After what seemed like a never-ending winter, it is nice to turn one's eyes to eating spring and summer food again. A few years ago, when my folks came to visit about this time of year, we went to one of a friend's neighborhood stand-by places to grab a bite. This French-style classic bistro is just the kind of place that my mother loves when she can't get to the more upscale white tablecloth version, which is rapidly becoming extinct.
There, I had one of those dishes that was so simple but yet so amazing: Leek and Ham Gratin. It was filling without being heavy even for a warm spring day. The other part of its charm was that it was served to me in my own personal gratin dish. As I cut into one of the rounds, slicing through the layer of ham to the pale core of the leek, I could feel my mouth begin to water. Scooping up some of the cheesy white sauce to go with the meat and vegetable, I captured it in my mouth and let the tastes mingle together: creamy, slightly crisp, and hearty.
It was one of those "love at first bite" experiences. Could I do this at home, too? My mind began to deconstruct the dish with each bite. Hmm, Gruyère on top, a coating of Béchamel, covering ham wrapped around leek. It could be doable, I mused, and this would be a great addition to my recipe repertoire.
So I set about to do see if I could create my own version of this meal. Although perhaps not as pretty on the plate as it is served in the dish, I think I captured it the way I wanted to. This would work as an appetizer or main course, served with a green salad and vinaigrette or even with the Spinach Salad recipe I've published previously.
Leek and Ham Gratin
Prep Time: 40-45 minutes (with making Béchamel)
Serving Size: Serves 4 as an appetizer or 2 as a main course
1 recipe Béchamel (see link)
8 baby leeks or 4 large leeks cut in half, washed ends and tops cut off
8 slices of cooked ham
1 tsp softened butter*
1 c. shredded Gruyère cheese
Prepare the Béchamel per the recipe linked above (or use your favorite version). Once the sauce has thickened, take it off of the heat and set it aside. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Centigrade, gas mark 4). Cut the large leeks in half or keep the smaller, more tender ones whole, cutting them into 6-8-inch pieces.
Wrap a slice of ham around each leek (or leek half). Butter 4 small gratin dishes (or one large ceramic or glass casserole pan) and place 2 ham-leek bundles side-by-side in the dishes. (If baking all of them in a casserole pan, do the same so that they all fit in a row in the pan.)
Pour 1/4 cup of the sauce over every two bundles making sure to coat them completely, and cover with the grated cheese.
Place the pan(s) in the pre-heated oven and bake for 15-20 minutes until the cheese has melted completely. If you'd like to create a crisper, brown crust, turn the oven up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Centigrade, gas mark 6) for the last 5 minutes of cooking and watch it carefully to make sure that the dish doesn't burn.
Remove from the oven and allow them to cool for about 5 minute, as they will be scorching hot when they are taken out. These can be served in the gratin dishes at the table or put on a plate.
Kitchen Witch Tip:
This is not a new hint, but is one I swear by to keep things less messy in the kitchen. When you have finished a block of butter, don't throw away the wrapper. Keep empty wrappers in a bag in the freezer. When a recipe calls for buttering a dish or a pan, simply take one of the wrappers out of the bag and use the buttered side on it, keeping your hands from getting greasy.