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Simple Sides: A Fall Gratin

Image of Apple, Butternut Squash and Leek Gratin
By Dennis Linden

Competing schedules in the day-to-day lives of a busy modern family make it difficult to share a home-cooked meal together, but not impossible. In fact, with a little planning, cooking together can become a fun family event and learning opportunity. This feature will focus on providing a child or a group of children, working together under the supervision of an adult, with one uncomplicated, healthy and delicious side dish recipe. The dishes will be centered on seasonal fresh produce items; the recipes will always contain tasks will allow even the youngest kitchen helper to contribute to the family meal. Parents should always read through each recipe carefully to judge the division of labor based on age and ability as well as to identify where adult attention might be especially needed.
Image of recurring kids
Many of the recipes presented here will seem very basic -- this is by design. It is hoped that these simple preparations will provide the culinary foundation and confidence to inspire kids to try more challenging recipes as their experience in the kitchen develops. Melissa’s encourages parents to find the time to gather as a family unit at least once a week for a dinner that everyone pitches in to prepare. It’s a wonderful way to teach a child some basic culinary skills and, more importantly, cooking with your children will build memories in all of your hearts forever.

September brings shorter days and a nighttime chill to the air; both confirming that summer is officially finished. The good news is that the first new crop of apples, hard squash and fall veggies begin to take over retail produce departments, providing a new group of ingredients to celebrate the transition to the next season with delicious possibilities. Here’s a very simple and tasty Gratin recipe that your young kitchen assistants can help make for the family dinner, as a hearty side dish that pairs wonderfully with either chicken or pork. A Gratin is French in origin and is basically a casserole-like dish topped with a crust of either bread crumbs or cheese that is baked to a golden brown. For this version, Melissa’s convenient Cleaned & Sliced Leeks are sandwiched between layers of butternut squash and Gala apple slices, then covered with Parmesan cheese.

This recipe takes longer to cook (55 minutes) than it does to prepare and gives a child who is old enough the opportunity to practice his or her knife skills. A younger sous chef can contribute by measuring out the supporting ingredients, scooping the seeds out of the squash and maybe readying the apples for slicing with a potato peeler under adult supervision. The butternut squash, with its tough skin, also needs peeling; however, depending upon age and culinary experience of the kitchen crew, this job might be safer if done by the adult in the kitchen. Also the sautéing of the leeks needs to be closely supervised as this ingredient can burn quite easily.

One of the basic culinary lessons that should be underscored for the novice chef is the use of the apple cider and Italian parsley as flavor boosters to this dish i.e. anyone can bake a butternut squash, but it’s the choice of supporting flavors that distinguish a good cook from a better cook. In fact, to my surprise, I found a cider in my local market made entirely from Gala apples! While I do live in this most prolific apple-producing state in the country, it was a national brand, so look for it. Actually, the choice of apple variety might vary based on availability in different parts of the country in this early part of the harvest season. Galas are the first major new-crop variety of the new season to be harvested in western states; while in the eastern part of the country a McIntosh might be readily available and will work just as well.

BTW, you could start this recipe using whole leeks and direct your young kitchen crew in the multiple rinsing and draining required of this very sand-laden vegetable; then there’s peeling, trimming and slicing. However, chances are that young eyes are going to start rolling with boredom about halfway into this very tedious task. Also, since the outer layer and green top portion is thrown away, there is almost as much waste as there is useable vegetable! Conversely, a package of Melissa’s Cleaned and Sliced Leeks containing only the edible parts of the vegetable carefully sliced into pieces ready for the sauté pan, is more suited to a child’s short attention span while eliminating waste completely. There will be plenty of kitchen time in the future to learn how to properly prepare a whole leek from scratch; right now the focus should be to instill culinary curiosity while avoiding monotonous tasks that could dampen enthusiasm. Enjoy the process together!

Apple, Butternut Squash and Leek Gratin
Serves: 4
Image of Ingredients

1 lb. Butternut squash, peeled, seeded, halved and sliced cross-wise
1 lb. Gala apples, peeled, halved, cored and sliced cross-wise
3 Tbsp. olive oil, separated
1 pkg. Melissa’s Cleaned & Sliced Leeks
½ cup apple cider
3 Tbsp. Fresh Italian Parsley, chopped
1 tsp. ea. Salt and Pepper
¾ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

What the kids can do:
Image of sliced apples and squash
Prepare the squash and apples, set aside.
Image of sauteed leeks
Under adult supervision, heat 2 Tbsp. of oil over medium heat in a large sauté pan. Add leeks and 2 Tbsp. water; season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until leeks begin to brown just slightly. Add cider and parsley, then cook until all the liquid is absorbed. Set aside.
Image of arranging ingredients in baking dish
In a 2-quart shallow baking dish, coated with cooking spray, arrange the squash slices in an overlapping layer; season with salt and pepper. Then spread the cooked leeks evenly over the squash.
Image of brushing apples with olive oil
Arrange apples in an overlapping layer over the leeks. Brush apples lightly with the remaining Tbsp. olive oil. Cover tightly with aluminum foil. Bake 45 minutes @ 350°.
Image of sprinkling cheese over the top
Uncover and sprinkle the cheese over the top. Raise the oven temperature to 450° and bake 10 minutes or until the cheese has melted into a golden brown. Let cool 10 minutes before serving.
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