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Don’t know what to cook? Ruth Reichl has the answer

Editor’s Note: Ruth Reichl, a former restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, author of three books and editor of Gourmet magazine until it was shuttered in 2009, recently published her new book, “My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life.” We asked Reichl, who NPR called a “a vital architect of today’s contemporary food culture,” what to cook in tricky everyday situations. Watch tonight’s broadcast of the NewsHour for more.

You’re invited to a Halloween-themed potluck

This is easy: Swiss Pumpkin. (It’s in one of my books – I think “Comfort Me With Apples.”) You hollow out a pumpkin, fill it with layers of bread and grated Gruyère cheese, pour in half and half, put the top back on the pumpkin and bake in a slow oven for about 3 hours, until you have a wonderful, rich, gooey fall pumpkin dish. Everybody loves it.

Ruth Reichl recommends vanilla ice cream and hot fudge for a sleepless night.

Ruth Reichl recommends vanilla ice cream and hot fudge for a sleepless night. Photo by Getty Images

It’s 4 a.m., and you can’t sleep

Nothing like climbing out of bed in a sleeping house and going into the kitchen to concoct a pot of hot fudge. Then you pour it over cold vanilla ice cream and eat it all by yourself as a personal little treat. Best antidote to insomnia that I know.

A date is coming over for the first time — and it’s last minute

I always keep the ingredients for spaghetti alla carbonara on hand: all you need is spaghetti, eggs, bacon and Parmesan cheese. It’s sexy and delicious — and can be made in the time it takes the pasta water to boil.

You’re having people over, and you don’t want them to stay too long

Ruth Reichl's Potatoes au Gratin. Photo courtesy of Random House

Ruth Reichl’s potatoes au gratin. Photo by Mikkel Vang

I can’t imagine why you’d invite people if you don’t want them to stay. But assuming you have done this foolish thing, feed them a rich, heavy meal that will make them so sleepy they simply can’t stay. Start with fried oysters. Go on to steak, potatoes au gratin, a salad with blue cheese dressing. They’ll probably flee before dessert, but if they don’t, give them cheesecake and they’ll be out the door the minute they’ve finished the last forkful.

You need to cook a meal for a big family, and only one of them is vegetarian

If it’s only one meal, I’d honor the vegetarian; so many wonderful options. (But if it’s an everyday affair, I don’t think they get to dictate the permanent menu.) Good vegetarian meal option: Butternut squash soup. Spinach gnocchi with tomato sauce. Homemade bread. A big salad. Lemon tart.

Ruth Reichl’s Potatoes au Gratin

Shopping list:
1½ cups cream
2½ pounds
Boiling potatoes (such as Yukon Gold)
½ pound Gruyère cheese (grated)

2 cups milk
2 cloves garlic (smashed)
1 teaspoon salt
Whole nutmeg

Serves 6-8

The secret to these potatoes is that they’re cooked twice. First you plunk them into a big bath of milk and cream that’s been infused with just a touch of garlic, and bring them gently to a boil. Then you dump them into a baking dish, grate a bit of fresh nutmeg over them, and sprinkle the entire top with Gruyère before putting them into the oven where they drink up all the liquid as the cheese turns into a crisp crust.

Pour cream and milk into a large pot. Peel the potatoes, and slice them as thinly as you can, putting them into the pot as they are ready. Add the garlic, the salt, and a few good grinds of pepper and bring it all slowly to a boil.

Meanwhile, butter a gratin dish or a rectangular baking pan. When the milk comes to a boil, remove it from the heat and pour the contents into the buttered gratin dish. Grate a bit of fresh nutmeg over the top and cover with grated Gruyère cheese.

The baking is pretty forgiving; you can bake at anywhere from 300 to 400 degrees, depending on what else you have in the oven. The timing’s forgiving, too; at the lower temperature it will take about an hour to absorb the liquid and turn the top golden, at 400 degrees it will take about 35 minutes.

Let it rest for at least 15 minutes—but this, too, is forgiving. If the potatoes have to wait an hour, they will be absolutely fine.

Excerpted from “My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life” by Ruth Reichl. Copyright © 2015 by Ruth Reichl. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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