My All-Time Favorite Thanksgiving Dish: Almost a Meal on its Own
October 31, 2018
This delicious combination of butternut squash, caramelized onions and woodsy sage is my all-time favorite Thanksgiving side.The long cooking concentrates the already delicious flavor of the squash and you are left with a rich-tasting and elegant dish with very little added fat. In fact, this squash is so satisfying that you could almost serve it alone with turkey, rolls, and a kale salad and still have a complete Thanksgiving meal. In other words, it fits so many requirements of a holiday meal, that it is almost a meal by itself. It’s chock full of the quintessential Thanksgiving ingredients: squash, onion and sage. It’s rich enough to replace stuffing or potato gratin, elegant enough to be a showpiece, and special enough that it is a treat to have once or a few times a year.
That versatility is a good thing as this dish is somewhat labor intensive, but please don’t be scared away. The extra effort spent slicing the squash is more than repaid by the fact that all of the work is front-loaded. In fact, this dish can be completely assembled two days ahead of baking and even, baked, 24 hours in advance, leaving you plenty of time to do other last-minute tasks at crunch time. (And this is worth a lot when planning a gargantuan holiday extravaganza.) It is delicious both hot and at room temperature. (Oven space is always at a premium on Thanksgiving.) It is beautiful looking (my not too terrific photo aside) and could be the centerpiece of a buffet or sideboard. With a few simple tweaks, it can be either vegetarian or vegan (see Secrets for Success below.) Have I convinced you yet? I really hope so. Your efforts will be noticed by all. That I can promise.
Secrets to Success:
For the onions:
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Try to find a pan large enough to hold the onions in a single layer, or you can cook them in two separate pans.
Don’t forget to lift the lid and stir the onions every ten minutes or so to make sure that they are not burning.
Patience is key; it takes a long time to cook the onions to a caramel, deep brown.
Definitely turn down the heat if they are burning.
Caramelized onions are a terrific thing to have on hand. Make a big batch and keep them in the freezer for up to 3 months. Defrost before using.
Freeze them in freezer-safe containers or in ice cube trays. Finally, you can cover a tray with parchment. Dollop the onions on top, freeze hard, peel off the tray and store in a container.
To slice the squash (see photos):
Anchor your cutting board to the counter with a damp paper to prevent it from slipping.
Make sure your knife is good and sharp.
Peel the squash whole.
Where the bulbous end begins, cut the squash in half crosswise. (You will now have a long piece of squash and a second squat piece.)
Cut the stem off of each of them.
Cut each piece crosswise.
Cut the long pieces each in half lengthwise and thinly-slice.
Using a spoon, scoop out the seeds (these can be discarded or toasted like pumpkin seeds) from the squatter pieces of squash and cut the squash into cubes.
Use the cubes to make Farro with Butternut Squash and Kale (coming soon), Roasted Thanksgiving Vegetables (coming soon) or reserve for another use.
Use fresh sage if at all possible. The taste is better than dried and you will have a beautiful sprig for garnish.
Test the doneness of the squash with a paring knife. When fully-cooked, the slices should offer little resistance when pierced with the blade.
For the vegetarian or vegan version: use vegetable stock (vegetarian and vegan) instead of chicken stock and substitute olive oil for the butter (vegan.)
When using only oil, add a few pinches of sugar while you are caramelizing the onions as without the milk solids in the butter, the onions will need a helping hand for perfect caramelization.
Butternut Squash Gratin
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil plus additional for oiling the pan
2 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 large yellow onions, thinly-sliced (see Secrets For Success for tips on slicing the onions)
5 to 6 pounds of butternut squash, peeled, halved, seeds removed and cut into 1/8” slices (see Secrets to Success for tips on cutting the squash)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage or 2 teaspoons dried
1 teaspoon minced garlic
½ cup of good quality chicken or vegetable broth
salt and pepper to taste
In a 14-inch sauté pan or sauce pot with lid, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and a generous pinch of salt and black pepper and cook until slightly softened. Turn the heat to medium-low, cover, and cook the onions until golden, about 30-45 minutes, stopping every 10 minutes to stir and then recover the pan.
The onions can be made ahead to this point and frozen for two months or refrigerated for two days.
Preheat the oven to 375^F (350^F convection if you have it), and lightly oil a large pyrex or gratin dish. In a large bowl, toss the squash slices with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil, the chopped sage, the garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. Spread the onions in a single layer in the bottom of the prepared dish. Arrange the squash slices in tightly-packed rows, over the onions.
The dish can be prepared to this point 48 hours in advance of baking and refrigerated, covered. Bring to room temperature before proceeding. In addition, the dish can be baked up to 24-hours in advance, refrigerated, and reheated in a 300^F oven for 20-40 minutes until hot, before serving.
Pour in 1/2 cup broth (convection) or 1/3 cup (regular bake) and bake for 1 hour to 1 hour and 10 minutes, until squash slices are soft and slightly golden. During baking, add more broth if the dish appears to be drying out.
Serves 12 to 16.