“They’re never going to tell you how they make it,” my friend Anne taunted in a devilish whisper as I forked up my first bites of the “world famous” butternut squash casserole at Cowgirl BBQ (319 S. Guadalupe St., 505-982-2565). We were sitting at a picnic table on their popular patio nearly two decades ago, and despite having a slight phobia of cream-of-something-based casseroles from my childhood, I followed her advice and ordered it. Anne understood the greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts black magic of the dish, had tried to finagle the recipe from every employee she knew, and figured — rightly — that I’d want to know the secret, too.
The casserole’s brief ingredient roster purportedly includes only four items: roasted squash, caramelized onions, Monterey Jack cheese, and breadcrumbs. Altogether, though, it conjures a complexity that walks a tightrope between filling comfort and nutritious virtuosity — just the sort of balance you need in the early weeks of a new year, when resolutions have been made but not yet broken and the frigid midwinter blues are exercising their powerful undertow.
Every ingredient brings something integral to the plate, and none outshines the rest: the deep vegetal sweetness of the squash; the savory yet candylike quality of caramelized onions; the salted milkiness of the Jack; and the breadcrumb topping, sometimes pale and buttery, other times bronzed and nutty. On occasion, the whole affair is marbled with a mild, custardy layer, possibly created by the interplay of the cheese with the half and half that — rumor has it — chef Patrick Lambert and his staff use to add a little moisture. Whatever it is, they should keep doing it.
The multihued side salad, with its bright greens, carrot ribbons, thin rings of red pepper and purple onion, crunchy and buttery pepitas, and peppery sprouts will give you that self-satisfied flush of realizing you’re about to “eat the rainbow” like your mother always advised. If you’re observing Drynuary, wash it down with water, club soda, or maybe an Arnold Palmer; but Odell Brewing Company’s clean, aromatic Rupture Fresh Grind Ale is, at 6 percent, a not-too-boozy way to fall off the wagon.
I’ve spent more than a few hours trying to recreate Cowgirl’s butternut squash casserole at home, but somehow mine’s never quite up to snuff. I gave up long ago, hoping someone would slip me the recipe, scribbled on a napkin, and I used to scour the internet for clues. These days, I’ve let my ignorance be bliss. As with your friend’s grandmother’s secret recipe for green chile pie that no Google spelunking illuminates, some mysteries are better left unsolved and simply enjoyed.