This butternut squash and apple gratin belongs on your table

Joe Yonan

THE WASHINGTON POST – Every fall, I sample as many apple varieties at the farmers market as I can manage. My goal: Find the most flavorful, naturally – but also the absolute firmest, too. Nothing makes me sadder than biting into a mushy apple, and therefore nothing makes me happier than finding one so firm I worry, if only for a second, that I might damage a tooth in the biting. (I never have, thankfully.)

Ginger Gold is a perennial favourite, but FYI, for that teeth-pulling delight, I haven’t found an apple firmer than an Arkansas Black.

Along with everything else, farmers markets are different this year, with no sampling allowed (at least at any of the ones I visit). So, I’m glad to have a resource in Amy Traverso’s The Apple Lover’s Cookbook, which I loved in its first iteration a decade ago and have been happy to see updated. Traverso provides a guide to 70 varieties, categorising them as, say, “tender-sweet”, “firm-tart” and the like.

As much as I love eating apples out of hand, I also cook with them plenty, slicing them raw for slaws and salads and slipping them into sandwiches, roasting (or Instant Potting) them into applesauce, and baking them (naturally) into desserts. Are apples the most versatile fruit in the kitchen? Traverso’s more than 100 recipes make a good case.

When the new edition of her book crossed my desk, I was looking for something that could be substantial enough to eat as a vegetarian main course, and her Squash and Apple Gratin fits the bill.

It’s pretty simple: You bake butternut squash with cream and cheese (this is not a diet recipe) until it’s tender, briefly caramelise “firm-sweet” apples and onions in a skillet with a little rosemary, then combine the two under a shower of fresh breadcrumbs and broil until browned. I’ve tried it with those Ginger Golds, with my husband’s favourite Honeycrisps, even with good old Golden Delicious.

Whichever apple variety I’ve used, the result is rich and hearty, with lots of satisfying differences in flavour and texture – with the soft and nutty squash, the sweet and crisp-tender apple and that crunchy, garlicky topping. Like apples themselves, the dish is special enough to put on your holiday table, but its easygoing enough for dinner any night of the week.

SQUASH AND APPLE GRATIN

Active time: 45 minutes | Total time: 1 hour 15 mins

Four servings

Firm, sweet apples perfectly complement butternut squash in this hearty dish, while a crumbly top of garlicky breadcrumbs adds a savory crunch. Serve with a salad for a vegetarian main, or without as a side dish.

Make Ahead: The gratin may be baked, assembled, cooled and refrigerated, covered tightly, without the breadcrumbs for up to five days. Bake for 15 minutes to reheat, then add the breadcrumbs and broil before serving.

Storage Notes: Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to three days.

INGREDIENTS

One medium (1 1/2 pounds) butternut squash

Four ounces Gouda cheese (preferably smoked; may substitute vegan cheese of your choice), grated

Three tablespoons water

Two tablespoons heavy cream (may substitute coconut cream)

One teaspoon fine sea salt, divided

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided

Two medium (12 ounces) apples, preferably a firm, sweet variety such as Honeycrisp, Pink Lady or Golden Delicious

Four tablespoons unsalted butter (may substitute non-dairy butter, such as Earth Balance), divided

One medium (10 ounces) yellow onion, diced

Two teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary

Three ounces white bread, such as Pullman style or Italian, torn into small pieces

One garlic clove, chopped

1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

DIRECTIONS

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.

Peel the squash, use a sharp knife to cut it in half lengthwise, and scoop out and discard (or save for roasting) the seeds and stringy bits. Cut the flesh into 1/4-inch crescents and half-moons. In a large bowl, toss the squash with the cheese, water, cream, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Pour into a six-cup gratin or baking dish, cover tightly with foil, and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the squash starts to soften. Remove the foil and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes, or until the squash is fork-tender.

While the squash is baking, peel and core the apples, and cut them into 1/2-inch wedges.

In a large skillet over medium heat, melt three tablespoons butter. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until it softens and starts to brown, six to eight minutes. Add the rosemary, remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and cook until fragrant, about one minute. Add the apples and cook, stirring occasionally, until they soften and start to caramelise but hold their shape, firve to seven minutes. Spread the mixture evenly over the squash.

Set the oven to broil, and set a rack in the highest position that will allow the gratin dish to sit at least a few inches from the flame or element.

In a food processor, pulse the bread with the remaining one tablespoon butter, garlic and nutmeg to create coarse breadcrumbs. Sprinkle over the squash and apples. Broil, uncovered, until the topping is golden brown and crunchy, two to three minutes. Let rest for at least 15 minutes before serving.