Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Winter Squash & Rice Gratin

I mentioned a few posts back that I enjoy teaching cooking classes that are organized around one ingredient or a seasonal group of ingredients.  "Single-ingredient" classes are interesting for a lot of reasons, but there are two particular things I always focus on when I'm preparing for this kind of class.  The first is technique.  A class where one ingredient shows up in four or five recipes is a perfect opportunity to talk about how that ingredient responds to a wide variety of techniques...blanching, roasting, sautéing, braising, etc.  Since it's easy to get in a "food rut"—always blanching green beans...or roasting corn...etc.—I hope that by covering a variety of techniques people will be inspired to try something new.  The second thing I like to highlight in a single ingredient class is flavor combinations.  There is of course no way I could possibly demonstrate all of the possible natural flavor partners a single vegetable or fruit might have...but just showing a few—and discussing a few more—is enough to get people's creative juices flowing.  And when I think about it, a foundation of good technique along with an understanding of the interplay of flavors is pretty much what good cooking is all about. 

Recently I have been working on recipes for a new single-ingredient class featuring winter squash and sweet potatoes.  Two of the recipes have already appeared here on my blog (Sweet Potato Pancakes with a Medley of Corn, Sweet Potatoes & Black Beans and a Kale, Sweet Potato & Chorizo Soup).  Between these two recipes I will get to demonstrate three techniques (roasting for a purée, sautéing and poaching) as well as a variety of interesting flavor partners for these two vegetables (sweet corn, bitter kale, spicy-salty cured sausage).  I included the recipe that I am posting today in the class because it illustrates a simple technique for braising squash (borrowed from a pasta recipe I posted a couple of years ago) that produces nice, tender, intact chunks of squash.  For a detailed explanation of the technique, you should check out that post.   In the area of flavor combinations, this gratin features one of my favorites—squash (or sweet potatoes) with mushrooms.  I love the contrast of the earthy mushrooms with the sweet squash.  On my blog this pairing has shown up in a pizza, a pasta and a simple vegetable gratin.  I guess you could say this is one of my own personal food ruts.  But not everyone has tried this combination...the beauty of cooking is that one person's rut is another person's uncharted territory.  As a bonus, the recipe includes three other natural partners for squash: salty bacon, salty-nutty Gruyère and sweet, rich leeks.

The inspiration for this recipe is mostly from a summer squash, rice and leek gratin featured in Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison's Kitchen.  But as Madison says, her recipe is simply a specific example of a homey kind of Provençal rice gratin.  While I was staying in Provence I sampled a winter squash version that included Ham and onions as well as a bit of cream.  And while working on this recipe, I ran across one on line that included winter squash, bacon, leeks and a bit of Greek yogurt.  My final recipe is a blending of these three (with the addition of mushrooms).

The basic idea for this style of gratin is to combine cooked rice with roughly an equal quantity of cooked vegetables (I like a bit more vegetables than rice...but it's up to you), spread the mixture in a shallow baking dish,  top it with breadcrumbs and bake until hot and golden.  The vegetables you use shouldn't be too dry... and similarly it isn't a problem if the rice is a bit wet.  The gratin may be enhanced with cheeses, cooked meats, olive oil or the aforementioned cream. 

I have written the recipe assuming that you will make all of the components, combine them and bake them right away, but you could always assemble the gratin ahead and refrigerate it until you are ready to bake it.  You should bring it to room temperature before baking.  Even so, you will have to increase the baking time just a bit to account for the fact that all of the individual ingredients aren't already hot.

I suspect that in its original incarnation this kind of gratin was a way of using up leftovers.  So if you happen to have some leftover cooked rice on hand...and you have a pile of the current season's squash on your kitchen counter, this would be the perfect thing to make for dinner.  If by chance there is anything left will make a terrific lunch.

Leftover lunch...with a salad and an apple

Winter Squash & Rice Gratin
with Mushrooms & Leeks

2 slices bacon (2 oz.), cut cross-wise in 1/2-inch pieces
2 c. diced (scant 1/2-inch) winter squash (10 oz.)—butternut, red kuri, etc.
2 1/2 to 3 T. olive oil, divided
4 oz. Crimini or white button mushrooms, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 medium leek, white and pale green part only, halved, sliced cross-wise into 1/2-inch pieces and rinsed in several changes of water
1/2 to 1 t. each minced fresh thyme and sage
1/2 c. chicken stock
1/2 c. Basmati rice
1/2 c. coarse, fresh breadcrumbs (from day-old bread is perfect)
2 oz. coarsely grated Gruyère
Salt & Pepper

In a medium-sized sauté pan (something wide enough to hold the squash in a snug single layer...a 9- or 10-inch cooking surface is about right), render the bacon over medium-low heat until crisp.  Remove the bacon to a plate and increase the heat to medium-high.  (Pour off some of the fat if the bacon was very fatty...there should be about a tablespoon of fat in the pan.)  Add the squash and toss to coat in the fat. Sauté (tossing occasionally) until the squash begins to caramelize in spots—about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium if the squash threatens to burn. 

Remove the squash to a plate and return the pan to the heat.  Add a tablespoon or so of olive oil to the pan and toss in the mushrooms.  Sauté until softened and beginning to brown—about 3 minutes.  Reduce the heat to low and season with salt.  If the pan seems dry, add a bit more olive oil.  Add the leeks to the pan, along with a pinch of salt and cook until wilted, stirring frequently.  Don't let the leeks brown—if necessary reduce the heat even further and cover the pan to encourage the leeks to wilt.  

When the leeks have softened a bit (after about 5 minutes), return the squash to the pan along with half of the herbs.  Season lightly with salt (be careful with the salt—bacon and Gruyère are salty and too much salt will mask the sweetness of the squash).  

Add the stock to the pan and bring to a simmer. The stock should come about 3/4 of the way up the sides of the vegetables—add water if necessary. 

Gently simmer (uncovered and stirring every now and then) until the squash is just tender—about 25 minutes. As the liquid reduces, add water occasionally to maintain a level of liquid that is about 1/4 to 1/3 up the sides of the squash.  When done there should only be a small amount of liquid remaining in the pan. 

While the vegetables simmer, cook the rice using whatever method you prefer (boil, steam, etc.).  For plain rice, I prefer to use a method similar to something Alice Waters calls "the absorption method" in her book The Art of Simple Food:  Place the rice in a heavy bottomed sauce pan (for 1/2 cup a 2-quart size is fine).  Add a cup of water along with a pinch of salt and a drizzle of olive oil or butter (about 1/2 T.).  Place the pan over high heat and bring to a boil.  Allow the rice to boil (undisturbed) rapidly until most of the water has evaporated (if you tilt the pan, you shouldn't see any water) and the surface of the rice is covered with steam holes.  Cover the pan.  If you have an electric stove, transfer the pan to a burner set at the lowest setting.  If you have a gas stove, simply reduce the heat to the lowest setting.  Allow the rice to steam for 12 minutes.  Turn off the heat and let sit (covered) for another 5 minutes.  Uncover and fluff. 

Toss the breadcrumbs with the remaining herbs and a half tablespoon of olive oil.  Set aside.

To build the gratin, combine the rice, vegetables (along with any liquid in the pan) and bacon in a large bowl.  Add the cheese and fold in just to distribute evenly.  Turn the contents of the bowl into an oiled 1 1/4- to 1 1/2-quart gratin or shallow baking dish.  

Spread the prepared breadcrumbs over the top.  If you like, drizzle with more olive oil.  

Bake in a preheated 375° oven until sizzling around the edges and hot through—about 20 to 25 minutes.  If the surface is not golden brown, simply run under the broiler for a few moments.

Serves 4 as a side, 2 as an entrée.

Note: To cut down on prep time, you can sauté the mushrooms and squash in a second pan.  Simply cook the bacon, remove it and then wilt the leeks in the bacon fat.  While the leeks and bacon cook, sauté the squash and then the mushrooms in a bit of olive oil in a separate pan  (preferably non-stick—if you don't have a non-stick pan, deglaze the pan with a bit of water and add this to the braise).  Add the mushrooms & squash to the leeks and proceed with the recipe.

As a side with pork and salad greens


Unknown said...

Ahh Paige,
This recipe is a comforting consolation prize for missing your squash class this week because it was full. Before my friends invited me to discover your classes last year, they raved for WEEKS about how much they enjoyed the class last year. Winter squashes are one of my absolute favorite gifts from the earth. Thanks for dedicating so much consideration and effort on their behalf.

Paige said...

Thank YOU Elisabeth for taking the time to leave such a nice note. I'm so sorry you weren't able to get into the class. If you check the syllabus as listed in the Merc News, you'll see that four of the five recipes from the class are here on my blog. In any case, I hope that you enjoyed the rice gratin.