Monday, October 12, 2009

Challenged by Butternut

I am a sucker for a good sale. I have been known to build an entire menu around a sale item, and if it's a food I've never worked with before I can justify it even better. This is why a few weeks ago I bought a pomegranate, and then after watching a number of YouTube videos detailing how to de-seed the bastard, spent an evening holding the fruit under water popping out seeds and letting them float to the surface to be skimmed and juiced and used in cocktails. My evenings are wild man, wild.

Last week Whole Foods advertised, for half price no less, Organic Butternut Squash. I've played with this squash once before, in a complete disaster of a pureed soup, but that was in the past and I was ready for a new seasonal adventure. Using my lunch break to scan websites for a recipe, I came across Butternut Squash and Hazelnut Lasagna. This was perfect for two reasons. 1. If you're unsure if you (or your picky fiance) will love a vegetable, cover it in cheese. Why do you think Eggplant Parm is such a classic? 2. I happened to have a whole container of hazelnuts I had purchased from Chelsea Market just sitting in my cabinet waiting to be used. It was destiny.

I knew I was in for a labor intensive process by the length of the recipe alone. Like most lasagnas, it involved three different mixes, the sauce, the filling, and the cheese. What I didn't take into account was the effort that would be involved in simply preparing the ingredients. 3 lb Butternut Squash cut into 1/2 inch pieces really didn't hit my brain until I had the thing on my counter, with knife and peeler in hand. The squash needs to be halved lengthwise, no small feat and one I did not have the muscle for. Marvel in the many uses of the fiance. Once it's cut that way, the seeds and gook need to be cleaned out like a pumpkin at Halloween, then you have to peel the thing, which puts up much more of a fight then your common potato might (and has more contours as well), and then and only then can you start chopping. It took an hour, 2 different knives, 2 different peelers, and about 76 profanities in 3 different languages, but I chopped the bastard into submission. Where was my sous chef, you might ask? I had handed him my "1 cup of toasted hazelnuts" and asked him to chop. When my insane adventure with the squash was over, he was still chopping. Apparently hazelnuts are wily little bastards. "I love you!" I called into the dining room, as I started to get the squash cooking. It wasn't until a day later it occurred to me that the food processor probably could have handled the job. Actually, now that I think about it again, you could probably get the same results with a canvas bag and a brick. He's probably reading this right now and wondering if it's possible to file for divorce before the wedding ceremony. We both swore off chopping anything for the rest of time, which sucks a little since we took that knife skills class.
Ingredients for Squash Filling
  • 1 large onion, chopped (yeah, all I had was a small onion, which I used, but large would have been better)
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 lb butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (Grrrrrrrr)
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon white pepper (yeah, didn't have that, used black pepper, worked fine)
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 4 teaspoons chopped fresh sage (I used dried, I didn't feel like hunting down fresh)
  • 1 cup hazelnuts (4 oz), toasted, loose skins rubbed off with a kitchen towel, and coarsely chopped (by fiance you are hoping isn't going to leave you, or food processor)

Cook onion in butter in a deep 12-inch heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 10 minutes. Add squash, garlic, salt, and white pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until squash is just tender, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in parsley, sage, and nuts. Cool filling.

Now it was time to start on the sauce. this seemed pretty simple, except for one dreaded direction. "Whisking constantly." As in, "bring milk to boil, whisking constantly." I've been down this road before, and every time it nearly drives me to tears. For those who haven't run into this pain in the ass direction before, milk cannot just be dumped in a pot and left to boil like water. It will curdle, and smell really bad, and then you have to start over. Since this particular recipe calls for 5 cups of milk, and I used my beautiful and expensive organic milk, this was not an option. This leaves whisking until the damn mixture boils, and since by whisking you're essentially slowing the heating process by incorporating bubbles, this takes awhile. By awhile I mean over 20 minutes. Of standing, and whisking. Meanwhile the oven is preheating and the kitchen is getting hotter. I made it over ten minutes before the whining started. Another five before I called Will to take over because my arm was going to fall off, and take over he did, as I trudged into the cooler living room and collapsed onto the floor in melodramatic fashion. Will kept it up for about five minutes before I took over again and sent him back to Mario Kart. A few minutes later I stopped whisking long enough to see boiling bubbles, whooped with exhausted joy, and sent it down to a simmer to complete the sauce.

Sauce Ingredients
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 5 cups milk
  • 1 bay leaf (not California)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon white pepper (again, used black, bite me)
Cook garlic in butter in a 3-quart heavy saucepan over moderately low heat, stirring, 1 minute. Whisk in flour and cook roux, whisking, 3 minutes. Add milk in a stream, whisking. Add bay leaf and bring to a boil, whisking constantly, (see how innocent and easy that looks in the recipe?) then reduce heat and simmer, whisking occasionally, 10 minutes. Whisk in salt and white pepper and remove from heat. Discard bay leaf. Cover surface of sauce with wax paper if not using immediately.

Almost there, just had to deal with cheese. As I was sauce making I had realized that I had not grated the block of mozzarella I had purchased that morning. "Honey, baby, darling, precious?" I called into the living room. A wary "Yeeeessss?" came back. I gave him this last task, and promised him it was doable while watching TV. Once grated it just had to be tossed with the parmesan, and was ready for lasagna assembly.

Toss cheeses together. Spread 1/2 cup sauce in a buttered 13- by 9- by 2-inch glass baking dish (or other shallow 3-quart baking dish) and cover with 3 pasta sheets, leaving spaces between sheets. Spread with 2/3 cup sauce and one third of filling, then sprinkle with a heaping 1/2 cup cheese. Repeat layering 2 more times, beginning with pasta sheets and ending with cheese. Top with remaining 3 pasta sheets, remaining sauce, and remaining cheese.

Yeah, soooo, this didn't exactly work. The prescribed dish was way too small. I only got about two layers in and then I was risking it spilling out of the dish, so I couldn't even make the top layer properly. By this time it was 9 p.m. and I really couldn't have cared less. Since the recipe insisted that you could make the sauce and the filling one day ahead (which, if you are going to be serving people who don't usually eat at 10 p.m., I highly recommend) I stuck the extra filling, sauce, and cheese in the fridge to be baked later, and baked what I had in the the dish.

Tightly cover baking dish with buttered foil and bake lasagne in middle of oven 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake until golden and bubbling, 10 to 15 minutes more. Let lasagne stand 15 to 20 minutes before serving.

I have to admit, what came out of the oven was pretty delicious. Will gobbled up three servings, so maybe he wont leave me after all. If I was having a dinner party and inviting a vegetarian this would be up there on my list of impressive things to make. I have heard that in some grocery stores you can buy pre-diced butternut squash, so if you find that, buy it. I would normally never say that as I generally look down my nose at precut veggies since they are so much more expensive, and really, how hard is it to cut up some broccoli, but in this case, really really worth it. If nothing else, you eat this dish knowing you've earned it, God, have you earned it....


Squeaky Gourmet said...

this looks wonderful and creamy and delightful. I am hesitant to inform you that the squash did not have to be cut in half length wise first LOL All you have to do is cut up the cylindrical top, cut the now easy to cup bottom in half and scoop it. Then peel and dice it all up.

However, it would have been a far less interesting recipe blog to read had you done it that way!

Fresh Local and Best said...

This looks like quite a detailed recipe. You're a much more ambitious cook than I!

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