Thursday, February 18, 2010

Comfort Food: Sweet Potato Parsnip Gratin

A classic French dish: layered potatoes oven-simmered in cream with a golden crust browning to a crunchy perfection…gratin. Whether you are familiar with the French, Southern or Midwest version, you most likely find the same console in a creamy potato casserole. Growing up, we often had scalloped potatoes thinly sliced with onions and ham, then baked in cream. Sounds like a real artery-clogger, because it is. It seems most dishes basking in cream with a sprinkling of cheese and breading on top cloud the naughtiness of their compositions by fogging our conscience with salty fat-laced goodness. It’s like a temporary anesthesia, but more importantly it’s like a time warp that brings me back to my Midwest innocence. My mother would argue with the innocence claim, but she could attest to my potato scarfing.

I had never made potatoes au gratin myself, even as an omnivore. Once I started paying attention to my health, I pretty much ruled out all things of such nature. Not realizing that a few simple adaptations could be made to restore the health and appeal many comfort foods, I long avoided recipes listing butter, cream and cheese as the key ingredients. After all, the only other ingredient in a gratin is potatoes! With what I know now, butter can be replaced with healthy alternatives like Earth Balance, there are a variety of other milks out there in this world, and bread crumbs or a bread crumb-nut combo are a good match for cheese to top off any baked dish. Most vegan parmesans consist of a finely ground blend of merely three (vegan) staples: nutritional yeast, walnuts and salt.

If it seems this dish would be lacking because it contains no cream or cheese, then the depth and creaminess of these root vegetables is highly underestimated. Sweet potatoes add a nice color and that omnipresent starchiness we love, while parsnips proved a nutty, earthy taste with a soft buttery texture. Maybe milk alternatives can suffice as the base, but I added a little sage and garlic to bring out the sweet flavors in the vegetables. You can try this with any herb combo like Herbes de Provence, thyme or marjoram. I found almond milk to be a good replacement, because it has more fat than soy milk but fewer calories overall. A little blend of Smart Balance and your oil of choice give it that slight fatty edge that mocks that happy quasi-coma aftweard.

Sweet Potato Parsnip Gratin
Serves 4
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 45-55 minutes

2 Medium parsnip
2 Small sweet potato
1 Leek, leaves removed (white part and some green ok)

2 Large garlic clove, sliced
2 ½ T. Smart or Earth Balance, divided
1 tsp Coconut oil (or olive)
2 tsp Sage, dried
¼ tsp Nutmeg, ground
1 ¾ c. Almond milk
Salt and pepper
½ c. Bread crumbs, homemade or store bought


Preheat the oven to 400 F.

Rinse, peel and slice vegetables into 1/8" think slices. Combine in a medium mixing bowl and set aside.

In a small bowl, whip the garlic and 1 T plus 1 tsp margarine together. Add the coconut oil, sage, nutmeg and ¼ c. of almond milk. Heat marinade over low in a small sauce pan or microwave until just melted, 10-20 seconds. Slowly add another cup of almond milk to the marinade and a pinch of salt and pepper. Whisk together and pour over vegetables.

In a small casserole dish coated with cooking spray, alternate parsnip and sweet potato slices until bottom is covered. Top with half of leeks. Place another layer on top, alternating between parsnips and sweet potatoes. Top with remaining leeks and pour marinade over vegetables using any leftover milk if needed (milk mixture should come up to within a ½ “ from the top of the dish).

Cover and bake 35 minutes. While the vegetables bake, heat remaining margarine in a small pan and sauté bread crumbs over medium heat until brown, about 5 minutes.

Remove cover from casserole and bake another 10 minutes uncovered until the top starts to brown and vegetables caramelize. Top with prepared bread crumbs and bake an additional 5 minutes to let bread crumbs absorb into some of the liquid.


  1. This is delicious! I used a little too much milk, but the flavors were fabulous!

  2. hi- great recipe but a couple of questions. firstly u say to combine the sliced vegetables in a bowl and set aside- but then they need to be layered later on in the recipe. then u say whisk together the marinade and pour over vegetables then later on u say to pour marinade over the vegetables after you have layered them together.
    also please provide an alternative for earth balance for places that do not have it. And does T. mean tablespoon?
    thanks again but was a bit confusing.