Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Butternut Squash Gratin, and further thoughts on vegetarian meals

Have you ever gotten a craving for a particular ingredient, and then found yourself putting it in everything? Sometimes it's a spice - like nutmeg or paprika - and you begin to wonder what that sauce would taste like with just a dash of it. Sometimes it's a nut or a seed, and suddenly everything you cook has to have sesame seeds or almonds in it.

Now, in the alternative medicine community, many would say that's because your body is craving something that's in that ingredient. Maybe that's true, but I don't buy it. If, for instance, my body was craving iron, there are many sources of it in the food world. The kind that's found in fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts is not as easily absorbed as the kind that's found in meat, for instance. So wouldn't it stand to reason, then, that if my body was craving iron, I'd be standing in front of the meat counter, hungrily eyeing a rib-eye? After all, if my body needed iron, wouldn't it want the most it could get, as easily as it could get it, and in the highest quantity it could get it? But that's not where you'll find me these days. You'll find me, of course, in the produce section. Lovingly selecting the freshest, greenest veggies, and wishing I had more mouths to feed so that I could buy more produce and use it before it goes bad.

You see the problem.

For me lately it's been spinach that's been seducing me. I've been putting it in my scrambled eggs. I've been making fritatas because I had to use some more. Salads, of course. And most recently, a winter squash gratin from one of my favorite vegetarian cookbooks, "The Greens Cook Book", by Deborah Madison with Edward Espe Brown. Yes, spinach is a source of iron, as well as other nutrients. But for me it has to do with it's taste. There's something about that dark green flavor, with a slighty earthy, maybe even metallic edge that has me buying it by the bucket load. I'm sure this will pass, but for now I'm delighted to adulterate any recipe I come across with the addition of spinach.

My renewed interest in vegetarian meals which followed on the heels of my India trip, hasn't abated. In fact, it's been a source of creative inspiration to me. (Along with my project of mortaring the stones in my front yard and inlaying shells and stones in a kooky "mosaic" sort of way. But that's another story....) It's like looking for new ways to enjoy old friends. I'm delighted when I hit on something that's easy and fresh tasting, while at the same time being filling. Since I've decided to eat vegetarian meals at least half the time (and staying pretty low on the food chain the rest of the time), I need food that will satisfy me and not leave me craving snacks all day long.

Enter the gratin.
This dish has the potential for a great deal of depth. When I made this, I didn't have any gas for my grill, or I would have grilled the tomatoes first. There's that certain something that happens with grilled veggies - the intrigue of a smokey flavor that murmurs something of the past without defining it. Without that touch, this dish had a decidedly fresh, American flavor. An innocent, guileless look with surprisingly more to it than the list of ingredients would suggest. But then again, who goes by a list of ingredients? This is a dish which can withstand Yankee ingenuity - and spinach.
Winter Squash Gratin

2 TBS olive oil
1/2 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 tsp thyme or 4 to 6 thyme branches
1 bay leaf
1/2 C dry white wine
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper or 1/2 tsp paprika
1 LB tomatoes, fresh or canned, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped
sugar, if necessary

1 winter squash, weighing 2 1/2 to 3 LBS
oil for frying
4 oz Fontina or Gruyere cheese, sliced
Fresh herbs: pasley or marjoram, thyme, finely chopped

Heat the olive oil and add the onion, garlic, thyme, bay leaf, and a little salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the onion is soft; then add the wine and let it reduce by half. Add the cayenne or paprika and the tomatoes. Cook slowly for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thick. Taste, add a pinch of sugar if the tomatoes are tart, and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

While the tomatoes are cooking, prepare the squash. Cut it open, scoop out the seeds and strings, and then, with the flat cut surface resting on the counter, shave off the skin. (Butternut squash can be easily peeled with a vegetable peeler before it is cut in half.)

Slice the peeled squash into large pieces about 3 inches long and 1/4 inch thick. Heat enough oil to generously coat the bottom of a large skillet, and fry the squash on both sides, so that is is browned and just tender. Remove it to some toweling to drain; then season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

(At this point, you can add the spinach to the tomato sauce. Turn off the heat and press it down until it's covered by the thick sauce. The heat from the sauce will cook it, in addition to it's trip to the oven.)

Preheat the oven to 375 F. To form the gratin, put a few spoonfuls of the tomato sauce on the bottom of individual gratin dishes, or us it all to cover the bottom of one large dish. Lay the squash on top in overlapping layers with slices of the cheese interspersed between the layers. Bake until the cheese is melted and the gratin is hot, about 15 minutes, and serve with the fresh herbs scattered over the surface.

And oh, by the way, this is why I haven't posted in a while. I've been playing in the mud!!!

For more health news, visit Mission Valley Acupuncture.
For a place to share what works for you regarding vitamins, herbs or natural remedies, visit Second Opinion


Anonymous said...

I love spinach, Toni. I toss a generous handful of frozen spinach [what can I say, it's easy] into red sauce, both for flavor and health benefits. Or I'll heat some minced garlic in an olive oil/butter mixture in a big pot, then toss it with baby spinach for an amazing, quick side of sautéed spinach.

Have to admit, though, you'll find me at the meat counter ogling those ribeyes.

Toni said...

Terry - I'm not a saint, nor am in the process of becoming one! From time to time, I hear those rib-eyes calling. It's just that I find myself eating less and less meat these days. But I wouldn't bet a dime on me getting through the summer without a good steak, fresh off the barbie!

BTW, if you haven't tried it yet, do give a dash of nutmeg a shot next time you sautee that spinach.

Anonymous said...

I find myself craving tomatoes nearly constantly. The boyfriend thinks I have a lycopene deficiency, or that maybe I'm a werewolf ;-)

I'm very partial to spinach and all leafy greens too. I like mine with a dash of anchovy, it adds that certain something special.
I find your vegetarian dabblings inspiring too. Thanks for sharing!

Patricia Scarpin said...

I'm not a vegetarian but love vegetarian dishes. Some are really delicious and they give you that feeling of being satisfied without feeling heavy. So good.

What a delicious recipe you posted!

Oh, and I crave broccolini from times to times. :)

Toni said...

Ann - I've gone through the tomato thing too. Usually it's in the summer, though, when they're from a farm stand. Hmmmm.....werewolf sounds good.......Think of the costumes you could buy! ;-)

Pat - I ADORE broccolini! You've just inspired me. I think I'll do something with broccolini...Thanks!

Rachael Narins said...

Auntie T! You can feed me any time! Especially something this glam! Yum.

Susan from Food Blogga said...

With the fabulous fresh spinach that's been at the farmers' markets lately, it's no wonder you've been craving it! We eat at least 2 bunches a week.

Chris said...

I am a huge spinach fan. What's weird is I haven't eaten it as much since I started blogging because I have tried so many new things. I must be better!

I am a huge veggie fan...this Winter Squash Gratin looks fab!

Toni said...

Rachael - Be happy to!

Susan - It's all I can do to keep myself from buying more! Yes, I know I can freeze it and all, but that out of the ground green flavor isn't quite the same afterwards...

Chris - Never thought of blogging as interfering with the old favorites....But I totally get the "trying new things". There are so many great recipes in the food blog world - I regret I only have one stomach to give to each meal!

Stella said...

This gratin looks so comforting & yummy. Perfect for the cold days like today in Mauritius...
Plus you didn't use any heavy cream, which makes it healthier!:)

Toni said...

Valentina - Why is it that I don't think of Mauritius as being cold? Islands in the Indian Ocean...somehow just the sound of it is tropical. But you're right - you don't need heavy cream to make this good. Especially if you use enough cheese!

Freya said...

I adore squash and this gratin looks stunning! I also find that the best vegetarian dishes are those that don't try to be!

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

I get that specific spinach craving too, from time to time. And sometimes it's even more specific, like it has to be spinach sauteed with garlic and evoo. Don't know why -- but I find it hangs around for a few days, then goes, then comes back.

Toni said...

Freya and Paul - I agree completely - the best dishes (vegetarian and otherwise) are those that don't try to be!

Lydia - Cravings are like that, I think -- there for a while and then gone. Sometimes replaced by another one, sometimes not.

Anonymous said...

Well I'm finding this post a little late but Autumn is the perfect time for butternut squash so maybe I actually found it right on time!

And I suppose it's the perfect time to be meeting a San Diego blogger since I'll be moving to the area in a month :-)