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if it were easy

Butternut Squash Tian

If it were easy to be thankful, if everyone ran around speaking of the very best things of life and how glad they are to be surrounded by those that surround them and how grateful they are for the food on their tables, we wouldn’t have a national holiday established around the sentiment. Intellectually, it’s not so hard — when prompted, we can name the things for which we are thankful. We have all heard or spoken a variation of the classic list, save one or two depending on circumstance: family, friends, employment, food to eat, health, a roof overhead. The words can be uttered easily enough. It’s the practice of giving thanks that catches us, I think; the practice is what we avoid and fight and don’t have time for and, at times, feel we just cannot carry out. When our days are simple and uncomplicated, we don’t make time for gratitude. When life is hard, the difficulty is all we see. Sometimes we need the reminder. Sometimes others have to see the goodness for us. Sometimes giving thanks takes all of the breath left in our lungs.

I want to say some days that yes, the sunset is beautiful, and yes, I do see all of the colors, brilliant colors, and I know they should make me gasp with wonder, but I cannot, I cannot, because life is murky or the future is uncertain or my heart hurts and I just want to crawl back into bed.

herbed crumbs

squash mixture

prepared squash

And yet, it is my responsibility, mine alone, to be thankful for my life. No one can be grateful on my behalf. And so I practice my list, making sure that it is honest and thoughtful and thorough, repeating it as often as I remember to do so, altering it accordingly as life shifts and ebbs and flows.

I am thankful for, among other things, the new coffee shop in my neighborhood, which opened right next to my preferred laundromat and will have, or so I hear, excellent baked things, and for the woman who runs said laundromat, because she is so very kind. I am thankful for strangers who welcome me with open arms, and for family and friends who continue loving me from afar. I am thankful for baking, for the way flour, sugar, butter, spices come together into cakes and breads and muffins, exceedingly trustworthy, reminding me that life operates the same way in time. I am thankful for the strength in my legs, which propel me on runs around and around the lake and on walks to the train and to the store. I am thankful, certainly, for all of you lovely people who come by to read my words, and for the kind things you say in response. And I am thankful, so so thankful, for the man who makes me laugh and holds me when I cry, buys me scones when I am sad, looks to the future with more hope than I can muster and keeps on choosing me even when I don’t deserve it, over and over and over again. (Thank you.)

Butternut Squash Tian

And I must say that I am also grateful for my iPhone and VSCO CAM, by which I bring you these photos today because my camera is giving me trouble, and for this dish, which would be an excellent addition to any Thanksgiving table. I haven’t decided if this will be my contribution this year — it is up against a butternut squash galette that’s positively divine. A difficult decision, I can assure you, because this tian is full of flavor, easy to prepare and quite pretty to boot. The herbed breadcrumbs, crisp from the oven, sit atop a silky mix of squash, a bit of rice, a grating of cheese and a couple of eggs, all perfectly seasoned. It’s wonderful.

As we plan menus and clean our homes and freeze freshly made pie crusts this weekend, may we also begin to give thanks. And may we be thankful all the year round.

Butternut Squash Tian

Butternut Squash Tian

Adapted from Rosa Jackson via The Kitchn

The original recipe calls for short grain or arborio rice; I have used brown rice (what I most often have on hand) with excellent results. Short grain or arborio rice will only need to be boiled for 10 minutes; brown and/or longer grain rice will need closer to 20 minutes. It should be softened but not fully cooked when you add it to the squash.

The breadcrumbs can be prepared in advance and kept in the refrigerator or freezer in an airtight container until needed. The tian itself can be prepared in advance as well. Follow the instructions below through the assembly of the tian, then cover and refrigerate for up to two days. Bring the dish to room temperature before baking as directed.

FOR THE HERBED BREADCRUMBS

1 cup dried breadcrumbs

1 large handful flat-leaf parsley leaves

5 – 6 large branches thyme or rosemary, stripped

2 cloves garlic, peeled

2 tablespoons olive oil

salt + pepper

FOR THE TIAN

2 – 2 1/2-pound butternut squash

1 tablespoon olive oil, plus additional for drizzling

1/4 cup rice

2 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated

2 eggs

salt + pepper, to taste

nutmeg, freshly grated

Make the herbed breadcrumbs. In a food processor, blend together the breadcrumbs, herbs, garlic and a bit of salt and pepper. Add the olive oil and continue blending until the breadcrumbs are soft and green, adding a little more oil if necessary. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease a 1 1/2 to 2-quart baking dish (such as a deep pie dish) with olive oil.

Peel and thinly slice the butternut squash. You should have approximately 1 1/2 pounds of flesh.

In a deep saute pan over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Place the squash in the pan, sprinkle with salt, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the squash softens and starts to disintegrate, about 20 to 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a small saucepan of salted water over high heat. When it boils, add the rice. Simmer for 10 to 20 minutes (shorter if you are using short grain or arborio rice; longer if you are using long grain rice), then drain and set the rice aside.

Place the cooked squash in a large bowl. Add the rice, Parmesan, about 1/2 teaspoon salt and generous dashes of pepper and nutmeg. Stir until combined, mashing with the back of a spoon or spatula to make a cohesive mixture. When cool, add the eggs, mixing them in quickly so that they don’t start to cook.

Pour the mixture into the prepared dish and top with the herbed bread crumbs and a generous drizzle of olive oil.

Bake for 35 minutes, or until set and slightly toasted on the top. Serve warm.

Yield: about 4 servings

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