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Two winter gratins: squash and leek, cauliflower and fennel

[I nearly forgot about this article, so with winter is coming to a close here in California…] Gratins are an excellent merging of comfort food and decadence. I mean, what do you do with leftover winter squash or root vegetables? Add cheese! Add cream! Bake until bubbly!

Members of the onion family, such as leeks and shallots, pair well with and add an aromatic dimension to dishes with starchy veg. What else is there to do? Would it overcomplicate things to top it all with nuts? Oh, no, not at all. But it is optional, if you wish.

winter squash gratin with leeksWinter squash gratin with leeks, topped with panko and almonds.

While clearing out the refrigerator at another time, I decided to do another gratin with cauliflower and fennel bulb. How did that turn out? Quite well, thank you very much.

Another fun variable is the cheese. Gruyère has a nice, strong nutty flavor, and great meltability. But if you want something milder, Comté is much more subtle, yet still pleasantly nutty. I’ve also tried a very sharp Cheddar, where the flavor was awesome, but because it doesn’t quite melt as smoothly as Gruyère or Comté, its oil separated somewhat from the curds during baking.

All in all, the results were a kind of hybridization between a Chowhound recipe and a Epicurious recipe. Also, in the future, I might try using carrots or beets.

The Gratin, winter squash & leek variation

  • 3 to 3 1/2 pound winter squash (e.g., Kabocha, Butternut, Kuri), seeds removed, peeled, and cut into 1/4 inch slices — about 6 cups total.
  • 3 cups leeks, pale and tender green parts thinly sliced, about 1 1/2 pounds.
  • 1/2 cup shallots, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seed
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, marjoram, tarragon, or savory (fresh is fine, just double the amount)
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped
  • 4 ounces shredded Gruyère, or similar cheese
  • salt and pepper
  • olive oil, or melted butter (or a mix thereof)
  • 1 to 1 1/4 cups heavy cream, warmed, with 1/4 teaspoon salt stirred in.

The Gratin, cauliflower & fennel variation

Pretty much the same, but removing the squash, leeks and shallots, and instead using:

  • 2 to 2 1/2 pound cauliflower, chopped into 1 to 1 1/2-inch florets.
  • 3/4 to 1 pound fennel bulb, thinly sliced into half rings
  • 3/4 to 1 pound onion, thinly sliced into half rings

The Optional Topping (but you really should)

  • 3/4 cup panko (dried breadcrumbs)
  • 1/3 cup chopped nuts, such as cashews, almonds or pistachios
  • 1 ounce shredded Parmesan Reggiano, or any pleasantly strong dry cheese.
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons melted butter
  • a pinch of salt, unless the butter is salted


  1. Preheat oven to 400ºF degrees. Mix the topping ingredients and set aside until step 6.
  2. Toss the squash slices with a tablespoon or two of olive oil, until lightly coated.
  3. Sauté the leeks and shallots in olive oil until translucent. Stir in the coriander and thyme, then season with salt and pepper.
  4. Arrange the layers in a casserole dish (I used a 9-inch square, 3-inch deep one) first with a layer of squash (about a third), then half of the leeks-shallots, followed by half of the shredded Gruyère. Repeat with the rest of the gratin ingredients, ending — er, topping it off — with a layer of squash.
  5. Slowly pour the cream over the gratin. Try to moisten all of the squash pieces on top.
  6. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, covered, until the squash are tender. Remove the cover and add the topping, then bake for another 15 to 20 minutes until the top has browned.
  7. Allow to cool for about 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

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