For some reason, every year when fall rolls around I find myself spending more time in the kitchen and making more elaborate meals. I’m not sure if it’s because the weather is cooler, so being in a hot kitchen for hours is more pleasant or because I just like fall food more, so I’m more motivated or some other reason entirely. (Or maybe it’s just the association of the whole season with Thanksgiving.) Regardless, I’ve come to regard fall as the time to try out involved, multi-step recipes. This one definitely fits the bill, and it’s well worth it.
It takes a bit of time to put together each of the components of this dish, but none of the steps are terribly difficult…just time consuming when you add them up. The most time consuming step is probably making the squash “lasagna noodles”, but even that’s just peeling and slicing squash, then blanching it. And it’s completely worth it…I’ve always thought the noodles in a traditional lasagna were more filler than anything; sure they provide structure, but they don’t really add much to the flavor of the dish. (Plus noodles made from squash are just cool.) This dish doesn’t really have any filler ingredients; every component has a bold flavor, yet those flavors are well balanced in the final dish. You can distinctly taste the squash, kale, sage, swiss and nutmeg, but no one flavor dominates.
I would, however, change the texture a bit if I could. As it stands now, the texture is a bit on the soft side…not quite, but almost, mushy. I think adding toasted pine nuts to the kale layer would add some welcome toothsomeness, as well as reinforcing the caramelized flavor of the onions. Don’t get me wrong, it’s lovely as is, but there’s always some small improvement to be made in any recipe. For those of you who think a meal just isn’t complete without meat, you could easily add some crumbled, cooked Italian sausage, either in the kale layer or as a separate layer. I definitely don’t think the dish needs the meat, but it wouldn’t hurt.
You might have noticed that this recipe uses only the necks of the butternut squash, so you’ll end up with the bulbous ends of the butternut squash left over; you can’t really make a good lasagna noodle with a big hole in the middle where the seeds were removed. (You might also end up with some extra squash slices, depending on the size of your squash, but better too many than too few.) You could steam them with some sage brown butter, make them into soup or simply roast them whole. There’s never a shortage of options for winter squash.
You can do everything except baking the casserole a day in advance or even prep all the ingredients one day, assemble the next and bake the third. You could even freeze it (unbaked) for later.
This recipe will make one 9×13 casserole or two smaller casseroles: one for now and one for later.
If you’re planning to assemble the recipe in advance, use a bit less sage. In the recipe as written here, the flavors meld together into a harmonious whole very well when the components are assembled, baked ans served immediately. However, if they’re allowed to sit and meld together, the sage starts to creep into the other components and overwhelm the balance of flavors. (This is true if you bake it, then eat the leftovers for lunch too.) Simply using a bit less sage upfront will mitigate that.
5 Tbsp butter, divided
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
2 large butternut squash, necks only, sliced about 1/16th inch thick (Use a mandoline.)
2 oz flour
1 tsp nutmeg
4 cups milk
2 bunches kale, stems removed and roughly chopped
8 oz swiss cheese, grated
4 oz parmesan cheese, grated
(a bit less than) 1/4 cup sage
(a bit more than) 1/4 cup parsley
Prep the vegetables:
Melt 1 Tbsp butter, then saute the onions over medium-low heat until lightly browned all over, approximately 20 minutes. Set aside.
Blanch the squash slices in batches in boiling water for 2 minutes, then immediately plunge into ice water. They’ll be just starting to get tender, but still somewhat crisp. After the squash has cooled, lay it out on towels in a single layer to dry off. Set aside.
Blanch the kale in batches in boiling water for about 1 minute, then immediately plunge into ice water. Drain the kale, then squeeze out the excess water. Mix in the onions, sage and parsley. Add salt to taste. Set aside.
Melt the remaining butter in a medium saucepan and stir in the flour to form a roux. Cook, stirring occasionally until the roux is light golden brown. Stir in the nutmeg. Add the milk a bit at a time, stirring until completely mixed each time. Once all the milk is incorporated, bring to a boil, then simmer over low heat for about 20 minutes until the sauce has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon. Add about 2/3 of the swiss and parmesan and stir until melted. Add salt to taste. Set aside.
Assemble and bake the lasagna:
Preheat the oven to 350 F. In a 9×13 casserole, cover the bottom with squash slices. Overlap the slices a bit; it’s better to have overlap than gaps. Spread about half the kale mixture over the squash slices. Spoon enough béchamel over the kale to barely cover. Repeat with layers of squash, kale, béchamel, squash and béchamel. Sprinkle the remaining swiss and parmesan over the top layer of béchamel, then sprinkle breadcrumbs over the cheese.
The layers should go as follows:
Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the casserole is bubbly and the cheese and breadcrumbs are browned. If the casserole gets all bubbly before the top is browned, pop it under the broiler for a minute or two.
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