Roasted Butternut Squash Lasagna

Today marks the beginning of something I’ve been looking forward to, and I don’t mean that my kitchen renovation is underway—we are still waiting, but we do at least have good news today. After a few false starts related to the delivery of our new cabinets, we finally got word from Matt, our contractor: “We have the cabinets!!” So that hurdle is cleared and now the real chaos (the tearing out of the existing kitchen) is slated to begin on Friday (Yay)!

The delay gave me enough time to whip up a few dishes that I would have otherwise missed, including this one, which is a flavorful shout out to the significance of this day.

What I’m referring to is Autumn Equinox, otherwise known as the first full day of fall, but affectionately known at my house as the start of soup and stew season, the unpacking of my favorite sweaters, the countdown to the first flick of the switch on the gas fireplace, and the return of the hot toddy, and I am loving all of the above.

In fact, it feels like the perfect time to introduce you to one of my favorite homemade autumn-themed dishes, this butternut squash lasagna, which I first started making almost 10 years ago. This comforting casserole is layered, not with Italian seasonings or tomatoes or mozzarella, but with flavorful, seasonal vegetables, including onions and kale, two kinds of mushrooms and oven-roasted butternut squash. Nestled between the vegetable layers you’ll find a lemon-scented ricotta, shredded fontina and a creamy, cheesy bechamel that is spiked with even more butternut squash. It is rich and satisfying, even without meat, and makes my taste buds very happy.

Layer upon layer of comforting fall flavor!

There is nothing complicated about this meal but, like any lasagna, it does take some time to pull together. My suggestion is to break it up into two days; prep the separate components ahead of time, so assembly and baking will be a snap on the second day. The other thing that is great about this dish is that you can customize it to increase the amounts of favorite ingredients and reduce any of the others that are not favorites. If you prefer more squash and less kale, just swap the amounts and change up the layering.


Ingredients

1 medium or large butternut squash, peeled and cubed* (see notes)

1 large bunch curly kale, washed and stripped of heavy stems*

12 oz. fresh mushrooms (I used a combination of cremini and shiitake)

1 medium onion, chopped

14 oz. whole milk ricotta, strained of excess liquid

2 cloves fresh garlic, minced

Zest of one lemon (organic is best)

1 large egg

4 Tbsp. butter (either salted or unsalted is fine)

4 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

2 cups whole milk

1 bulb roasted garlic

1 cup shredded gouda cheese*

A few shakes ground white pepper

Freshly grated nutmeg (about 6 passes on a microplane)

Enough lasagna noodles or sheets for three layers of it in your preferred pan*

2 cups shredded fontina cheese*

About 1/3 cup grated parm-romano blend


*Notes

Part of the squash will be cubed and roasted, and the rest will be simmered and mashed to be blended into the bechamel. I usually use the smooth neck part of the gourd for roasting, and the round part, which usually appears stringy after cleaning out the seeds, gets boiled and mashed to be added to the bechamel sauce. Keep this in mind as you prep the squash.

For this year’s version of my recipe, I went heavier on the kale than usual. It would be perfectly fine to use half as much, and perhaps double the mushrooms or increase the butternut squash to make up some of the volume. You could also substitute swiss chard or spinach; it all depends on your palate.

I chose Gouda and fontina cheeses for this dish because of their creamy, meltable texture and rich, nutty flavors. Some other cheeses would work well in this dish, including Havarti, Gruyere, raclette, mild white cheddar or Monterey jack. I do not recommend mozzarella, which has too much “pull.” 

Normally, I use a special square lasagna baking dish, but we are in the middle of planning for this remodel, and darned if I can find it! No worries, I pulled out a glass 9 x 13 and it worked great. The noodles do not have to be boiled first; I usually just moisten them for several minutes in hot water while I get everything else into place. If the noodles are layered next to ingredients with plenty of moisture, they will cook just fine.

We are still trying to trim down the pantry, so I used the random lasagna noodles we already had!

Prep the Squash

Divide the squash so that you have uniform cubes from the neck of the squash, which you will toss in olive oil, salt and pepper, and then roast at 350°F until evenly browned, about 40 minutes. Allow it to cool on the pan before transferring to a separate bowl. Set aside until you’re ready to assemble the lasagna.

Add the remaining squash (from the bulb end) to a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until fork tender, about 30 minutes. Drain and set aside.


Prep the Kale

Strip the heavy stems and wash the kale leaves. Working in batches, pulse handfuls of the kale about six times in a food processor, until kale is a fine texture. Sauté in olive oil until wilted and lightly browned on some of the edges. Just before cooking the last batch, sauté the chopped onion in the skillet first, then add kale. Season this final batch with salt and pepper and combine with previously cooked kale. Set aside.


Prep the Mushrooms

Clean and dry the mushrooms, then trim the stems and slice evenly. Brown the mushrooms, about one-third at a time, in olive oil. Season the last batch with salt, pepper and a few sprinkles of dried thyme leaves. Combine all mushrooms in a separate bowl and set aside.


Prep the Ricotta Mixture

Drain the ricotta in a mesh strainer over a bowl. Stir occasionally to evenly strain the excess liquid from the cheese. Different brands will release varying amounts of liquid, but 30 minutes should do it. Discard the drained liquid. Add lemon zest, fresh garlic and black pepper to the ricotta. Stir in egg. Set aside for now if you’re working ahead.


Make the Bechamel

Remember, this is just a fancy French word that means “thickened cream sauce.” It’s easy to make! I prefer to make the bechamel just before assembling the lasagna, but if you are pressed for time, it’s fine to make it ahead and then re-heat in a pot until it is a smooth, pourable consistency. There are several steps for this component, and several flavorful add-ins, so I’ll describe it in pictures.

Heat a large sauce pot over medium heat. Add butter until melted. Whisk in flour and cook until it is bubbly, lightly browned and fragrantly nutty. Add the milk, about half at a time, whisking the first amount until smooth before adding the rest. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the sauce is thickened and bubbly. Whisk in about 2/3 cup of the mashed butternut squash and cook until heated through. Stir in shredded gouda, whisking until melted. Use an immersion blender, if you have one, to blend the bechamel sauce to a super-smooth consistency. This is not an essential step, but I love the silky texture that is achieved with the blender. Keep the sauce warm enough to be pourable and spreadable for assembling the lasagna.


Assemble and Bake

Ladle about 1/2 cup of the butternut-bechamel sauce into the bottom of a 9 x 13 glass baking dish. Then, layer the individual components as follows:


Cover casserole with plastic wrap or foil and allow it to rest for at least 30 minutes, to give the noodles time to absorb some of the moisture from the other ingredients. Preheat oven to 350°F, with rack in center position.

Remove wrap or foil and bake about 45 minutes, or until layers are bubbly throughout and cheese on top is browned in several places.

Let the lasagna rest about 10 minutes before cutting and serving.




Colcannon

Often regarded in the U.S. to be a food for St. Patrick’s Day, colcannon is traditionally enjoyed at Halloween in the old country of Ireland. Cooks there would hide coins or trinkets or charms inside, and legend said that what you found in your hearty spoonful was an omen for the coming season—be it riches or poverty, marriage or singlehood. The exact origin of the dish is disputed, but historians are certain that it has been enjoyed in Ireland since at least the mid-1700s, and there’s no arguing that it is creamy, satisfying comfort food at its best.

Well, did you ever make colcannon made with lovely pickled cream
With the greens and scallions mingled like a picture in a dream
Did you ever make a hole on top to hold the ‘melting’ flake
Of the creamy flavoured butter that our mothers used to make

Oh you did, so you did, so did he and so did I
And the more I think about it, sure the nearer I’m to cry
Oh weren’t them the happy days when troubles we knew not
And our mother made colcannon in the little skillet pot

Excerpt from The Auld Skillet PotMac Con Iomaire
Who doesn’t love the little “melting flake” of butter? 🙂

With fiber-rich potatoes, cabbage, onions and butter, colcannon could seriously stand on its own as a meal. My version subs in cooked kale and leeks for the cabbage and onions, and it is a gorgeous addition to our homemade corned beef and cabbage dinner.

Ingredients

2 1/2 pounds potatoes (mix of russet and golds), peeled and boiled until tender

2 fat handfuls fresh curly kale, washed and chopped

1 leek (white and light green parts), cleaned and sliced

8 Tbsp. good Irish butter (divided)

1 cup light cream, room temperature

Salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. While potatoes are cooking, melt 2 Tbsp. of butter in a skillet or small pot. Sauté chopped kale and sliced leeks until wilted and tender. Season with salt and pepper.
  2. Drain potatoes, return to pot and add 4 Tbsp. of butter and light cream. Mash until soft and fluffy. Season with salt and pepper.
  3. Add kale and leeks to the potatoes and fold to blend. Serve family style with remaining butter on top.

Want to make this traditional Irish recipe?


Challah Dressing with Venison Sausage and Kale

Somehow, this combination of random freezer leftovers worked itself into the dressing my husband, Les, declared on Thanksgiving to be his “favorite ever.” When we made the decision to scale back Thanksgiving for pandemic safety and change up the menu to experiment with new flavors, I thought immediately of the crudely labeled white butcher-wrapped package in my freezer. The venison sausage had been gifted to me a few years ago by a friend I knew from pool hall, where I played in a 9-ball league. Johnny does both bow and rifle hunting, and in a good season, he’d have venison to spare for lucky friends like me. And if you were in the right place at the right time, you’d be lucky enough to taste his venison jerky. Wow.

I’ve wracked my brain to decide how to describe the flavor of venison to any reader who has never tasted it. Texture-wise, it’s similar to beef, but extremely lean so it’s firmer and drier. The flavor is more wild than beef, but less gamey than lamb. Some say venison is an “acquired” taste, but I’ve been eating it since I was about 6 years old, so I can’t say for sure. My stepdad was a deer hunter, and it wouldn’t have been unusual for me to come home from first grade and find a deer carcass hanging upside down from a tree. In my teens, I’d enjoy a free day off as my rural high school was closed for the first day of deer season. Kind of hard to have classes with half of the upperclassmen (and the teachers) all out. I remember eating venison in soup and chili from such a young age, and once biting into a piece of overlooked buckshot. My enjoyment of this wild game meat is as old as any other food memory I have.

I have no excuse for not using the venison sausage sooner, except that I hadn’t felt inspired, and I feared that after four-plus years in the freezer, the sausage would be too far gone to use. But I may as well have a look, I thought, and when I finally was able to unwrap all five layers of plastic film, I found that it was not the total disaster I’d expected. The outer edges were browned and smelled like the freezer, but inside the meat was red, smelled sweet and was perfectly usable.

Only the outside of the venison was discolored from the freezer. I cut those outer edges off and used the red meat inside in the dressing.

So use it I did. I cut away the freezer-burned outer edges and used them to make some homemade cookies for our dog (don’t worry, I researched to learn that freezer-burned meat isn’t dangerous, and Nilla loved them). And the rest of the venison sausage, about 10 ounces, became the star of my dressing.

With non-traditional flavors already at the center of our holiday table, I browned up the venison sausage and used it to flavor this dressing, which also included cubes of challah (also from the freezer) and kale with celery and onions. For a spicy kick, I added a few pinches of dried chipotle flakes. Butter and vegetable broth completed the dish, and—well, it was awesome.


Ingredients

10 oz. ground venison or venison sausage

1 or 2 slices of uncured smoked bacon, cut into 1/2″ pieces

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1/2 medium onion, chopped

3 ribs celery, chopped

Kosher salt and black pepper

1 fat handful kale leaves, washed and heavy stems removed

3 Tbsp. salted butter

2 1/2 cups vegetable broth (low sodium preferred)

4 cups challah cubes, dried in low oven

1 egg, lightly beaten


Instructions

  1. Crumble venison sausage and cook it with bacon slices in the cast-iron skillet. When browned, transfer sausage to a bowl.
  2. Heat olive oil in same skillet, and sauté onions and celery until slightly softened. Add chopped kale and continue to cook until wilted. Season with salt, pepper and chipotle flakes. Transfer mixture to the bowl with the sausage. Refrigerate if working ahead or proceed to the next step.
  3. Place a large saucepan over medium heat. Melt butter, then add vegetable broth and heat until butter is melted and liquid is warm.
  4. In a large bowl, toss to combine challah cubes and half of the buttered broth. When moisture is mostly absorbed, add the remaining broth and toss again. Fold in beaten egg until mixture is uniform and fully moistened.
  5. Fold in venison sausage mixture and blend to combine. Transfer dressing to a buttered casserole dish. Refrigerate until ready to bake.
  6. Preheat oven to 350° F. Bake dressing, covered, for about 35 minutes. Remove cover and bake 15 minutes further, to crisp up the top.
The delicate and eggy challah was a pleasant contrast to the earthy flavors of the venison and kale. A total winner!

Want to make this recipe?


Here’s a behind-the-scenes extra idea for leftover dressing:


And, in case you’re wondering about the venison cookies for Nilla:

I mixed the freezer burned extra venison with some canned pumpkin, rolled oats, brown rice flour and an egg, then scooped and baked them at 300 for about an hour. I love to spoil our dog! ❤

Thanksgiving Mini Meatloaf

Thanksgiving will be different for a lot of folks this year. Sure, some percentage will press on with their big gatherings, but between the pandemic, travel restrictions and general upheaval and uncertainty, many more of us (my husband and me included) will have lots of extra space at the table, and the menu will either be smaller, less elaborate or altogether different.

At our house, we have already opted for experimentation and wild cards with our menu. This will be the year we do a bourbon brine, or smoke a turkey breast or whip up a venison sausage dressing. I’ll be taking creative liberty with the side dishes, too, because, well, why not?

Over the next week, I’ll be sharing plenty of recipes—twists as well as classics from our personal recipe playbook. In the midst of the excitement, I’m also having fun creating new ways to enjoy the flavors that are so traditional for Thanksgiving, even if the dishes aren’t. If you missed the savory sausage mac and cheese baked in a pumpkin, you’ll definitely want to go check that out. It’s as tasty as it is pretty!

Today, I’m whipping up a batch of miniature meatloaves that have all the same flavors you’d expect for Thanksgiving. These little minis have a base of seasoned ground turkey, blended with sage stuffing mix and onions, a middle layer of sautéed kale and onions with mushroom seasoning, and a rich and fluffy top layer of Yukon gold and sweet potatoes. They’re conveniently portioned for sharing or freezing, and if you don’t have a mini loaf pan, you can make them instead in a regular or jumbo muffin tin.

Each bite of mini meatloaf delivers the Thanksgiving flavor that I’ve been craving every day since the beginning of November. Best of all, these are a snap to make, and they are ready for the oven in less than an hour.

Every bite has a perfect balance of moist, tender meatloaf, savory hearty greens and soft sweet potato.

Ingredients

1/2 cup Pepperidge Farm herb seasoned dry stuffing mix

1/4 cup whole milk

Extra virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped and divided between layers

2 fat handfuls washed kale leaves, chopped (heavy stems removed)* (see notes)

1 tsp. Umami seasoning (powdered mushroom flavor from Trader Joe’s)*

1 large sweet potato, scrubbed clean and baked*

2 large Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks

3 Tbsp. butter, melted

1 egg white

1/4 cup grated parm-romano blend

1 lb. ground turkey*

1 large egg

1/2 tsp. poultry seasoning

2 Tbsp. chopped sun-dried tomatoes

*Notes

I had a big bag of kale already in the fridge, but if you prefer, you could substitute spinach. I think shredded brussels sprouts would also be excellent here.

Can’t get your hands on the umami seasoning? No problem. Chop up a few mushrooms very fine and toss them into the skillet ahead of the kale, to give them time to sweat out their moisture.

I’ve listed the sweet potato as “baked” because I had one leftover. If you prefer, cut up the sweet potato and cook on the stovetop along with the Yukon golds.

If you opt for ground turkey breast, the mixture may be a bit drier than regular ground turkey. Consider adding a drizzle of olive oil to the meat mixture to make up the moisture difference.


Instructions


  1. Preheat oven to 350° F.
  2. In a small bowl, combine the dry stuffing mix with the milk and allow it to rest a bit. Stir the mixture occasionally to ensure all liquid gets absorbed and the mixture becomes paste-like.
  3. Place cut-up potatoes in a medium pot and boil gently over medium heat until they are just barely fork tender. Drain and transfer to a bowl. Add butter, egg white, parmesan and freshly ground black pepper. Stir to combine.
  4. While potatoes cook, place a non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add a drizzle of olive oil and sauté half of the chopped onions until softened and somewhat translucent. Season with poultry seasoning, salt and pepper.
  5. Remove half of the cooked onions to a large bowl, along with the raw ground turkey. Add egg, sun-dried tomatoes, stuffing paste, salt and pepper. Stir to combine, then set aside.
  6. To the same onion skillet, add the chopped kale and sauté (use a bit more oil if needed) until kale is wilted and softened. Sprinkle with umami mushroom seasoning and stir to blend.
  7. Time to assemble the mini meatloaves! Spray the cups of your mini pan with olive oil spray, then fill each cavity about halfway with the turkey mixture. Press down with a fork or spoon to ensure the meat is packed thoroughly to the edges. Next, divide the kale mixture over the turkey layer, and press down again. Finally, top the loaves with the mashed potato mixture.
  8. Press the potato mixture with the tines of a fork to leave lines on top.
  9. Bake the meatloaves for 35-45 minutes (depending on the size of your mini pan cavities—for muffin tins, check doneness after 35 minutes. My meatloaf pan had cavities for 8 mini loaves and it took 45 minutes).
Just these, and a little dab of cranberry relish, and you’d have a complete Thanksgiving mini-meal! 🙂

Want to make this recipe?

Follow the steps and pictures above, or click below to download a printable version for your recipe files!