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.
Healthy Comfort Food
People describe raising young kids as a particular season in life. I hadn't heard this until we had a baby, but it brought me a lot of comfort when I'd start to let my mind wander, late at night between feedings, to fears that we'd never travel internationally again or have a sit-down meal in our dining room. Would I ever eat a cardamom bun in Sweden? Soak in Iceland? I loved the heck out of our tiny Oliver, but man what had we done?! Friends would swoop in and reassure us that this was just a season, a blip in the big picture of it all. They promised we'd likely not even remember walking around the house in circles singing made-up songs while eating freezer burritos at odd hours of the day (or night). And it's true.
Oliver is turning two next month, and those all-encompassing baby days feel like a different time, a different Us. In many ways, dare I say it, Toddlerhood actually feels a bit harder. Lately Oliver has become extremely opinionated about what he will and will not wear -- and he enforces these opinions with fervor. Don't get near the kid with a button-down shirt. This week at least. He's obsessed with his rain boots and if it were up to him, he'd keep them on at all times, especially during meals. He insists on ketchup with everything (I created a damn monster), has learned the word "trash" and insists on throwing found items away on his own that really, truly are not trash. I came to pick him up from daycare the other day and he was randomly wearing a bike helmet -- his teacher mentioned he'd had it on most of the day and really, really didn't want to take it off. The kid has FEELINGS. I love that about him, and wouldn't want it any other way. But, man it's also exhausting.
I just finished washing out Oliver's lunchbox and laying it out to dry for the weekend. My favorite time of day is (finally) here: the quiet of the evening when I can actually talk to Sam about our day or sit and reflect on my own thoughts after the inevitable dance party or band practice that precedes the bedtime routine lately. Before becoming pregnant for the second time, I'd have had a glass of wine with the back door propped open right about now -- these days though, I have sparkling water or occasionally take a sip from one of Sam's hard ciders. Except now the back door's closed and we even turned on the heat for the first time yesterday. The racing to water the lawn and clean the grill have been replaced by cozier dinners at home and longer baths in the evening. You blink and it's the first day of fall.
I'd heard from many friends that buying a house wasn't for the faint of heart. But I always shrugged it off, figuring I probably kept better files or was more organized and, really, how hard could it be? Well, I've started (and stopped) writing this post a good fifteen times which may indicate something. BUT! First thing's first: we bought a house! I think! I'm pretty sure! We're still waiting for some tax transcripts to come through and barring any hiccough with that, we'll be moving out of our beloved craftsman in a few weeks and down the block to a great, brick Tudor house that we wanted the second we laid eyes on it. The only problem: it seemed everyone else in Seattle had also laid eyes on it, and wanted it equally as much. I'm not really sure why the homeowner chose us in the end. Our offer actually wasn't the highest, but apparently there were some issues with a few of them. We wrote a letter introducing ourselves and describing why we'd be the best candidates and why we were so drawn to the house; we have a really wonderful broker who pulled out all the stops, and after sifting through 10 offers and spending a number of hours deliberating, they ended up going with ours. We were at a friend's book event at the time when Sam showed me the text from our broker and I kind of just collapsed into his arms. We were both in ecstatic denial (wait, is this real?! Did we just buy a house?) and celebrated by getting chicken salad and potato salad from the neighborhood grocery store and eating it, dazed, on our living room floor. Potato salad never tasted so good.
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
Porridge is not the sexiest of breakfasts, it's true. It doesn't have a stylish name like strata or shakshuka, and it doesn't have perfectly domed tops like your favorite fruity muffin. It doesn't crumble into delightful bits like a good scone nor does it fall into buttery shards like a well-made croissant. But when you wake up and it's 17 degrees outside (as it has been, give or take a few, for the last week), there's nothing that satisfies like a bowl of porridge or oatmeal. It's warm and hearty and can be made sweet or savory with any number of toppings. The problem? Over the years, it's gotten a bad rap as gluey or gummy or just downright boring or dutiful -- and it's because not everyone knows the secrets to making a great pot of warm morning cereal. So let's talk porridge (also: my cookbook comes out this month! So let's take a peek inside, shall we?)