“It’s a cantaloupe!” insisted one student.
“It’s a sweet potato!” speculated another.
“No, it’s a gourde!”
Your’re getting close. In fact, the strange object being attacked with a cleaver is a butternut squash–one of the so-called hard squashes–which helps explain the need for a hammer and cleaver to cut it in half.
The purpose of this exercise is to get at the meat inside the squash and turn it into a filling for a delicious butternut squash lasagna. Unheard of, you say? Well, it may not be a classic, exactly, but it’s a perfect fall dish and sure hits the spot. We had untold numbers of teachers and parents wander into our kitchen this week to exclaim, “Whatever you’re cooking in here sure smells good!”
A little like pumpkin pie, spiced with nutmeg, cinnamon and–surprise!–fennel. But no added sugar. The squash filling is topped with a bechamel sauce flavored with sage and garlic.
Be prepared to get a few utensils dirty if you make this lasagna. There’s also a fairly lengthy list of ingredients. But don’t be deterred, as the end result is well worth the effort. There are two basic steps to keep in mind: making a filling, then making a sauce. Once those are done, you simply layer them in a pan with lasagna noodles and cheese. We skipped the hassle of cooking the noodles and used “no boil” pasta instead.
For the filling you’ll need:
1 medium butternut squash, about 2 pounds
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage
1 teaspoon ground fennel
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup ricotta cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
2 large eggs, beaten
The hardest part here is cutting the squash in half. As you can see in the photo above, I used a cleaver and a hammer. You could substitute a large chef’s knife. Just don’t use your best knife if you’re worried about scuffing it up with the hammer. Once that’s done, trim away the ends, then scoop out the seeds and remove the skin with a vegetable peeler. Cut the squash into 1-inch cubes and toss in a bowl with the olive oil, sage, fennel, salt, cinnamon, pepper and nutmeg. Spread the squash on a baking sheet and place in a 400-degree oven. Roast until the squash is cooked through, about 45 minutes.
Remove squash from the oven and set aside to cool. Scrape the squash into a mixing bowl, add the cheese and eggs and blend well with a potato masher. (Or, do this in a food processor.) Set aside.
Meanwhile, you can start your sauce:
3 tablespoons butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons finely chopped sage
1/4 cup flour
3 1/4 cups (or more) room-temperature milk
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
Melt the butter in a small, heavy saucepan over low heat. Stir in the garlic and sage and cook, stirring frequently, until the garlic is soft, about five minutes. Whisk in about 1/2 cup milk and turn up the heat. Stir, scraping the bottom and sides of the pan, until the mix begins to boil. Add more milk and continue adding milk and whisking in this fashion until all of the milk has been used, or until the sauce is just thick enough to heavily coat the back of a spoon. Reduce heat to keep sauce warm while you assemble the lasagna. It will continue to thicken without any further work on your part. (Note: sauces using flour must come to a boil into to thicken properly.)
For the final assembly, you’ll need about 1 cup grated Parmesan and 8 ounces grated mozzarella, as well as a pan or casserole approximately 8 1/2 inches by 8/ 1/2 inches square (no problem if all you have is a rectangle) and 2 1/2 inches deep. Grease the sides of the pan, then pour enough sauce to cover the bottom. Cover the sauce with sheets of pasta, spread a layer of squash filling over the pasta, then ladle sauce over the squash. Dust liberally with mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. Continue making layers until you reach almost to the top of the pan–or run out of ingredients, which ever comes first. Ladle the last of the sauce over the top and finish with a dusting of more cheese.
Set the pan in the center of a baking sheet, place on the middle rack of a 350-degree oven and bake 1 hour. Check on the lasagna occasionally. If the top looks like it is browning too quickly, cover the pan lightly with a sheet of aluminum foil. The finished lasagna should be fragrant and nicely browned.
Cut lasagna into individual squares and serve hot. Or, present the lasagna warm on a buffet with a hearty green salad.