Gentle reader, please don’t let the lengthy list of ingredients for this family recipe scare you away. This sneaky casserole, from chef Rich Mead of Farmhouse at Rogers Gardens in Corona del Mar, is like a Russian nesting doll. It actually contains four mini recipes, all of which can be made ahead – and even used to create other dishes.
All of Mead’s cooking is inspired by the relationships he develops and the food he finds at local farmers markets. He hangs out at the Santa Monica Farmers Market on Wednesdays and the one in Hollywood on Sundays, and he has some great tips for farmers-market shoppers.
First, you could go with a plan, but that isn’t entirely necessary. Mead says you can always throw all the veggies into a soup. “It’s going to taste good if you use chicken stock,” he laughs.
To find the best stuff, walk around, talk with the farmers and taste what’s on display. “You’ll see things that are cut up and ready to taste,” says Mead, “and that’s part of the whole fun of going to these markets is getting involved with the food.” The relationships you’ll build will pay off, and the farmers won’t sell you anything but the best. Most also like to offer advice. “It’s important to ask questions and learn,” Mead advises.
As you shop, keep in mind how many people you actually need to feed so that you don’t overbuy. “Even though you see a bunch of fun stuff, realize that next week there’s going to be a bunch of fun stuff there, too,” says Mead.
This recipe, which is on the Farmhouse dinner menu, is one way to capitalize on farmers-market bounty. Each component is best made ahead so that you can taste and adjust seasonings. The combined casserole can even be refrigerated for a day or so before the final baking.
Or you could roast the spaghetti squash, sauce it with your favorite marinara, and serve it like spaghetti. The caramelized onions make a nice garnish or topping for cheese toast. The butternut squash cubes are great in salads and the cauliflower béchamel can be used as a sauce for macaroni and cheese or as the base for vegetable soup garnished with croutons.
You can change the components of this family recipe as the seasons change, subbing in roasted carrots for the butternut squash, zucchini noodles for the spaghetti squash and any seasonal greens for the Swiss chard. You could also use sautéed broccoli or roasted Brussels sprouts, and sprinkle cooked sausage or bacon on top.
“A lot of what I do when I teach classes or create a recipe is try to inspire people to experiment,” Mead says. “There’s no limit to what you can try. When you’re cooking for people, it shows that you care for them, so usually everybody’s happy.”
Spaghetti Squash Gratin with Cauliflower Béchamel From Farmhouse
(Serves 6-8 as a main dish)
2 small spaghetti squash, enough to yield about 4 cups cooked 2 cups butternut squash, cut into 1-inch cubes
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 large onion
4 cups cauliflower florets
2 cups leeks, cleaned and sliced into rings
2 cloves garlic, plus 1½ teaspoons minced
6 cups vegetable stock or water
2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 cups Swiss chard, chopped into 1-inch pieces 1 pinch red pepper flakes
½ cup toasted bread crumbs
½ cup grated fontina cheese
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
Salt and fresh ground pepper
¼ cup chopped Italian parsley for garnish
Make-ahead components: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Split the spaghetti squash in half, scrape out the seeds, wrap each half with foil and place on a sheet pan. Toss the butternut squash cubes in 2 tablespoons olive oil, salt and pepper to taste. Spread on parchment paper on a separate sheet pan. Place both pans in the oven. Roast the butternut squash until it is soft and beginning to brown, about 30 minutes. Remove it from the oven, transfer to a bowl and allow to cool. Roast the spaghetti squash until soft, about 40 minutes. Remove from the oven and remove the foil to let cool before scraping the squash out of its shell. Can be made up to two days ahead and refrigerated.
Peel and julienne the onions, cutting them into thin strips. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat and add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, around 10-15 minutes. Set aside to cool. Can be made up to two days ahead and refrigerated.
Add the cauliflower florets, chopped leeks, 2 cloves of garlic and stock to a medium saucepan. Bring the contents to a rolling boil, then drop to a slow simmer and cook for 45 minutes, until the cauliflower and leeks are completely soft. Strain the contents of the saucepan, reserving about 2 cups of the cooking liquid. In a food processor, puree the cooked cauliflower, leeks and garlic.
Gradually add some of the reserved cooking liquid until you get a creamy and slightly thick consistency, like a creamy cheese sauce. Add the grated Parmesan to the mix while blending, then add salt and pepper to taste. Let cool. Can be made two days ahead and refrigerated.
To assemble: In a large sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat and add the garlic, pepper flake, onions, butternut squash and Swiss chard. Cook for about a minute, until the chard softens. Spread on a sheet pan and let cool.
Place the cooled spaghetti squash in a bowl and toss to separate the strands. Season with salt and fresh ground pepper. Add the chard mixture and toss together. Add 4 cups of the cauliflower béchamel and toss to incorporate. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Transfer this mixture to an oven-proof casserole dish. Top with the fontina cheese and bread crumbs and place on a sheet pan. Bake in a 350-degree oven until the mixture is bubbling and the cheese and bread crumbs are browned.
Garnish with chopped Italian parsley and serve immediately.