Sunday, January 11, 2009


I'm sort of an impatient cook. I love the process of combining, adding heat, seasoning and the like, but I really don't like prep work. I just find it tedious. I want to get down to business and cook. I don't mind chopping the occasional onion or clove of garlic, or peeling a few potatoes, but some foods are just so needy in the prep department.

Take butternut squash. Not only do you have to peel it, but the peel scores off the charts in a Knoop hardness test. Because of its shape, you have to separate the neck from the bulbous bottom and cut them up separately. The seeds have to be scraped out of the cavity, which always leaves a weird slimy-yet-dry film on my hands, and then the whole thing has to be cut into chunks. What a drag.

But last week I had bought a butternut squash (because despite the hassle of getting it ready, I love it), and it was just lying there on the kitchen counter, staring at me. It was almost as though it was challenging me to take it on. "C'mon, ya wimp," I could almost hear it say, "let's go." I haven't been getting enough sleep lately.

I tackled that squash, chunked it up, and stuck it in a ziplock bag in the refrigerator. Vanquished! But it was a hollow victory. I mean, you know, now what?

Interestingly, a memory of a failed vegetable lasagna wafted through my mind. It had seemed like such a good idea, but it had been a complete flop; not enough sauce and the pan the recipe called for had been far too big for the noodles and vegetables. It wound up being a sort of mound of barely moistened mush in a vast sea of enameled cast iron. I was kind of surprised too, because it came from a magazine that usually has pretty decent recipes (I won't point fingers, but the magazine's name rhymes with Hooking Plight). Could I do better?

Well I won't keep you in suspense: turns out I could. Using an idea from another set of recipes from that same magazine (successful ones, of course), I made a bang-up Roasted Butternut Squash and Pancetta Lasagna. It had started out to be just a roasted squash lasagna, but Carl Carnivore (aka the guy I married) asked for some kind of protein in it.

I roasted the squash with some olive oil, salt and pepper, and baked off the pancetta. In the first iteration of this recipe, I just cooked the pancetta to a fare-thee-well and crumbled it up. That worked OK, but it made the end result pretty salty, I thought (and for me to say something is salty means that it probably had a salinity level somewhere around that of the Dead Sea). The second time I made sure that the amount of pancetta was controlled--I limited it to 1/4 pound, whereas the first time I just chucked in everything I had on hand, which was probably closer to a third of a pound.

This recipe makes four servings (albeit fairly large ones; I've found that a half serving is ample for lunch). The creamy sauce that binds it is actually surprisingly low in fat because of the evaporated milk used, although with the pancetta, mozzarella and parmesan it doesn't necessarily qualify as a low fat recipe. Still, if you were restrained with the amount of cheese you used, you could get away with calling this reasonably healthy.

So the next time you have a butternut squash staring you in the face, challenging you to a smack-down, grab some pancetta and sage, and start prepping. I can't give you any quick and easy tips on peeling butternut squash--I just gnash my teeth and snarl through it--but I can say that this is a great thing to do with it when you've conquered it.

Butternut Squash and Pancetta Lasagna
makes 4 dinner servings, or two dinner servings and four lunch servings

1 butternut squash (about 3 cups peeled and cubed)
1/4 pound pancetta
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
2 - 12 oz cans evaporated skim milk
1/4 cup chopped fresh sage
1/3 cup shredded parmesan cheese
2/3 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
6 no boil lasagna noodles
olive oil
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Toss squash with 2-3 tablespoons olive oil, salt and pepper in a 9" x 13" roasting pan. Roast until squash is browning on the edges and corners, about 40 minutes. Cook pancetta in a 9" x 13" roasting pan until quite crisp, 15-20 minutes.

Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add flour and whisk for about 3 minutes to take the raw flour edge off, but not enough to brown the flour. All at once add both cans evaporated skim milk and whisk to combine. Cook about 5 minutes, then add chopped sage, parmesan, salt and pepper (go easy on the salt--remember, you've got that salty pancetta going in; the sauce should have just enough salt not to taste bland, but not so much that it tastes actually salty). Cook until the sauce is thickened, about the consistency of half and half (if it reaches the consistency of heavy cream, it's slightly too thick--add some milk to thin). This will take about ten or 15 minutes.

In an 8" square pan coated with cooking spray, cover the bottom with about 1/2 cup of the sauce. Place 2 no boil lasagna noodles on top of the sauce. Spoon half of the squash over the noodles, and scatter with four slices of the pancetta that have been crumbled into small pieces. Spoon another half cup (or so--a little more if necessary) of sauce over the filling. Top with two more noodles, squash and pancetta, and sauce. Place the last two noodles on top of the squash filling, and pour the remaining sauce over them. Top with the shredded mozzarella.

Bake at 450 for 25 minutes or until bubbling and cheese is browned. Allow to rest for 5-10 minutes. Cut into four pieces and serve.

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