisk in flour, pepper, ground mustard and parsley stirring constantly until bubbly (1-2 minutes). Slowly stir in milk (1/2 cup at a time) and bring back to a very low boil. Add 1 1/2 cups of the shredded cheese (1/2 cup at a time), whisking after each addition until melted.
- Pour cheese sauce over the potatoes/ham. Use a fork to gently distribute the sauce throughout the potatoes. Bake, uncovered, for one hour and 20 minutes.
- Combine bread crumbs, remaining cheese and paprika. Sprinkle on top of casserole and return to oven for 20 minutes, or until top is brown and bubbly.
I have developed another version of this casserole that incorporates a variety of fall flavors: sweet potatoes, kale, mushrooms and chicken sausage. Autumnal Au Gratin Potatoes has a hint of sage and nutmeg add that extra warmth at the end of a day in the field, raking leaves or non-stop meetings.