Friday, November 30, 2012

Joan's Favorite Squash Gratin

The Hackknives spent the Thanksgiving holiday in the company of my dad's side of the family in Cincinnati this year (yes, we got some stellar chili - more on that in a subsequent posting). When my brother Dave and sister-in-law Amy first agreed to host all of us many months ago, I'm pretty sure they didn't intend her to be 8 months pregnant when late November rolled around, yet here we were and here she was less than 4 weeks from her due date (it's going to be a boy, by the way). Obviously, my parents and other siblings didn't expect Amy to be responsible for preparing the Thanksgiving feast in her condition, so we all pitched in to pull everything together. Considering the able-bodied adults that were present, I probably wouldn't count myself to be among the top 5 cooks in the house (and maybe only slightly better than my nieces and nephews, the oldest being 11); therefore, my best hope was to leave the marquee items (like the turkey, stuffing, etc.) to the pros like my stepmother and simply step in with one or two safe, humble dishes that would quietly rest in the background, then just get out of everyone's way.

We brought a few produce items with us on the long car ride from the Commissary, stray farmbox ingredients like cranberries, butternut squash, and sweet potatoes. From this, of course, I was able to assemble my basic whole berry cranberry relish, but also was able to attempt a recipe I'd made note of in the November issue of Chicago Magazine called Joan's Favorite Squash Gratin. Joan, in this case, is the wife of Chef Bruce Sherman, whose under-appreciated restaurant North Pond (at least I'm told it's under-appreciated as I haven't actually dined there) has been a fixture in Chicago's fine dining scene for almost 15 years now. When deciding whom to select as a focal point for a holiday menu article, the magazine editors were astute enough to feature Chef Sherman and his selected recipes, which included (besides the squash gratin) scrumptious-sounding dishes like gingersnap-crusted rack of pork and bourbon applesauce. It was the gratin, though, that caught my attention as being relatively simple to prepare and potentially-worthy of a place in a Thanksgiving spread being consumed by discerning relatives.

My first steps during preparation didn't start so well - I had a hard time peeling the butternut squash and had to make do with a 10"x13" glass baking dish in place of a gratin pan, forcing me to scale down the ingredients a bit (there was no way I was going to fit 2 lb. EACH of sqaush, potatoes, and yams in a 10"x13"). With the two ovens full of other baking goodies, I increased the cook time by 15 minutes or so, plus added foil to the top for the first 30 minutes (as was the consensus from the other cooks in the kitchen, even though the recipe doesn't mention this) before removing it for browning. Given that this was the first time I'd tried this dish, I was understandably a little nervous about the result, but I needn't have been - almost everyone who tried it gave it a thumbs-up, including my dad (who has a bit of a hard-to-please reputation foodwise). The feedback was so positive, in fact, that I'm considering a repeat performance for when we host Xmas Day dinner at the Commissary in a few weeks. Looking at the ingredients, though (heavy cream, cheese, butter, etc.), it should have been tasty, no?...

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