There’s just nothing like a Savannah spring.

On the outside chance that you’re new here and are experiencing it for the first time, spring comes early and is profuse, with every inch of our celebrated parks, squares, formal gardens and even cemeteries covered in bright flowers and new greens.

But as beautiful as all that is, for me the loveliest parts of spring are around the corner in the vegetable garden — the new asparagus, tender young lettuces and pot herbs, and sweet little roots and tubers. Those aren’t just pretty to look at; we can eat them, too.

And one of the loveliest ways to eat them is in a gratin.

In classic French cooking, from which the term comes, there are actually two related words and techniques: gratinée and gratin.

Gratinée describes the simple technique of topping a dish with crumbs or cheese that’s then browned by broiling or baking it. That topping can cover anything from a deep casserole to onion soup. A gratin or “au gratin” is what results when the gratinée is done in a wide, shallow dish of the same name.

The great thing about gratins for busy cooks is that they can be made ahead and baked or broiled at the last minute. Because they’re shallow, they generally don’t take long to finish cooking and are ready in a hurry.

Almost anything can be prepared as a gratin. One of my favorite things to do with leftover potato salad of any kind is to slap it into a gratin dish, top it with Parmigiano-Reggiano and buttered breadcrumbs, and bake it until it’s bubbly. You just have no idea.

Here are a few other classics for the season:

 

Spring Leeks Au Gratin

Classic and fairly easy to make, this sumptuous gratin is great with almost any roast, broiled or sautéed chicken, or pan-broiled chops of any kind. Serves 4.

Ingredients:

2 pounds slender young leeks

Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

Whole nutmeg in a grater

1-2 tablespoons finely minced flat-leaf parsley, thyme, or oregano or blend of all

1 cup heavy cream (minimum 36 percent milkfat)

2-3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

 Directions:

1. Trim roots and withered leaves from leeks. Trim green tops to uniform length to fit 2-quart gratin dish or shallow casserole. Holding root-end up, wash under cold running water, bending back leaves to get all grit between layers. If you’ve not been able to find slender leeks, cut in half lengthwise (they will cook more evenly and be easier to clean this way). Drop them in a basin of cold water.

2. Put enough water to half cover leeks in shallow skillet that will hold them snugly in one layer. Bring to boil over medium heat. Drain leeks and add to pan. Loosely cover, let come back to boil, then uncover, add healthy pinch salt, and reduce heat to medium. Simmer until just tender, about 8-10 minutes.

3. Butter 2-quart gratin dish or shallow casserole. Remove leeks with a slotted spatula or tongs, drain well, and transfer to prepared dish. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Sprinkle with herbs.

4. Raise heat under skillet to medium-high and boil liquid down to 2 tablespoons. Add cream and let come to boil. Let boil until slightly thickened. Pour evenly over leeks. Can be made up to 4 hours ahead. Let cool and loosely cover. Refrigerating is not necessary.

5. About 45 minutes before serving, position rack in center of oven and preheat to 375 F. Sprinkle leeks with Parmigiano-Reggiano and bake until golden and bubbly, about 20-25 minutes. Let settle 5-10 minutes before serving.

 

Asparagus alla Parmigiana (Asparagus Gratin)

One of the great heralds of spring in Parma, Italy, is this gratin of fresh asparagus, layered with butter and the region’s signature cheese. Get the fattest asparagus you can find for this: those slender, pencil-thin spears don’t work as well. Serves 6.

Ingredients:

2 pounds fresh, fat asparagus

Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

4 tablespoons best quality salted butter, melted

1 cup (about 4 ounces) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions:

1. Cut off 1 inch of asparagus stem base and stand in vase or bowl of cold water at least 30 minutes. Peel tough parts of stem with vegetable peeler and trim to uniform length. Drop in basin with cold water.

2. Bring 2 inches water to boil in large, deep skillet and prepare basin of ice water. Add about 1 tablespoon salt to boiling water and slip in asparagus. Cook 1-2 minutes, drain at once, and drop into ice water. Drain and pat dry. Can be pre-cooked.

3. About 30-45 minutes before serving, position rack in center of oven and preheat to 450 F. Butter a 3-quart casserole or gratin dish. Layer asparagus, seasoning each layer with salt and pepper, melted butter, and Parmigiano, overlapping. Sprinkle remaining cheese over top and bake until golden brown, about 10-15 minutes. Serve at once.

 

Gratin of New Potatoes with Spring Onions

Potato gratins don’t have to be heavy with white sauce or cream or, for that matter, loaded with cheese to be good. Serves 4.

Ingredients:

1 ¼ pounds small new potatoes

4 small green onions, washed, trimmed and thinly sliced

2 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 ¼ cups (about 5 ounces) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

Whole nutmeg in a grater

¼ cup Buttered Crumbs (see recipe)

Directions:

1. Prepare heavy-bottomed pot with at least 1 inch cold water and steamer insert (water should not touch insert). Cover and bring to boil over high heat. Meanwhile, scrub potatoes under cold running water. Add to pot, cover, and steam 2 minutes. Adjust heat to medium and steam until potatoes are tender, about 15-20 minutes, depending on size.

2. Remove from pot and let cool enough to handle. Butter 2-quart gratin dish or shallow casserole. Slice potatoes and arrange in rows in dish, overlapping and scattering onions and parsley among potatoes and sprinkling with a little Parmigiano as you go but reserving ¼ cup for topping. Drizzle each row with butter and season well with salt, pepper and nutmeg. If any onions and parsley remain, scatter over top. Can be made several hours ahead to this point.

3. 45 minutes before serving, preheat oven to 375 F. Sprinkle gratin with remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano and buttered crumbs. Bake until hot through and top is lightly browned, about 20-25 minutes. Let settle 5 minutes before serving.

Buttered Crumbs for Gratins and Casseroles

Melt 1 teaspoon butter for every ¼ cup dry fine breadcrumbs in skillet over medium low heat. Turn off heat, add crumbs, and stir until evenly coated.

 

Gratin of New Potatoes with Cream

This more traditional potato gratin is richer and more substantial than the previous recipe. Pair it with something simple such as baked chicken, broiled fish, or plain roasted meat or serve it with a salad as a meatless main dish. Serves 4.

Ingredients:

2 pounds small new potatoes

4 small green onions, washed, trimmed and thinly sliced

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary or thyme

1½ cups heavy cream

Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

Whole nutmeg in a grater

1 cup (about 4 ounces) coarsely grated c cheese

¼ cup (about 1 ounce) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese

¼ cup Buttered Crumbs (see recipe)

Directions:

1. Prepare heavy-bottomed pot with at least 1 inch cold water and steamer insert (water should not touch insert). Cover and bring to boil over high heat. Meanwhile, scrub potatoes under cold running water. Add to pot, cover, and steam 2 minutes. Adjust heat to medium and steam until potatoes are tender, about 15-20 minutes, depending on size.

2. Remove from pot and let cool enough to handle. Butter 2-quart gratin dish or shallow casserole. Slice potatoes and put in mixing bowl. Add onions, cream and herbs and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Add ¾ cup Gruyere and gently toss. Turn into prepared gratin or baking dish and level top with spatula. Can be made several hours ahead to this point.

3. About 45 minutes before serving, position rack in center of oven and preheat to 375 F. Sprinkle gratin with remaining ¼ cup Gruyere, Parmigiano-Reggiano and buttered crumbs. Bake until bubbly and lightly browned, about 30-35 minutes. Let rest 5 minutes before serving.

 

Skillet Carrot Gratin

You can also transfer the carrots to a gratin dish if you prefer, but it’s one more dish to wash. Serves 4.

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil

4 cups peeled and sliced carrots (about 1¼ pounds)

Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

1 tablespoon raw sugar or 2 teaspoons regular granulated sugar

1 cup chicken broth

4 small or 2 medium scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

1 tablespoon washed and chopped carrot tops, optional

1 cup panko

½ cup freshly grated Gruyere cheese

¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions:

1. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350 F. Melt butter in ovenproof 10-inch skillet. Add carrots and toss until coated and hot through, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, add sugar and broth, and bring to simmer. Simmer 2-3 minutes. Turn off heat.

2. Add scallions, thyme, chopped carrot tops if using, and ½ cup panko. Gently toss to mix and level top with spatula. Sprinkle evenly with both cheeses and then remaining ½ cup panko. Bake until carrots are tender and top is lightly browned, about 30-35 minutes.

 

Spinach or Spring Greens Gratin

Even the most hardened spinach haters soften when it’s prepared like this. But don’t feel limited to that green: almost any spring greens from chard or beet tops to mustard or dandelion greens can be gratinéed. Serves 4.

Ingredients:

2 pounds fresh spinach or other fresh spring greens such as chard or beet tops, or 2 10-ounce packages frozen whole leaf spinach, thawed

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

4 small or 2 medium scallions, sliced

1 small clove garlic, minced

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

¾ cup whole milk

¼ cup heavy cream

Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill

Whole nutmeg in a grater

¾ cup coarsely grated Gruyere cheese

¼ cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

¼ cup Buttered Crumbs for Gratins and Casseroles (see recipe)

Directions:

1. Wash fresh greens and remove tough stems. If using chard, tender stems can be sliced and used. Put in lidded skillet with water clinging to it, cover and cook over medium high heat until just wilted. Drain, cool long enough to handle, and squeeze to remove excess moisture. If using frozen spinach, omit cooking and squeeze to remove excess moisture.

2. Put butter in 10-inch ovenproof skillet or flameproof 2-quart gratin dish over medium heat. Add scallions and garlic and sauté until fragrant, about ½ minute. Add spinach and sauté, stirring often, until hot through, 1-2 minutes. Sprinkle flour over and stir until evenly mixed. Add milk and cream and bring to simmer, stirring. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg and turn off heat. Stir in ½ cup Gruyere and level top with spatula. Can be made several hours ahead to this point. Let cool and loosely cover.

3. 45 minutes before ready to serve, position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350 F. Uncover gratin and sprinkle with remaining ¼ cup Gruyere, Parmigiano and buttered crumbs. Bake until bubbly to center and top is lightly browned, about 30 minutes.