If a face can launch a thousand ships, what power could a butternut squash have? Turns out one baked butternut squash from Tuscany topped with melted sheep’s milk cheese had the power to change my life.
Flash back to more than a year ago. While on my honeymoon in Italy, my newly minted husband and I stopped for a late lunch in the town of Montepulciano at a tiny restaurant named Osteria Aquachetta.
Among the many Tuscan dishes we sampled, it was a simple side of fresh-from-the-hearth butternut squash with melted sheep’s milk cheese that made us return for dinner several hours later, only so that we could taste the contorni again. The flavors of sweet, caramelized squash united with the oozing, nutty and tart layers of sheep’s milk cheese in a combination of flavor so powerful, I found myself reconsidering everything I knew about food.
Quite simply, when I took that first bite of butternut squash gratin, I saw God. As I relished in the simplicity of the dish—the tender orange meat layered with gooey rounds of sheep’s milk cheese–I could see in perfect detail just how lucky I was to be alive, to be in love, and to be eating as well as I was. In this culinary aha moment, I knew that my time had come to use my craft as a writer to document each and every great meal.
A FOOD WRITER IS BORN
After that fateful meal, I returned home with a new perspective. For the first time I could remember, I began thinking about food as an art form I could master. I put away my novels and began reading cookbooks. I studied the knife skills and cooking techniques of the restaurant’s chefs. I took note of every prep cook’s secrets (like how they de-boned salted anchovies under a steady stream of cold water). I mustered my courage and asked my culinary hero (and boss), Nancy Silverton, for detailed culinary advice about how to perfect this recipe.
After multiple attempts, I settled on a simple recipe with good ingredients that proved to be as close as I could get to the original dish I sampled at the Osteria Aquacheta. I posted the recipe on my newborn blog and moved on.
photo by White on Rice
Since posting that first recipe in November of 2007, a lot has changed. I cook differently. I make meals with confidence. I cook with growing understanding. Cookbooks are my friends but not my sole confidants.
The following recipe is a tiny reminder of all the things I learned in 2008. Where I once was stymied by a lack knowledge, I now have the vocabulary and a growing skill set to know where to look for answers. Though I may still be a padawan learner, I am on the right path.
My updated Butternut Squash recipe has texture and another layer of sweet, nuttiness from fresh pistachios. The crunch of breadcrumbs, the sweetness of the squash, the salted nuttiness of the sheep’s milk cheese and the unifying flavors of the pistachio nuts makes this dish my favorite dish of 2009.
photo by White on Rice
My 2009 Butternut Squash Gratin
Find the longest necked butternut squash you can find for this recipe. Reserve the seed-holding cavity of the squash for another use.
2 Butternut Squash necks, cut into 3/4 inch rounds
½- lb Pecorino Fresca, cut into ¼ inch thick slices. (Idiazábal, a Spanish hard cheese made from the milk of the long-haired Lacha sheep is a good substitute. Grate, if the cheese is too hard for slicing)
½ cup olive oil, with extra for drizzling
½ cup home made bread crumbs*
1/4 cup chopped pistachio nuts
Maldon sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 375. Peel the squash, cut into uniform rounds. Toss the butternut squash with oil in a medium sized bowl, making sure to coat the rounds with oil. Arrange the squash rounds in a medium-sized casserole dish, allowing for some layering. Pour the remaining oil over the squash. Bake in the oven for approximately 30 minutes, or until the squash is tender enough for a fork to pierce the meat, but not buttery soft. Remove from oven and set aside to cool. This step can be done in advance.
Once the squash is cool enough to touch, begin layering slices of cheese between the rounds of the butternut in the casserole dish. For individual portions, stack two or three butternut squash rounds on top of each other with layers of cheese in between.
When finished layering, sprinkle the entire dish with bread crumbs, then top with the chopped pistachio nuts. Drizzle lightly with olive oil to moisten the breadcrumbs. Finish with a sprinkling of Maldon sea salt and black pepper. Bake at 375 for another 10-20 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and the squash is soft.
If you desire, turn the oven to broil to caramelize the top of the gratin. Put under the flames for just 2-3 minutes. Serve. Add additional seasoning or red chili flakes if spice is desired.
*Grind left over bread (or toasted fresh bread) with a food processor until a mildly course texture. Add 2 tablespoons of chopped parsley and a hearty pinch of Malden sea salt. Toss. If bread is soft, spread onto a cookie sheet, drizzle with a touch of olive oil and toast in oven (250-300°) until a light, golden brown. Store extra breadcrumbs in an air tight container.