Tricks to a Treat [Louisville Magazine]

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This article appears in the December 2011 issue of LouisvilleMagazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
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From the first time I hid grated zucchini in my chirpy-toddler son’s chocolate chip muffins until a few weeks ago when I got the now-surly teen to eat a veritable bucket of pumpkin, I have, over the years, scored unimaginable goals in coaxing the boy who is a vegetarian to, um, actually eat vegetables.

In this case, he was not the only one I had to fool. My husband remains convinced that pumpkin should be limited strictly to sweets. It doesn’t matter how many African- or Indian-influenced bowls of soup and stew the man has eaten and loved; he always has to be reminded: “Hey! You just ate pumpkin, and it wasn’t in a pie!” He keeps thinking he’s eating sweet potatoes — which, in a twist of fate, he does not consider sweet.

In fact, pretty much the only creatures around our house sold on the notion that pumpkin is delicious, no matter what, are the dogs. (FYI, canine owners who might be unaware: There is almost no food aside from a meat shank that dogs gobble up more ravenously than they do pumpkin. Also, it’s really, really good for them. For dogs, pumpkin is the opposite of chocolate. Want to keep a dog occupied during a dinner party? Put him outside with a can of pumpkin. You won’t see him for hours.)

Anyway, there I was, trolling the Internet, looking for savory things I had not already dreamed up to do with pumpkin (no Portnoy jokes, please), when — bam! — I found a recipe at foodandwine.com for pumpkin lasagna. The photo of the finished dish looked so golden and delicious. Not only did the recipe call for pumpkin, but it also called for sage! nutmeg! Swiss chard! (Chard is an ingredient I almost always have on hand, thanks to my master-gardener friend who is somehow able to get hers to grow nearly all year-round. How does she do it? Global warming may be a factor, but honestly, the woman is a magician.)

Thus, on the night in question, I already had the ingredients on hand. Plus a few more. I could tell by a quick gander at the recipe that in order for it to go down in my household, it would need some tweaking — for instance, the addition of garlic. Furthermore, I suspected that, as I learned long ago from the Silver Palate Cookbook authors, eggs would lighten the load of the cream mixture. Finally, there is no one in the multiverse who will ever convince me that no-boil lasagna noodles are as good as the old-fashioned kind. While I do want my pasta firm, I do not want it crunchy.

So people, I assembled the lasagna while no one was in the house. (This is one of its many advantages during the holiday season — you can make it ahead of time, then pop it in the oven. Or you can even go ahead and bake it, chill it, then warm up individual slices. It’s easy, as well, to double the recipe.) Later, when it emerged from the oven, it was so golden-cheesily delicious-looking that no one suspected the Pumpkin Caper.

In order to kick the disguise up a notch, I “plated” the pasta, as the chefs like to say, in a shallow pool of marinara sauce. Little Mister Vegetarian ate three servings. I cannot begin to tell you how much delight I took afterwards in my confession. “Punkin,” said I, “you’ve just been punked.”

Vitamin A wins!

He threw a couch pillow at my head. But the next week he asked me to make it again. This time I made it with baby spinach, which lent it a silkier texture than the chard. I plan to try it, too, with a layer of roasted pine nuts, but that may have to wait until after the lad has left for college.

The Recipe: Pumpkin Lasagna (adapted from Food & Wine)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

2 pounds Swiss chard, tough stems removed, leaves washed well and chopped (or 2 pounds baby spinach, washed)

2¼ teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper

1 teaspoon dried sage

½ teaspoon grated nutmeg

3 cups canned unsweetened pumpkin puree (one 28-ounce can)

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup half-and-half

3 eggs

1½ cups grated Parmesan cheese

9 lasagna noodles, cooked al dente, and drained

1 tablespoon butter 

In a large enameled cast-iron pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent, about seven minutes. Increase the heat to moderately high and add the greens, 1 teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon pepper, ½ teaspoon sage, and ¼ teaspoon nutmeg. Cook, stirring, until the greens are wilted and no liquid remains in the pan, approximately 10 minutes.

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. In a medium bowl, mix together the pumpkin, the garlic, the cream, the eggs, ½ cup Parmesan, and the remaining 1¼ teaspoons salt, ½ teaspoon pepper, ½ teaspoon sage, and ¼ teaspoon nutmeg.

Spread the pumpkin mixture thinly over the bottom of the pan. Place three lasagna noodles over this. Then spread a third of the remaining pumpkin mixture over the noodles. Layer half of the greens mixture over the pumpkin and top with a second layer of noodles. Repeat with another layer of pumpkin, greens and noodles. Spread the remaining pumpkin mixture evenly over the top of the pasta, sprinkle with the remaining cup of Parmesan, and dot with the butter. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 20 minutes. Uncover and bake until golden, about 15 minutes more.

Remove the pan from the oven and let the lasagna rest for at least 10 minutes before slicing and serving it. Serves six.

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