Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Dark Days: Butternut Squash Lasagna

No, this is not an April Fool's joke. I really am writing about squash in April.

But when you think about it, winter squashes will store for such a long time they could almost be considered a spring vegetable. Especially this time of year we need every bit of vegetable goodness we can get: We've used up almost everything that overwintered in the garden, and it will be weeks before any of our new crops are ready to harvest.

So we walked to the farmer's market and bought almost everything we needed for this lasagna: the squash, the ricotta, the mozzarella. It made our hearts beat just a little faster knowing we could purchase such fabulous ingredients from local farmers within range of our home here in the District of Columbia.

But there's another compelling reason to write about butternut squash. Our friends Charlotte and Freddie at the Great Big Vegetable Challenge blog continue to work their way through the vegetable alphabet, searching for recipes with kid appeal. Their challenge to us: come up with a squash recipe Freddie will love.

Well, the first thing that came to mind was spaghetti squash with vegetarian marinara sauce. It's one of our favorite ways to enjoy squash--a lot like conventional spaghetti--but I thought the occasion called for something with a little more pizazz. Acorn squash glazed with pomegranate is a quick and elegant side dish. But it's almost too easy. And then I remembered this decadent, totally elegant butternut squash lasagna.

This is neither quick, nor something you will want to attempt every night.

In fact, you will get a few pots and pans dirty making this lasagna. You may even have to save a few pennies for the fresh ricotta and mozzarella cheese. And if you are obsessed with calories and cholesterol, you may want to substitute low-fat versions of the ricotta, the mozzarella and the milk.

This is probably unlike most lasagnas you've had before. Not only is the creamy, butternutty filling a surprise, but the seasonings--fennel, cinnamon, garlic, sage--are more like something out of a Renaissance cookbook. Read the recipe through completely to get your bearings. Basically you make a filling with roasted squash, ricotta, fennel, cinnamon and sage. Then you make a sauce with butter, flour, milk, garlic and more sage. Finally you layer everything in a casserole using your favorite lasagna noodles (I used no-boil, simply because there is plenty of work to do elsewhere without having to cook pasta as well) plus some grated mozzarella and Parmesan.

This lasagna makes six generous portions, and some of those can be divided for children. I make mine in a non-stick metal pan 8 1/2 inches square and 2 1/2 inches deep. Getting individual slices of the pie out of the pan can be tricky. Consider making the lasagna a day or two ahead and refrigerating it. This would give the incredible flavors time to meld, and it would be a simple matter of removing the whole pie from the pan, slicing it into individual pieces and reheating them for dinner (or breakfast, or lunch).

For the squash filling:

1 medium butternut squash, about 2 pounds
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons fresh sage, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground fennel
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup ricotta cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
1 large egg

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit (the Brits will have to make a conversion).

Trim about 1/2 inch from the top and bottom of the squash. Use a vegetable peeler to remove the skin. Cut the squash in half lengthwise, remove the seeds, then cut the halves into 1-inch pieces. Toss these in a bowl with the olive oil, sage, fennel, cinnamon, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Spread the squash on a baking sheet and roast for about 45 minutes, or until the squash is completely cooked through.

Place the squash in a food processor (or do this in a bowl with a potato masher) and blend with the ricotta, the grated Parmesan and the egg. Place in the refrigerator to cool.

For the sauce:

1 quart milk
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons sage, finely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 cup all-purpose flour

In a saucepan, heat the milk until it is steaming, but do not boil

In a separate saucepan, melt the butter over moderate heat, then add the garlic and sage and cook a minute or two. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring frequently, for three or four minutes to make a roux. Begin adding hot milk to the roux, a ladle full at a time. Stir continuously as the sauce begins to bubble and thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove from heat.

For final assembly:

Greased casserole or pan
8 ounces no-boil lasagna noodles (or substitute your choice cooked noodles)
8 ounces grated mozzarella cheese
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan

Set oven to 375 degrees

Now it's time to put everything together. You'll make about four layers, so be sure to have some of the mozzarella and Parmesan for each layer as well as the top.

Start by ladling enough of the sauce to cover the bottom of your pan or casserole. Cover the sauce with noodles (some may need to be cut to fit). Use a spatula to spread a layer of squash mixture over the noodles, then ladle some sauce over the squash and dust with mozzarella and Parmesan. Repeat until you reach almost to the top of the pan or casserole--or run out of ingredients, which ever comes first. Ladle the last of the sauce over the top and finish with a dusting of more cheese.

Cover the pan with aluminum foil, place on a baking sheet and put it in the oven to bake for one hour. Remove the foil and bake an additional 15 minutes. The top of the lasagna should be bubbly and lightly browned. If not, set it under the broiler for a minute or two.

Add a fresh green salad and a cold glass of a buttery Chardonnay and you have dinner.


Great Big Veg Challenge said...

This is perfect - will be making this for tomorrow nights supper for the Veggie Phobe - well not that he is anymore!
Thanks Ed
PS What is this pomegranate recipe - do you just glaze it with pomegranate syrup ?

Ed Bruske said...

Enjoy, Charlotte. Here's a link to the pomegranate glazed squash:


Magic Cochin said...

Ed - the combination of herbs and spices sound so intriguing – a must try!!! I think sage is excellent with squash, as is cinnamon - but I've never tried them in the same recipe.


grace said...

to save a pot and some time, i've never heated milk before making a roux/white sauce... i've always wondered whether you really truly had to heat up the milk first. kind of like constantly stirring risotto (which i don't do, either).

Tanya said...

Ed- that looks fabulous.
I wondered if you might have any tips for me-- I just got back from 3 weeks out of the country, and have an empty fridge and near-empty freezer/ pantry (I tried to do some good preserving for the winter, but it's all gone now.) Any suggestions for places to go to buy local stuff that will tide me over until the weekend markets? Whole Foods has been disappointing me on the local stuff recently.

Ed Bruske said...

Celia, this is an unusual combination of herbs and spices, a bit of a throwback. The first time we tasted it, we thought it had too much cinnamon and not enough sage. We made an adjustment.

Ed Bruske said...

Grace, I don't always heat the milk separately either, but for purposes of a recipe, people should know the proper way to do it. Using cold milk for a roux just slows down the process. Flour needs to come to a boil before it completely thickens. Also, you are more at risk of getting lumps using cold milk unless you are very careful to keep stirring the pot. I'm just as happy to have a separate pot of milk heating on a neighboring burner, and just ladling it into the roux as needed. It goes much faster.

Great Big Veg said...

I made this recipe the way you said ( which is the point of a recipe) and the warmed up milk did make the roux-process very easy. I know you said this recipe requires a little time and needs you to take your bearings but it is actually really straight forward and will become one of our regular home meals.
I am now wondering which other vegetables to experiment with in this lasagne format...

Ed Bruske said...

Charlotte, I'm sure there are other vegetables that would work in this lasagna. I just haven't thought about it. Spinach, of course, is a classic. Swiss chard leaps to mind. And since we've been on the subject of rhubarb, I bet some kind of savory rhubarb/meat filling would work. Eggplant, perhaps, other squashes...

susan harris said...

Ed's served me (and other DC Urban Gardeners) this dish and I give it 5 Yums!