Carrot, Parsnip, and Cheddar Gratin

This is a dish that turns humble root vegetables into special dinner fare.  Carrots and parsnips get a quick simmer in cream seasoned with Dijon mustard.  Then, in the fashion of a French gratin, they bake under a blanket of sharp cheddar and crunchy, herb-flecked panko.  The result is a hearty, bright flavored dish, with plenty of color and texture.  It’s a great side dish for a simple roast chicken or as part of a vegetarian meal; and it’s pretty enough to take along to a party.  Leftovers (if there are any) reheat well, covered with foil, in a 325F oven.

Carrot, Parsnip, and Cheddar Gratin
(serves 4*)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter (and more at room temperature for the gratin dish)
2-3 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 medium onion, cut into 1/2 inch dice (about 3/4 cup)
kosher salt
1/2 cup plain panko bread crumbs
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon chopped fresh marjoram leaves ( substitute fresh thyme if you prefer)
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
freshly ground pepper
3/4 pound each of carrots and parsnips, peeled, halved lengthwise if large, and cut into 1/2 inch slices**
2 ounces coarsely grated sharp Cheddar cheese (about 1/2 cup)
Heat the oven to 350F.  Butter a shallow, oval-shaped gratin dish.  In a 10 inch skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat.  Add the onion and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, 7-10 minutes.  Meanwhile, melt the butter and pour into a small bowl.  Add the panko crumbs, parsley, and marjoram and toss well to combine.  Whisk the heavy cream, mustard, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and a few grinds of pepper into the onion; then stir in the carrots and parsnips.  Bring up the heat just to a boil, cover the pan, lower the heat and simmer gently until the vegetables are crisp-tender, 10-12 minutes.  Spread the carrot and parsnip mixture in the prepared gratin dish.  Scatter the Cheddar over the vegetables, top with the panko and herb mixture, and bake until the vegetables are tender when pierced with a fork and the crumbs are golden-brown, 25 to 30 minutes.   Let rest for 15 minutes before serving.
(slightly adapted from Fine Cooking magazine, volume 120)
* Recipe can be doubled to serve 8-10 people; simmer the vegetables in a 12 inch skillet and bake the mixture in a 9×13 inch shallow baking pan.  
**Choose parsnips carefully.  They can have large, woody cores that are tough and fibrous.  Try to avoid those if possible.

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