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Cheesy Squash Brassicas.

Tara O'Brady/The Globe and Mail

Neither of my sons are drawn to cooking. They are too “busy” with other things, just as I was equally too busy with other things at their ages.

Both have a curiosity of what is happening in the kitchen, poking into the full pots and pans on the stove, or calling out predictions of what’s for dinner from some corner of the house, hypotheses from drifting scents alone.

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Still, that proximity to cooking is complemented by practical lessons. I engage them with foundational recipes regularly, to experience the way one technique builds on another through application, rather than a lecture.

For instance, this easy vegetable bake, a squash-and-broccoli-bolstered version of cauliflower cheese, illustrates how to make a roux, how to turn a roux into a béchamel, and how a béchamel becomes a Mornay sauce. Spoiler: You add cheese. In a departure from tradition, the vegetables are roasted before they’re baked with that Mornay. While this is a key skill for any student, it also makes evident the variables of how a vegetable will cook, and the importance of all of our senses when determining doneness cues.

As a boon, this step of roasting makes for a more triumphant result. There is no worry of the vegetables not being fully cooked (a pitfall of similar gratins), the colours are brighter, and the flavours more assertive while the whole is still a study in comfort. It all just adds right up.

Some notes to share before class begins. For the dairy, the liquid can be milk, half-and-half, table cream, heavy cream, or any combination thereof, as your mood and refrigerator contents dictate. Of course, the richness of the result will vary. Acorn squash is the reliable choice here, but half-moons of delicata, chunked kabocha, butternut, or butterkin are welcome to attend. In regards to time management, the schedule looks like this: Set the vegetables to roast. In between intervals of flipping and shuffling, steep the milk. As the vegetables come out, make the sauce, and it should be finished right at assembly time. For bonus points, tuck the seeds from the squash, washed and salted, on a small tray as the casserole bakes, tossing occasionally. There’s your garnish, or snack for later.

I serve this with a crunchy salad of all the bouncy lettuce leaves I can find, sneaking in frisée, escarole, or endive for essential bitterness. And be sure to have a rustic, crusty boule or chestnut-toned baguette for sopping up any straggling sauce on plates.

Alternatively, this could be a side to a simple roast pork. Or, keep with the one-pan presentation and bulk up with white beans tucked in the bottom of the dish, par cooked meatballs, or a spoonable pasta – consider orzo, rigatoni, or Israeli couscous, cooked al dente before the bake.

Squash and brassica cheese

Serves 6 to 8

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  • Olive oil, for roasting
  • 1 acorn squash, about 1 pound
  • 1 small head cauliflower
  • 2 bunches broccolini or 1 head broccoli, trimmed into leggy stalks
  • Medium-grain kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 bunch kale of any sort, stemmed and torn into large pieces
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 3 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 2 shallots, sliced thinly
  • A handful fresh thyme sprigs
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried chili flakes
  • Scant 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 3 ounces gruyère, finely grated
  • 2 ounces aged cheddar, finely grated

Options to serve

  • Roasted seeds from the squash
  • Toasted breadcrumbs
  • Herb oil or pesto thinned with oil
  • Chili oil or hot sauce
  • Preheat an oven to 425 F, with racks in middle and lowest positions.

Lightly coat a pair of half sheet pans or rimmed baking sheets with olive oil. Cut the squash in half through the stem end. Scoop out seeds, or have a helper do it. Cut each half in quarters and trim any stem. Arrange one sheet pan. Remove only the toughest core from the cauliflower, then cut into wedges, six to eight, depending on the size of the head. Arrange on the second sheet pan. Scatter the broccolini around both. Drizzle all with more olive oil, season well, and rustle around to coat. Arrange squash and cauliflower pieces so cut sides are down.

Roast in the hot oven for 12 minutes. If any veg is already charred and tender, remove to a large baking dish. Shuffle and flip those remaining. Return tray to the oven and cook for 10 minutes more. Check again, shuttling barely soft, bronzed pieces off to the baking dish as they are ready. The aim is for the broccolini and cauliflower to be at the edge of supple but retaining their shape. The squash will take the longest, and should acquiesce to the tip of a knife. Continue to roast any stragglers, adding the kale to the pan for the last five minutes. Tuck the vegetables snugly into the baking dish with the others. Leave the kale on the sheet pan.

Lower the heat to 375 F.

Pour the milk and cream into a medium saucepan. Stir in the garlic, shallots, thyme and bay leaf. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then turn the heat off and let stand for 15 minutes to infuse. Pluck out the bay leaf and thyme stems.

In a second, heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Scatter in the flour and cook, whisking constantly, for 2 minutes. Add a ladle of the hot milk mixture, still whisking. (This is a task for an older child, or a demonstration for a younger to watch.) Keep adding the hot milk in stages until fully combined. Continue to cook, stirring regularly, until the sauce comes to a boil and thickens, about 8 minutes. You’ve made a béchamel. Sprinkle in chili flakes and nutmeg, then season lightly. Stir in most of the cheeses in handfuls, letting each addition melt before adding the next, and saving 1/4 cup or so for garnish. Tell your assistant the béchamel has now transformed into a Mornay sauce. Roughly chop the kale and stir into the pan. Check again for seasoning.

Pour the Mornay over and around the roasted vegetables. Shower with the reserved cheese. Bake until bubbling, browned here and there, and the vegetables are fully cooked, 25 to 30 minutes.

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Let stand for 5 minutes before serving, garnished as you choose.

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