Smell can trigger memories, especially those from childhood. Despite this common knowledge, a smell can still conjure up a long forgotten memory and bowl me over without warning.
My mother wasn’t really a cook when I was growing up. And by ‘wasn’t really a cook’, I mean Pillsbury crescent rolls didn’t stand a chance when she was in charge. They looked like lumps of coal by the time she retrieved them from the oven. But she kept my brother and I fed, and that was what mattered.
She did do a couple dishes well. At Easter, I don’t know how many times in a row, my mother would make potato gratin with smoked ham. And it was sooooo tasty. Every year as my grandmother announced the plans for Easter dinner, like Pavlov’s dog I would pester my mother in hopes that she would make the potato gratin again that I so loved.
Some may say potato gratin is boring, but it’s potatoes, cream and cheese. Where can you go wrong? With a thousands types of cheese, hundreds of potato varieties, an infinite number of possible additions, variations abound for those easily bored. It’s easy to throw together, and you can pop it in the oven and forget about it for a while as the aroma permeates.
I have definitely not grown tired of this dish, and never make the same version twice. Although today I think I found a winner. Today at the market, I gained inspiration after staring for a somewhat awkward amount of time at a bunch of shiny and crisp poblano peppers. With a craving for potatoes already under my belt, I knew what I had to do.
And so I mashed my nomadic history together for a Garlicky Poblano Potato Gratin. Sharp NY cheddar, an addiction from my days living in NYC. Smokey Gouda cheese reminiscent of the cheese mongers in the Albert Cuyp market in Amsterdam. Poblanos and chili powder, two Tex Mex staples from my home country. And my loyalty to garlic is as constant as ever, regardless of my location.
A little unexpected bonus? While the gratin was baking, the smoked Gouda actually smelled just like the smoked ham of my mother’s gratin. I was instantly transported to the age of 10. As life seems to take me farther and farther from my birthplace and family, this was quite comforting.
Garlicky Poblano Potato Gratin Recipe
6 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tsp chili powder
2 1/2 c (710ml) heavy cream
1 tbsp unsalted butter, for greasing dish
2 1/2 lb large red skinned potatoes (about 4), sliced 1/4″ thick
1/2 large poblano pepper, 1/2″ dice
1/3 lb (140g) sharp cheddar, crumbled or grated
1/4 lb (115g) smoked gouda, crumbled or grated
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350F (175C). Whisk together garlic, chili powder and cream in a saucepan. Heat on medium-low until bubbling around edges. Turn off heat and let sit for 10m to produce garlic infusion.
Butter 9″x12″ casserole dish. Place potato slices in one layer in bottom of dish, overlapping slightly. Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle 1/3 of the poblano and 1/2 of the cheddar across the layer. Repeat with potatoes. Season. Sprinkle with 1/3 of poblano, and 1/2 of the Gouda. Repeat with potatoes. Season.
Sprinkle remaining poblano and cheese. Press down on potatoes. Pour cream mixture over potatoes. Cover with foil and bake for 90m or until potatoes are tender. Remove foil, bake an additional 15m. For extra crispiness on top, place under broiler for 3-5m. Cool 15m to firm up.