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.
Glimpses of Spring
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
It turns out shopping for wedding dresses is nothing like they make it appear in the movies. Or at least it hasn't been for me. Angels don't sing. Stars don't explode. Relatives don't cry. There isn't a sudden heart-stopping moment that this is, in fact, "the one." To be honest, I always knew that I wasn't the kind of gal for whom angels would sing or stars would explode but I did think I'd have some kind of moment where I could tell I'd found the best dress. Instead, my mom flew into town and we spent three (yes, three!!) days shopping for dresses, and since then I've been back to the stores we visited -- and I'm more undecided than ever. Tomorrow morning I'll return with my friend Keena to try and tie this business up once and for all. Cross your fingers.
When I was single and living alone in the Bay Area, I made virtually the same thing for dinner each night. I ate meals quickly while in front of the computer. Or even worse: the television. This most often included what I call "Mexican Pizzas" which were basically glorified quesadillas baked in the oven until crispy. Sometimes, if I was really feeling like cooking, I'd whip up a quick stir-fry with frozen vegetables from Trader Joe's or a mushroom frittata using pre-sliced mushrooms. Mostly, though, it was Mexican Pizzas -- a good four or five nights a week. Today, thankfully, dinner looks a lot different. Meals in general look a lot different. How would I explain that difference? I think that ultimately how we feel about our life colors how we choose to feed ourselves and the importance that we place on preparing our own meals.
Today was 75 degrees in Seattle and it seemed the whole city was out and about drinking iced coffee in tank tops and perhaps not working all that hard. When we have a hit of sunshine like this in April (or, really, any time of the year), we're all really good at making excuses to leave the office early -- or, simply, to "work from home." I just got back from LA last night, unpacked in a whirlwind this morning, and took Oliver to meet up with three friends from our parents group at the zoo. The only other time I'd been to the Seattle zoo was once with Sam a few years ago when we arrived thirty minutes before closing and ended up doing a whirlwind tour -- sprinting from the giraffes to the massive brown bear to the meerkat. The visit today was much different: we strolled slowly trying to avoid the spring break crowds and beating sun. I managed to only get one of Oliver's cheeks sunburned, and he even got in a decent nap. A success of an afternoon, I'd say. Coming home I realized we didn't have much in the fridge for lunch -- but thankfully there was a respectable stash of Le Croix (Le Croix season is back!) and a small bowl of this whole grain salad I made right before I left town. It's the kind of salad that's meant for this time of year: it pulls off colorful and fresh despite the fact that much of the true spring and summer produce isn't yet available. And for that reason, I make a few versions of it in early spring, often doubling the recipe so there's always the possibility of having a small bowl at 1 p.m. while the baby naps in the car seat, one cheek sunburned, windows and back door open -- a warm breeze creeping into the kitchen.
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.