For whatever reason, Christmas is the holiday most often associated with show-and-tell memories. They can be broken down, these memories, into three basic movie categories: memories shown to you by chain-rattling ghosts, memories shown to you by guardian angels, and the surplus category known simply as Nicolas Cage. Thanksgiving too often gets the short end of the musket, even though its very name incorporates an act of gratitude brought on by reflection.
For our third Thanksgiving recipe we turn to Akhtar Nawab, chef of Elettaria in the West Village. Nawab’s food, though rooted in French and Italian technique, has also been crafted with memories. While he grew up in Louisville, Kentucky in the '80s (hello, Pac-Man), Nawab’s mother (“a terrific cook”) cooked what she knew best: classic recipes from Northern India. “I remember when I was growing up,” Nawab says, “my family didn’t quite get the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, so we would have Tandoori-style Cornish game hens with roasted onions and lime. They were really good.” For every corn pudding and dish of jiggly cranberry sauce in the Nawab’s Thanskgiving Day spread, there’d be a biryani.
Akhtar Nawab’s recipe is for a squash gratin layered with cream and parmesan cheese. However, that cream is infused with toasted green cardamom and Szechuan peppercorns. Szechuan pepper is available at Kalustyans, and you’ll want to be careful: Sprinkling a little extra on top of your gratin (as Pac-Man did) will numb your tongue into oblivion, and dim all the memories.
Butternut Squash Gratin
By Akhtar Nawab
2 butternut squash
1 pint cream
2 cups of grated Parmesan
1 whole nutmeg, toasted
2 teaspoons green cardamom, toasted and ground
2 teaspoons Szechuan pepper, coarsely cracked with the flat part of a knife
With a sharp knife, separate the butternut squash neck from the bottom, hollow part. Reserve the bottom for another use, like soup. Peel the squash and set aside.
Meanwhile, bring the cream to steaming point, add the toasted nutmeg, cardamom pods, and Szechuan peppercorns, and turn off the heat. Cover, steep for ten minutes, then strain.
Using a mandoline, slice the squash into 1/8” rounds. Place a layer of squash in a baking dish (a 13" x 9" x 2" rectangular pan should work), and spoon some of the spice infused cream over the first layer of squash. Scatter a small amount of cheese over the squash and spiced cream, making sure to season each layer with salt and pepper. Repeat the process until all the squash is used.
Cover gratin with foil. Place another baking dish of equal dimensions, and filled with pie weights, on top of the gratin. Put both baking dishes on a lipped sheet pan and bake at 350 degrees for about 90 minutes, but check for doneness after 60 minutes. Remove foil and sprinkle with cheese for the last ten minutes of baking. Let cool slightly before serving.