Italian Sausage, Butternut Squash & Béchamel Lasagna

November 12, 2014

20141112-074630.jpg The question I have been asked the most often this week is what did we make for dinner when Dorie Greenspan and her husband came for a meal. We just really wanted to serve something super comforting as we knew they would be traveling a ton on her book tour and eating out mostly, so a home cooked meal might be most welcome. With the dining table ablaze with candles we dined on Mister Sive’s specialty–Italian Sausage, Butternut Squash & Béchamel Lasagna. This truly is one of my favorite things in the world to eat. That my husband makes it so sublimely only adds to my happiness. He was so kind to write out his recipe for everyone. So today, the post is courtesy of him.

Like a lot of cooks, I love the adventure of combining and mixing and meshing in new ways. About 10 years ago I was inspired by two food tales to create a new dish. One was the raving by family of a traditional Italian béchamel lasagna cooked by our (now fab professional chef) niece, the other Martha Stewart cooking a recipe of simple pasta with squash. Hmmmm, I pondered, adding to the savory sweetness of squash the creaminess of béchamel? This dish is great Fall and Winter comfort food, and as requested often, is a sure part of my maintaining domestic happiness with Mr. Watson.

What follows is a more or less double recipe from the typical lasagna; we have a 10 x 18 roasting pan with good thick bottom (to spread the heat) that’s perfect for this, rectangular and deep, as I like 5 layers of pasta. I think key is separating different flavors in different layers, so you get the overall heavenly gooey blend, but also the bursts of specific tastes in their own layer. As I’ve stated before, these measurements are targets: adjust to your taste, intrigue and market availability.
1. Although frozen squash puree is a fine choice, nothing beats a thick puree from fresh butternut squash. Skin, cube into 2” or so, steam, and puree in your food processor or food mill. Add liquid (water, veggie stock, fresh Hudson Valley apple cider was a recent choice) and blend to a medium consistency: a good amount of liquid, but not too runny.
2. At the same time roast another ½ or so of a butternut squash to TKW’s standard guide: peel, cube, dose with olive oil and salt, and roast separated on a sheet pan at 425. 1 ½ inch or so is a good size for roasting. You’ll want to cut in half again before composing the lasagna, but roasting at that size would risk drying out the squash.
3. Chop coarsely (1/3 inch) a big sweet onion, yielding maybe 2 cups or even more. Sauté in olive oil in a large saucepan and after about 2 minutes, just after they soften and starting to get golden, add 2 pounds of ground sausage. I like half sweet Italian, half hot; but choose to your taste! If you go for the milder varieties, you might add several cloves of chopped garlic to the onions and before the sausage. Make sure to break up the sausage as it cooks. Cook until just browned. Here too it’s good to add a bit of stock (chicken, vegetable, that cider, whatever inspires you) to help moisten the lasagna and spread the meat when you’re layering.
4. For the cheesiness: grate 2 pounds of mozzarella; have a 32 oz container of ricotta at room temp; and about ¼ cup or so of grated asiago or parmesan.
5. Prepare a béchamel or white sauce so you have a good 3-4 cups when finished. I add a good dose of pepper and lots of fresh sage (10ish leaves), adding a strong earthy base to the dish.

To the layering:
1. For the very bottom of the pan, spread a little bit of olive oil and some of the juices from the opinion and sausage moisture.
2. Place your first layer of noodles. (For many years I’ve used the Barilla non-cook version, which works well. Traditional cooked noodles, though more work, add a superior texture and slightly lighter flavor. This recipe uses almost 2 boxes.)
3. Spread ½ of the squash puree, ½ of the squash pieces, and then drop ½ of the ricotta in medium dollops throughout the layer. The lightness of the ricotta mixes well with the squash and yields a visible and tasty layer of yummy orange.
4. Spread another layer of noodles.
5. Spread ½ of the sausage mix, ½ of the mozzarella, and ½ of the béchamel. This layer becomes that more traditional blend of meat, cheese and sauce.
6. Repeat steps 2-5.
7. Add a final layer of noodles, and top that with the parmesan or asiago spread thinly. If all that’s not enough, you can add dabs of butter for a final hit of sweet creaminess…

Bake in a 340 degree oven for about 45 minutes, covered lightly with aluminum foil to keep in most of the moisture, but not get caught in the cheese. Take the foil off for the last 15 minutes or so, to crisp and caramelize the top a bit. Served with a hearty kale salad or some simple greens, and a hearty red wine. Eat slowly, pause, tell another story, and have seconds. Ted W insists the leftovers are even better.

As with all the best dishes, you can vary in unlimited ways. At Hawthorne for one of our dearest friend’s birthday, we used amazing local Andouille sausage from Cool Whisper Farm (Route 21C in Ghent) with lots of local cider. Awesome. Other times I’ve emphasized the sage or used more intensely flavored cheeses.