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Local Seasonal Recipe: Butternut Squash Lasagna

Let me get straight to business. This is the meal you need to make this fall. No excuses.

When our closest neighbors had a baby a year and a half ago, I made them this dish. They’ve repeatedly made coy requests about whether I might make it again. As in, do they need to make another baby just to get me to cook it for them again?

My butternut squash lasagna is the ultimate fall comfort food. The butternut squash is just slightly sweet; the ricotta is rich and melts in your mouth; the tomato sauce is savory and garlicky; and the combination of the three is just. perfect.

The recipe is based on one in Kelly Brogan’s book A Mind of Her Own, but since I’m not ready to give up dairy (sorry, Dr. Brogan), I replaced the egg filling with ricotta cheese.

While we’re on the subject of special diets:

  • This lasagna is naturally gluten-free because the lasagna “noodles” are actually thin slices of butternut squash.
  • I have two vegetarians/pescatarians in my household, so I usually make a second batch using crumbled tempeh as a substitute for the ground beef. You could probably experiment with other meat replacements too.

Lastly, not only is this a perfect seasonal meal in the squash season, but it’s also possible to source all the ingredients locally (depending on where you live, of course). I use locally grown butternut squashes and local ground beef from a grassfed meat farm. For the tomato sauce, I use the tomato sauce from our own tomatoes that I canned back in the sweltering heat of August (this part will require on some advance planning, I admit). And I make the ricotta cheese by hand with the milk from our local dairy.

Without further ado —

 

Butternut Squash Lasagna

Serves 6-8, depending on how hungry y’all are

  • 1 large butternut squash
  • 1 tbsp butter or ghee, plus more for greasing the pan
  • 1 large yellow onion, finely minced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 lb grassfed ground beef (substitute 1 package of crumbled tempeh for non-meat eaters)
  • 36 oz tomato puree or tomato sauce
  • 16 oz ricotta cheese (recipe here)
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

Prepare the ricotta cheese in advance, if making your own.

Melt the butter or ghee in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add onion and sautée until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the ground beef and the garlic and cook, turning the heat to medium-high, until the meat is browned. Add the tomato sauce and season with salt and pepper. Let simmer on low while you prepare the rest.

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

Peel the butternut squash, cut it in half and scoop out seeds. Slice it into slices and rounds, as thinly as you can. (This is the trickiest part; the rest is easy!)

Butter a 15″ x 10″ high-rimmed oven baking dish. Add enough sauce to cover the bottom of the dish, then spread a layer of butternut squash slices as you would with lasagna noodles. Ladle more sauce generously on top of the squash and then top with dollops of ricotta cheese. Sprinkle with your preferred herbs, salt and pepper. Proceed with another layer of squash slices, sauce, and ricotta. Finish with a final layer of squash and a light layer of sauce (and any remaining ricotta).

Bake for about 30 minutes or until the squash can be easily pierced with a fork.

Enjoy!

 

Garden-to-table Buckwheat

This weekend, we had garden-to-table buckwheat pancakes for breakfast. We ate them about 20 feet from the garden bed where said buckwheat grew. This buckwheat is my first real homegrown grain harvest, and it checks all the boxes for me: gluten-free, locally sourced and hands down delicious, with a distinctive nutty flavor.

To most urban gardeners, growing grains might seem like it’s outside their wheelhouse. After all, when we think of growing grains, we think of hundreds of acres of farmland extending to the horizon. If this is you, I encourage you to read Small-Scale Grain Raising: An Organic Guide to Growing, Processing, and Using Nutritious Whole Grains for Home Gardeners and Local Farmers by Gene Logsdon. It inspired me to try growing small patches of grains myself. This year, I dedicated one long bed (about 4 x 20 feet) for growing a grain crop. I decided to start with buckwheat, a plant I’m already familiar with, as I’ve grown it as a cover crop many times. But I haven’t actually been methodical about harvesting the groats until now.

Buckwheat really is a fantastic beginner’s grain. It is nutritious and so friggin’ easy to grow:

  • You don’t need rich soil. In fact, buckwheat seems to do better in poor soil!
  • You barely need to irrigate.
  • Buckwheat has few disease or pest problems
  • Buckwheat (like other pseudo-cereals, such as quinoa and amaranth) has a favorable nutrient profile, forming a complete protein
  • It’s gluten-free!

Growing buckwheat

Buckwheat is a remarkably resilient plant that not only tolerates, but in fact thrives in poor soils. Once established, it grows even if you ignore it, as long as it gets some rain from time to time.

Buckwheat prefers cool temperatures, but is frost-tender. That makes it somewhat tricky to figure out an optimal time window for planting buckwheat, which has a sow-to-harvest time of 10-15 weeks. Here in the South, the best time to plant buckwheat is actually mid-August. That way, the buckwheat gets to grow during the cooler fall weeks, but can still be harvested before the first frost, which here in Asheville, NC, comes in late October.

 

Harvesting buckwheat

Harvesting the buckwheat groats is reasonably easy. I say this after unsuccessfully trying to harvest enough lambsquarter seed to make a quinoa-like meal… After those nearly invisible, tiny seeds, the buckwheat groats seem bulky and easy to extract.

 

When grown on an urban garden scale, buckwheat is best harvested by hand. One option is to walk through the buckwheat patch whenever you need some, simply stripping the dark brown grains off the stalk with your fingers until you have a cupful.

To harvest an entire bed of buckwheat at once, cut the buckwheat down with a scythe or sickle mower, tie the plants into bundles, and let them dry protected from rain. I brought mine into our sunroom. Chicken and (other) birds also seem to love buckwheat, so if a few plants are left behind it will all get eaten eventually.

When the stalks are completely dry, thresh them inside sacks or old pillowcases. What you’ll have at this point is lovely buckwheat groats, but with a fair amount of plant matter and leaves in the mix.

 

Processing Buckwheat

This is the part that can be a bit challenging and time-consuming. Take your time. You may have to try a few different methods to figure out what works for you, as I did.

The next step is to separate out the chaff from your buckwheat groats. If you’re in the small minority of modern folks who have winnowing skills and a decent winnowing basket, it’ll be a breeze. Otherwise, you may have to try a few different setups. I had the most success with a fan set up next to a shallow tray. I placed a couple of cups of buckwheat on the tray and grabbed a handful and let go, grab a handful and let go, on repeat. All the dry leaves and other chaff flies off because it’s very light. Ideally what ends up on the tray eventually is just the buckwheat groats.

Here’s another setup I tried: using one of my Excalibur dehydrator trays as a tray. The perforated silicone is ideal for letting tiny pieces of chaff to fall through, but catching the buckwheat.

After winnowing, you have yourself a nice batch of wholesome buckwheat groats.

You could grind them into flour as they are, but the taste is better if you remove the dark brown hulls.

  1. First lightly toast the groats, or put them in a hot oven for a short while. It’s well worth the effort, as it helps the hulls to separate easily.
  2. Grind the toasted groats to remove the hull. You can use a blender or a food processor, but I had the most success with a good old-fashioned food mill. The hulls just shattered off (all over the table, as you can see…). The resulting coarsely ground buckwheat will still have some bits of hulls in it, but they can easily be sifted out with a flour sifter at the end.

Now you can grind the groats into flour. If you don’t have a grain mill, a food processor or blender will also work.

 

Here’s the pancake recipe I used to make ours. Some people like to use 50% buckwheat flour and 50% all-purpose wheat flour, and that works great. But in my opinion it’s not necessary to cut the buckwheat with wheat — the buckwheat’s flavor is not overwhelming at all. Even my daughter, who usually demands “ordinary pancakes” (as opposed to her mom’s experiments), gobbled them up enthusiastically.

 

Gluten-free Buckwheat Pancakes

  • 1.5 cups buckwheat flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 3 Tbsp salted butter, melted
  • 2 Tbsp maple syrup
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 3/4 cups buttermilk
  • butter (for the pan)

Set a well-seasoned cast iron pan on medium heat. Mix the dry ingredients together well. Mix the melted butter together with the syrup, eggs, and buttermilk separately, and add to the dry ingredients. Mix until the batter is well blended and there are no more dry lumps.

Melt a dollop of butter on the heated pan and ladle the batter onto the pan in desired sizes.

Local Meal Ideas

“Eat Local” is a slogan many of us are ready to stand behind. Local food is cool on a hot planet: we know that freshly harvested food is more nutritious, eating local supports local farmers and growers, and there’s no fossil fuels wasted on insanely long shipping distances.

Yet, in practice, many of us still feel quite dependent on imported grocery store foods. Several decades of supermarket shopping culture have narrowed down most people’s cooking repertoire to meals that involve opening cans and cardboard boxes.

So what kinds of meals can you whip up with all-local ingredients? Without those pre-packaged and processed items?

Now that I’ve been eating a local-foods-only diet for almost a month, I have some delicious answers for you. In fact, I put together a list of some of our best meals during this locavore month — with links to recipes!

Here’s the simplest way to put it: A local diet = a whole foods diet. Be prepared to spend a little bit more time in the kitchen, but also to be rewarded by real food, real nutrition, and flavors you just can’t pull out of a box.

In an earlier post, I talked about how I prepared for my “locavore month” and researched local food producers. That gave me a sense of the “pantry” I could draw on for the next month. Figuring out how to combine those ingredients into satisfying, nourishing meals is a creative process and one of my favorite parts, honestly.

 

 

10 ALL-LOCAL Meal Ideas

These meal ideas work if you live in a temperate zone in late summer/early fall, at the peak of the harvest season.

1. Butternut squash lasagna with homemade ricotta (recipe in this book)

2. Neighborhood tart with local mushrooms (I used shiitake) and goat cheese

3. Vegetarian Southern brunch with cheesy grits, scrambled eggs, greens, and biscuits with local goat cheese spread

4. Our favorite carrot tomato soup with homemade bread…

5. Homemade pasta (my daughter and I have a pretty good pasta-rolling routine down at this point). Recipe in this book.

6. Pumpkin ravioli with sage walnut pumpkin butter

7. Blueberry acorn pancakes with Acornucopia acorn flour

8. Eggs in a Nest (from Animal Vegetable Miracle)

This is the easiest local food meal to source ingredients for: just eggs and veggies that are available much of the year: onion, carrot, Swiss chard, and tomato (dried tomatoes is actually what the recipe calls for). Minimal spices, minimal hassle, satisfying flavors. Enjoy with a local grain, or even mashed potatoes.

9. Local Grain/Sweet potato/potato/squash + local protein + greens/salad/sauerkraut

…and what’s for dessert?

10. Basil blackberry apple crumble, again from Animal Vegetable Miracle

 

As you can see, there’s no deprivation going on here. Eating local means eating well — all it takes is some advance planning and a willingness to experiment.

If you try out any of these recipes, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear what you’re cooking!

How to Prepare for a Locavore Month

Does the idea of “local food” and “slow food” resonate with you? Are you curious to see what it would be like to eat only from your own region’s farmers and producers for a period of time?

This month, I’m committing to one month of eating only from my bioregion (the Asheville area in Western North Carolina). In this post, I share what I learned while preparing for this local food challenge in case it’s useful for others doing something similar.

Here, in a nutshell, are the steps that helped me to prepare for my Locavore Month:

 

Why: Get clear on your motivations for committing to local foods.

How: decide some parameters for your experiment.

Research: What do I eat, what’s available locally, who’s growing/making it?

Develop some good old-fashioned kitchen skills before starting.

Make preparations.

Why

If you’re not clear on your motivations for undertaking a local foods experiment, it’s going to be hard to stick to it. The first mango smoothie or bag of processed chips that comes your way is going to be hard to turn down if you treat this as just another fad diet.

There are profound reasons for taking a stand in defense of local foods. The current industrial food system and our imported, processed-food diets are causing visible, real damage — in terms of public health, the environment, and adding to the fossil-fuel dependency of our lifestyles. Local foods, in contrast, come from family farms whose growing practices we can check. Investing in them strengthens the local economy. Because these foods are freshly harvested, they are so much more superior in flavor and nutrition than the plastic-wrapped items that have been sitting on supermarket shelves for who knows how long.

Does one person’s commitment to shift to local foods change the system? No, it doesn’t. But it’s more than a symbolic gesture.

Eating locally concretely reduces our dependence on the industrial processed-food system and tethers us, instead, more deeply to our own region’s food system and the people who are involved in it. It teaches us that we can eat — and eat well — even without the supermarkets, the 18-wheeler trucks, and the pesticide-laden fields somewhere far away. That experience is a rare one in the modern world, and really powerful. And the more people get a taste of that, the stronger the local food and slow food movements are going to grow.

 

How

Next, decide some parameters for your local food experiment:

  • What’s “local” to you? Where do you draw the line? Some people commit to a 100-Mile Diet. Even eating foods produced in one’s own state makes an enormous difference compared to the average American diet.
  • How hard-core do you want to be? For example, where I live we have a local cracker company, a hummus company, and a chocolate factory. But the raw ingredients they use — the flour, the chickpeas, and the cacao beans, respectively — come from elsewhere. Do they still count as local food? Decide what’s reasonable for you.
  • Who lives with you, and are they going to participate?
  • The timing of your local food experiment is important. I recommend choosing a time when the availability of local foods in your area is at its height. For example, in the northern hemisphere, July, August, or September are going to be much more flavorful and abundant than January, February, or March.
  • I recommend following Barbara Kingsolver’s advice to choose one loophole item — “one luxury item each in limited quantities, on the condition we’d learn how to purchase it through a channel most beneficial to the grower and the land where it grows.” Think coffee, spices, coconut or olive oil — whatever it is that you’d be miserable without. Being miserable is not the point. (My “loophole item,” by the way, is black tea.)

The focus of a locavore month should not be: “What do I have to give up?” but rather, “What do I get to eat?” This is your opportunity to eat fresh, to try your region’s specialties, to try the recipe you’ve always wanted to make. Take the time to cook and eat slowly. Share your local meals with friends.

 

Research

Planning a month of local eating teaches you so much, both about what you eat, and what is available locally.

First write down all the food groups, food items, beverages etc. you normally consume.

Then do some detective work. What farms and  food producers are in my area? What do they have on offer? Which food group needs can I meet locally?

Farmers’ markets are the tastiest way to familiarize yourself with the local farms and food producers and their offerings. Try samples. Talk to people. Only then talk to Google.

Develop Some good old-fashioned Kitchen Skills

A locavore diet is a whole foods diet.

What that means is, if you’re mostly dependent on the supermarket and processed foods for your sustenance, there’s a bit of a learning curve involved. I’d recommend first spending some time learning to cook foods you love from scratch.

Gradually develop more local food sourcing routines. Learn to plan your menus around what is seasonally available. Get to know your local farmers’ markets, u-pick farms and farm stands. (Contrary to common misconceptions, produce sourced this way is often cheaper than supermarket produce.)

Pro tip: Plant a vegetable garden! Even just a container of salad greens. That way you’ll always have something über-local at your doorstep.

Make friends with people who are gardeners. Once they find out you are restricting yourself to local foods, unexpected loads of green beans, zucchini and freshly picked pears might just land in your lap.

Lastly, here are some good old kitchen skills that will make local eating easier (this is a great resource for recipes and tutorials):

  • Learn to bake bread.
  • Learn to make yogurt and cheese (that way, if you have a source of local milk, you’re guaranteed a supply of yogurt and cheese as well.
  • Learn to make your treats and condiments (e.g. ketchup, crackers, and stock) yourself.
  • Get in the habit of preserving local produce during bumper crop months: freeze berries in July, can tomatoes in August, make applesauce in September.
  • Learn to identify and forage some local wild edibles, mushrooms, and nuts.

 

Make preparations

Alright. The start date of your locavore month (or week, or year) is near and you feel ready. Here’s what to do in the days leading up to the start of your experiment:

  • stock up the pantry and the fridge with local staples (here in the Asheville area, I’ve been able to source flour, rice, nut oils, corn meal and grits, sauerkraut, salsa, local dairy, local grassfed meat and pastured eggs, sustainably farmed trout, and lots of cheese)
  • make broth with local ingredients and freeze to use later
  • make herbal teas from local herbs and wildflowers like mint, red clover, lemon balm, tulsi etc.
  • preserve local produce that’s at its peak to use later on
  • Lastly, savor some local food inspiration:

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating by Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon

The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making by Alana Chernila

Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Food by Gary Nabhan