LittleJudeonFood

One kid's adventures in gastronomy


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A Gratin so Easy You Can Do It In Your Sleep

Mama didn’t feel like cooking dinner after a long weekend of chasing me around (don’t forget the 60 pounds of apples we picked). And she didn’t want to go to the store, either. She thought about what we had on hand, and voilà: a gratin was born.

Mama explained that gratins can be made out of pretty much any hardy vegetable: turnips, potatoes, fennel, squash, beets, even carrots. What makes them into a gratin is that they are layered with cream (and cheese, if desired) and then—this is the crucial step—topped with breadcrumbs, cheese, and butter to make it crunchy. Think of a gratin as savory crème brûlée: crispy on the top, creamy on the bottom. Each bite should have a bit of both, which is why gratin dishes are often shallow and oval, to provide more surface area for that wonderful crunch.

We’ve had a giant butternut squash sitting around for a while. Every couple of days, Mama hacks a hunk off its neck, peels it, and proceeds with dinner. For the gratin, she sliced it thinly (about ¼” thick) on the mandolin because the thinner the veggies, the quicker they’ll soften in the oven. We also had a couple organic russet potatoes on hand, which Mama also peeled and ran over the mandolin. (She said a food processor’s slicing blade would likely do a fine job, as well as a good ol’ sharp knife.)

As we don’t have a gratin dish, Mama opted for a regular 8” x 8” baking dish. (I promised I wouldn’t tell anyone.) She layered the squash, overlapping it slightly, and then sprinkled it with salt, pepper, and a few raspy shavings of Pecorino (because we had more of that than we did Parmesan). She drizzled it with heavy cream that was left over from a dish Papa made earlier in the week. She could’ve used her half-and-half or even my milk, but if you’re going for creamy, why not go whole hog?

We were starting to get down to the bulb portion of the squash, so there are a few funny pieces in there. It doesn't matter, so long as there's a full layer.

We were starting to get down to the bulb portion of the squash, so there are a few funny pieces in there. It doesn’t matter, so long as there’s a full layer.

She did the same thing with the potatoes, then repeated each layer once more.

Little potatoes all nice in a row.

Little potatoes all nice in a row.

She used 2 potatoes and maybe a pound of squash (she’s estimating). The cream was whatever was left in the pint—about a cup, maybe a splash more. And the cheese was as much as we liked (but certainly enough to give a good covering to the veggies). Mama said she could have put some chopped sage in there, or steeped it in the cream, but she wasn’t feeling ambitious enough to walk outside to get some. (Sundays are like that sometimes.)

Jude on Food: If you run out of one vegetable, substitute something else. No one will notice that the layers aren’t exactly the same because they’ll be too busy eating. That’s why this dinner is so easy!

Before shaving cheese on the top layer, Mama gently pressed everything down. She said that making sure the layers are flat will help with the baking, and it will also help distribute the cream. She ended up adding a bit more cream because she said you want to be sure the top-most pieces are in moisture (though not swimming in it).

Then she shaved more cheese on top, covered it with foil, and put it in the oven, where it sat for a good hour. Remember what I said about gratins being creamy? Well, keep it in the oven until the vegetables are so soft, you could cut even the center ones with a butter knife or spoon. The cream will be bubbling too (and very hot!).

This butter knife went into the veggies as if they were...well, butter.

This butter knife went into the veggies as if they were…well, butter.

Now comes the pièce de résistance. In a small bowl, Mama combined a couple spoonfuls of panko breadcrumbs (because that’s what had; we’ve used them before) with an equal amount of finely chopped nuts that she pulled from the freezer. She thought they might have been hazelnuts, but she said pecans or walnuts would have been equally good, so she wasn’t too concerned about it. She mixed in a couple pats of melted butter, sprinkled this on top of the gratin, then put it back in the oven until it turned golden, about 10 minutes.

Golden and delicious!

Golden and delicious!

To be honest, I really did find this gratin to be delicious. It was silky and flavorful, and I liked the added texture. It reminded me of my morning granola. But I was in a mood, so I decided I wouldn’t eat any until I was promised a ghost story with firefighters.

Love, Jude

Winter Squash-Potato Gratin

1 pound peeled and seeded butternut squash, thinly sliced
2 russet potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced (about 2 pounds)
1 cup heavy cream, half-and-half, or milk
1/3 cup grated or shredded Pecorino or Parmesan cheese (Mama used a rasp, or Microplane)
Salt & pepper
2–3 Tbsp breadcrumbs or panko
2–3 Tbsp finely chopped nuts (hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans)
1–2 Tbsp butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Arrange the sliced squash on the bottom of a 2-quart glass baking dish (square, oval, or round), slightly overlapping. Season with salt and pepper, then sprinkle  cheese over. Drizzle heavy cream so that most of the squash slices have some moisture on them.

Repeat the layer using the potatoes. Then repeat each layer one more time. (If you don’t want your hands to be all cheesy, don’t add the cheese until after you do the next step.) Press down on the top layer to ensure the slices are flat and are touching cream. Add more cream if necessary. Sprinkle with a final bit of cheese.

Cover with foil and bake until the innermost vegetables are perfectly soft, 50–60 minutes. Meanwhile, combine the breadcrumbs, nuts, and melted butter. Sprinkle on top of the vegetables, then return to the oven, uncovered, until golden, about 10 minutes.

Allow to rest 15 minutes or so to allow the dish to come together a bit.

Note: You may certainly start with the potatoes and end with the squash. If you don’t want to add nuts to the topping, replace them with more cheese! Finally, the amounts of everything are approximate. Use enough veggies to cover 1 layer and enough cheese & cream to cover that. Finally, you can make this the night before, keep it in the fridge, then bake it the next day.


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A pie for all seasons

Mama likes to add the word “pie” to certain things. She thinks this will get me to eat them…and she’s often right. There’s tomato pie, for instance. And now I’ve been introduced to the “pot pie.” Specifically, a tiny little Jude-size pie filled with all kinds of savory yumminess.

Don't you just want to dig in?

Don’t you just want to dig in?

When Mama decides to make pot pies, she makes single-serving ones, and she makes two versions: a veggie one for herself and a chicken one for Papa (and I suppose me). While it seems like a lot of work—and it does take a few hours, or in our case, two nights after work—once the pot pies are done, they freeze well, and you’ll have 8 dinners on tap. Mama makes a few alterations to the recipes, and she has a couple tips for making both recipes at the same time.

First, make the dough for both. It’s easy enough to make one batch, then the next. The bits of dough left on the blade of the food processor after batch 1 aren’t going to affect batch 2, so don’t even bother cleaning it. (You could also make both batches together, if your food processor can handle the volume.) Wrap the dough disks and let them chill in the fridge. Mama says that’s so they can relax before we roll them. She also uses all butter, rather than half shortening.

Second, chop all your vegetables together. Even though you need chopped onions for the chicken pie and sliced onions for the veggie one, you can still prepare the onions all at once. Get your crying out of the way, Mama says. (Whatever that means.) Look over the recipes to see what can go together, and set out the appropriate bowls or containers. For example, for the veggie pie, the fennel and the onions go into the pot together, so Mama sliced them and set them aside in one bowl. Ditto the carrots, asparagus, and squash.

This is the veggie filling. Papa nicked some for a snack before Mama could finish making her pies.

This is the veggie filling. Papa nicked some for a snack before Mama could finish making her pies.

Third, both recipes make 8 larger pies, or about a dozen of the smaller ones. When you roll the dough, you probably won’t be able to get all 8 out of the first roll.

Turn a pie tin over onto the dough and cut the circles a little larger than that.

Turn a pie tin over onto the dough and cut the circles a little larger than that.

Gather the scraps, gently smoosh them together, and set the wad aside. Prepare as many pies as you have crusts for while the dough relaxes again. (Mama showed me how it just springs back to a little circle when you try to roll it again right away.)

This is a freshly rested disk of dough. It’s such a lovely, stretchy dough that even I could roll it fairly easily (though Mama did help).

This is a freshly rested disk of dough. It’s such a lovely, stretchy dough that even I could roll it fairly easily (though Mama did help).

As for the recipes, Mama skipped the Pernod in the veggie recipe, and it goes without saying that she used homemade veggie stock instead of chicken. And instead of par-cooking the veggies in water, she does it in the stock. You not only get extra-flavorful veggies, she says, but the stock gets an added boost, as well. Start with about 3 cups stock for the veggie version.

Don’t scrimp on the saffron. It’s a pricier spice, but Mama suggests going to an ethnic market, where items like this are often more reasonably priced.

Don’t scrimp on the saffron. It’s a pricier spice, but Mama suggests going to an ethnic market, where items like this are often more reasonably priced.

For the chicken pie, Mama didn’t pour in all 5 cups stock at once when she finished the sauce. It can get a little soupy, so she started with a quart and gauged what the thickness was like before proceeding.

This is the chicken filling. Fill one pie to see how much you want it filled, then stick with that amount for each pie. While the dough rests before its second re-roll, go ahead and egg-wash the rims of the pie plates and finish the pies.

This is the chicken filling. Fill one pie to see how much you want it filled, then stick with that amount for each pie. While the dough rests before its second re-roll, go ahead and egg-wash the rims of the pie plates and finish the pies.

The dough stretches a little bit, but not too much. It fits nicely over the bitty pot pie. Once the rims are egg-washed, it’s a matter of laying the dough on top and crimping the edges shut.

The dough stretches a little bit, but not too much. It fits nicely over the bitty pot pie. Once the rims are egg-washed, it’s a matter of laying the dough on top and crimping the edges shut.

Don’t forget to egg-wash the top, cut steam vents in the dough, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Mama says that’s the best part.

Don’t forget to egg-wash the top, cut steam vents in the dough, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Mama says that’s the best part.

To freeze, Mama covers the pies in both plastic wrap and foil. She sets them on a baking sheet and places them in the freezer that way. Once frozen, then she puts them in a ziptop plastic bag for storage. To bake, she puts them on a baking sheet in a 375°F oven, with the foil on, for half an hour to get the insides heated, then uncovers them for the final 45 to 60 minutes, to get the crust golden and flaky. To serve, Mama cooks brown rice or quinoa, but she says any grain would be a lovely addition. She likes to flip the pie over into a bowl of quinoa and mix it up that way. That sounds kind of yucky, though. And I don’t really like quinoa. But I do like these little pot pies.

I like it!

I like it!

Love, Jude


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Soporific Squash

You know I enjoy squash (because it’s orange). Mama tends to keep it simple—roasted and added to other things, like risotto, or mashed with sweet or savory flavors. Since squash is still so abundant right now, she tried something a little new, something that combines her two primary methods for cooking it.

First, Mama halved and seeded 2 acorn squash, smeared some olive oil on the cut sides, then sprinkled salt and pepper over them. She put them on a baking sheet, covered them with foil, and roasted them at 450ºF until they were soft and starting to caramelize, about half an hour.

In the meantime, she sautéed half a chopped onion and half a pound of finely chopped cremini mushrooms in a bit of olive oil, stirring occasionally. Somewhere along the way she added the leaves off a few sprigs of thyme and some salt and pepper. When the mushrooms and onion were tender and browned, she added 1 cup rice (she happened to have basmati on hand, which is easy enough) and sautéed that for a couple minutes to give the rice a nutty flavor. Then, just when the pan seemed like it was about to dry out, she added 2 cups homemade vegetable stock (chicken stock also would have worked). She brought it all to a boil, covered it, then reduced the heat and simmered it until the rice absorbed the liquid and was tender, about 20 minutes. You might recognize this as the pilaf method, and it sure makes for some tasty rice.

When everything was cooked, Mama carefully spooned the flesh out of the squash shells and added it to the skillet of rice and mushrooms. She said if she wanted to make it look fancy, she would have loaded up the shells with the mixture, but as it was just us, she glopped a big ol’ portion on our plates. (This is why there’s no picture. You probably wouldn’t want to eat it either.) Then she grated some Parmesan on top.

I was reticent at first, because this didn’t look like any squash I’ve eaten before, but Mama reminded me about my “no thank you” bite. I’m sure glad she did, though, because this was quite tasty! The roasted squash flavor was subtle, and the rice gave it body and texture. I didn’t even mind the mushrooms, as I’m still hit or miss on those. Mama ate this for dinner, along with steamed mixed veggies, and Papa and I added pork to our dinners. I really just wanted to eat the squash and the veggies, though.

I don’t know what else Mama might have snuck into that dish because after dinner, I went on the kitchen floor to play with my cars…and I didn’t get up. I fell fast asleep right where I played, much like those Flopsy Bunnies. I suspect Mama might be giving me the squash again tonight….

To be fair, I refused to nap today, so that might have played a part in my passing out.

To be fair, I refused to nap today, so that might have played a part in my passing out mid-play.

Love, Jude


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It’s risotto night!

Full disclosure: I love orange foods.

Sweet potatoes, oranges, squash, mangoes …. if it’s orange, you can likely bet I’ll eat it. There have been many times when orange foods saved the day as the only thing I’d eat. (People often ask Mama where I get my “tan” from; she just says it’s “all that beta-carotene.”) My favorite is when Mama bakes acorn or butternut squash and sweet potatoes or yams and serves it mashed with butter, coconut milk, or coconut oil and cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and/or nutmeg. This preparation was one of the first things I could feed myself.

Mushrooms, though, are another story. I’ve had them, and I can’t say that I much care for them. Mama sautés them in olive oil and butter so they’re good and golden (she says the secret is in letting them alone and not seasoning them until they’re nearly done). Her “go to” mushroom is cremini, or “baby bella,” but I notice that she often uses shiitake and other funky fungi. She rarely uses white button mushrooms, and I can’t blame her as they just sound icky.

Tonight, Mama’s frying up some mushrooms and roasting butternut squash for her risotto. Some people think risotto’s complicated to make, but not Mama. She says it’s just a matter of timing and having everything ready to go. So the squash was already in the oven, and the mushrooms were sizzling on the stove, even before she chopped her onion. Mama also notes that a cook shouldn’t be a slave to the risotto, whatever that means. It must be a good thing because she has time to run around after me while it’s cooking. That said, she doesn’t let her risotto dry out. She keeps her stock hot, and adds it to the rice before it starts to stick to the pan. Risotto’s supposed to be creamy, without the addition of cream.

I’d be lying if I said I devoured it right off the bat. A baby gets to be finicky from time to time. But after a few bites of luscious, flavorful rice and sweet squash, Mama slipped a mushroom onto my spoon. And I ate it. The next one too. And the one after that. In fact, I had a small second helping of risotto. I had to dump it out of my bowl and onto the tray of my highchair in order to eat it, but sometimes that’s just the way it goes. You win another one, Mama.

Love, Jude

Butternut Squash and Wild Mushroom Risotto

(Mama makes her risotto “by feel,” so amounts are approximate)

½ medium butternut squash, peeled and chopped into ½”-1″ cubes

Olive oil, to coat

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 Tbsp (each) olive oil and butter

8-12 ounces assorted mushrooms, cleaned and sliced (or chopped)

1 quart (or so) chicken or vegetable stock

1 medium white or yellow onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 Tbsp (each) olive oil and butter

½-1 cup dry white wine (optional)

1 cup (or so) Arborio rice

Handful or 2 of baby spinach (optional)

Minced fresh sage (optional)

Parmesan cheese (wedge, not canned)

Preheat oven to 400°. Toss the squash in a shallow roasting pan or cookie sheet with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and roast until tender, 15-20 minutes. (Stir once during baking.)

Meanwhile, heat the Tbsp oil and butter in a small nonstick skillet over medium heat. Sauté the mushrooms until browned. Season with salt and pepper and remove from heat.

Bring the stock to a simmer.

Heat the 2 Tbsp oil and butter in a large frying pan (with sides) or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion, and cook until translucent, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and cook for about a minute. Add the rice and stir to combine. Let the rice cook a few minutes, stirring if necessary to prevent it from sticking or the onions from burning.

Add a ladleful of stock to the rice. (It will send up a cloud of steam!) Add the wine, if using. Now you just watch it, off and on, for about 20 minutes or so. Stir the rice and let it absorb the liquid—not all the way. You don’t want a dry pan. But dry enough. Add another ladleful of stock, stir, and keep an eye on it. Go make a salad or pour yourself a glass of the wine. If you really don’t want to be tied to the risotto, add 2 ladles of stock at a time.

Taste the rice. It should have an ever-so-slight bite to it. Then it’s done. (But if it’s completely soft, it’s not ruined.) Add your reserved mushrooms and squash, along with one more ladle of stock. (You might not use it all–or you might use more.) Throw in a couple handfuls of baby spinach and the sage, if desired. Grate the Parmesan over the pan (or use a Microplane), according to however much you like, and turn off the heat. Give it all a stir, give it a taste to adjust seasonings, and it’s done.

Note: Mama makes all kinds of risottos throughout the year. If you’re using vegetables (like sugar snap peas) or other foods (like shrimp) that cook very quickly, add them toward the end of the rice’s cooking time. You can also vary the kind of liquid you use, such as for a red wine risotto (which Mama has not given me, just so you know).