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.




Ratatouille Lasagna Roll-ups

The summer season brings all the garden-fresh vegetables I love, including zucchini and eggplant, which I would definitely be growing in our little garden plot if it weren’t for the deer. Year after year, I have tried in vain to grow my own veggies, and the increase of deer activity on our property and that of our neighbors has been almost humorous. Almost.

Gardening, for me, started as a fun, nature-loving adventure but has rapidly declined into a frustrating drama, and now we have this elevated box in our yard, where we cannot grow anything but marigolds and basil, which have proven to be the only things our local deer detest. Last year’s garden was demolished, right down to the flowers and budding fruit of the eggplants and even the jalapeno pepper plants (which I had been told deer would never eat). We have tried all the folk remedies on the internet—human hair, shavings of bar soap, peppermint oil, so-called deer repellent, and even a weird concoction I made from rotten eggs, cayenne and dish soap. That last remedy had near-catastrophic results, but I won’t embarrass my husband again with that story (you can read it here, if you’d like). This year, we didn’t even bother planting a garden, and I’m contemplating turning the raised bed into some kind of wildflower bed. I get exasperated just thinking about it.

To make up for a lack of homegrown veggies, we are regularly visiting our weekly Cobblestone farmers’ market, which features a variety of vendors offering fresh produce as well as pastured meat, eggs, organic mushrooms, jams and preserves, and even handmade alpaca wool products. It’s a fun way to spend an hour on a Saturday morning, and this past weekend, we came home with everything I needed for a new batch of ratatouille. Ah, my favorite veggie-centered summer meal!

Classic ratatouille ingredients = zucchini, eggplant, pepper, onions (leeks this time), tomato and herbs de Provence!

Me being me, though, I cannot simply chop up these ingredients and make a “traditional” ratatouille, which would be a rustic casserole-meets-stew kind of thing. I have to twist it up! My culinary muse inspired me this time to combine the French classic dish with another favorite comfort food—lasagna. I figured that I could infuse my herbs de Provence seasoning into a ricotta mixture with lemon zest and some grated cheese and that it would be the “glue” to hold the other ingredients together inside a rolled-up lasagna noodle. The eggplant and zucchini would be sliced and roasted, and the red pepper would be worked into the sauce. This is how my mind sees a pile of ingredients, and the end result was exactly as I had imagined, both visually and in perfect summer flavor. Delicious!

Inside, you can see and taste all the flavors of a summer ratatouille!

This reimagined one-dish meal took mostly time to put together; it was not at all difficult. I cannot say definitively how much time is needed because I was cooking all day, in between work emails and other home tasks. I will say that it was mostly passive time; I was either waiting for things to lose moisture or to finish roasting or to boil or bake. The rest was just slicing, chopping and stirring, and there’s no particular order that must be followed. You could even make everything a day ahead and just assemble and bake it the next day.


The entire ratatouille-meets-lasagna project weaved itself nicely into my busy day, and because each ingredient received its own treatment, the simplest way I can describe it is to share the process of each component. I’ll share a PDF version of the recipe at the end if you want to try it, but I’ll let the pictures tell the story in today’s post. Here we go! 🙂


The Ricotta Filling


The Eggplant


The Zucchini


The Red Bell Pepper


The Onions


The Tomatoes

The only classic ratatouille ingredient remaining is tomato, and though my ingredients photo displays a big, lovely heirloom tomato from the farmers’ market, I thought better of it when I began cooking my ratatouille. The heirloom tomato would have been full of seeds and too juicy for this dish, so I cast it aside and used half a can of San Marzano tomatoes instead to produce a fusion sauce, together with the roasted red pepper and a healthy dose of garlic. This sauce was similar to the roasted red pepper sauce that my husband, Les, discovered last year, but it leans more toward tomato than pepper. It was exactly what this recipe needed.


Putting it all together

Assembling and finishing my ratatouille lasagna roll-ups was a cinch! I par-cooked the lasagna noodles until they were soft and flexible, spread the ricotta mixture onto them, layered the eggplant, zucchini and leeks and rolled them up!


First ratatouille of the summer! 🙂

Oh, and that plump, juicy heirloom tomato I mentioned found its way instead to a BLT, which we enjoyed as a separate meal on freshly baked sourdough bread with local greens and some pastured pork bacon (also from the farmers’ market).

Who needs a garden, anyway? 😉



Ricotta Squash Blossoms

A couple of unexpected things have begun to happen since I first started this blog back in April. The first is that I’m getting more serious about using up foods from the freezer and the other is that I’m finally tackling some of the foods on my culinary “bucket list.” I keep a running list of dishes I’d like to try one day—either because I’ve seen it in a magazine or cooking show or because I’ve tasted it somewhere. And when I taste something and love it, my instinct is “I’ve got to make that!” As of now, the list includes (among other things) pierogis, handmade mozzarella, and black-and-white cookies, a childhood favorite of Les, my NYC-raised husband.

Today, I can scratch off a dish that I only added to the list as a “maybe someday” item—fried squash blossoms. I’d never dared even think about what was involved in making these lovely delicacies, but I knew how delicious they are from a wine dinner menu years ago at one of our city’s authentic Italian restaurants. So I added them to the list even though they intimidated me.

Last week, once the shock of discovering life in my raised-bed garden wore off, I got serious about trying them for real. After all, I had a hearty handful of these perfect little blossoms, and what’s the worst that could happen—I’d fail?

The thing is, it was not a failure at all. Quite the contrary. They were surprisingly simple (yes, really) and perfectly delicious. I scanned a few internet recipes for suggestions of what they should be stuffed with and to learn how to fry them without overwhelming their delicate structure, and then I got to work. When I launched Comfort du Jour, I had two goals, but I’ve put most of my effort toward only one of them—taking a classic comfort food to new levels. This project is a delicious example of my second goal—finding a way to make a complex or intimidating dish more approachable.

Before you shake your head and decide you could never make these, let me put this out there—if you can pick a flower and if you can squeeze ricotta cheese from a corner-cut zip top bag, you can make these. Yes, it’s really that simple. Grab an apron and let’s get started.


Ingredients

Handful of freshly picked squash blossoms* (see notes below)

3/4 cup whole milk ricotta cheese

Handful of fresh basil leaves*

1/4 cup grated parm-romano cheese

Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 can chilled, unflavored seltzer water (or club soda or very mild beer)

1/2 cup canola oil for frying*


*Notes

In my First Fruits post earlier this week, I pointed out what I’d learned about squash plants having “male” and “female” blossoms. For this recipe, I used only male blossoms. It’s easy to identify them because they don’t show the beginnings of any tiny squash fruit. Once the female blossoms have been pollinated (as mine were), the male flowers are basically just decoration.

Basil is one of those polarizing herbs. Some people swear it tastes like dish soap, and I’d hate for that to stop anyone from trying these special treats. Swap the basil out for thyme, parsley or oregano as you like.

Another neutral oil would be fine for frying. Be sure it is an oil with a high smoke point, such as avocado, coconut or grapeseed oil.

Instructions


  1. Place the ricotta in a mesh strainer over a measuring cup to drain excess moisture.
  2. Carefully reach inside the squash blossoms and remove the stamen, which is a bulbous yellow thing inside. It’s the, um—how shall I say it?—male part of the blossom. Don’t worry if the petals tear a little bit. And may I suggest that you consider doing this step outside at the garden. I made a first-timer’s mistake of doing this at the kitchen sink and scared the bejeezus out of a pollinator bee inside a blossom. Sadly, I had to smash it in the sink because Les is terribly allergic to bee stings. I felt awful about it, but I went through a lot to find this wonderful man, and it was him or the bee.
  3. Rinse the blossoms under cold running water, and gently shake them to empty out excess water. Lay them on a couple layers of paper towel to drain.
  4. Rinse and blot dry the fresh basil leaves, then stack and chop them into small pieces. Mix the basil leaves into the strained ricotta, along with the parm-romano cheese, salt and pepper. Spoon the ricotta mixture into a small zip top bag and seal it.
  5. Snip a small corner off one end of the zip top bag, and gently squeeze a heaping tablespoon of the ricotta mixture inside each blossom. The blossoms will “give” a little bit as you go, and it will feel obvious that you’ve filled them enough. Stretch the blossom petals around to fully cover the filling and twist the tops very gently to seal them up. They don’t have to be perfect, but the goal is to keep the filling from spilling out during frying. Rest the filled blossoms on a paper towel while you prepare the batter and frying oil.
  6. Place a cast-iron skillet over medium heat and add the canola oil. This is not a lot of oil, so it will heat up fairly quickly. It should be about 1/2″ deep in your skillet.
  7. In a medium-size bowl, mix some salt and pepper into the flour, and stir in enough seltzer water to make a thin batter. It will bubble quite a bit, and that’s a good thing. It should be thinner than pancake batter, but not quite as thin as heavy cream. When I dipped the blossoms into the batter, they were coated, but I could still see them through the batter.
  8. Very gently lay the blossoms into the hot oil and be careful not to crowd them or they will stick together. When the bottom side is lightly golden and crisp, turn them to cook the other side. Drain the fried blossoms on fresh paper towels, sprinkle immediately with sea salt and serve.
They were so pretty, and remarkably easy to make. I’m proud of myself for this elegant appetizer!

Oh yes.

So light and crispy, and they didn’t need any kind of dipping sauce or other accoutrements. To keep our dinner easy and light that evening, I put together a simple tomato sauce (thank you, leftovers) with bucatini pasta. These three pictures describe how easy that was, and it really needs no additional explanation. Simple is good, right?

If this is how they eat in Italy, I want to move there tomorrow!

My “bucket list” experiment of making fried squash blossoms ended very, very well. It was also Les’s first experience tasting them, and though skeptical at first, he declared during dinner that he was a fan.

These were Les’s first ever squash blossoms, and he really enjoyed them.

Do you have foods on a bucket list? Tell me about it in the comments, and then go cook them. Be brave in your kitchen!

Want to print this recipe?