From Italy with Love…
TGIFF! Thank God, it’s Foodie Friday! What better way to gear up for the weekend then to talk about food? OK, so I’ll admit it: As a chef and certified foodie, I consider any day a good day to talk food. That said, we decided to give it a special focus every Friday, so hopefully you’ll join me and my fellow Kripalu foodies as we share our love of all things edible.
For me, the wonder of food really blossoms through the individual people who enter into relationships with it, from farmers to cooks to the diners whose senses are filled with foods’ amazing smells, sights, and tastes. Through these relationships, we can reap the benefits of not only physical health, but also of deep joy and connectedness.
I was reminded of this last weekend during a visit with my oldest daughter, Rhea, who is a sophomore at Union College. Rhea is lucky to be living in a big house on campus with a wonderfully large kitchen. Since I only had a few hours to be with her, I wanted to make the most of it. What better way to connect and say I love you than by cooking together? We would be doing something we love to do, plus making enough for her boyfriend, Charlie, and her best friend, Ilyena, to enjoy. (I was also heading off to a potluck that evening so I decided to do a bit of double duty and prep for that as well.) Hmmm… what to make that was healthful, comfort food? My choice was obvious, one of Rhea’s favorites: Butternut Squash Lasagna!
I knew Rhea’s roommate was eating gluten-free, so I picked up some gluten-free pasta (I find Tinkyada brand rice noodles work best) as well as a box of semolina pasta to use for my potluck. Though the kitchen was large, it had literally no equipment so I lugged a sauté pan, spoon, baking dish, my knife, and all the ingredients I could think of. Well, I did forget a cutting board— but nothing a few towels couldn’t fix.
The air was filled with joyful anticipation as we started our prep; cutting the squash and onions and cooking both pastas, while chit-chatting about what had happened in our lives since we last spoke. I think the energy must have been magnetic, since no sooner had we started than a tall, handsome Italian guy walked in the door. He was on the facilities crew at Union. After introducing himself as Antonio, he sat himself at the counter and asked what we were cooking. Antonio’s eyes lit up as he said, “Ahh, squash lasagna—a very traditional Italian dish.” He spoke about his memories of squash lasagna from Italy, settled comfortably in, and proceeded to share with us his love of Italy. His mama is still there and he will be retiring there soon himself. We spoke of olive oil, figs (he has trees right there on campus), fennel, and thyme. Of saints and cathedrals. Of wine, limoncello, and grappa. By the time our first lasagna was ready to hit the oven, it had been thoroughly blessed by the energy of Italy. Then Antonio was gone. It all happened so quickly, we weren’t sure if he’d really existed or if we manifested him from the pure intention we brought to the cooking. Either way, we knew this was going to be some good lasagna.
When we started to make the béchamel sauce for the gluten-free version, I realized I’d forgotten rice flour! Béchamel is the thickener for the cream sauce, and usually made with wheat flour– not a gluten-free food. What to do? A search of the pantry in the dorm room yielded two choices for a substitute: chocolate chip brownie mix or a gluten-free pancake mix. We chose the latter. What happens when you try to make béchamel with pancake mix? Very fluffy béchamel!
As the lasagnas baked, we watched the time fly, and realized our time together would be too short to include feasting on the lasagna when they came out of the oven. Luckily, I’d brought some beautiful kale, a can of cannellini beans, and a red onion. After a quick sauté adding a bit of olive oil, garlic, and balsamic vinegar, we relaxed and enjoyed a wonderfully green lunch. So much had happened in a few short hours that we would always remember.
Later that night, my girlfriends enjoyed a delicious Antonio-inspired lasagna and I got word that gluten-free pancake mix, while maybe not ideal, was just fine in creating a yummy dinner for Rhea and her friends.
And once again, I’m reminded of the power of food to join hearts and share joy.
I’ve included my Butternut Squash Lasagna recipe (traditional style) below. I hope you feel fearless in your substitutions if you aren’t eating gluten, or dairy, for that matter (try soy milk and skip the cheese).
My time with Rhea and Antonio reminded me just how much I love cooking together and sharing foods inspired by different regions. To satisfy these two hungers and as a great excuse to bring a group of friends together, I’ve decided to host monthly “World Cuisine” dinner parties: first stop, Morocco! Stop back for Foodie Fridays in two weeks and I’ll let you know how our first one went and share the recipes.
Anyone know someone from Morocco whose energy we can invoke while we cook or a must-try recipe to include?
What are your plans to share the wonders of cooking with others this winter?
Until next time: May you live the love you cook!
butternut squash lasagna
Makes one 9×13-inch casserole
1 large butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into medium dice
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
Pinch of sea salt
Pinch of black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
4 cups whole milk
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
Pinch of black pepper
3 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
5 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1 10-ounce package lasagna noodles
1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
make the filling:
Combine the squash, oil, cinnamon, fennel, salt, and pepper in a large bowl and toss well. Transfer the squash to a baking sheet. Bake in a 350-degree oven until squash is soft, 18 to 20 minutes. Return the squash mixture to the bowl and stir in the thyme. Using a potato masher or fork, mash the squash well but leave some amount of chunkiness. Set aside.
make the béchamel:
Heat the milk on medium temperature with nutmeg, salt, and pepper until warm. In a separate small, thick-bottomed pan, melt the butter, being careful not to burn. Slowly whisk in the flour and sauté for a minute on low heat. Slowly whisk the warmed milk into the flour and butter mixture, making sure there are no lumps. Simmer on very low heat to ensure it does not burn while you are preparing to use it.
prepare the noodles:
Cook the lasagna noodles according to the package instructions. Cool slightly.
assemble and bake the lasagna:
In a 9×13-casserole dish, layer in béchamel sauce, then noodles, then the squash filling, and then the mozzarella cheese. Repeat the layers using remaining ingredients.
Pour the béchamel sauce on the top layer of noodles, spreading it to the edges. Sprinkle the Parmesan cheese evenly over the top. Cover with parchment paper and foil. Bake for 40 minutes in a 350-degree oven. Uncover and bake 5 minutes more. Let rest for 10 minutes and serve.