Friday, 30 September 2011

Cheesy Ham and Leek Gratin

Remember the ham in coca-cola, the ham that was far too big for just the two of us, the ham I so blithely suggested buying in a large size? Well, this was my ulterior motive. The leftover ham is so delicious that you could perfectly well slice it, sandwich it and feel yourself pretty well fed. But if I'm being honest, this was in my mind all along. I had secret plans for that leftover ham and those plans included creamy sauce, tender leeks and an unholy amount of cheese.

This recipe is one of my mum's classics and I think it is one of my favourite forms of comfort food. You might think that it looks simple, even a bit retro - and you would be right. But never think that it will be plain. This is the best possible home for leftover ham. Imagine macaroni cheese, then take away the boring macaroni and add in tender, sweet leeks and succulent, salty ham, all smothered in extra cheese and a few breadcrumbs for crunch. Incidentally, if you don't have any breadcrumbs or if you want to go deliciously low-rent, my mum used to crush up a packet of crisps and scatter the crushed shards on top. Bonus points if the crisps are cheese and onion flavour!

Despite all the cookbooks I own (now locked up in storage) and food blogs I drool over, I still keep coming back to my mum's old recipes - and they're still among my absolute favourites. Years of helping to fry courgettes, chop apricots or steal spoonfuls of crumble mix have worked their way deep into my psyche and helped to make me who I am.

As she was feeding our family, every day of every month of every year, each dish helped to forge and strengthen the bonds linking us to each other. Even when we share the basic recipes with uncles, aunts and cousins, I know for a fact that no other family in the world makes Russian salad, fishcakes or Granny's tomato pasta sauce in exactly the same way that we did and we do.

In the hackneyed words of Sex and The City's Carrie, I couldn't help but wonder. In the dim and distant future when I have little people loitering around eager to lick the bowl, which recipes will they remember? Which dishes will always remind them of their embarrassing old parents, and which will they pass on to their children? Will it be cheesy leek gratin? It won't be one of the prettiest candidates, nor the fanciest, nor the most impressive. But to me, it tastes of home. Delicious, cheesy home.


Cheesy ham and leek gratin
An old recipe of my mum's - proper, classic family comfort food
Serves 3, or in our house 2 for dinner and 1 packed lunch the next day (just 3 mins in the microwave will reheat it perfectly)

- 2 big leeks, trimmed, thoroughly washed and cut into logs the width of your dish. I always halve them lengthways to get all the grit out, too, but you don't have to if you've found a better way to get them clean (and if so, please tell me what it is!)
- ham - either enough slices of bought ham to wrap around each log, or a healthy quantity of chunks of leftover baked ham
- biggish knob of butter
- tablespoonful of flour
- milk (I don't know exactly how much you'll need, but you will definitely have enough if you have a couple of pints)
- about two big handfuls of cheese, grated (we always use a mixture of mature cheddar and parmesan but you could go with what you've got)
- freshly ground black pepper
- a teaspoon of mustard or mustard powder
- some breadcrumbs to scatter over the top (or crisps, as above). 

Preheat the oven to about 180C and get out an ovenproof dish big enough to hold your leeks snugly. Steam the leeks for about 10 minutes, or until just tender.

While the leeks are steaming, make your cheese sauce by melting the butter in a pan over a medium-low heat, then stirring in the flour. I should point out that I use a whisk to stir the sauce right from the beginning, to cut down on washing up later (ahem, lazy). Keep stirring this paste over the heat for a couple of minutes. It will start off brown and moist and become slightly lighter in colour, and drier and crumblier in texture.

Add the milk a splosh at a time, whisking well after each addition. Don't fret if it looks like it's going lumpy, just keep whisking and the lumps will disappear. Keep adding sloops of milk until you have a runny sauce that looks like enough to cover the leeks generously.

Season the sauce with plenty of black pepper and the mustard (you could also add a tiny shake of nutmeg, if you fancy). Stir in most of the grated cheese, keeping some aside to scatter over the top. Then let the sauce simmer over a medium heat for about 5 minutes or until it thickens, whisking it to get rid of any lumps. Once it's thick and smooth, taste to see if it needs more pepper/mustard/cheese. If your leeks aren't quite done yet, or you need time to faff with the ham, you can turn off the heat and leave the sauce for a bit - a skin will form on top, but you can just whisk that in before you use it and otherwise the sauce will be completely unharmed.

The leeks should be ready by now so take them out and arrange them prettily in the ovenproof dish. If you're using slices of ham then wrap each leek in a slice before tucking it into the dish; if you're using chunks of ham, then just scatter them on and around the leeks. Pour the cheese sauce over the top, trying to cover all the leeks evenly, then sprinkle the rest of the grated cheese on top along with a handful of breadcrumbs (or, indeed, crushed crisps). My mum also sometimes arranges sliced tomatoes or halved cherry tomatoes on top, but I think the watery tomato juices interfere with the creamy, cheesy sauce so I leave them out.

Bake in the preheated oven for 15-20 minutes or until the sauce is bubbling and the top is golden and crunchy. You will want something to lick out the dish like a potato wedge or a bit of bread. Or, let's be honest, a finger. Enjoy!

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