I am drowning in butternut squash. Well, not drowning precisely, because that sounds like it could hurt. I am inundated with butternut squash. No, that's not quite right either. Up to my eyeballs, then! Yes, I am up to my eyeballs in butternut squash. It's coming fast and furious in the final weeks of our CSA, and there's only so many times that I can roast it and turn it into soup. I mean, I adore butternut squash soup along with everyone else, but I bore easily, I suppose.
You'd be surprised at just how many clipped newspaper recipes I've got for some variation on butternut squash soup. Curried, creamed, with apples, without - they're all lovely, it's true, and the soups freeze well and yes, there's really nothing wrong with them. Except for the fact that I think it's a shame that butternut squash always gets blitzed into smooth oblivion. In some of my favorite butternut recipes, like this risotto, or this curry (oooh, yes), you actually get to experience what butternut squash flesh is like - a little creamy, a little stringy, but agreeably so. Toothsome, I'd say.
After the latest delivery of yet more butternut squash this week, I plunked myself down on the carpet and surrounded myself with my cookbooks. There was a pizza from Chez Panisse, but it sounded too rich. There was a soup from Sophie Grigson, but, well, it was a soup. And then there was this "pie" from Paula Wolfert's Slow Mediterranean Kitchen which sucked me in the instant I read it and held me close close close.
Okay, I'll be honest right up front: the prep work on this thing is a pain in the neck. Slow is absolutely right. Enlist someone whose knife skills you trust to help you with this, or calculate that you'll need about a half hour on your own. Not kidding at all. Second of all, the salt is an issue. Paula doesn't specify how much, which could lead you, quite easily, to insipid disaster. Potatoes need salt. And frankly, so does squash. I used 1/2 teaspoon in total, because the hard cheese adds a bit, too. But checking for seasoning is probably good advice. Third of all, this is no pie. Oh, no. This is a gratin, of the best kind, far superior to any mere pie. It's Greek, Cretan, actually, and is absolutely, positively delicious. (Something tells me the Greeks probably use a different kind of squash.)
Minced parsley, sliced mint, minced garlic and salt is where you start - tossing half of this mixture with sliced potatoes and the other half with sliced squash, a few spoonfuls of tomatoes for brightness and sheep's-milk cheese mixed with ricotta for spunk and flavor. The two mixtures are layered in a dish and then milk is poured all around it. Paula has you sprinkle a little too much flour on top, and it never quite gets absorbed, so in the version below, I cut the flour down by two thirds. In the heat of the oven, the butternut squash doesn't just soften, its flavor is concentrated and its sweetness is amplified. Your house fills with a fantastic aroma. It will be quite difficult, you'll see, to stay patient throughout the baking process. (I told you slow was absolutely right.)
But just wait. You'll be rewarded with a browned and bubbling gratin that smells like ourania. The potatoes on top are ever so slightly crisped, the ones below are soft and yielding. The butternut squash is almost fudgy in texture. The herbs and the cheese infuse each bite: it's a little peppery, sweet and savory at once, juicy, almost, and tasty as all get out.
Paula says you should serve this as a side dish, but along with a plain green salad or a tangle of boiled green beans, this makes the star of a fabulous lunch.
Butternut Squash and Potato Pie with Tomato, Mint and Sheep's Milk Cheese
Serves 6 as a side dish or 3 to 4 as a main course
6 sprigs fresh mint leaves, shredded
5 sprigs flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/4 pounds butternut squash, quartered, peeled, seeded and thinly sliced crosswise
1 large ripe tomato, halved, seeded and grated, or a few spoonfuls of drained, diced tomatoes from a can
2/3 cup grated hard sheep's milk cheese, like Greek mizithra or Spanish manchego
1/4 cup fresh ricotta
1 1/2 pounds red or Yukon Gold potatoes, thinly sliced
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine the mint, parsley, garlic, 1/4 teaspoon salt, or a little bit more to taste, and the pepper. Remove and reserve half the mixture. Add the squash to the bowl and mix well. Add the tomato, and the hard and fresh cheeses and toss to combine.
2. Toss the potatoes with the reserved garlic-herb mixture and add another 1/4 teaspoon salt. Place half the sliced potatoes on the bottom of a generously oiled 2 1/2-quart baking dish. Taste a small bit of the squash-tomato mixture for seasoning, adjust if needed, and spread on top, covering with the remaining potatoes. Pour the milk over all, dust with the flour (preferably through a sieve) and drizzle the oil on top.
3. Bake for 40 minutes. Raise the oven temperature to 400 degrees and continue to bake for 30 minutes, or until the gratin is brown and the liquid is nearly absorbed. Allow to rest for 15 minutes before serving.