Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Approximately one week from now, everyone reading this, and everyone they know, and everyone they know, and so on and so forth, will be standing in a kitchen full of chopped onions, dried bread, poultry seasoning, chicken broth, sweet potato, pecans, butter, canned pumpkin puree, brown sugar, maple syrup, flour strewn about, peeled apples - did I mention butter? - and, quite likely, tears streaming down his or her face, though not from the stink of the onions. Ahhh, the overwhelming joy of preparing for Thanksgiving. I am a pragmatist, and so I like to make as much as possible well in advance of the big day. Add to that, we spend the day before the feast driving up to Vermont for the turkey-in-a-hole-in-the-ground celebration, and the entire night before drinking beer from cans around a bonfire in a reprise of some of our better high school moments, only without the having to run and hide in wet leaves and rabbit droppings when the cops arrive. If you've seen me after drinking beer from cans around a bonfire, you know that it is, in fact, necessity that I prepare my victuals in advance.
For some dishes, you really do want to wait until the last minute - Tuesday night in my case - to prepare, but others improve with time spent in the refrigerator under foil. This is one such recipe. And it has the added bonus of serving as a vegetarian entree that will not leave your vegetarian relative wondering why you people just don't get that she doesn't eat meat because sides are the only available sustenance for her.
Roasted Butternut Squash Lasagna:
(1) 3-4 pound butternut, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch cubes
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
5 cups milk (you will need to buy a half-gallon rather than a quart if you are buying the milk specifically for this use)
1 sprig fresh rosemary - JR loves rosemary - if you prefer sage, use sage, or if you prefer thyme, use thyme, just up the quantity of thyme to somewhere in the 8-10 sprigs range)5 tablespoons butter
7 1/2 tablespoons flour
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
nine sheets lasagna (this should be a half of a box of lasagna)
3/4 pound grated gruyere cheese
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
In a large bowl, toss butternut squash with olive oil until it is well-coated. Transfer to a large rimmed baking sheet, spreading into one layer. Bake on the middle rack of the oven for approximately 30 minutes, or until squash is fork-tender and beginning to brown.
Now, you are about to make an herb-infused Béchamel sauce. If you have not done this before, do not be intimidated. It is really quite easy and you'll be incredibly proud of yourself (though don't get too big for your britches, now, ok?) when the sauce thickens and you realize that you have mastered a grand French sauce. Let's get started so that you may soon bask in your accomplishment, shall we?
In a large sauce pan, heat milk to a simmer with the sprig of rosemary (or sage, or multiple sprigs of thyme). Allow the milk to simmer for two minutes, then turn off the heat and allow the milk and rosemary to steep for 5-10 minutes. Pour the milk through a fine mesh sieve, or colander lined with cheesecloth, into a bowl. I use a mixing bowl with a handle and pouring spout to make my life easier and thought I'd share that little tidbit with you because I want your life to be easier, and also because it's difficult to be overwhelmed with joy while washing herb-infused milk from the front of your oven, top of your stove, and floor, regardless of how enticing it may smell.
After the milk has been strained, heat the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat until melted. Add the flour and, using a whisk, stir constantly to combine with butter. Continue to cook flour and butter until the mixture is a light golden brown, approximately 5 minutes. Slowly add the milk, whisking continuously as it is added. This is why I just warned you in the paragraph above to use the bowl with the handle and the spout. If you don't, you may need a little assistance to get this portion done without any cursing. Tell he or she who helps you that the reward of the homemade Béchamel sauce is worth it and not to give you any grief.
Once milk is added to the roux (the cooked flour and butter mixture is a roux), cook over medium heat for approximately 10 minutes until sauce is thick and has a consistency similar to that of pancake batter, whisking constantly and being careful that the sauce does not scald on the bottom of the pan. You could probably get away with whisking frequently rather than constantly, but I like to think of it as a bit of meditation - a little zen exercise in swirling milk, if you will. Much as it is in ice cream making.
Remove pan from heat, stir in ground nutmeg, and reserve approximately one cup of Béchamel for topping the lasagna. Combine remaining Béchamel and all of the roasted butternut squash, salt and pepper to taste, and set aside. Take a moment to celebrate that you are a master of French sauces before moving on. You deserve it.
Boil lasagna according to the manufacturer's directions, undercooking slightly. Rinse under cool water so that noodles will not burn those hands of yours while you're assembling the lasagna. Now, you may be wondering if I've ever heard of no-boil lasagna, and I assure you, I have. If you'd like to use no-boil, you go right ahead, I have no problem with that and it's quite likely that even if I did take issue with the fact, no one would tell me you used no-boil. You are free to do as you like.
Lightly grease a 9x13 baking dish. Spread approximately 1/4 cup of the reserved (no butternut added) Béchamel around the bottom of the dish. Lay 3 lasagna noodles across the dish, then top with one-half of the butternut and Béchamel mixture. Sprinkle 1/3 of the grated gruyere over top, then repeat for the second layer. Lay the last three lasagna noodles over top of the butternut mixture, and spoon the remaining 3/4 cup of Béchamel over top, spreading evenly over noodles. Cover tightly with foil, and bake for 30 minutes at 375 degrees. After 30 minutes, remove foil, sprinkle the remaining 1/3 of the grated gruyere and two tablespoons of chopped rosemary over the lasagna, and bake until cheese is browned and the sauce is bubbling around the edges, approximately 15 minutes.
So now, the best part is, you can make this on Monday or Tuesday night, or, if you're feeling really daring, even on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and the flavors only become more sublime for the wait. Of course, if you don't make this for Thanksgiving, it makes a fabulous, inexpensive main course with a simple green salad, and the lasagna itself only costs $18.42 for 6 to 8 servings, so on the high end, it's $3.07 per person. The milk is 25-cents a cup at $1.99 per half-gallon, we used 5 cups, so $1.25. The butter is 39-cents, the flour is 9-cents. The rosemary could very well be $1.99, but you only need one of the 4 sprigs, so that's 50-cents. I feel compelled to advise you that if you have a particular herb of which you are fond, you might want to invest in a small plant for $2.99 and nurture it throughout the winter. It will repay you greatly. If not, you don't have to let the rest of the rosemary in the $1.99 package go to waste. If you think you won't use it before it becomes dark, decrepit, and frowzy in your refrigerator, tie it at the cut ends with a bit of kitchen twine and hang it from a hook or even a cabinet knob (you're being practical not letting food go to waste - who cares what people think, right?), let it dry, then harvest it and store it in a plastic bag until you're ready to use it again. The butternut squash cost me a mere 75-cents for four pounds, but not many of you live near the Sousas of 75-cents-for-four-pound-squash-fame, so I estimated 80-cents per pound, which is what it costs at the large farm stand nearby my house. The olive oil is around 20-cents, and the lasagna is half of a box that cost $1.59, so that's 80-cents. The gruyere is your largest expense at $11.99, but with the overall cost of the dish being so low, you can afford to splurge. And splurge, you must, from time to time.
Dinner tonight: Pancetta with orecchiette and peas. Estimated cost for two: $7.41. The pancetta was $2.84 for about a third of a pound at Venda Ravioli, my favorite Italian market in Providence. We'll use about half, so that's $1.42. The orecchiette cost $1.79 for a one-pound box, we'll use half of that, so 90-cents. The peas were $1.29 for a bag, we'll use less than half of that, but let's call it 65-cents just the same. The shallot was less than 50-cents, but I round up, the oil was about twenty cents, and the big splurge in this meal is the very fancy Red Cow Parmigiano-Reggiano, which was $3.74 for two ounces. However, I could - and you could - select a less expensive parmigiano-reggiano cheese and bring that cost down to somewhere around $2.37 figuring it to be around $18.99 per pound. Or you could forgo cheese altogether and bring the cost down to $3.67 for two. You decide how important the cheese is to you, that's one of the nice things about being an adult, isn't it?
OK, speaking of adulthood, everyone knows that everyone else is having a tough time right now, but those who rely on food pantries for their meals are in particularly dire straits. If you are able - and I'm not lecturing, only suggesting - if you are able, please donate some Thanksgiving goods to your local food pantry this week or next. You'll feel even more proud than when you mastered the Béchamel!
A few helpful Food Pantry links:
Greater Boston Food Bank
Rhode Island Food Bank
Food Bank New York City
If you're not sure how to help, call your local town or city hall, they should be able to point you in the right direction.