Olive Oil from Italy Meets a Potato Gratin

My good-natured husband (in his travel role as supply officer) ordered a couple of small bottles of olive oil from a local producer to take home, but two large, newly decanted, labeled, and sealed bottles arrived. I said: “How will we carry this?” and then, once home: “Oh why didn’t we bring more!”

Olive oil matters. All those things good cooks say about buying the best possible, freshest, extra-virgin olive oil are true. In Italy, delicious, fruity, fragrant olive oil reigns – so often in food and always on the table. A friend here said that when in Italy, she’d just as soon drink olive oil as wine.

Since our return I’ve thrown all caution to the wind with olive oil quantities – easily following what seemed (in my old pre-Italy narrowness) excessive amounts. Our farmer’s market now has the first new potatoes, and in Peter Berley’s “The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen” I found “Potato-Leek Gratin” calling for eight tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil. Might have stopped me once – but not now!

In a first bowl: I combined a cup and a half of breadcrumbs (whole wheat and sourdough white crumbed in the blender), with three tablespoons of the oil.

In a second bowl: two pounds of yellow potatoes  (Berley says peeled but these barely had skin, so I just washed well and sliced thinly). Toss the potatoes with three thinly sliced garlic cloves, fresh thyme if you can (mine has given up the ghost in this cold summer so I used dried), salt and pepper, and four tablespoons of olive oil.

And in a third bowl: the recipe calls for two leeks, but our farmer didn’t have leeks yet. She suggested I use a fresh garlic bulb – the young, uncured garlic bulb with its greens. You can use it all – like a leek. As Berley instructs for leeks, I chopped it up and steamed for five minutes – then tossed with a tablespoon of oil and quarter teaspoon of salt.

In a two-quart casserole layer half the potatoes, then the garlic (or leek mixture), repeat. Pour a cup of heated stock or water over top (I used water). Then spread the breadcrumbs.

The gratin cooks for an hour at 350° and the result is terrific – good hot the first night as part of a meal for company, delicious a second night as leftovers, and welcome the next day as a tiny bit of cold lunch.

To have olive oil now from trees we actually met is so pleasing! I see in my mind those groves of olive trees – everywhere in Umbria – most often tilted on a hillside. I read where olives need “harsh winters, burning summers, stone, drought, silence, and solitude” to thrive.

And long may they!

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