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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? Gruyère cheese and herbs top slices of potato and winter squash. (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
Orange squash, yellow potatoes, pale yellow
cheese -- 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
Fifteen minutes after being salted, the squash slices look a
bit sweaty. The potatoes released even more 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. More cheese will be
added later.
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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Dig In: Garden checklist for week of Jan. 29

Bundle up and get work done!

* Prune, prune, prune. Now is the time to cut back most deciduous trees and shrubs. The exceptions are spring-flowering shrubs such as lilacs.

* Now is the time to prune fruit trees, except apricot and cherry trees. Clean up leaves and debris around the trees to prevent the spread of disease.

* Prune roses, even if they’re still trying to bloom or sprouting new growth. Strip off any remaining leaves, so the bush will be able to put out new growth in early spring.

* Prune Christmas camellias (Camellia sasanqua), the early-flowering varieties, after their bloom. They don’t need much, but selective pruning can promote bushiness, upright growth and more bloom next winter. Feed with an acid-type fertilizer. But don’t feed your Japonica camellias until after they finish blooming next month. Feeding while camellias are in bloom may cause them to drop unopened buds.

* Clean up leaves and debris around your newly pruned roses and shrubs. Put down fresh mulch or bark to keep roots cozy.

* Apply horticultural oil to fruit trees to control scale, mites and aphids. Oils need 24 hours of dry weather after application to be effective.

* This is also the time to spray a copper-based oil to peach and nectarine trees to fight leaf curl. Avoid spraying on windy days.

* Divide daylilies, Shasta daisies and other perennials.

* Cut back and divide chrysanthemums.

* Plant bare-root roses, trees and shrubs.

* Transplant pansies, violas, calendulas, English daisies, snapdragons and fairy primroses.

* In the vegetable garden, plant fava beans, head lettuce, mustard, onion sets, radicchio and radishes.

* Plant bare-root asparagus and root divisions of rhubarb.

* In the bulb department, plant callas, anemones, ranunculus and gladiolus for bloom from late spring into summer.

* Plant blooming azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons. If you’re shopping for these beautiful landscape plants, you can now find them in full flower at local nurseries.

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