Sometimes as we navigate our way through life, there are moments when life decides to throw us a curve ball. Whether it’s a job change, a new baby, or a dramatic change in health, these moments can become a catalyst for significant change in the way we do things. This happened in my life when my health took a detour into the wild, and I found that I had to completely change everything about how I approached food. Suddenly, almost every aspect of what I used to consider “normal” and “everyday” had to be changed. But somewhere in the process of walking that out, something interesting happened …
As I let go of those foods and customs that I once considered sacred and began to explore this uncharted territory that I found myself in, I didn’t try to simply replace foods that I had once loved with poor substitutions. Instead, I created a new way to love food. I explored flavors, textures, culture and creative baking. Somewhere along the way I forgot that I was having to eat differently than everyone around me and instead, just found myself enjoying the process of discovery that I was in. While this might sound overwhelming and a little daunting from the outside, I’ve found that when you are forced into situations where you have to adapt the way you have lived, you just take it one day (or meal) at a time and before you know it, you’ll have discovered things that you can’t imagine having ever lived without.
As an example, I give you this recipe. It’s a butternut squash au gratin made with cashew cheese and crispy shallots. It’s simple to prepare and incredibly savory and filling. It is a favorite around our house and never fails to please the hungry bellies of my family.
Dairy Free Butternut Squash Au Gratin with Crispy Shallots
1 pound of shallots (about 2 cups thinly sliced)
1/2 cup oil of choice for frying (I like to use organic Spectrum Palm Oil)
Approx 5 lbs of whole butternut squash (1 1/2 to 2 lbs once sliced)*
1 1/2 cups raw cashews
1 1/2 cups canned coconut milk, water or chicken broth.
4-5 roasted garlic cloves (instructions below)
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt, plus 1 tablespoon more for sprinkling
Fresh ground pepper for sprinkling
A little olive oil to brush on top of the au gratin
Note: *When buying butternut squash, it is best to buy ones that have a very long neck. This will help you get more full circles out of the squash. Often times I buy more squash than I need so that I have whole circles for the entire dish (saving the end ‘hollow’ pieces for a breakfast hash) However, it is fine to use the squash pieces with a hole in the center also.
Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees
Begin by peeling the butternut squash with a vegetable peeler. I use a strong stainless steel one since the outer skin can be quite tough.
Cut off the fat “hollow” end and very thinly slice the squash with a mandolin veggie slicer set on the 1/8 inch setting. (Mine is a cheap one from “Sharper Image” and it works just fine.) Set the squash aside.
Note: I like to pull out a some of the best squash slices for the top layer of the au gratin.
Using the mandolin veggie slicer or sharp knife, thinly slice the shallots.
Pre-heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat for 1-2 minuets then add the shallots to the oil. Gently fry for about 20 min. You want the shallots to brown SLOWLY. If the oil gets too hot and they start to brown too fast or unevenly, turn the heat down a little. Watch them closely.
Once the shallots are golden, remove them from the pan with a slotted spoon. Let them drain for a moment, then let them cool on a paper towel. Sprinkle with a little salt. They will become crispy as they cool.
Note: Crispy shallots can be made up ahead of time and stored in an air tight container fora few days and sometimes even longer. They are also a huge flavoring component to this dish.
Now you can put together the “cashew sauce.” This can also be done while the shallots are cooking as long as you can still keep an eye on them.
In a blender, add the cashews, coconut milk/water/broth, roasted garlic* and 1 tsp of salt. Puree until the mixture is creamy. Stop and stir as needed to keep it moving through the blender.
*To make roasted garlic in a pan, just take the cloves still in their paper and heat them in a pan over medium heat. Let them ‘roast’ this way for about 15 minutes, turning every so often to ensure even cooking. It’s ok for the paper to burn some. Remove from heat, let cool, then take off the paper skin.
To assemble the au gratin, spread about 1/4 cup of the cashew mixture on the bottom of a small 7 x 10 casserole dish. Then lay down your first layer of thinly sliced squash. The squash should overlap slightly, but not too much or you will not have enough to do all of the layers.
Spread another 1/4 cup of cashew sauce over the first layer. Sprinkle very lightly with coarse sea salt, cracked pepper and shallots evenly over this layer.
Repeat this for the rest of the layers until you run out of squash, finishing the top layer with the best squash slices of course.
Using a pastry brush, brush the top of the au gratin with a light layer of olive oil (or oil of choice). Sprinkle lightly with coarse sea salt and cracked pepper.
Bake in a pre-heated 375-400 degree oven for about 35-40 minutes or until the top is lightly browned and crispy in parts. If the au gratin doesn’t crisp to your liking, you can broil the top for few minutes.
This dish reheats well in a 375 degree oven for about 25 minutes.
Note: I use a 7 x 10 Le creuset casserole dish, If you want a larger au gratin you can double the recipe easily.