When the odds and ends in the fridge are starting to look a little limp, when my desire to grocery shop is similarly flagging, that's exactly when I wind up making my favorite meals. The formula doesn't vary too much, and the results are consistently satisfying — a starchy thing, a vegetable and/or an allium thing, maybe a meaty thing. A cheesy thing, for sure. Stick it in the oven until everything is melty and crunchy and deeply flavored. It's the magic combination that can produce that viral feta and tomato pasta or a cacio e pepe pie — in other words, a surefire hit.
So I knew I'd fall in love with David Kinch's beautiful "At Home in the Kitchen" as soon as I skimmed the contents and saw not one, not two, but three different gratin recipes. The gratin, the pinnacle of cheesy baked dinner deliciousness, gets its due here with a Belgian endive version, an "ultimate" potato version and a rustic cavolo nero version that has entirely stolen my heart.
"Are you familiar with Richard Olney?" Kinch the acclaimed restauranteur behind Los Gatos's beloved Manresa asks during a recent phone conversation. "Olney, for me, is the greatest American cookbook author about French cuisines. He lived in France all of his life. He wrote ''The French Menu Cookbook,' 'Simple French Food.' He also did the 28 volume Time-Life series 'The Good Cook.' He did a book called 'Lulu's Provencal Table' with the Peyrauds from Domaine Tempier."
"For me, he is the greatest. Really super uncompromising on many different levels, but he was a huge fan of the whole concept of gratin with leftovers," Kinch continues. "You have a leftover roast from the night before or leftover vegetables. His whole thing was just to chop everything up, mix it together, dot it with butter, sprinkle some bread crumbs in there, pour a little bit of cream — or no cream at all — and just cheese on it. Just bake into the oven, and it just completely changes everything around."
It doesn't get simpler or more resourceful, and Kinch's whole book reflects that relaxed, unfussy attitude — a philosophy of cooking that comes from a love of both the process and its most elemental of ingredients.
"I didn't fall in love with the restaurant business. I fell in love with cooking," he says. "And I still love to cook. It gives me a lot of great pleasure to this day, from when I was a young cook to this day working with my hands, creating something. I get lost in my own little world, and then I have something tasty at the end, or I have the satisfaction and pleasure of someone I'm sharing it with. Are there days that I'm tired, and I do takeout? Yes. Are there days that I really, really miss going to restaurants? Yes, of course. But for me, the act of cooking — the gestures that the hands make during the cooking are the thing."
If you're looking to put your own hands to purpose, you'd be hard-pressed to make something nicer for your family — or the newly vaccinated members of your expanding friend circle. I've tweaked Kinch's recipe a bit here because I think collard greens deserve more love. And because I also have no restraint, I doubled the amount of cheese. You're welcome.
You can assemble this ahead of time, and stick it in the oven, largely ignoring it, while you have deep conversations or dance around in the kitchen. (Kinch has some excellent musical suggestions in his book.) Take his advice, and invest in a kitchen scale and a gratin pan, but please don't let a lack of either stop you from making this dish as soon as possible . . . and adapting it to your own taste and produce bin.
Recipe: Weeknight Beans and Greens Gratin
Inspired by David Kinch's "At Home in the Kitchen"
Serves: 4 - 6
- 1 big bunch of collard greens, cleaned with tough ribs removed*
- 1 can of cannellini beans, drained (or canned beans of your choice)
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- Pinch of cayenne or chipotle powder
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 3/4 cup of plain full-fat yogurt, sour cream or creme fraiche
- 1/2 cup of grated Gruyere, Swiss, Munster or other melting cheese of your choice
- 2 tablespoons of breadcrumbs, panko or crushed crackers
- Over medium-high heat, bring a large pot of water to boil. Generously salt the water.
- While the water is boiling, preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Generously butter a gratin dish or 9" baking dish.
- Blanch your greens 2 minutes, or until just soft. Drain and squeeze out excess water. Chop coarsely.
- Return your greens to the pot, and add beans, garlic, salt and pepper.
- Spread the mixture into your baking dish.
- Dollop your yogurt on top of the mixture.
- Top with your cheese, then breadcrumbs.
- Bake about 30 minutes, until browned.
- Remove baking dish from oven, and let sit about 10 minutes before serving.
Pro tip: Kinch suggests serving this with "Ride Me High" by J. J. Cale.
*You can use a big bunch of whatever greens you prefer like Kinch's suggested cavolo nero. I wouldn't judge you in the least for using pre-washed stuff here. Don't like leafy greens? Use your imagination and throw in 1 1/2 cups of cooked broccoli rabe, carrots, green beans — you get the gist.
More Quick & Dirty:
- The best Sunday night comfort meal is rotisserie chicken chili, especially with a pinch of cinnamon
- Cacio e pepe pie is an insanely easy pasta dinner to make on nights when you don't feel like cooking
- A chocolate sandwich tastes exactly as comforting as it sounds — and it's sublime
- The viral feta pasta dish everyone's raving about is even better without pasta
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