Alpine Bliss

Bring the flavors of Central Europe home in a hearty mushroom gratin

By Eva Hagberg December 11, 2009 Published in the January 2010 issue of Portland Monthly

Dine gratin itvrgy

I SPENT some childhood years in Konstanz, a German town that shares a lake with Switzerland. My mother married a German man and brought him back to Canada, where he cooked us the Alsatian, Swiss, Austrian, and German food that I later learned is known as “alpine.” Today, the taste of gratin, spaetzle, and sauerbraten ignites my warmest childhood memories—of summer holidays in Konstanz and learning to grate potatoes at my stepfather’s knee.

In other words, this warm, starchy cuisine is my comfort food. And Chris Israel, the chef behind Grüner (German for “greener”), a restaurant that opens on December 28 in downtown Portland, agrees. After tasting his way through Central Europe, Israel resolved to bring its flavors home. “I’m interested in the commonality between all those regions,” he says. “You say ‘alpine,’ and people think you’re talking about fondue. My goal is to expose this cuisine to people in a way that they haven’t thought about before.” That means focusing as much on freshwater fish as on goulash; on aromatic herbs as much as deep-fried schnitzel. And nothing highlights alpine cuisine’s restorative powers like Grüner’s mushroom gratin, a dish Israel calls “the ultimate comfort food.”

“Mushrooms are super-alpine,” says Israel, who was also the culinary mastermind behind the seminal Portland restaurants Zefiro (Mediterranean) and Saucebox (pan-Asian). While looking for a hearty side dish to complement a roast meat entrée, he came across this gratin, which stood out thanks to the addition of caraway. “It was simple, yet intriguing,” he says. It helps, of course, that Oregon’s fecund soil produces some of the world’s best wild and cultivated mushrooms.

The secret to any gratin, Israel says, is the delicate melding of the dish’s disparate elements—in this case, mushrooms, onions, shallots, parsley, crème fraîche, and caraway seeds. When it all comes together, it’s a beautiful thing—like a table brimming with the flavors of Bavaria, Alto Adige, Austria, Hungary, Germany, and Alsace. 

Mushroom Gratin

Serves 4

  • 1 lb mixed mushrooms (white button, crimini, porcini, or chanterelles), cleaned and quartered
  • 3 tbsp onion, finely chopped; 1 tbsp shallot, finely chopped; 3 tsp parsley, finely chopped 
  • 1 tsp caraway seeds; salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 cup crème fraîche
  • 1½ tsp vinegar
  • 3 tbsp butter
  • Dried bread crumbs
  • ½ tsp savory or thyme, finely chopped

(1) Melt half of the butter in a skillet. 
(2) Sauté onion and shallots in butter over medium heat until soft and golden. 
(3) Add remaining half of butter and parsley and cook for 30 seconds to release the parsley’s aroma. 
(4) Add mushrooms and continue cooking for 2 minutes. 
(5) Add caraway seeds, salt, and pepper. 
(6) Cover skillet, reduce heat to low, and cook for about 10 minutes, until mushrooms are tender.
(7) Add vinegar and crème fraîche and cook gently over medium-low heat for a few minutes. 
(8) Season to taste and transfer to a small buttered casserole. 
(9) Sprinkle thickly with bread crumbs and bake at 350 degrees for 15–20 minutes, until top is golden brown. 
(10) Finish with chopped savory or thyme.

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