The instant the air gets the faintest idea of a chill in its head, everything turns delicious – and the food, spectacular though it undeniably is, is the least of it. Every year, no matter where you are in life, the earth spends a little time paused, full of the most electric potential, between abundance and decay; and it gives you permission to steal a little bit of each.
Fall is a consuming crush on a beautiful new boy at the beginning of the sixth grade. Later, you will imprudently hatch a plan to mail a strongly worded love letter to his house. And, because you are eleven, you will actually – inconceivably! – carry through with this plan. He will swiftly hand over the letter to his impish future publicist of a best friend, who will show everyone you’ve ever known, shattering your fragile skeleton of a social life for months. But that will happen in late winter, and this is fall, with just the crush and the chill and the moment.
Fall is Italian 101 on the most beautiful Gothic campus ever to grace the earth, when learning to count to venti and shout buon giorno across the quad might just mean that by the end of the following year you will be fluent and living in a wildflower-strewn Tuscan villa where the sun is always setting. Or, possibly, you will be living with three roommates in a craptacular sixth-floor two-bedroom walkup in a graceless section of Manhattan, putting in ten hours a day at a dysfunctional ad agency whose only clients are a couple of expat Finns and a Japanese steakhouse. Quite possibly you will spend many nights eating tuna for dinner – and not, in fact, the fancy Italian kind – directly from the can, conveniently raising your blood-mercury level to the point where you do not need to pay the electric bill to light the room. But this is fall, and for now it’s Tuscany or bust.
Fall is a wedding, a baby girl. It is fancying yourself a corporate lawyer for a while, and at least enjoying the excuse to wear DVF dresses with egregiously expensive patterned tights. Fall is savoring the fact that you’ve lived through these complicated seasons, being grateful that you experience your days more deeply because of it, and mustering the nerve to start it all over again.
This year, fall is spending the stormy afternoon hours of a late-September Friday reading to two scrumptious little girls, and realizing that you are reading to your Whole Family. It is baking yourself the world’s most popular chocolate birthday cake (even slaying your inner Martha and letting the family decorate it for you) with a little person who, for the first time, really cares whether mom feels special on her birthday.
And, not for nothing, fall is Kabocha Squash, Radicchio and Mushroom Lasagne, which is a surprisingly large part of umami girl’s raison d’etre. This dish was one of my favorite entries in the recipe journal that was the offline predecessor to this blog.
Though the journal contained nothing more than notes and recipes of what we’d served to various friends and family throughout 2007, at some point I realized that it held substantial emotional consequence for me, and that it might be saying something useful about the shape my life could take – the way a journal of actual feelings might do for another person. Turned out I really, really liked cooking for family and friends. Like, really, really liked it a lot. And that I might just quit my job and do it, like, all the time. And maybe go out on a date with it. And slow dance with it to “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” And – you see where this is going – write it a strongly worded love letter. Which, obviously, I would rip up.
Kabocha Squash, Radicchio and Mushroom Lasagne
1. Roast and prepare the squash.
Preheat the oven to 400. Place:
1 whole medium-sized kabocha squash*
in a shallow roasting pan and roast for about an hour, until it is easily pierced through the skin with a fork. (Leave the oven on for the lasagne when you remove the squash.) Let the squash cool, then cut it in half, remove and discard the seeds, and scoop out the pulp into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Puree until smooth.
* It turns out that a tremendous benefit of coordinating a CSA in the fall is that to mention how much you love kabocha squash is to find a crate of them awaiting distribution in your garage the following Tuesday. If you’re not so lucky and have trouble finding kabocha, butternut is a fine substitute.
4 Tablespoons butter
in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add:
1 Tablespoon each chopped fresh sage and thyme
and cook for one minute. Add:
1/4 cup flour
all at once and cook, whisking constantly, for one minute. Add:
4 cups whole milk
Raise the heat to high, and bring to a boil while continuing to whisk constantly. When the mixture boils, reduce to a simmer and cook for about five minutes, until thickened slightly. Remove from the heat and stir in the squash puree, along with:
A pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
A pinch of cayenne
Salt and pepper to taste
1 Tablespoon olive oil
in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add:
1 medium onion, finely diced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 lb. button mushrooms, sliced
Saute until the mushrooms have released and then reabsorbed their liquid. Then add:
1 medium head radicchio, cored and shredded
Saute, stirring often, for two minutes. Then add 2 Tablespoons of water, cover the pan and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the radicchio has just wilted. Allow the mixture to cool slightly.
4. Assemble and bake the lasagne.
Brush the bottom of a deep 9×13″ baking dish (or whatever ovenware you have, really) with olive oil and then cover with a thin layer of the bechamel. Layer:
1 9-ounce package no-boil lasagne noodles
1 pound fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced (optional, but good!)
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
along with the bechamel and the sauteed veggies until you’ve used up all the ingredients, ideally ending with a layer of noodles smothered with bechamel and sprinkled with pecorino. Bake at 400 for about 45 minutes, until browned and bubbly.
P.S. I’m very happy to announce that umami girl has joined the BlogHer network. From now on, you’ll see a rotating list of links to some other food blogs in the network below an ad on the right-hand side of the screen. I’ve been checking out many of the blogs myself, and there are some really terrific ones in the network. Hope you’ll enjoy them!