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Squash gets a cheesy, crunchy presentation

Recipe: Gratin remade is healthier than most

Casserole dish with browned top
Looks like a fall dish, doesn't it?  (Photos: Kathy Morrison)

Potato gratins are popular side dishes, especially as the weather cools. But most gratins are so loaded with cream, butter and cheese that they could qualify for the "heart attack on a plate" label that is firmly attached to such dishes as fettucine alfredo. Not going there, thanks.

Looking for something new to do with the best of the winter squash -- butternut, of course -- I found a gratin recipe that uses half squash, half Yukon Gold potatoes, milk instead of cream, no butter, and just 4 ounces of cheese. Hmmm, this had potential.

The one caveat: Almost everyone who had tried this New York Times recipe said it had way too much liquid in it, and it took too long to cook.

OK, I thought, that's a good challenge: Let's remake this recipe so that's it's workable and flavorful without being a soupy mess.

My plan of attack: One, I salted the vegetables before cooking, to draw out the extra water. This especially worked with the Yukon Gold potatoes. (Note, don't use russets as a substitute; they have different cooking times.) Two, I reduced the amount of liquid in the recipe. Three, I spread the vegetables out in a larger baking pan than I would have used normally. Four, I turned up the heat a bit.

The result: A delicious, cheesy, crunchy top layer, perfectly cooked veggies, and just a little bit of extra liquid in the bottom of the dish. Use a slotted spoon to serve and you can avoid having it pool on the dinner plates.

Potatoes, squash, block of cheese, green cutting board
Vegetables with the colors of fall.

Butternut squash and potato gratin

Serves 4-6

Ingredients:

1-1/2 pounds of Yukon Gold potatoes, scrubbed but unpeeled

1-1/2 pound piece of butternut squash (I used half of a 3-pound squash)

Kosher salt

Olive oil

2 cloves garlic

4 ounces Gruyère cheese, shredded, divided

1 teaspoon or more fresh thyme leaves

1/2 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves, minced, optional

Freshly ground black pepper

2 cups low-fat milk

Sweaty squash slices
The salted squash slices released some water.

Instructions:

Cover two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

Slice the potatoes into 1/4-inch rounds and spread them across one of the pans. Peel and seed the butternut squash, cut it into 1/4-inch half-round pieces, and spread those across the other pan.

Sprinkle each pan with 1/4 teaspoon of the kosher salt, and set the pans aside for 15 minutes to draw out the liquid from the vegetables.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Prepare a large rimmed baking dish; I used a ceramic 10-by-13-inch roasting pan. If desired, cut one of the garlic cloves in half and rub the halves around the edges of the dish.  Then, whether you used the garlic or not, grease the dish bottom and sides with a light coating of olive oil.

Mince the other garlic clove and anything remaining from the cut one; set aside. Combine the thyme and the rosemary (if using) in a small bowl with some ground black pepper.

When 15 minutes are up, blot the liquid as much as possible from the potato and squash slices, using a clean kitchen cloth or thick paper towels.

Layer half the squash slices across the bottom of the pan, as evenly as possible. Then layer half the potato slices over the squash. Sprinkle the vegetables with half the garlic, about 1/3 of the herbs, and 1/4 packed cup of the cheese.

Repeat the layers, starting with squash and ending with 1/4 cup of cheese. You should have about 1/2 cup (or more) of cheese remaining and just a bit of the herbs; set those aside for now.

Carefully pour all the milk around the vegetables (easiest from the edge). Grind some more black pepper over the top of the casserole, sprinkle on just a pinch more salt, and slide the dish into the oven. Bake for 40 minutes; the cheese and potatoes should just be starting to brown by then.

Whie baking dish with uncooked ingredients
Here's the dish ready to go in the oven.

Sprinkle the remaining cheese and herbs over the top of the dish, and continue baking until everything is brown, crunchy and bubbling, at least 10 more minutes. (Double-check that the vegetables are tender by sticking the tip of a sharp knife into a couple of the potatoes.)

Remove the pan to a cooling rack and let it rest at least 10 minutes before serving.

This gratin can be made ahead and reheated.

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Garden Checklist for week of July 7

Take care of garden chores early in the morning, concentrating on watering. We’re still in survival mode until this heat wave breaks.

* Keep your vegetable garden watered, mulched and weeded. Water before 8 a.m. to conserve moisture.

* Prevent sunburn; provide temporary shade for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, squash and other crops with “sensitive” skin.

* Hold off on feeding plants until temperatures cool back down to “normal” range. That means daytime highs in the low to mid 90s.

* Don’t let tomatoes wilt or dry out completely. Give tomatoes a deep watering two to three times a week. Harvest vegetables promptly to encourage plants to produce more.

* Squash especially tends to grow rapidly in hot weather. Keep an eye on zucchini.

* Some weeds thrive in hot weather. Whack them before they go to seed.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushy plants and more flowers in September.

* Harvest tomatoes, squash, peppers and eggplant. Prompt picking will help keep plants producing.

* Remove spent flowers from roses, daylilies and other bloomers as they finish flowering.

* Pinch off blooms from basil so the plant will grow more leaves.

* Cut back lavender after flowering to promote a second bloom.

* One good thing about hot days: Most lawns stop growing when temperatures top 95 degrees. Keep mower blades set on high.

* Once the weather cools down a little, it’s not too late to add a splash of color. Plant petunias, snapdragons, zinnias and marigolds.

* After the heat wave, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, winter squash and sunflowers. Make sure the seeds stay hydrated.

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