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.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.