I experienced my first memorable fall in September 2001, when I moved to San Francisco. My friend’s parents had a house in northern Marin County where the back porch was nestled into the edge of the wooded area with trees that were starting to shed their foliage. In the early morning, you would see deer creeping up towards the houses, hearing the faint crunch of their hooves on the fallen leaves. I thought it was beautiful and magical. I mean, I grew up in San Diego and Honolulu – we never really got “fall” weather and I’d never seen a deer up close like that, much less an entire family of them peering at me curiously while I drank a cup of coffee.
While Northern California fall isn’t quite as dramatic as a New England fall, we still get the chilly air and the turning of leaves from green to yellow and red. If you drive through wine country, you will see that the vines have all changed too, signaling the end of grape harvest and the beginning of the cold and wet season to come. The subsequent appearance of pumpkins at the farmers market also means that the season is changing. Thick, hearty soups and warming spices like cinnamon and nutmeg come to mind. I get a mad craving for a Starbucks Pumpkin Latte or Spiced Apple Cider. And suddenly all I want to do is stay home and bake stuff – and I’m not even really all that much of a baker – but the real scent of warm pumpkin or apple wafting through the house from the oven? Better than any candle could possibly duplicate.
The recipe I’m sharing today incorporates two of my favorite things – pumpkin and pasta. The combination of this rich squash and a bit of cheese makes this lasagna so luxurious and comforting. For the best results, pick a pumpkin that is meant for cooking – I like a variety commonly called a Cinderella pumpkin. Heirloom varieties often have more flavor, so you may want to opt for one of those.
If you can’t (or don’t have to time) to deal with a real pumpkin, you can substitute canned pumpkin – just be aware that canned pumpkin isn’t usually pumpkin at all. I love using homemade pumpkin puree, made by simply cutting the pumpkin in half, scooping out the seeds, and roasting face down on a baking sheet for an hour or until fork-tender. Scoop out the insides, put the pulp into a blender, and if necessary add a tablespoon or two of water to get it going. You don’t want your puree to be watery so be conservative with how much water you’re adding. If you’ve found you’ve added too much, you can put it in a pot and simmer it until some of the water evaporates.
PUMPKIN PARMESAN LASAGNA
Serves 4, but this can easily be multiplied for a crowd!
1 box no boil lasagna noodles (Trader Joe’s has some that actually fit the 8×8 pan well)
1/2 cup bechamel sauce
1 lb. sliced brown cremini mushrooms
1 lb. spinach, steamed and pressed to remove as much moisture as possible
1/2 lb. shredded mozzarella
a few pinches of shredded parmesan to top off the lasagna
Pumpkin Parmesan Sauce (below)
For the sauce:
32 oz. pumpkin puree (canned or fresh)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon of fresh chopped sage
1/2 cup half and half or heavy cream
1/3 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1/4 c. chicken or vegetable broth
You will need:
8″x8″ baking dish
In a 4-qt. saucepan or Dutch oven, heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil on medium-high heat. Add the sage to the hot oil, let fry for about 30 seconds, then add minced garlic. Be careful not to brown the garlic. Add the pumpkin puree and lower the heat to medium-low and add the cream and chicken broth. Stir well and then cover and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring every so often. You can simmer for longer, the flavors will blend together the longer it sits, just be sure to check that the sauce does not reduce too much. If it does, you can add a little more chicken broth to thin it out. Stir in the Parmesan cheese and season with salt & pepper to taste. Put to the side.
Heat a medium saute pan, then add a few tablespoons of olive oil. Brown mushrooms then add spinach and season with salt & pepper. Put to side.
Assembling the lasagna:
Preheat your oven to 375F. Put some pumpkin sauce in the bottom of your baking dish, then lasagna noodles, breaking them to fit if necessary. Add another layer of pumpkin sauce, followed by 1/2 of the veggie mixture, then 1/2 of the bechamel, then 1/3 of the mozzarella. I like to add another layer of pumpkin sauce, then start again with the lasagna noodles. The key is that you want your noodles coated with sauce so they cook through. After your next layer of lasagna noodles, you can top with pumpkin sauce, mozzarella, and the last bit of Parmesan cheese. Cover loosely with tin foil and put in the oven for about 45 minutes. At about the 30 minute mark, remove the tin foil so that the top of the lasagna can brown.