There I sat, pondering away on how beautiful butternut squash is; how vibrant and lively, and yet how delicately, sweetly unassuming when eaten. Into my head popped a wee fragment of a memory of how my Grandma B used to pronounce the word beautiful. B-E-A-U-tiful! she'd say, every time, in a sort of sing-songy voice, emphasizing each vowel at the beginning of the word, with the "U" receiving the most attention and highest pitch. As if, when we choose to acclaim the beauty of something, we must truly go for it, give it the praise it deserves. (And conversely, we must refrain from shallow, meaningless compliments, I believe Grandma B would have advised.) B-E-A-U-tiful kept playing out in my mind, over and over. That line of thought led me down a little reminiscing sort of path, of my grandma.
This is one of those indirectly-related-food-memories, obviously. Grandma B was decidedly not a cook. Her most successful dish was coleslaw. The least, liverwurst sandwiches. (Shudder.) Which we used to feed to their poodle, Jacques, as soon as her back was turned to pour a wee gin and tonic. (Grandma B pronounced it Jock. Just so you know.)
Grandma B was very cool. Especially considering that grandmothers generally aren't thought of as cool. She wore amazing pant suits well past the 70's, and rocked them. She ran a music store, and let me come stay for weeks in the summer, helping out in the store. I got to run the cash register, by the way. And take as much free sheet music and records as I liked as my pay. Oh yeah, those were the days. She drank G & T's, because in her mind, that's what ladies drank. And in her later years, she drank Seagram's on the rocks. I think this made her a little bit bad-ass. She smoked (what grandmother didn't, in those days?), but only with a cigarette holder, because it was low-class, otherwise. She taught me to shuffle cards, and deal like I worked in a casino, at about age 8. Grandma B never swore, but she did teach me what I thought was a scandalously named card game, Screw Your Neighbor. She used to wake me in the middle of the sticky-hot, Walla Walla nights, to go sit outside and watch the stars, drinking an icy-cold limeade. I'm pretty sure hers had a tipple of Seagram's in it. I was never treated as many children are by grandparents, neither coddled nor condescended to, but rather felt as if I were, if not exactly a peer, perhaps a protegé. As if she were pleased to spend time with me. Grandma B was the perfect combination of old-school etiquette, and graceful rebel. She was an amazing conunudrum. (Pronounced AY-MAY-zing, of course.)
Grandma B is no longer with us, but there are, from time to inexplicable time, random flashes of memories of her, that absolutely delight me. There is absolutely no logical reason that my mind took off on its reminiscences of her, in relation to butternut squash. Other than that I think it's beautiful. As was she. I can only dream of being that cool.
So, the recipe. It comes from a book I found on the library shelf, Parisian Home Cooking, by Michael Roberts. It is one of those dishes that is incredibly simple to prepare, and yet knocks your socks off with its contradictorily bold and subtle flavors. Fresh bay leaves, ground cardamom, and ground coriander, tease something new and exciting out of the squash, while still remaining ever-respectful of its graceful, tranquil essence. Beautiful.
Gratinéed Winter Squash - Gratin de Courge - adapted from Parisian Home Cooking
1 medium butternut, or other winter squash, approximately 1 pound or so
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 fresh bay leaves
1/8 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp ground coriander
3/4 to 1 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup grated Gruyere cheese
Preheat the oven to 375 deg F. Butter a large baking dish.
Prepare the squash. If using a butternut, slice off each end, then stand on one of the sliced ends, and cut in half, top to bottom. Scoop out seeds, then slice into half-rounds, about 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. Using a sharp knife, cut the peel off each semi-round of squash. Place in a large bowl, and toss to coat with all ingredients, except cheese.
Pour the squash mixture out into your prepared baking dish, cover tightly with foil (or a lid, if you have one), and bake for 35 minutes, or until the squash is tender.
Remove the dish from the oven, and turn on the broiler, set to high. Uncover the baking dish, remove the bay leaves, and sprinkle with cheese. Place under the broiler until the surface bubbles and turns golden. Serve immediately.
We ate our gratin with some roasted beets and green beans, tossed in balsamic.