Oh, dear. This is rather awkward. I know it was only just two days ago that I told you about Paula Wolfert's squash gratin and how much I loved it and how delicious it was. But I've actually got something better now, and you've sort of got to drop everything you're doing and go make it straight away. (Well, you might have something better to be doing right now, like voting, but after that, definitely.)
Go on! Who cares about butternut squash and sheep's milk cheese and potatoes anymore? Now it's butternut squash and long-cooked onions and stale bread and Gruyere. Seriously. Cancel your dinner plans.
I'm sorry to be a boss, but you know how it is sometimes, when you make something so wonderful that you find yourself somewhat speechless as you chew? Yes, that's what happened to us the other night. We sat there, in somewhat shocked silence as we ate. (Oh, we live a thrilling life, we do.) Look at it this way: you've got to do something tonight while you wait for the results of our election to come in, no matter who you voted for. You can't just sit in front of your computer, refreshing pages obsessively, or lounge on your couch, flicking from channel to channel in the hopes that one talking head will know something before another one does. So why not kill time making a long, slow dinner that takes close to three hours from start to finish?
Staying up late on a night like this is worth it. If not for the sheer pleasure of eating, then at least for your nerves.
The recipe comes from Chez Panisse Vegetables and is a study in the art of flavor-building. Onions are stewed with bay leaves and thyme and garlic. Wine is added and reduced, then in goes chicken stock, which simmers for a while. Good, stale-ish bread is briefly fried until golden in olive oil (or, if you happen to have duck fat lying around, you can use that, too) and two pounds of butternut squash are peeled and sliced.
Then the fun stuff begins: the layering. In goes a layer of fried bread slices, several ladlefuls of herb-scented broth and a purpureal tangle of onions. Then you arrange the mass of butternut squash slices on top of the bread and ladle in more broth and onions. The rest of the fried bread makes the top layer, along with, yes, more broth and onions and finally, you grate over it all a flurry of grated cheese.
What happens in the oven is very neat: the bread swells with the liquid and rises, so that the panade goes from being a rather dense, heavy thing to a light and puffy wonder. The flavors, already complex, concentrate and the cheese melts and bubbles into a wondrously tasty cap. It's hard to figure out whether you should eat panade with a fork or a spoon - or how to decide what you like more, the broth or the silky bread or the sweet squash or the cheesy top. Oh, who am I kidding, all of it.
So, um, yes, I'd say that today, for sure, this is the only way you should be eating butternut squash.
Winter Squash, Onion and Red Wine Panade
Serves 8 to 10
2 pounds acorn or butternut squash
6 cloves garlic
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 bay leaves
12 sprigs thyme
1 cup red wine
2-3 quarts chicken stock
Kosher salt and pepper, to taste
10 slices stale country-style bread
1 ounce Parmigiano
2 ounces Gruyere
1. Begin by stewing the onions, peeled and sliced thin, over medium heat, in about 1/4 cup of olive oil. When they have begun to soften, add the garlic cloves, also peeled and sliced thin; the bay leaves; and the thyme. Continue to cook the onions until they just begin to brown, 20 to 30 minutes. Add the red wine and reduce by half. Add the stock and simmer for 30 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, peel and seed the squash and cut it into 1/8-inch-thick slices. In a sauté pan over medium heat, lightly brown the slices of bread in more olive oil.
3. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and assemble the panade: Cover the bottom of a large casserole with half the bread slices and gently ladle in enough broth (including the onions) to cover. Make a single layer of the sliced squash on top and ladle in more of the broth and onions, to cover. Make a layer with the rest of the bread, add more broth and onions so that the top layer of bread is well soaked through, and finish by grating the cheeses over the top to cover lightly.
4. Bake, covered, for 45 minutes; then uncover and bake for about 45 minutes more, until well browned. To serve, scoop the panade into bowls and ladle more of the hot broth around it.