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Recently, I gave myself a challenge. We had ham for Christmas dinner and I was working through the leftovers so none was wasted. The bone made a delicious bean soup and we were treated to ham sandwiches for lunch and ham and egg breakfast sandwiches– our once a year Week of Ham. I had just a few ounces left to use and thought of making macaroni & cheese with ham, one of our favorite comfort food dinners. In recent years I have balked at making it– I can’t bring myself to use that much pasta, cheese and butter at one time for just the two of us. I have experimented with whole wheat pasta, which isn’t bad; with skim milk in the cheese sauce, which also works but doesn’t make as much of a dent in the overall fat/calorie content as I would like; and with replacing most of the cheese sauce with canned or roasted tomatoes. The latter is my favorite remake of the dish, but my husband argues that it’s not really a healthier version, it’s a totally different dish with a totally different flavor. He has a point, but it still has become my go-to dish in place of traditional macaroni & cheese with ham.

So, what to do with the leftover ham that would echo the creaminess and cheesiness of our favorite dish without all of the… well, stuff I didn’t want? I thought back to another part of this year’s Christmas dinner, a potato gratin that went beautifully with the ham. Russet potatoes aren’t much of an improvement on pasta, so I got out a giant turnip and some sweet potatoes instead. The gratin I made was creamy, cheesy and comforting, all that I did want, with a fraction of the cheese used for macaroni & cheese and more nutrients (sweet potatoes are loaded with vitamin A and both provide vitamin C) from the vegetables. I used a combination of skim and whole milk and probably could have used just the skim. The ham was salty and delicious, but could easily be left out to create a vegetarian dish.

I am so pleased with how this came out and will definitely make it again. I love macaroni & cheese and will not stop making that, but it’s nice to know that there are other, healthier options that give the same satisfaction. Try this gratin next time you need a side dish for a potluck, or as a main dish beside a beautiful winter salad. I hope you like it as much as I did!

sweet potato & turnip gratin

Sweet Potato and Turnip Gratin

  • 1 lb. turnip, peeled and sliced 1/8″ thick (a mandoline is very helpful)
  • 1 lb. sweet potato, peeled and sliced 1/8″ thick
  • 1/2 tsp. salt (optional)*
  • 1/2 tsp. pepper
  • 3 T. Parmesan cheese
  • 4 oz. ham, cut into bite-sized cubes (optional)
  • 1 T. butter, plus more to grease the pan
  • 1/2 c. whole milk
  • 1/2 c. skim milk
  • 1 T. fresh chives to garnish

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9″ deep-dish pie plate, round casserole dish, cake pan or equivalent. Round is helpful and deep is helpful, but use what you have.

To make the layers, I chose to alternate between turnip and sweet potato (finishing with a mixed layer), but you could certainly mix the vegetables together to make each layer. Your goal is to have three equally-thick layers, so (informally– I don’t want to see any scales out) separate the vegetables into three equal piles. Take the vegetables for the first layer and begin overlapping them in concentric circles. When your first layer is done, sprinkle with 1 T. Parmesan, 1/3 of the salt, if using, and 1/3 of the pepper. Distribute half of the ham evenly over the layer. Take the next third of vegetables and create another layer; sprinkle with 1 T. Parmesan, 1/3 of the pepper and 1/3 of the salt, if using. Place the remaining ham on top and then cover with the last layer of vegetables. Sprinkle with remaining salt, if using, and pepper, but reserve the remaining 1 T. Parmesan. Dot the top with small pieces of butter and pour the milk over the top. It may not cover the vegetables, which is fine.

The total baking time is 75 mins. After 30 mins., use the back of a spoon to press the layers down into the milk. Rotate the pan so the gratin cooks, and the top browns, evenly. After another 30 mins., press down the layers again and sprinkle the top of the gratin with the remaining 1 T. Parmesan cheese. After the final 15 mins., use a skewer or sharp knife to test the doneness of the vegetables; it should pierce right through with no resistance. Remove from the oven, garnish with chives and serve immediately.

*The salt can be tricky in this recipe, especially if you are using ham. If your ham seems particularly salty, consider using less added salt, or none, and allowing folks to season to taste at the table. The saltiness of our ham concentrated more than I expected it to and I was almost in trouble. Parmesan can also be a fairly salty cheese.