Whenever my food magazines arrive in the mail I am always happy to see them and this time of year is the best. Each November and December issue is chock full of holiday sweets for me to pore over, sift through and ultimately tackle. So it was with relish that I opened the most recent Food & Wine and happened upon the page, “Readers Share Their Best Holiday Memories.” I was sure that nestled among the “Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go” treacle there’d be some biting anecdote about a fist fight over the last turkey leg or the time Uncle Inappropriate drank all the Andre Cold Duck and said something X-rated to an underage guest. But no— earnest, sepia tinged nostalgia prevailed. Oh come on people, haven’t we all had holiday disasters? Hasn’t everyone spent a way too long weekend in close quarters with extended family barely resisting the urge to shove Cousin Jerk into the chestnuts roasting on an open fire?
Well, I know I have started many holidays with the best of intentions only to win the regression medal of honor. Although, what do you expect when you add adult siblings and their respective partners and children to high expectations and put them all under the roof of parents who are too happy to have the brood together again? That cocktail is bound to combust. This Thanksgiving I will not be doing a five day mega weekend away, rather just eating the one meal with the family.
Anyway, the warm and fuzzy memories of the Food & Wine readers were filled with annual ritual, something I’ve never really had. There were no regular pick-up football games against the cousins (we have neither a football nor local cousins) and no pilgrimage to a local soup kitchen (something I am not proud of). When I was really little my father took me to the Macy’s parade (not because he likes parades but because we lived four blocks from the starting point) and then we’d all get on the train and go to my grandmother’s on Long Island for Thanksgiving dinner. It took me a few years to realize this was somewhat fraught. Nana would make a big deal over the meal despite the fact that she didn’t cook any of it. Her housekeeper, the previously mentioned Ethel, did it all and served it in a way that made me so uncomfortable; she insisted on calling my father and grandfather “Monsieur” which was kind of weird since she wasn’t French and neither were they. Also, I felt terrible that she was working on a holiday. And to top it off she rubbed the turkey with garlic, which I hate, and so the only thing I liked were the marshmallow topped sweet potatoes.
After Nana moved to Florida (without Ethel—I’m not sure how she ate) we tried a variety of ways to deal with Turkey Day. I remember going to dinner at the home of family friends whom I didn’t like very much. They had creepy sons and creepier guests. There was a pair of sisters, around my age, who looked like those twins from The Shining—all under-eye shadows and sinister sneers. Plus, my mother made we wear a party dress that was ten times fancier than the corduroys the other kids got to wear so I felt like a nerd.
Then there was the year we went out to dinner with the family of my best friend to the restaurant in an Upper East Side hotel. I was happy because I felt like I was on All My Children celebrating Thanksgiving at the Pine Valley Inn. However, the actual meal was a bit of a problem. Deciding to break out of the turkey obligation I ordered “Buffalo Rib Eye Steak.” When the meat came I thought it tasted a little off and told the waiter. He obligingly brought me another order and I said the same thing. He remarked, “Miss, I’m afraid that is the way buffalo is supposed to taste.” What?! I had thought Buffalo Rib Eye was a cut of beef (that’s what you get when you’re a snotty teenager who refuses to sit at the end of the table with the parents who could have corrected that misperception before you tortured a waiter) not the actual meat from a buffalo. I changed my order to turkey and got a well-deserved eye-roll from the server.
After all these unpleasant experiences the next year my father and I spent the week before Thanksgiving trying to convince my mother that it would be more fun to go out for Chinese food. We lost that argument and learned that in fact Thanksgiving is my mother’s favorite holiday. She spent the ensuing years tweaking her dishes and despite a few stumbles (like when the smoke condition resulting from the high-heat technique she’d read about in the Times caused the parakeet of an upstairs neighbor to suffer respiratory distress), she had just settled on her annual menu when my sister married a vegetarian with whom she produced vegetarian daughters. This resulted in doubling up on the vegetables and making a meat-free, chicken broth-free stuffing. (Or is it dressing when it’s not cooked in the bird?) Frankly, we’re all trying to eat more vegetables and chill out with the animal protein so this year I decided to make a butternut squash lasagna to serve as a side dish for the turkey eaters and a main course for the brother-in-law and the nieces. I am putting it in the In Sweet Treatment category because the recipe calls for amaretti cookies, butternut squash is sweet, and I feel like it. The orange of the squash and flecks of green from the basil make this cheesy, sweet and salty dish perfectly autumnal. I hope this tasty addition becomes part of a new annual tradition and we all play nicely together. And if not, the liquor store is just around the corner. I wonder if they still make Andre Cold Duck?
New Tradition Butternut Squash Lasagna
from Giada's Family Dinners, Giada De Laurentiis 2006
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1 tablespoon olive oil
1 (1 1/2 to 2-pound) butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch cubes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup water
3 amaretti cookies, crumbled
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 1/2 cups whole milk
3/4 cup (lightly packed) fresh basil leaves
12 no-boil lasagna noodles
2 1/2 cups shredded whole-milk mozzarella cheese
1/3 cup grated Parmesan
Heat the oil in a heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the squash and toss to coat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Pour the water into the skillet and then cover and simmer over medium heat until the squash is tender, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes.
Cool slightly and then transfer the squash to a food processor. Add the amaretti cookies and blend until smooth. Season the squash puree, to taste, with more salt and pepper.
Melt the butter in a heavy medium-size saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk for 1 minute. Gradually whisk in the milk. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the sauce thickens slightly, whisking often, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the nutmeg. Cool for at least 5 minutes. Transfer half of the sauce to a blender. Add the basil and blend, pulsing on low a few times before going up to high and blending until smooth. Return the basil sauce to the sauce in the pan and stir to blend. Season the sauce with salt and pepper, to taste.
Position the rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees F.
Lightly butter a 13 by 9 by 2-inch glass baking dish. Spread 3/4 cup of the sauce over the prepared baking dish. Arrange 3 lasagna noodles on the bottom of the pan. Spread 1/3 of the squash puree over the noodles. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup of mozzarella cheese. Drizzle 1/2 cup of sauce over the noodles. Repeat layering 3 more times.
Tightly cover the baking dish with foil and bake the lasagna for 40 minutes. Sprinkle the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses over the lasagna.
Continue baking uncovered until the sauce bubbles and the top is golden, 15 minutes longer. Let the lasagna stand for 15 minutes before serving.
Yield: 8-10 servings