John Gorham's Fall Flavors

In his cookbook, the Toro Bravo chef shares the recipe for his coveted harissa-stewed butternut squash.

By Benjamin Tepler November 1, 2013 Published in the November 2013 issue of Portland Monthly

Line cooks at Toro Bravo loathe the fall—the dreaded season of butternut squash. Why? “We go through hundreds of pounds every month,” says owner John Gorham. “It tears up their hands.” Indeed, cleaving through the massive gourds’ brawny flesh and carefully slicing along their smooth curvature is likely to leave you with your first knife-borne blister. But when you tuck into this creamy, comforting harissa-stewed butternut casserole, you’ll forget such prepping pains. No surprise that it’s one of the top-selling dishes at Gorham’s Spanish-inspired Northeast Portland institution—and one of the simplest to make in his just-released cookbook, Toro Bravo: Stories. Recipes. No Bull.

The harissa is essential. Without this addictive Tunisian hot sauce, the recipe is a classic Southern squash casserole, similar to those Gorham’s grandmother made for him (though she opted for canned cream of mushroom soup as filling). Traditional Tunisian harissa—a fiery paste of red chiles, garlic, cumin, and coriander—is acceptable, but for something truly transformative, pick up a jar of the rose-petal variety. With subtle floral notes offsetting the North African chile heat and swirling layers of spice, it lends a bracing vibrancy to this sweet, decadent autumnal dish. Seek out your squash and remember: compared to Toro Bravo’s Sisyphean task, one butternut is a cinch.  

Harissa-Stewed Butternut Squash

(Serves 6–8)

1 butternut squash (2–3 lb)
4 tbsp butter
Salt and pepper
1 tbsp olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, sliced 1/8-inch thick
5 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 tbsp rose-petal harissa (or 1 tbsp regular harissa)
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
2/3 cup fresh sheep’s milk cheese (such as Miticrema) or fromage blanc

(1) CUT squash in half with a large, sharp knife, slice off skin, scoop out seeds, and dice into 1/2-inch pieces.
(2) HEAT two large sauté pans* over medium-high heat and drop 2 tbsp butter on each.
(3) SPLIT squash between pans as butter begins to brown, and season with salt and pepper.
(4) COOK
squash without touching for at least 3 minutes, or until brown and slightly charred.
(5) SPOON squash into one pan, turn off heat, and wipe out the other pan.
(6) POUR olive oil into empty pan, add onion and garlic, and sauté over medium-high heat, stirring regularly, until slightly browned, about 2 minutes.
(7) SPOON squash back into pan, add harissa and cream, stir to incorporate, and cook until tender when poked with a fork.**
(8) DIVIDE into two cazuelas or shallow baking dishes and scoop fresh cheese over top.
(9) BROIL 3–4 minutes, or until cheese is nicely browned.
(10) REMOVE from oven and serve immediately. 

*Check to make sure all of the squash will fit into one of the skillets before starting.
**At this point, the dish can be refrigerated and stored overnight.

Recipe adapted from Toro Bravo: Stories. Recipes. No Bull. By John Gorham and Liz Crain

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