Recipe: Vegetable Lasagna with Butternut Béchamel

Best Healthy Casseroles Contest

Today's winner in our Best Healthy Casseroles reader recipe contest is Julia from Washington D.C. Her lasagna was a special treat for me to make. Why? She cleverly bypasses the usual ricotta filling and instead purees butternut squash into a creamy, colorful sauce. This lasagna is layered up with this squash sauce, as well as browned mushrooms and tasty chard. It's absolutely delicious, and it is a healthier, lighter take on the lasagna we all know and love.
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Why I chose Julia's casserole When I was thinking about this contest, this is exactly the kind of recipe that I hoped to see! I love recipes that creatively feature vegetables and all their flavor — not just as a sort of obligatory "healthy" stand-in for cheese and dairy. This recipe is exactly that. Instead of all that ricotta and cheese between each layer of noodles, there is creamy, delicious, colorful butternut squash. It's a different sort of lasagna, and it's so delicious! Using the butternut squash as a sauce, instead of using ricotta and meat, is smart and also done in a tasty way. Great job, Julia!
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Julia's Notes

Why is this recipe so great?
It has all of the taste and mouthfeel of a traditional lasagna without the fat of the cheese or a roux-based bechamel. Also, it packs a lot a lot of nutrients from the chard and mushrooms into each slice. It can also easily be adapted for meat-eaters by adding cooked ground bison or turkey sausage to the mushroom layer. Finally, it's really, really delicious!

What makes this casserole health(ier)?
It doesn't have the butter or cream that are included in a traditional bechamel-based lasagna. Also, the small amount of low-fat cheese helps up the protein without the fat and there are lots of vitamins in the chard, mushrooms and squash!

Vegetable Lasagna with Butternut Béchamel
serves 6 to 8

1 pound (about 16) lasagna noodles
2 to 2 1/2 pound butternut squash (or 2 pounds chopped squash)
Olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 large bunch (about 5 large leaves) chard, well-washed
1 pound cremini mushrooms, washed and sliced
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/4 cup water or white wine
1 cup milk, plus additional if needed
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 lemon, zested
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves, plus extra for the top of the lasagna
1 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan and mozzarella cheese mix

Heat the oven to 375°F. Lightly grease a 9x13-inch baking dish with olive oil. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil over high heat. Add the lasagna noodles and cook as directed on the package. When cooked, drain and lay out on clean kitchen towels to dry.

While the pasta is cooking, peel and seed the squash. Cut into 1-inch cubes and toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil and a generous amount of salt and pepper. Spread on a baking sheet and roast for 40 minutes or until extremely soft.

Remove the stems and ribs from the chard leaves by folding each leaf in half lengthwise and using the tip of a chef's knife to slit away the main rib. Chop each rib and stem into 1/2-inch pieces. Roll each leaf up into a cigar shape, cut it in half lengthwise, and then crossways into thin ribbons.

Heat a thin drizzle of oil oil in a 10-inch sauté pan. Turn the heat to medium-high and add the mushrooms. Cook without stirring until quite brown — about 5 to 7 minutes. Flip them over and cook for an additional 3 minutes. Turn the heat down to medium, and add the garlic and chard stems to the pan. Cook, stirring frequently, until the garlic is fragrant — about 3 minutes. Add the chopped chard leaves and 1/4 cup water or white wine and cook until the leaves are tender and wilted. Turn off the heat and season the vegetables lightly with salt and pepper.

At this point the butternut squash should be quite soft. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly. Scrape all the squash into a bowl and add 1/2 cup milk, the nutmeg, lemon zest and thyme. Use an immersion blender to puree the mixture, adding the remaining milk as you go (this can also be done in a traditional blender). Add extra milk if necessary to make the sauce smooth and creamy, but not too thin. (Think thin fruit smoothie.) Add salt and pepper to taste.

To assemble the lasagna, spoon about 1/4 of the butternut sauce into the bottom of the prepared baking pan and spread to thinly coat the bottom. Place 1/4 of the noodles on top (four noodles) and then spread 1/3 of remaining sauce on noodles. Top with 1/2 of the cooked vegetables, and 1/2 cup of cheese. Add another layer of noodles, then sauce, then the rest of the vegetables, and 1/2 cup of cheese. Place the final layer of noodles over the vegetables and spread the last 1/3 of the sauce over top. Sprinkle evenly with the remaining 1/2 cup of cheese and a pinch of thyme leaves.

Cover the lasagna with foil and bake at 375°F for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to bake for 10 to 15 minutes or until the top is golden and the cheese is gooey. Remove from the oven and let stand uncovered for 5 to 10 minutes before slicing. Serve with a good green salad and some bread.

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Winners receive:
• A copy of Faith's new book: Not Your Mother's Casseroles (Harvard Common Press, January 2011)
• A new casserole baker from Emile Henry's Urban line

(Images: Faith Durand)

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