Sunday, February 01, 2009

Winter Squash baked with Béchamel and Gruyère (Gratin de Potiron)

French cuisine, especially from the south of France, includes many wonderful and varied “au gratin” vegetable dishes. The common denominator in general seems to be baking with Gruyère cheese and oiled or buttered breadcrumbs. Pumpkin au gratin (made with butternut or kabocha squash, which have a flavor similar to the flattened French pumpkin), can be the vegetable dish in a wintertime dinner, or the starter course, or the lunch dish when accompanied with warm crusty baguette. Swiss Gruyère is the best, but American gruyère or Jarlsberg will work well. The dish can be prepared ahead and baked half an hour before dinner.

The recipe serves six as a luncheon or principal dish, or will serve more as a side dish. A light to medium-bodied red wine, such as a Beaujolais or Rhône wine (from the area that the dish originated), or Chianti, or Spanish Garnacha pair well. But so will a mildly sweet Reisling, which will pick up the sweetness of the squash.

Winter Squash baked with Béchamel and Gruyère (Gratin de Potiron)

1 medium butternut or kabocha squash (1-1/2 to 2 pounds)
3/8 teaspoon salt for squash plus 3/4 teaspoon for sauce
2 cups (loosely packed) grated Gruyère, other Swiss cheese, or Jarlsberg (1/4-1/3 pound)
1-1/2 tablespoons grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
3 tablespoons butter (or olive oil)
2-1/2 tablespoons flour
1-1/2 cups whole milk plus 1/4 cup heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon white or black pepper
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
4 tablespoons plain breadcrumbs moistened with 1-1/2 teaspoons melted butter or olive oil plus a sprinkle of salt

Set oven for 400 degrees.

Peel squash, split it, and scoop out seeds. Cut flesh into 1-inch cubes. Steam it 5 minutes or until just tender. Test for doneness with a fork or tooth pick. Drain. Place in an attractive casserole dish large enough to make a single layer. Sprinkle it with about 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Mix pieces around. Distribute both grated cheeses evenly over top.

Prepare béchamel sauce: In heavy pan over medium-low, heat butter or oil with flour. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring. With whisk, mix in milk and cream, raise heat a little and continue to whisk until sauce comes to a boil. Let simmer, whisking occasionally, until thickened, about 2 minutes. Remove pan from heat and stir in 3/4 teaspoon salt, plus pepper and nutmeg. (If vegetable is still being steamed, let sauce cool, whisking it from to time to time so that a skin does not form.)

When vegetable is prepared and cheeses on it, spoon sauce evenly over top and mix it in just a little. Finish by sprinkling on the moistened and salted breadcrumbs.

Bake in middle of oven until sauce is bubbling and surface begins to brown, about 20-30 minutes. Serve hot. Or the baked dish can be cooled, refrigerated, and re-baked just long enough to heat through.

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