Saturday, December 19, 2009

Beetroot, Caramelized Red Onion & Spinach Lasagna

Now, I know I say I don't really like vegetables, and it is true that they'd never make any top ten list of my favorite things on earth. But, there are a few - a very few - vegetables that make me happy. Oddly, they tend to be those vegetables that are most maligned: brussel sprouts, collard greens, beets. Perhaps its just that I feel the need to promote those vegetables generally sneered at. No one likes to be left out, after all.

That still doesn't mean I want them lightly sauteed in flaxseed oil, raw with a squeeze of organic lemon juice or, as prepared in my most verdurous nightmares, steamed. I don't care what anyone says: there is no good reason to ever subject any vegetables to a preparation method that essentially means tossing them in a tiny Turkish bath. They either come out undercooked or overcooked, and either way, its a travesty. If you're going to eat vegetables, why not enjoy them in something like, say, a nice lasagna made with homemade ricotta and imported Pecorino Gran Reserva.

Although I get bored somewhat easily and eventually removed it from the menu out sheer perversity, casunziei - a beetroot ravioli from Venento - with poppyseed browned butter, spring pea puree and pea greens was always the most popular appetizer at the restaurant. When we got a couple pounds of red beets in our CSA basket this week, I immediately tossed them in the oven to roast.

As they roasted, I looked out at the snow-covered back yard and the thermometer reading sixteen degrees and decided that the season called for a dish more substantial that the delicate ravioli I'd first intended.

Now, every vegetarian who has ever found herself a conference dinner attendee, a guest at a wedding, or stuck in a holiday buffet line has suffered through those ho-hum vegetable lasagnas. You know, the bland and doughy concoctions that always - always! - contain a mix of viscous tomato sauce, mushy zucchini and shredded carrots. They're the ones that, if you're nice, make you smile bravely and say, "Well, I was lucky they had a vegetarian option." And if you're me, you grimace while you eat roll after roll and wait for the dessert course. And because of these epicurean catastrophes, I've avoided making any but lasagna bolognese. Well, there was that one time I made a swiss chard and roasted onion lasagna, but that was when B. and I had just begun dating and I, trying to show off my culinary skills had wrongly assumed that he was, unlike me, a good vegetarian and would prefer a lasagna of all vegetables rather than a meaty fake meat bolognese. Now seemed as good a time as any to branch out.

As the beets continued to roast, I caramelized sliced red onions with balsamic vinegar and a little brown sugar. After the beets cooled enough to touch, I peeled and shredded them, then mixed in ricotta, eggs, lemon zest and poppy seeds. Finally, I quickly sauteed spinach in olive oil and tossed in a little pecorino. Three CSA vegetables, all in one dish! I'm a big fan of no-boil lasagna noodles, so after making a quick bechamel, I layered the pasta, sauce and vegetables and into the oven it went.

In truth, I wasn't sure what to expect. I was half-afraid it would turn out to be a flavorless mess, that somehow in the oven, it would morph into the generic vegetable lasagna, soupy and bland. But, happy days! An hour later, we had a luscious, rich and creamy lasagna with a good depth of flavor. I paired it with a dry champagne - and much to my great surprise, even sauteed some brussel sprouts as an accompaniment!

Maybe vegetables aren't as bad as I thought ...


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