March, true to form, charged in last weekend like a lion—a big angry cat, with an unruly mane and a snarling roar. On Sunday—the very first day of March—we had snow, blustery wind and all-around dreariness. I’m happy to report, that as the first week of March has inched on, the month is taking on a much more lamb-like demeanor: blue skies, temperatures cracking 60 (!) degrees, and even a few buds bravely sprouting up in the garden plots that line the Loop.
I’ve never run a marathon, nor do I care to, but I imagine that March is quite similar to “hitting the wall” near the end of the race. It’s that mile—or, in our case, month—that plays tricks on your mind. You’re so close to the end, but so, so far away.
It can be tough to take, March. Which I suppose is why so many people—college co-eds and others—fly the coop, boarding planes pointed beachward, for a taste of the summer that’s still quite a ways off. I can’t blame them.
Me, I have issues with March too, not least of which is that it’s the month that heralds the end of winter’s immoderation. The warmer temperatures serve as a reminder that one should start to reduce her consumption of butter, cream, cheese and the like. That thin, extra layer of fat (which I prefer to call “warmth”) might have come in handy as you walked the windy, mean streets of winter, but it really serves no role when the days of sundresses or, worse, swim suits arrive.
So my solution (and it’s an illogical one, I’m aware) is this. March is my time to get the immoderation out of my system. It’s time to trot out the decadent, comforting, homey dishes that scream winter and let them have one last hurrah. Now, if you’re one of those coop-fliers who’s got a date with a bikini sometime this month, I don’t necessarily recommend this plan to you. But if your “Spring Break,” like mine, involves staying put in your very own chilly hometown (and, for me, a weekend in Boston! This weekend, in fact! So excited!), this plan will do you just fine. April and May were made for the sundress/swimsuit issue. How else do you explain all the virtuous asparagus and rhubarb involved during those months?
So, anyway, back to March. We’ve already lost five days, so it’s time to really buckle down. Dig out your recipes for braises, stews, puddings, pastas and get going! Time’s a-wasting.
As evidence that I’m putting my money where my mouth is, I want you to know that I made this gratin on the first of March, and gratins are the crown jewel of the Moderation-Be-Damned-in-March Plan. This gratin starts with slips of thinly sliced Yukon golds and celery root—gnarled wintery vegetables if ever there were any—and curls of Spanish onion all packed neatly in a baking dish. Over these layers goes a lush, creamy sauce, flavored with nutmeg, fresh thyme and garlic. Once the vegetables are good and sauced, they are covered with foil and baked in a very hot oven for forty-five bubbly minutes, rendering the potatoes and celery root soft and fragrant. Then, the foil comes off for about 10 minutes—to let the sauce thicken up. In the final, lily-gilding stage, you top the now-molten concoction with some shreds of fontina cheese and slide it back into the oven until the cheese melts and goes golden.
This gratin is many things—hearty, soothing and, of course, delicious—but it simply is not June or July fare. In fact, I’m not so sure it’s even April or May fare—save for Easter supper or somesuch special occasion. No, it’s meant for March, I tell you. So, hop to it.
Potato and Celery Root Gratin
Adapted from Bon Appetit
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 large Spanish onion, peeled and thinly sliced in half-moons
2 1-pound celery roots, peeled, halved, thinly sliced
2 pounds potatoes (such as Yukon golds), peeled, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
2 sprigs thyme
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 cup canned chicken broth
8 ounces Fontina cheese, grated
Preheat oven to 400° F. Mix salt, pepper and nutmeg in small bowl. Sprinkle half of onions in 16-cup oval gratin dish or 15x10x2-inch glass baking dish. Top with half of celery root and half of potatoes. Sprinkle half of spice mixture over. Repeat layering with remaining shallots, celery root, potatoes and spice mixture.
Melt butter in medium saucepan. Whisk in the flour, stirring and cooking for a minute or two until the flour is browned and nutty-smelling. Whisk in the milk. Add the thyme and garlic and cook, whisking, for five or so minutes until the liquid thickens. Remove from heat, remove the thyme and garlic with a slotted spoon, and whisk in the chicken broth. Pour the sauce over the vegetables. Cover tightly with foil.
Bake until vegetables are almost tender, about 45 minutes. Increase oven temperature to 450° F. Press potatoes with spatula to even thickness. Bake uncovered until juices thicken, about 10 minutes. Top with cheese. Bake until cheese melts and browns, about 15 minutes. Cool 15 minutes before serving.
Note: I made this the day before serving. To do so, I completed the recipe, let it cool and refrigerated over night. The next day, I let it come to room temperature and re-warmed it in a 450° F oven for 10 to 15 minutes, until warmed through. Worked like a charm.