too many choices, and potatoes au gratin

In the summer, for nearly every summer since my daughter was born, we vacation in the panhandle of Florida. My favorite spot is Seaside, an idyllic little planned community made famous by the movie, The Truman Show. Though Seaside is only a five hour drive from us, the beach town feels a thousand miles away  – and many years ago. Beach cottages are separated by scrubby oak and pine trees, white picket fences, and sandy foot paths. Local residents and vacationers – who seem to mostly hail from Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama – lounge on porch swings and rocking chairs on the screened-in front porches adorning the houses.

My first choice for dinner out in Seaside is usually The Red Bar, an eclectic restaurant and – yes, you guessed it – bar, in neighboring Grayton Beach. The restaurant is loud and chaotic, filled with couples and families and groups of young people, all eating their fill of fresh seafood, listening to live music, enjoying the cool air conditioning on their sunburnt skin, and drinking cold beers. In other words, it’s  a perfect choice for dinner out with kids. It’s cash only, a potential negative for credit card-toting tourists, so to make up for it, there is an ATM conveniently located in a dark corner near the bathrooms. The food is plentiful, fresh, and always tasty.

potato gratin | the merry gourmet

But my favorite part about The Red Bar? The menu – a large, framed chalkboard, propped in a corner of the dining room, with the dinner specials handwritten in pastel chalks – contains only five or six meals to choose from. The restaurant doesn’t overwhelm me with a selection of entrees with matching sauces to choose from, or a myriad of salad dressings to pair with ten different salads, or a collection of sides to decide between. I like that. The choices are easy – fish, chicken, shellfish, vegetarian, or pasta. The toughest decisions I have at that restaurant are which type of wine to order and whether to let my kids order dessert.

If only dinner at home were that uncomplicated. The choice of what to make for dinner should be an easy one, a simple one – it’s just food, for goodness sake. But, too often, I find myself becoming overwhelmed by the options. I’m surrounded by cookbooks and food magazines, and though I love the possibilities contained between their glossy covers, I become paralyzed by the multitude of selections. And choosing a side dish to go along with a main dish? It’s just too much.

To make my life easier, I frequently choose a one-pot meal, eliminating the need for a side. A pot of beans and sausages or a robust beef stew needs nothing on the side more than an eating utensil, a napkin, and a good appetite. When we do have a main dish that, served alone, is naked without something else on the plate, we choose old standbys — roasted potatoes, steamed broccoli, or rice. If it’s winter and we have good luck at our grocery, we have roasted Brussels sprouts. If it’s summer and the corn is fresh, we grill corn on the cob.

potatoes au gratin

One night recently, in a break from our household tradition, I took over steak cooking duty, saving my husband from laboring over the grill with his tongs and pink digital thermometer. Inspired by a good friend who lauded the benefits of cooking steaks in cast iron, I pulled out my 12-inch Lodge cast iron skillet. But what to serve with the steak?

“Broccoli?” my husband suggested. “Or roasted potatoes? Or I could see if Publix still has Brussels.”

See what I’m talking about?

But that night, I put my thinking cap on and recalled previous steakhouse dinners and the luxurious side dishes on the oversized steakhouse menus. My mind skipped over the potentials – creamed spinach, sautéed mushrooms, asparagus – dismissing them for one reason or another, and I settled on the cheesy classic, potatoes au gratin.

Potatoes au gratin was easy enough to prepare. I sliced the potatoes into thin rounds, 1/8-inch thick, using my rarely-used mandoline. I could have used the food processor to grate the cheese, but I’m sort of hooked on doing it by hand using a box grater. Plus, I already had the mandoline to clean. The last thing I wanted to do was to have to clean the food processor, too.

Dinner was delicious. I seasoned the steaks, New York strips, then seared them in the hot cast iron skillet. I finished them in the oven with a pat of butter on top of each. The potatoes au gratin, rich and creamy, added a depth to the meal that we weren’t used to, but we liked it.

And just to keep it real, to keep it us, we had steamed broccoli, too.

potatoes au gratin

Yield: 8 servings

Cook Time: 1 hour

Potatoes au Gratin with Fontina Cheese

Looking for an upgraded side dish to fancy up your dinner? This is it. And it's not as challenging to make as you might think.

I used an inexpensive mandoline to slice the potatoes into even, 1/8-inch thick slices, but you could certainly use a sharp chef's knife instead. The mandoline is a nifty tool, though, if you're looking for a new kitchen gadget.


3 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/8-inch thick
1/2 cup minced shallots
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/3 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
1 cup grated Fontina cheese


Preheat oven to 425 degrees and place rack in middle position.

Butter a 2-quart casserole dish, and spread the potato slices evenly in the dish. Combine shallots, sage, garlic, cream, broth, salt, and pepper in a bowl; pour over potatoes. Cover tightly with non-stick foil (non-stick side down; or a a piece of buttered regular foil) and bake for 35 minutes. Remove from oven, sprinkle the parmesan evenly over potatoes, then top with an even layer of Fontina. Bake uncovered for 25 minutes, until the edges are brown and bubbling. Let sit for 15 minutes prior to serving.

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16 Responses to “too many choices, and potatoes au gratin”

  1. 1
    Amy @ The Nifty Foodie — February 17, 2013 @ 8:15 pm

    Oh wow. I sort of forgot about potatoes au gratin for a side…that sounds amazing with a steak dinner!

    Just thinking about steak has me itching for summer. 🙂

  2. 2
    Macaroni Mama — February 17, 2013 @ 10:18 pm

    Sounds yummy!

  3. 3
    Macaroni Mama — February 18, 2013 @ 9:12 am


  4. 4
    Chris — February 18, 2013 @ 12:27 pm

    Love my Thermapen but it is Red (faster than pink from what I hear 😉 ) If he gets tired of the pink color, they have something called “thermaskins” where you can customer design a perfectly fit “skin” to cover it. I think they were just $10 or so.

    Those au gratin potatoes sound delightful, especially with the fontina cheese.

    • 4.1
      Merry-Jennifer — February 18, 2013 @ 4:31 pm

      Chris – The Thermapen was a Fathers Day gift. Clearly I was only thinking about me when I bought it for him. 🙂

      Good tip on the skin, but we’ve learned that pink really stands out in the drawer and amidst all the black, brown, and grey barbecue tools.

  5. 5
    Kathryn — February 18, 2013 @ 12:59 pm

    Oh yes, I know exactly what you mean. Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed with all the choices for what to have for dinner that it feels like we don’t really have any choices at all. What a perfect answer to the question though – I can never turn down a potato gratin.

    • 5.1
      Merry-Jennifer — February 18, 2013 @ 4:29 pm

      Kathryn — that’s exactly it, “it feels like we don’t really have any choices at all.”

  6. 6

    This looks just about perfect for the weather we’ve been having lately…

  7. 7
    Natasha — February 18, 2013 @ 4:28 pm

    I love dishes that can be prepped, made, and eaten all out of one dish. We do that with brussels, and this would definitely be one of them too. So comforting and homey and delicious!

  8. 8
    Brian @ A Thought For Food — February 18, 2013 @ 8:22 pm

    What a decadent meal… sometimes it’s just what we need.

  9. 9
    Deb — February 19, 2013 @ 7:41 pm

    I go through phases of the same debate and inertia. Usually taking a few days away from the “must do” kitchen duties and meals is all I need to motivate me once again! We are so fortunate to have endless choices of food items to cook with everyday–many are not.
    On this cold, rainy day the lush potatoes au gratin would make a perfect compliment to the chicken roasting in the oven for tonight’s dinner!

  10. 10
    Stephanie — February 20, 2013 @ 11:12 pm

    I love cooking steaks in my cast iron! There is no other way in my house. And your potatoes look so good. They might be on the weekend menu.

  11. 11
    Nutmeg Nanny — February 21, 2013 @ 2:02 pm

    These potatoes look great! I would probably be happy just eating a big plate of them for dinner 🙂 I’m looking forward to meeting you at BSP!

  12. 12
    Jennifer C. — March 7, 2013 @ 5:10 pm

    I didn’t even make it to the potatoes! I am visiting your blog for the first time today and when I saw your favorite vacation spot, I knew I was in the right place! We love Seaside! We usually stay in a townhouse in Blue Mountain Beach and go to Seaside for ice cream after dinner at the Red Bar! It’s funny how you can feel like you know someone just by sharing a favorite vacation spot! I’ll go back and read the potatoe recipe now and I’m sure this won’t be my last visit to your site.

    • 12.1
      Merry-Jennifer — March 7, 2013 @ 6:12 pm

      Welcome, Jennifer! We clearly have the same great taste in vacation spots. 🙂

  13. 13
    Denise — March 17, 2013 @ 6:28 pm

    I am a lover of the potato and this is one of my favorite dishes! Thanks for feeding me today – I needed it!

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