Smoky Barbecue & Potato-Beet Gratin

The other day, my mom commented that she had a hankering for barbecue chicken. I decided to go all-out with it, slow-simmering a homemade peach barbecue sauce with rosemary, balsamic vinegar and ginger, marinating the parts of a bone-in pastured chicken with a spiced dry rub, and then mesquite-smoking the chicken for 30 minutes before finishing it off on the grill slathered with peachy sauce. Although we had some issues with the grilling segment of the evening (my dad keeps it turned down so low that there is almost no danger of cooking, much less burning), the chicken came out redolent with smoke and spicy sweetness, the closest I have ever gotten to authentic BBQ flavors.

We had to have some appropriate sides to go with chicken of that caliber. Last time we ate at a barbecue place, one of the sides was a mountain of incredibly gloppy cheesy potatoes, so I decided to make a creamy gratin of potatoes, onions, and roasted golden beets. That’s right, beets. My dad is a big beet fan, which is why a bunch of organic golden beets leapt into our bag at the farmer’s market, but my mom and I don’t like them at all so I had to come up with a good way to bury that earthy flavor. What better burial can you think of than in a dish of heavy cream, nutty Gruyere, and thinly sliced red potatoes?

I did a little research first to see if my beet gratin idea was sound, and mostly just kept finding Martha Rose Shulman’s recipe popping up in various places. It sounded pretty good, with layers of golden beets forming a sort of crust around a custardy filling of beet greens, but bore very little resemblance to what I had in mind, so I decided to just wing it. I roasted the beets and blanched the potato slices to cut down on cooking time, and my sauce was just heavy cream simmered with a handful of fresh thyme, minced garlic, and a knob of Parmesan rind. After building up a casserole dish with layers of potato, onion, beet, cheeses, salt and pepper, and a splash of cream, I topped it all off with a thicker layer of golden beets, a crust of cheese, and poured the remaining cream over top.

It went in the oven at 400F and came out 45 minutes later bubbling and beautiful. The beet slices added a richer color to the golden brown crust without giving away their identity, and would have been even better camouflaged had I used Yukon Gold potatoes instead. My parents dug in, singing the gratin’s praises, and I didn’t mention my secret ingredient until they had taken second helpings. My mom went so far as to say that not only were the beets entirely inoffensive in this dish, they added a subtle earthy depth that helped cut through the richness and made it perhaps the best gratin she had ever tasted. How is that for an endorsement?

Of course, my son didn’t go for the gratin, even though I gave him some of the choicest, crunchiest pieces; he ate one bite of chicken, and ended up with a peanut butter sandwich for dinner. Even the streuseled peach custard tart I had ready for dessert didn’t tempt him. That child has no idea how lucky he is!

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