Sweet Potato and Squash Gratin

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Happy New Year! I hope you’re all feeling as rejuvenated as I am as we enter into 2015. Although I will admit that the main reason for my newfound energy lies mainly within the pages of four new cookbooks (four!).

The last week of our time at home was spent relaxing, playing games, and eating (of course). A couple days before New Year’s, my parents and Emma decided that in order to live 2014 to its fullest, we all had to climb Sobrano’s in Big Sur, or, as I think of it, The Real Mt. Everest. Oh, and we had to do it at sunset, despite the fact that once the sun goes down, it’s basically a night hike all the way back down. Jonji and I grudgingly agreed in the end, and so we drove up to Big Sur on a sunny but viciously windy Tuesday. The start of the hike wasn’t too bad, with trees to shelter us and a very mild incline. After about 600 meters, however, the path decided to turn sharply upward, therefore making the climb more of an endless walking lunge. My back began to ache, after so many deadlifts in the gym in the past couple days, and so Jonji ended up basically pushing me up the entire mountain. Once we got a bit higher, the icy wind that surely came from nowhere but the coldest, highest place in the world, tore at us with a vengeance. After struggling up the almost vertical, sandy hillside, we finally reached our destination: a bench in an outcropping of rocks, which was perfect for watching the setting sun. We huddled together on the bench, eating snacks, shivering, and hoping the wind would abate. My face was so numb I could barely speak. With still roughly half an hour left before the sunset, we decided that getting hypothermia wasn’t really that worth it. The climb back down was much faster than the ascent, and we paused halfway down to watch the glowing orange sun dip beneath the horizon line. Mom got overly excited when we saw a couple whales breaching, and made sure we all stopped to look at them every time we paused on the walk down. By the time we were nearing the bottom, it was almost completely dark. Reaching the car had never felt like such a victory. Our feelings of accomplishment and comfort were a bit lost when we realized we had to sit in traffic of unknown origin for almost the entire ride home. The night ended with dinner at Mom and Dad’s (where the Pine Nut Relish made another delicious appearance) with PK, Naveen, Matt, and Bailey, which lightened all of our spirits after the crawling traffic.

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Jonji and I celebrated New Year’s Eve with drinks at West End Tap & Kitchen with Bailey, Heather, Lucas, and Matt—perhaps a quiet affair for most people our age, but which was a pretty adventurous night for us. We ended the evening at Bailey and Matt’s place, and left before 11:30. Like I said, very adventurous. I was waiting for sleep to hit me when midnight struck, and the only reason I knew was because some neighboring kids decided to hit a bunch of metal pans together all the way down the street. Such a lovely lullaby.

We headed back home on Saturday morning, with Kitty tucked safely inside her carrier and the car packed to bursting once again. That day also happened to be our three year anniversary, which meant that the drive was just a good opportunity for some quality time—that’s what Jonji said, anyway. We finally reached home and unpacked, then decided to go out to dinner at our favorite Thai place nearby, where I got some marvelous pumpkin curry. It felt good to be home, mainly because it’s so nice not having to live out of one small room, but I will miss being at the OG home with the family.

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As Jonji started school on Monday and I don’t start until next week, I’ve been able to get some projects done that I’ve been sitting on for some time. For example, I finally got to start a little garden. I visited a nearby nursery yesterday morning and, feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the plants, proceeded to ask a man there, “How much are the small potted herbs?” only to hear, “I actually don’t work here.” Cringe to the max. I finally found someone who did work there, and ended up with three new herbs, parsley, thyme, and sage, and some potting soil. Since I had my hands full with the herbs, a small man (who actually worked there) carried the potting soil to my car. Unfortunately for him, I had parked almost as far as was possible, since it was trash day on that street. I realized halfway down the street that he was speaking Spanish and I English, but our conversation was still working. It crossed my mind that I could try some of my high school Spanish skills, but thought that I had made enough of a fool of myself at that nursery for one day. We finally reached the car, and he asked, “Aqui?” to which I answered, “Yep, right here!”

Back at home, I realized I had neither gloves nor even a small shovel. I do, however, have two hands, so I put on some old gym shorts, old Reeboks, and an old tank top, all of which ended up being either pink or red, and got to work. I repotted several succulents, a Christmas present from Mom and Dad, and then repotted our baby lemon tree from Pat and Taz. I had one more succulent to go, with no more pots to put it in. In a burst of creativity, I went inside and found a can of tomatoes, which I emptied into another container. Taking the empty can, I punched a hole in the bottom with some scissors and, boom, I had a new pot. I love when things work out so perfectly. Lastly, I repotted the herbs, reaching shoulder deep into the bag of potting soil and actually rather enjoying it. Once I was finished, I watered them all and then happily stood back to admire my handiwork. I forgot how satisfying gardening was—the last time I gardened was when I was in elementary school and decided to start a vegetable garden out back. All throughout the rest of the day, I kept going to the window and looking out fondly on my little plants. If they survive, I’m going to go get some more. I know that my herb garden won’t be able to keep up with my cooking needs, but at least I’ll have them out there for when I’m in a pinch.

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I have another niece! Don’t worry—another cat niece. My family has started this new tradition of getting new cats whenever I go back to LA, so to cope with the jealousy I just send them adorable pictures of my own cat every day. Bailey’s new kitty, a one-year-old named Svati who looks like a fluffy panda, arrived yesterday. Bailey sent us a photo of Svati huddled under the couch as, I assured her, new cats are wont to do when they first arrive at a new house. Soon after I sent a photo of Kitty stretched out in the sun.

One of my resolutions for 2015 is to expand my knowledge of vegetable recipes—my mom has always said that she became a good cook when she was a (semi) vegetarian because it made her try harder to make everything taste good. Although I am not about to drop meat and join the vegetarian club, I do think that making vegetables exciting is harder than doing the same with meat. So, to start off the new year, here’s one of my all time favorite vegetarian side dishes. Don’t skimp on the butter and cream—that’s what makes it so ridiculously good!

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Sweet Potato and Butternut Squash Gratin
serves 6

4 tbsp unsalted butter
1 medium shallot, diced
1.5 cups heavy cream
10 sprigs thyme, leaves removed and stems discarded
10 sage leaves, 6 of them finely chopped
1.5 tsp salt
freshly ground pepper (if you’re using pre-ground pepper, use 1/4 tsp)

2 medium yams, peeled
1 medium Japanese sweet potato, peeled
1 small or medium butternut squash

parmesan cheese

First, make the cream sauce. Heat a small saucepan or pot over medium heat. Add the butter and, once it foams, add the shallot. Cook until the shallot becomes translucent, about a minute. Add cream, sage, thyme leaves, salt, and several grinds of pepper. Stir and then let cook until it starts to foam, which takes a couple minutes. Once the cream sauce boils, turn off heat and let sit while you cut the potatoes.

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Cut each sweet potato in half lengthwise. Slice horizontally along each half, trying to achieve 1/8 inch slices (the thinner the better). Repeat until all potatoes and the squash are cut likewise. Do not rush this step! It will turn out better the thinner and more uniform the slices are. If you’re confused on how to cut them so thin, just ask my dad: he’s the master.

Take out a 9 x 12 inch glass or ceramic baking dish. Arrange the first layer of potatoes on the bottom of the dish, making sure to overlap each line of potatoes (it will end up looking like fish scales). Pour about 1/3 cup of cream sauce over the potatoes and then grate enough parmesan cheese on top of that to lightly cover the layer.

Repeat above steps until you have achieved 3 – 4 layers, or you have used up all the potatoes and squash. Pour any remaining cream sauce over the top and grate more parmesan to cover. Cover pan tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake for another 30 minutes. Prick with a fork to make sure the potatoes are soft through all the layers.

Serve warm and enjoy!

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One thought on “Sweet Potato and Squash Gratin

  1. Pingback: Hearty Beef Stew | feast

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