I love a good winter winter squash, but I don’t have many go-to recipes other than roasting one or making soup. For kabocha squash, however, neither of these is ideal.
What is a kabocha?
Developed in Japan, kabocha squash look like little pumpkins, except that they are usually pale to dark green. (I’m also aware of at least one orange skinned variety.) They are true winter squash, with excellent keeping quality. In fact, most kabocha squash need to cure for at least a month to reach their best flavor, and some varieties can last for six months or longer if kept somewhere cool and dry.
Like all vegetables, the particulars of flavor and texture will vary based on the varietal and conditions, but as a rule the flesh of a kabocha is distinctly drier, firmer, and starchier than that of a butternut or acorn squash. A properly ripened kabocha is also exceptionally sweet and flavorful.
A gratin in search of a squash
To me, the quintessential gratin is made with potatoes. A beautiful alchemical reaction takes place when you bring together thin-sliced potatoes, rich cream, and the layer of cheese on top. It’s intuitive that simply substituting winter squash would recreate this magic.
The problem is that butternut or acorn squash simply don’t have enough structure. After a long, slow baking they will completely fall apart. The resulting gratin will still be delicious (if you absolutely can’t find a kabocha, please try this recipe with a butternut) but it will not have the distinct layer that make a gratin so special.
Kabocha squash, on the other hand, behaves more like a russet potato, yielding distinctive layers with dots of cream throughout. Add in some sautéed onions and cheddar cheese and you have a new take on a classic preparation.
Tips and tricks
I’ve put down thirty minutes of prep time, but this recipe requires a good bit of knife work, from slicing onions to preparing the squash, so your time will vary. If you have a food processor with the slicer attachment – the one where you feed the veggies in through the top – you can use that to speed things up.
The recipe calls for cheddar cheese only because it strikes me as a good complement for winter squash. Comte or a mild gruyere would also work beautifully. You can double the recipe and bake it in a 9 x 13 rectangular dish if you’re feeding a crowd.
Kabocha Squash Gratin
- 9" pie dish
- 22 oz kabocha squash, peeled About 5 cups when sliced as directed
- 1 medium onion
- 1 tbsp butter
- 1 ½ cups heavy cream
- ⅓ tsp salt
- 4 oz medium cheddar cheese
- 6 sage leaves
- Preheat oven to 350° Mince the sage leaves, and slice onion and saute it with butter. Cook until they just begin to caramelize around the edges.
- While the onion is cooking (don't forget to stir it occasionally) remove seeds and peel from squash. Slice ⅙" or thinner. You can use the slicing attachment of a food processor to speed up this process, but I usually use a good chef's knife.
- In a bowl mix sliced squash, heavy cream, and salt. Stir thoroughly to coat the individual pieces of squash.
- Slice or great the cheese. To assemble the gratin, first put a quarter of the squash into the pie dish and spread it into a single layer. Spread half of the onions, then another quarter of the squash, then half the cheese. Repeat. You should finish with the second layer of cheese on top, but don't worry if you mix things up. It will be delicious.
- Pour any remaining cream over the top of the assembled gratin, put on a baking sheet to catch any drips, then tent loosely with tinfoil. Don't worry about getting a tight seal, but you want to be careful not to let it touch the surface of the gratin.
- Bake for one hour, carefully remove the tinfoil, then bake for another 30 minutes.