Autumn Au Gratin Casserole

  Au Gratin Potatoes and Ham is a staple comfort food for the McVey family. Photo credit: Anita McVey

Au Gratin Potatoes and Ham is a staple comfort food for the McVey family. Photo credit: Anita McVey

What is it about certain foods that even the thought or scent can instantly lift the spirit and relax the mind? Warm chocolate chip cookies can put a smile on a discontented face. A steaming bowl of soup and a grilled cheese sandwich can take the chill out of any brisk day. Finding a restaurant that prepares chicken and noodles (served over mashed potatoes, of course) like the one your mom made triggers a stream of cherished memories.

If you search “comfort food” on Pinterest, you will see a steady flow of pictures of macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, soup and casseroles. Most comfort foods are warm and involve at least one starchy element. Cheese is a common ingredient – we all know there is joy in the gooeyness. Foods that require a fork or a spoon seem to beg you to slow down and savor each bite.

If you ask people what their favorite comfort food is, you may get a traditional answer, like those found on Pinterest. Sometimes the answer may be a dish or dessert so unique, it begs for a story to be told. The common thread in all responses is the look on their face as they explain why it’s their favorite: a slow inhale and exhale and a smile of remembrance is sure to follow.

Comfort food is nostalgic. There is an emotional, physical or spiritual attachment, which transforms food into an experience that is relived with each bite.

My mom makes a simple casserole she calls goulash that includes ground beef, elbow macaroni, mixed vegetables, tomato sauce or soup. My brothers and I are certain this comfort food tastes better because she has baked it in the same pink casserole dish our entire lives. Of course, it’s “so good” because she knows the exact proportions of ingredients and just the right baking time, but we will always associate the best goulash with the pink dish.

While debating which recipe to share for this comfort food article, one came to mind immediately: Au Gratin Potatoes and Ham. This casserole has all the necessary elements of comfort food. It’s warm, full of potatoes and cheese, and each forkful is deeply satisfying.

It’s also attached to a very fond memory.

When my boys were little, they would come into the kitchen as I was making dinner and ask, “What are you making?” That day, in the middle of my preparations, I quickly responded, “Au Gratin Potatoes and Ham.” They both went silent (a rare and noteworthy event), scrunched up their faces and said, “ROTTEN potatoes and ham?!.”

Priceless.

After a brief discussion of what “au gratin” means and a promise that I would never serve them anything rotten, this recipe became a dinner staple for our family.

A spinach salad with apples, pears, cranberries, red onion and cucumbers compliments the ham and potatoes perfectly. I have also developed another version of this casserole that incorporates a variety of fall flavors to include sweet potatoes, kale, mushrooms and sausage. A hint of sage and nutmeg add that extra warmth at the end of a day in the field, raking leaves or non-stop meetings.

When it comes to comfort food, it doesn’t matter that we don’t all choose the same dish. It may be pancakes. It may be fried chicken. It may be pie. What matters is we pay attention to what brings comfort to others and to ourselves.

Prepare it. Savor it. Enjoy it… together.

Au Gratin Potatoes and Ham

  • 2 pounds white russet potatoes (about 6 medium)

  • 2 cups diced ham

  • 3 tablespoons salted butter

  • 1/2 cup diced onion

  • 1 heaping tablespoon flour

  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper

  • 1 teaspoon ground mustard

  • 1 teaspoon dried parsley

  • 2 cups milk (2% or whole), room temperature

  • 2 cups shredded cheese (cheddar, swiss, Monterrey Jack, etc.), divided & at room temperature

  • 1/4 cup dry bread crumbs

  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

Peel and slice potatoes and layer with the ham in a 9x13 pan.

Melt butter over low heat in a skillet, add onion and sauté until onion is tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Whisk in flour, pepper, ground mustard and parsley stirring constantly until bubbly, 1 to 2 minutes. Slowly stir in milk (1/2 cup at a time) and bring back to a very low boil. Add 1 1/2 cups of the shredded cheese (1/2 cup at a time), whisking after each addition until melted.

Pour cheese sauce over the potatoes and ham mixture. Use a fork to gently distribute the sauce throughout the potatoes. Bake, uncovered, for 1 hour and 20 minutes.

Combine bread crumbs, remaining cheese and paprika. Sprinkle on top of casserole and return to oven for 20 minutes, or until top is brown and bubbly.

8 servings

Autumn Au Gratin

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

  • 1 pound fully cooked pork, turkey or chicken sausages*

  • 4 tablespoons salted butter, divided

  • 8 ounces cremini or white button mushrooms, sliced

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • 1 teaspoon black pepper, divided

  • Fresh kale (wash and cut into bite-sized pieces to make 3 cups)

  • 3 medium sweet potatoes

  • 3 medium white russet potatoes

  • 1/2 cup onion

  • 1 heaping tablespoon flour

  • 1 tablespoon dry sage

  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

  • 2 cups milk (2% or whole), room temperature

  • 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese, divided & at room temperature

  • 1 cup shredded swiss cheese, divided & at room temperature

  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese

  • 1/4 cup dry bread crumbs

  • 1/4 teaspoon paprika

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat; add sausage pieces, lightly browning. Remove from pan and set aside, reserving one tablespoon of drippings in the pan.

Add one tablespoon of butter and the sliced mushrooms to the skillet. Cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms are brown (about 5 to 7 minutes). Sprinkle mushrooms with salt and 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper. Remove mushrooms from pan and set aside. Add kale to the hot pan and cook, 2 to 3 minutes, until kale wilts. Remove kale and set aside.

Peel and thinly slice potatoes.

Place 1/3 of potatoes in bottom of a 9x13 pan. Cover with half of the chicken sausage, half of the mushrooms and half of the kale. Repeat layering, ending with a final layer of potatoes.

Melt remaining butter in a skillet over low heat. Stir in onions and sauté until tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Whisk in flour, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, sage, crushed red pepper and nutmeg, stirring constantly until bubbly, 1 to 2 minutes. Slowly stir in milk (1/2 cup at a time) and bring back to a very low boil, whisking constantly. Add 1 1/2 cups of the shredded cheese (1/2 cup at a time) whisking after each addition until melted. Stir in Parmesan cheese. Pour sauce over potato/meat/vegetable layers. Use a fork to gently distribute the sauce throughout the potatoes.

Bake, uncovered, for 1 hour and 20 minutes.

Combine bread crumbs, remaining cheese and paprika. Sprinkle on top of casserole and return to oven for 20 minutes, or until top is brown and bubbly.

8 servings

*Feel free to substitute any turkey, chicken or pork sausage (link or rope) that is preferable or available to you.