I often admit that I am a much better cook than I am a farmer or gardener. In the kitchen I know what I need to do to stay in control. I understand how food reacts to heat and moisture and salt. I know which step to take to get to my desired result, which in all cases is something delicious.
But in the garden, I’m practically hopeless. I don’t know which plants like water and which like sun, and I have no control over how much rain or shine happens. I can’t seem to keep the rabbits or groundhogs from eating whatever they fancy. The insects and birds seem to prefer my organically grown produce to my closest neighbor’s GMO crops. By the end of the growing season I’m lucky if I’m left with anything. Of course, some of my plants do well every year. The hot peppers are too toxic for most of my local pests, so they make it. The weeds never seem to suffer. And, to my surprise, butternut squash thrives.
Like most of you, I’ve eaten butternut squash my whole adult life. It’s good stuff. It’s in every supermarket. But until I grew it, I had no idea what it really tasted like. The versions I knew were vaguely squashy and a pretty orange. But the first time I actually tasted butternut was around this time of year, when I plucked a long-necked specimen from the garden.
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I’m here to tell you, if there is one thing you should grow in you backyard garden, it is butternut squash. The stuff from far away that you buy at the store might as well be cardboard. Fresh butternut tastes like...well, it tastes like butter, and nuts, and squash, in the most intense and pleasant way. And it’s a breeze to cook. You can roast it with a little oil, salt, and pepper and you’ve got a simple addition to any meal. But it also takes well to a little dress-up. Add some cream and a knob of butter and you’ve got a gratin fit for the finest of fall feasts.
Butternut Squash Gratin
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 (2 -pound) butternut squash
3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1/2 cup heavy cream
Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 9-inch baking dish with 1 tablespoon butter.
Peel and seed squash, then thinly slice using a hand slicer, such as a Benriner or Mandoline slicer. Layer squash in baking dish, sprinkling some of salt and pepper between each layer. When baking dish is half filled, sprinkle 1/2 of cheese and thyme over squash. Continue layering squash with salt and pepper. Pour cream evenly over top layer, then sprinkle with remaining cheese and thyme. Cover baking dish with foil and bake until squash is tender, about 45 minutes. Remove foil from baking dish and preheat broiler. Broil gratin until top is browned about 4 minutes. Serve.
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Ian Knauer has traveled the world for Gourmet magazine, written for too many other magazines to list, cohosted three food television shows and written a cookbook, The Farm. @iknauer | TakePart.com