For the Love of Gratin

A few years ago Aubyn and I, along with Moby, our wonderful (now sadly-departed) pooch, drove from New York City to the coast of South Carolina, to board a ferry to Daufuskie, a sparsely-inhabited island about half-hour by ferry from the mainland. Daufuskie is where Aubyn’s half-sister lived at the time with her husband.

The occasion was a Gwinn family reunion of sorts. I say “of sorts” because the family that was reuniting was cobbled together from the marriages of their one common ancestor, Aubyn’s birth mother, Ellie.

In all there were 20 of us assembled there for the occasion, including Miss Ellie, who took a shine to me because I made her cocktails.

The house was big, but really not big enough to comfortably accommodate 20 overnight guests. There was one normal-sized bathroom on the first level, and one small bathroom on the second level, where there was a communal bedroom that was intentionally designed to sleep eight adults and six or so children. Seriously. All in one room.

There was no way in hell that I was going to be able to sleep in that kind of setting, so, because we got there before most of the others, we were given a choice, and we chose to sleep on a pullout couch on the back porch, which was open to the elements. We would suffer insect bites, but nothing compared to co-bunking with a dozen or so relative strangers and their children.

I had not met any of these people before, but I had volunteered to make dinner for one of the three nights that we stayed there. I chose to make a jambalaya because they expected I’d showcase one of Louisiana’s iconic dishes, plus jambalaya is a great way to satisfy lots of different tastes (except vegans and vegetarians of which there were none present). The two big pots of rice, sausage, chicken, shrimp and the Cajun holy trinity of onions, celery, and bell peppers (along with plenty of garlic) that I cooked turned out to be a real crowd pleaser, with enough left over for lunch the next day for anyone who wanted it.

On the drive down to South Carolina, I had fretted to Aubyn that making jambalaya in such a quantity – and in two different pots because there wasn’t one available that would hold that quantity of food, was fraught with the potential for failure. On top of that, I would be making a jambalaya outside of my home, using unseen ingredients that Aubyn’s sister had boated in from the mainland.

But, as if on cue in a perfect-world Hallmark Channel story, both pots came out perfectly. And, on top of that – in a situation that doesn’t happen too often, even in a Hallmark story – each pot had also produced a perfect – P.E.R.F.E.C.T. – gratin. For the uninitiated, gratin (some in Louisiana call it “gradu”) is the crust that you get at the bottom of a pot of rice – not burnt, but caramelized. A perfect gratin happens when the olive oil or other fats (like chicken skin) drip to the bottom and create a Cajun delicacy that is prized by anyone who knows a good jambalaya. This is doesn’t happen as often as I’d like in cooking jambalaya, for a variety of reasons – the most common having to do with the thickness of the pot and cooking time. A true gratin is magical on the taste buds. The crispy rice is infused with all the flavors of the pot, and the result is at once crunchy, sweet, and savory.

Dark bits of gratin (even the darkest bits are delicious) from the bottom of the pot adorn the top of my most recent plate of jambalaya.

Some chefs who make jambalaya empty the cooked jambalaya into another container, then scrape out the beautiful gratin from the cooking pot, so they can distribute bits of it over each portion served, and everyone has a chance to experience this culinary nirvana.

ANYWAY – that night on Daufuskie, both of my pots of jambalaya had produced beautiful, naturally-occurring gratin.

My error in being the outsider in this party of 20, was not taking care to explain to the assembled the value of what was in the bottom of those pots. I was aware of them because in the serving process, I was able to get a spoon down far enough to scrape up some of the evidence and taste it. And it was heavenly.

Well, the jambalaya was a huge hit, even though I decided to save the gratin as a bit of an unexpected twist for the next day’s leftovers.

After the dinner, most of us went outside on the deck to enjoy the night air. Unbeknownst to me, however, two of Aubyn’s sisters-in-law had begun to put the remaining jambalaya away in Tupperware. When I happened to walk through the kitchen on my way to pee, I noticed the sisters-in-law doing their task, and approached them to talk about the gratin. 

But I was too late. Neither of them knew the treasure they were dealing with. After putting away the jambalaya, they poured hot, soapy water into each pot – ON TOP OF the gratin, figuring it was just burnt matter and not anything to preserve.

My mouth dropped. My heart began racing, and I’m sure I was sweating. I gasped and couldn’t get any words out fast enough. It was a fait accompli, as they say. But after a moment, in my shock, I couldn’t help myself and let them know that they had destroyed a Cajun treasure. In my grief, I had no idea how my words came out – they just did. I caught myself and just stopped, threw up my hands and went into the bathroom, where I had to splash cold water on my face to snap out of my stupor.

The two sisters-in-law of course offered apologies, but I assured them they were not to blame. I was. I hear that all these years later, every now and then the gratin story still comes up in conversation, so I know the incident left a (not-so-savory) memory encrusted at the bottom of their minds.

To this day, if the heavens are generous enough to ever grant me a perfect, unforced gratin again, I am prepared to extol it to the fullest extent of its worthiness to anyone within earshot, and perhaps even to passersby on the street outside. Sadly, however, and OF COURSE, the universe has never given me another gratin of that magnitude, that perfection, and, as I see it clearly now, that vulnerability – obviously a vulnerability with which I am no longer entrusted by the food gods to protect.

BUT you can force it.

I take comfort in the fact that it is possible to force a gratin to form at the bottom of your jambalaya (as opposed to the heavens just giving it to you without additional effort like they did for me on Daufuskie Island). If, once you take a look down into the pot after the rice is fully cooked, and you do not see a gratin waiting there for you, here’s what you do:

  • After the jambalaya* is cooked, transfer about half of the contents to a big bowl or another clean pot. This will give the gratin some breathing room to form.
  • With a slotted spoon or serving fork, fluff the remaining contents and increase the heat from low to medium-high.
  • Keep the pot uncovered, and stand there (do not leave your pot unattended!) checking every minute or so to see that the rice at the bottom is indeed forming a dark gold, or light brown crust (although even darker crusts are tasty as long as not completely burned). You may begin to hear a crackle sound made from the rice crisping up. Take that as a warning that you’re close. If you hear the crackle, cut the heat to the lowest setting. Allow the pot to remain uncovered for another 3 to 5 minutes. The additional cooking time to force a gratin will vary, depending on the amount of jambalaya and the thickness of the pot.
  • Once you’re satisfied that you’ve got a good crust on the bottom of the pot, serve the jambalaya immediately. Scrape up bits of the gratin to serve on top of each plate. Your dining companions will Oooh and Ahhh reverently.

You are not likely to get a very thick gratin by forcing it, but you should be able to create at least a thin layer, and that will have to do until the universe grants you an organically-achieved, perfectly thick gratin one of these days when you’re least expecting it. And that, my dear fellow cook, will be a day to remember.

*There are many jambalaya recipes out there, so use one you love – unless the recipe is for an intentionally soupy (ie: not the way I like it) version, they all should be capable of forming a gratin either organically or by force.

C’est tout!


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