How did vegetarian lasagna earn its hideous reputation as a dish that would just barely sate non-meat-eaters long enough to shut them up while everyone else got to consume something actually delicious? How did it become synonymous with bland, spongy, wet vegetables – their integrity so compromised that not even cheese could bring them back from the level of destruction reached?
I’ve long had this butternut squash lasagna (my preferred version of vegetarian lasagna over anything with a lot of tomatoes and zucchini) on the backburner as my go-to vegetarian potluck dish. But even I, with my excellent squash lasagna recipe in hand, still associate the words “vegetable lasagna” with a mental image of an in-flight Elaine Benes screaming the words derisively in reference to her seatmate, the exact sort of mild-mannered pale weirdo who would opt for vegetable lasagna as his airplane meal of choice. But it takes a long time to break down the reproach incited by mediocre vegetarian lasagna. Good thing you have some time to start grinding down your defenses while that lovely, golden squash cooks down with garlic, sage, and butter, glorious butter.
Also, a brief note about squash butchery: you certainly don’t have to buy a whole squash if that extra bit of time spent peeling and cutting is what stands in the way of you doing this recipe. You can instead buy ~6-7 cups’ worth of pre-cubed squash (sometimes the cubes are larger than the ½-inch I suggest, in which case just quickly chop them in halves or quarters). I will say, fresh-cut squash does taste better, but the time-saving option is definitely not going to bring the recipe down by any noticeable amount.
Butternut Squash Lasagna w/ Hazelnuts
Adapted from Gourmet (2001)
Serves 8-10 (or many more if bringing to a potluck-type event with multiple main dishes)
~3 lb butternut squash (from either 1 large squash or 2 smaller)
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, divided
1 large yellow onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tsp kosher salt, divided + extra pinches here and there
2 tbsp chopped parsley (flat-leaf or curly)
3 tsp chopped sage (less if you’re a sage skeptic)
1 cup toasted hazelnuts, loose skins rubbed off with a kitchen towel, chopped
1 shallot, diced
5 tbsp all-purpose flour
4 cups whole milk
3 cups grated mozzarella cheese
1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Oven-ready lasagna sheets, ruffled or straight-edged – your call
Separate the “bulb” of the squash from the “neck” (these are certainly not the technical terms for squash anatomy, but I have no doubt that you know what I mean). Set the bulb part aside for now and carefully use a sharp knife to closely cut the peel away from the flesh of the neck. Discard the peel and stem end. Cut the peeled squash into ½-inch cubes: I find it easiest to cut the squash crosswise into “rounds” and then stack a few rounds up before cutting into cubes. Your cubing does not have to be perfect as the squash will be getting somewhat mashed up anyway, but even cutting will ensure more even cooking. Measure how much cubed squash you have once the “neck” is completely cut up – you will need ~6-7 cups’ worth. If you need more squash, try to peel and cut off as much flesh from the “bulb” as you can without using any of the gooey, seedy part of the squash. Set the squash aside until ready to cook.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F (unless you’re assembling this lasagna way ahead of when you plan on baking it) and set a rack in the middle of it. On the stove, melt ¼ cup butter (4 tbsp) in a large, deep skillet set over medium heat. Cook the onion in the foaming butter until golden, stirring occasionally. Season the onion with a good pinch of salt as it starts to brown. Stir in the cubed squash, garlic, and 1 tsp salt (more salt always!); cook until the squash is tender (~10-15 minutes), turning cubes as needed to get all the edges lovely and sticky. You can cover the skillet partially or entirely during cooking, or cook uncovered for slightly longer. Remove from the heat and stir in parsley, sage, and hazelnuts. Set the filling aside to cool slightly.
Meanwhile make the béchamel sauce by heating the remaining ¼ cup butter in a large saucepan set over medium heat. When the butter is foaming, stir in the shallot and cook until just translucent, barely any time at all. Whisk in the flour until you have a smooth paste; cook until golden and super nutty-smelling. Gradually pour in 2 cups of milk, whisking and cooking until the mixture is quite thick and smooth. Whisk in another 1-2 cups of milk, depending on how thick things get (you may not need all of the milk and also, I’ll be annoying and remind you that you can always add more but you can’t remove, so maybe do ½ cup at a time and evaluate as you go?) The end product should be a lovely simmering liquid, thick enough to generously coat the back of a spoon to the point where you can draw a line in it and it stays for a bit. Season the mixture with at least 1 tsp salt, but DO taste it and add more if it needs it. It should definitely taste very flavourful and delicious so salt as needed until that happens.
Start assembling the lasagna layers in a 9x13 (ish) rectangular (or whatever shape, really) baking dish. Any big casserole dish will do. Toss the mozzarella and parmesan cheeses together before starting. Spread ~½ cup béchamel sauce in the dish to coat the bottom evenly. Cover the sauce with 3-4 lasagna sheets (depending on the exact size of your dish and sheets), leaving a bit of space between sheets and evenly spacing them out. Spread the sheets with ~2/3 cup more béchamel sauce. Spread half of the squash mixture on top of the béchamel, mashing the squash down a bit as you spread it out evenly. Top with a generous scattering of cheese (but obviously save lots for the next layer and for the top too). Repeat this layering sequence again: pasta sheets – béchamel – squash – cheese. Top the lasagna with 3-4 pasta sheets, another hearty coating of béchamel (go right to the edges!) and the remaining cheese. Wrap a greased piece of foil (greased side down, obviously) tightly over the lasagna and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 10-15 minutes, or until easily pierced by a fork. If you would like a darker, crunchier lid of cheese (yes, say yes, obviously), you could give the whole thing a quick broil, unless your oven is one of those dangerously hot ones, in which case you’re probably good as is. Let the lasagna cool for at least 20 minutes before attacking, please, to avoid a ghastly tongue burning.