If you are following the life of our little urban family via this blog, you might recall that last week we embarked on a great quest of apple picking. We prevailed over the countryside, we tasted the sweet taste of adventure, and we are now seeking new challenges. Today, we will conquer the pumpkin fields of upstate New York -- Bellvale Farms to be precise. In the spirit of full disclosure, Bellvale is really a diary farm and a creamery, but they run a tiny and a very cute pumpkin patch, which suits our gentle city souls just fine.
The stars are aligned, and everything points towards a triumphant expedition. The mist is lingering on top of the fall colored woods, the sky is grey and turbulent, and the promise of orange explosion against it makes me all droll thinking about divine photography. Miss Pain is in a cooperating mode, excited about the pumpkins she forgets about her motions sickness, and we make it to Bellvale without a single stop. Dr. V is on his best behavior too, he does not bitch about my driving and, quite surprisingly, refrains himself from playing with the iPhone and googling for the closest Starbucks, a practice he employs no matter where we go. And that is how we find ourselves parked on a naked piece of land next to a cornfield, and on a hayride towards the patch. “If you are looking for pumpkins to cook, they are in the back,” says the farmer and drives away. “Mama,” I recognize the high-pitch in Miss Pain’s voice, she pitches when something terrible is about to happen, “Mama, why can’t we eat these pumpkins, are they poisonous?” I try to explain that the “poisonous” ones are technically edible, but probably not as yummy as the other pumpkins. Unfortunately, it is too late. Pain is of the conservative kind, mildly speaking. She does not engage in sports, “because she might get hurt”. Spooked by the discovery of poisonous pumpkins, she refuses to enter the patch and resorts to running around happily, and to jumping up and down the haystack. Dr. V follows and I am the only man standing in the field...
I am mesmerized. The field is divine. A maze of vines is sprawling all around, speckled with the pumpkins and gourds of all colors, shapes and sizes. There is an unfamiliar scent hovering around, maybe the wetness of the soil, the raindrops on the fallen leaves, maybe it is the moss on the threes around the patch, or maybe the pumpkin flowers. A scent heavy with the history of these fields and I can almost feel it touching my face and my fingers, opening the pockets of my jacket trying to get in.
The field is also muddy, something I did not plan on when I brought my fancy tripod. I do like a good photo, but I like my tripod clean better. And just as any true city bumpkin would do, I throw myself on the ground, dig my knees deep in the mud, the camera supported on a gigantic pumpkin, I aim to catch the hyperfocal distance somewhere in the middle of the patch. I do realize that this makes for quite a viewing, but it is the victorious feeling of knowing that a wonderful photo is about to happen, or it could be the scent of the fields around me, but I really do not care, being in the mud feels good, it feels more than good, it feels glorious, and I am perfectly happy.
Once the photo session is over, I take the gigantic Jack-o-Lantern, the shooting buddy, back to our car. I also proudly, all by myself and without any assistance from google, identify the “edible” pumpkins in the back of the field to be of the Cheese variety, and take one as well, together with a bag of gourds. For 10c per pound, we are getting a deal of the century. On the way back home, I relinquish the driving duties to Dr. V, and put my mind into planning a dish to celebrate this epic journey.
We did not even leave the town of Warwick, but the dish has already planned itself. And what a triumphant dish it will be! I see my pumpkin accompanied by the sausage, bacon and sage. I see a pumpkin lasagne in the spirit of one of the most glorious dishes of all times, Lasagne Bolognese. Lasagne Bolognese is what I imagine the Hanging Gardens of Babylon must have been. Layers and layers of overflowing unearthly goodness; a twenty or so part spilling and bubbling miracle of ethereal beauty. The mere thought of Lasagnea Bolognese, as you can see, turns me into a poet. If you ask me to stop being a poet, and put it in lay terms, Lasagne Bolognese means a hearty meat ragout, a heavy doze of béchamel (no mozzarella or, God forbid, ricotta and eggs), and a loving sprinkle of parmesan. I so wish to say and fresh noodles, because yes, making your own fresh pasta will make the lasagne truly miraculous. But I restrain myself. We live in times when homemade noodles are not always an option. Not even slightly. The demands of the 21st century family, the 21st century workforce, and frankly speaking, the 21st century overload have rendered this impossible for many cooks. I am often crushed with guilt for not being there to put my daughter to bed; adding another layer of lasagna-induced guilt to a person like me would be totally inhumane. So go ahead, and use whatever pasta you feel like. You will be no less of a cook if you use Barilla, and no matter what, Lasagne Bolognese will love you back equally, because it is a mighty glorious dish. Either way.
And as for my “creation”... A gentle warning, it calls for a certain amount of redesign of the classic dish, and if you find such an idea a sacrilege, please skip this part. Although, I am a woman of principles, and take my word for it, I worked hard to stay true to the spirit of Lasagne Bolognese. And if you still find it offensive, let us simply call the dish Lasagna with Pumpkin, Sausage & Bacon Ragout. And then proceed to read. If still interested.
Pumpkin Lasagne "Bolognese"
* 1/2 of Cheese pumpkin (mine in total was 6 lb)
* about 1 1/4 lb of lasagne noodles, fresh or dry (if you would like to make your own, see below for noona Grazia’s trusted recipe)
* 1 1/3 cups of grated Parmesan
for the ragout
* 18 oz sweet Italian sausage, casing removed
* 8 oz hardwood smoked bacon, cut into 1/4” dice
* 2 shallots, minced
* 2 carrots, cut into 1/4” dice
* 2 celery stalks, cut into 1/4” dice
* 2 cloves of garlic, minced
* 1 cup tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes (I used San Marzano)
* 2 cups vegetable broth
* 1 tsp fresh marjoram
* 3-4 sage leaves, minced
* 1-2 tbsp olive oil
* salt and freshly ground pepper
for the beschamel
* 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
* 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
* 5 cups whole milk
* a generous pinch of grated nutmeg
* salt and freshly ground white pepper
9x13 inch rectangular baking dish
prepare the ragout
Heat a cast iron casserole over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and cook 3-4 minutes until nicely browned. Remove the bacon from the casserole and discard the fat.
Add the olive oil and heat over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until the shallots have softened, about 2-3 minutes. Add the carrots and celery and continue to cook, until the vegetables are barely softened, about 8 minutes.
Add the garlic and the sausage meat, and cook over moderate heat, breaking up the meat to resemble ground beef, until the meat is mostly white. Add the bacon and herbs. Add the tomato sauce and broth and simmer half-covered over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thick and carrots are soft, at least 45 minutes. If you have time at your hands, cover and keep simmering for another hour and a half, and you will be extra rewarded. Season with salt and pepper.
roast the pumpkin
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Cut the pumpkin in half and remove the seeds. (I used only half of the pumpkin, and stored the other half for a different use.) Cut the pumpkin into slices, remove the skin, and then cut the flesh into 3/4 inch cubes. Drizzle the cubes with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and toss to combine.
Place the cubes on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake for about 40 minutes, until soft. Remove the pumpkin from the oven and let it cool.
prepare the béchamel
Melt the butter in a saucepan over low heat. Add the flour. Stir with a whisk and cook for about 2-3 minutes to make the white roux.
Pour in cold milk into the roux in small drizzles, whisking constantly. Once you have added about half of your milk, and the mixture has assumed the consistency of thick batter, you can start adding the milk in larger splashes. Keep on whisking constantly.
Bring the sauce to a boil over medium heat, without stopping to whisk. When the sauce comes to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes. (No need to say it again, keep on whisking.) Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
cook the pasta
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Prepare a skimmer (or two large forks), and a large tray lined with wax paper lightly oiled with olive oil. Boil several noodle sheets at a time about 2-3 minutes for fresh pasta (that will depend in the thickness of ther noodles), or according to manufacturer’s instructions for the dry pasta. Scoop them out with the forks, and lay them out on the tray. Repeat with remaining pasta. (I like to boil enough sheets for one layer, and assemble the layer completely, before cooking the next batch of pasta.)
assemble the dish
Preheat the oven to 375°F (350°F convection).
Oil the lasagne pan with oil. Add the first layer of pasta sheet, while overlapping them slightly. Ladle 1 1/2 cups of ragout over the noodles, spreading it evenly. Top the ragout with 1 1/2 cups of pumpkin cubes. Drizzle about one cup of béchamel over the pumpkins, and then sprinkle about 1/3 cup of parmesan. Repeat the process (pasta + 1 1/2 cups ragout + 1 1/2 cup pumkpins + one cup of béchamel + 1/3 cup parmesan) two more times, then top with the final layer of pasta. (For a total of four pasta layers.)
To finish the dish spread 1/2 cup of béchamel over the top layer of pasta, and then sprinkle with 1/3 cups of parmesan.
Bake the lasagne for about 50 minutes, until bubbly, crispy and browned on top. When the lasagne is done, let it rest for about 30 minutes before serving.
A recipe by nonna Grazia Merlino, kindly shared by nonna’s son and my good friend and a great chef Giovanni
* 17.6 oz durum wheat flour
* 5 large eggs
1. Pour the flour into a bowl and crack the eggs into the middle of the flour. Mix the eggs with a fork until they are completely blended with the flour. Knead the mixture with your hands until it is completely homogenous and consistent. If the mixture is too dry, add some water; if it is too soft, add some flour. A good mixture should never stick to your fingers. Remove the mixture from the bowl and place it onto a lightly floured table. If needed, continue to knead the mixture and cut it into small pieces.
2. Make the dough sheets: Set the pasta machine regulator to position 1, pulling it outwards and turning it so that the two smooth rollers are completely open. Pass a piece of the mixture through the machine while turning the handle. Repeat this operation 5 to 6 times, folding the dough over and adding some flour to the middle if necessary. When the dough has taken a regular shape, pass it through the rollers once only with the regulators set on number 2. With a knife, cut the dough crossways in pieces approximately 25 cm (10") long.
3. Place the cut pasta on a table cloth or drying rack, and leave it to dry for at least an hour.
yields 1 1/4 lbs of pasta
p.s. You can prepare the ragout and bake the pumpkins a day ahead. You can also prepare the entire lasagne right up until the baking point a day ahead, and keep it in the fridge.