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.

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.

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.

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.