We recently had our favorite day of married life yet. When I tell you what it consisted of, you may worry or chuckle. Sundays used to be sacred in our house in the sense that it was our one day off together. We’d often read the paper, get a slice of quiche at Cafe Besalu, or take walks around Greenlake or Discovery Park. But now Sundays are generally when I work the farmers market for Marge Granola, and Sam helps me set up and take down each week, so they’ve taken on a very different feel, one more of work than leisure. So a few months ago, after mildly panicking that we no longer had any routines or days off, we reclaimed Saturdays as ‘the new Sunday’ and last weekend set the bar pretty high. The day began really cold: in the high 20’s and graduated, eventually, to the 30’s. We decided it’d be nice to just stay inside; Sam had a little work to do and some letters to write. He had a few articles he’d been wanting to read. And I’d been thinking about this lasagna recipe, so I puttered around the kitchen roasting squash and slicing garlic. The afternoon ticked on slowly. Sam made us baked eggs for a late lunch and I tried unsuccessfully to nap. I think it was the calmest we’d both felt in a long time.
I’m lucky to have found a man who loves spending time at home as much as I do. While we both love going out to see friends, traveling, and having people over to our place, we also gain the most, I’d say, by doing simple things around the house — straightening up, making a meal. organizing records or books or photos. Especially in this season of cold temperatures and early-darkening skies, it’s what I crave the most. And last Saturday closed in the best of ways: we opened a bottle of “wedding wine” (thanks to my neurosis and fear we’d run out, we over-ordered wine when planning for our wedding) and dug into generous slices of this very special vegetarian lasagna, a hearty layered affair with caramelized onions, a sage-flecked tofu ricotta and a simple, savory butternut squash purée.
The recipe for this fall lasagna comes from Amy Chaplin’s new book, At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen. I bought Amy’s book when we returned from our honeymoon, eagerly anticipating its arrival at the bookstore for days (and slightly harassing the clerks by calling to “just to check in” one more time). I think what attracts me so much to Amy’s style of cooking, if I’m to be honest, is that it feels very familiar to me because it reminds me of how we cook around here. But if I were to open up a book that reflected back exactly what we do at home, it’d likely be a bore and Amy’s book is anything but. It’s familiar enough that I feel right at home, ready to pull up a chair and dig in. I relate. But then she pushes me further, to consider mashing celery root, making socca, or whipping up a batch of miso mayonnaise. Her Pantry Essentials chapter is extremely in-depth, even touching on a week of meals in her house. This is a beautiful, no frills cookbook that will likely delight anyone interested in vegetarian cooking, whole grains, or incorporating more whole foods into their diet.
I responded to the recipe for the Butternut Squash Lasagna quickly on my first flip-through as it reminded me of a favorite meal we recently shared in Rome. We’d shared, just weeks before, a plate of buttery butternut squash ravioli with just a touch of sage at Colline Emiliane, a small family-run restaurant specializing in handmade pasta. Ashlae had told me that the pasta here was unbelievable (maybe the best in Rome?) and I, stupidly, didn’t think to make a reservation much in advance. Or at all. So the day before I thought we’d like to go for dinner, I had the hotel call only to discover they were fully booked. How about the next night? Booked. The next… lunch? We’ll take anything! There was a long pause on the other end of the line and, thankfully, they’d decided they could squeeze us in the next day for lunch. That was the only available reservation left all week. 12 p.m. sharp.
We arrived a bit early and the doors were locked, the staff sitting together presumably reviewing the day’s meal. There was a little boy with a head full of brown curls running about and an older woman chasing him around the dining room. I later learned from his dad that his name was Lorenzo. We sat outside in the alley to wait along with a few other couples, and at 12 sharp, the door opened and we were guided to our seats in the small front dining room. Most of us were tourists, it seemed — some American. We ordered wine and garlicky spinach to share; we deliberated over which pastas to order, ultimately choosing the ricotta and butternut squash ravioli and the tagliatelle bolognese. And then a funny thing happened after we’d ordered and poured our first glasses of wine: the real Italians showed up.
There were elderly couples dressed for a true date — you could tell this was their big event of the day; there were families with squirmy toddlers, and middle-aged women in smart shift dresses and handbags sharing an afternoon catch up. Some seemed to know each other and would aim to quickly catch up in the brief walk between the front door and their designated table: They were guided to the small back dining room and when that eventually filled up, a few were seated in the front with us. The Italian regulars knew Lorenzo’s father, the gentleman working the front of house and seating everyone — his mother (Lorenzo’s grandmother) makes all of the pastries and desserts so she was milling about greeting regulars, too. Young Lorenzo continued to whiz by tables and would shyly approach some of the elderly couples to say hello. It was very clear: this is what many of these Italian families did on Saturday. This restaurant had become part of their sacred routine.
And so: maybe this lasagna, sharing many elements and ingredients from the infamous Italian ravioli, will soon be part of your Saturday. I will say that Amy indicates it feeds 8 people, but I think it easily feeds 10-12 (especially if you’re serving a salad or side dish with it), so it could be a great vegetarian Thanksgiving contender or just a good one to have one evening and freeze the rest for a later date this winter. It’s not the speediest recipe I’ve ever written about; while nothing here is difficult or highly skilled, there are definitely multiple steps so do set aside some time to work through them. I’ve been listening to Serial, and also really love Death, Sex and Money and The New Yorker Out Loud if you’re looking for some company in the kitchen. For those of you celebrating Thanksgiving next week, I hope it’s relaxing and full of good food, friends and ones you love.
A Few Recipe Notes: I made a few tweaks to Amy’s recipe, indicated below. First we thought the butternut squash needed a touch more salt, so I ended up adding a little Parmesan cheese to round out the sweetness which I like a lot. In the tofu ricotta, I thought the addition of nuts would be really nice; I’d initially thought about walnuts but Sam suggested cashews so we went with that; they add a subtle nuttiness to the tofu ricotta but don’t compete with its delicate flavors. As for caramelizing onions, I ended up needing two pans to fit all of my onions, so perhaps prepare accordingly. Last, I asked Amy if she had a suggestion if you can’t find brown rice vinegar (I actually left out the 1 tablespoon of ume plum vinegar Amy calls for in the ricotta because I couldn’t find it): she said that “in a pinch” you could use apple cider vinegar or a little lemon juice “but since they lack the delicate sweetness of brown rice vinegar I’d suggest using less.”
If you can’t find no-boil noodles, just use regular lasagna noodles and follow the cooking instructions on the package before layering. And while there are specific instructions on how much squash and ricotta to use while layering and assembling, I think the best part about making a lasagna is going pretty free-form; just make sure everything gets in amongst the layers and it will taste great. As for the cook time above, I factored in all the elements you’ll cook, from onions to squash to the lasagna itself.
Recipe Slightly Adapted From: At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen
Necessary Equipment: 8 x 12 inch or 9 x 13 inch lasagna pan
Make the Squash Purée
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut neck off butternut squash, and cut in half lengthwise. Rub squash with olive oil and place cut-side down on parchment-lined tray. Roast for 50 minutes or until you can pierce the flesh easily with a knife. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool while you cook the onion. Once squash is cool enough to handle, scoop out seeds with a spoon and peel off skin. Compost seeds and skin. Add squash to food processor with salt and a few grinds of pepper and blend until completely smooth. Sprinkle in Parmesan cheese and blend until incorporated. Scoop into a bowl and set aside. Rinse out food processor as you’ll use it again for the tofu ricotta.
Caramelize the Onions:
Warm oil in a large skillet over medium heat; add onions. Sauté for 10 minutes or until beginning to brown. Add salt, lower heat slightly and continue cooking for 20 minutes, or until onions are soft and caramelized. Remove from heat and set aside.
Make the Tofu Ricotta:
Place the toasted cashews in the food processor and process until fine and dusty (but be careful not to overprocess; don’t allow it to turn into a nut butter).
Add 1/2 the caramelized onions (reserve the rest to layer into the lasagna) to the food processor and crumble the tofu in as well. Add the brown rice vinegar, salt, pinch of black pepper. The food processor will be very full — that’s o.k.
Next, warm olive oil in a small pot over medium heat. Add garlic, reduce heat a little and gently simmer until soft and golden, about 8-10 minutes. Remove from heat; add to food processor. Blend all ingredients until smooth, scraping down sides as necessary. Add chopped sage and process until incorporated. Scoop mixture into a bowl; set aside a heaping 1/2 cup for garnishing the top of the lasagna.
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Brush lasagna pan with olive oil. Spread 3/4 cup squash purée over bottom of pan and top with a single layer of noodles, then top with half of tofu ricotta. Repeat with another layer of noodles, and another 1 1/2 cups squash purée. Spread caramelized onions over squash and top with a final layer of noodles. Cover with remaining tofu ricotta, and top with remaining squash purée. Spoon 8 dots of reserved tofu ricotta evenly over the top, press a sage leaf into each one, and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper.
Cover with parchment paper and then with foil; bake for 50-60 minutes or until noodles are tender and lasagna is heated through. To test, insert a knife into the center; you shouldn’t feel any resistance. If noodles are still firm, continue cooking covered for another 5-10 minutes. Remove cover, and bake additional 10 minutes, or until top layer of squash looks set. Remove from oven and allow to sit at least 10 minutes before cutting. Serve warm. Store any leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 4 days or wrap well and freeze.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.
Somehow, in what seems to have been a blink of an eye, we have a six month old baby. In some ways I can't remember a time we didn't have an Oliver, and in other ways it's all a blur broken up by a few holidays (a Thanksgiving thanks to grocery store takeout, and our very first Christmas in Seattle), a few family visits, a one-day road trip to Portland, a birthday dinner out, a birthday cake, weekend drives to nowhere in particular, swimming at the pool with Oliver, weekly get-togethers with our parent's group, doctor's visits, hundreds of walks around the neighborhood, hundreds of cups of coffee, dozens (or more?) of scoops of ice cream. Most of the worrying about keeping a baby alive has made way for other concerns, and Oliver's need for constant stimulation or soothing walks and car rides has been traded for stretches of time playing with a new toy or checking out his surroundings. In truth, it's thanks to that tiny bit of baby independence that this humble, summery cake came to be in the first place. So we've all got an Oliver to thank for that. Or, really, we have a Yossi Arefi to thank, as it's from her beautiful new cookbook that I've bookmarked heavily and am eager to continue exploring.
We walked to the library last week and I had a strange realization standing in line watching Sam check out his usual massive stack of books: Will I ever have the time to read stacks of books again? I used to be much more of a reader than I am today -- a fact I'm not at all proud of. But when evening rolls around and the more formal workday ends, I find emails and other odds and ends creep in. Walking home from the library, I began obsessing over free time for reading, asking Sam if we'd ever be those two old people who study bird manuals and can recognize birds on walks. I want to have the time to read bird manuals someday. For now though, we're young and we're working a lot. We did sneak away on that one-night camping trip I told you about, and cooked some interesting, haphazard meals which I hope to share with you soon. For now though, for summer: a strawberry dessert recipe.
Much like friends, types of Sunday mornings, or books -- there are many different kinds of desserts. Sometimes you may be in the mood for a light French cake piled high with summer fruit. Other days, a thick slice of fragrant pound cake will do. And then there are those days when you crave a rich chocolate mousse that you share after a night of good conversation and a little too much wine. But let's be honest. When it comes right down to it, the most basic and unassuming dessert of all is sometimes the only one that will do. A good and simple affair. Vanilla ice cream. So I want to talk about that today--about a dessert that withstands the test of time, that will always be there for you. A dessert that is far from trendy, that doesn't play favorites or trick you into thinking it's something that it's not. It's a good foundation. A solid beginning.
[ Pie. if you've been around here much in the last few months, you know that I make pie. A lot of pie. And I'm particularly excited to share this pie with you today because it helped me break out of a rut. A pie rut. A baking rut. A Marge inspiration rut.