Though we often associate the French word “gratin” with a particular recipe, such as the famous potato gratin, gratin dauphinois, first baked around 1788, the word actually refers to a technique and can be applied to almost any ingredients, from pasta to seafood.
The word actually derives from the French verb “gratter” which means to scrape or “to grate”, ie scrapings of bread or cheese, as well as the verb “gratiner”, which means to form a crust or skin by grilling.
The technique of gratinating predates the current English word which did not appear in print until 1846. To confuse us even more, the word gratin, particularly in America, also refers to the dish itself in which the gratin is baked.
Summer gratins should be light, or at least lighter than the extremely rich potato gratin. I thought one of the first potato gratins I ever made at home was taken from Nigel Slater's Real Food (1998). However, when I look through the book now, I can only find a potato and smoked mackerel dauphinoise. Not that this doesn't sound delicious but I certainly didn't make it that day in my small apartment in Salthill, Galway. How our food memories trick us into reimagining the past.
Courgette, spinach and mascarpone gratin
Thinly slice four courgettes into rounds. Heat some oil in a large frying pan and fry the courgettes in batches, seasoning with salt, fresh thyme and two bay leaves as you go. When the courgettes are fried, place in a bowl. Heat a little more oil with a knob of butter and wilt 250g of baby spinach with two minced cloves of garlic. When the spinach has wilted add 250ml of cream and bring to the boil for two to three minutes. If you like, add a little nutmeg here.
Combine the creamy wilted spinach with the courgettes and 250g of mascarpone. Place all the mixture into an oven dish. Mix together 100g of Parmesan and 50g of breadcrumbs and sprinkle over the top.
Bake for 25 minutes at 180 degrees until the top is golden brown and bubbling. Serve with some nice summer greens and a sharp dressing.