- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 4, 2003

CONCORD, N.H. - Whether for a simple family meal or a festive dinner party with friends, it’s always nice to shake things up a bit. Serve something familiar, with a not-so-familiar twist.

This was my approach for a recent dinner party, which started with platters of cheese, crackers and grapes, then progressed to fresh bread and olive oil before a main course of soup, salad and lasagna. A rich chocolate cake gave a nice finish.

At first glance, there was nothing particularly unusual about the menu, but I kept things interesting by playing up subtle variations on the expected each step of the way.

For example, although a cheese platter piled with Italian imports would be a natural with this meal, I decided to highlight cheeses produced at New Hampshire farms. These days nearly every state has tiny dairies producing wonderful artisanal cheeses.

We were rewarded for sticking close to home. My local farmers market offered an impressive array of cheeses, including a superbly sharp Swiss, an earthy chevre, and a delicate Gouda.

For the bread and olive oil, all it took was a bit of salt and pepper to enliven things. I cut the bread into 1-inch cubes, then offered it with two plates of oil for dipping — one sprinkled with salt, the other with fresh ground black pepper.

The soup was a fairly standard puree of butternut squash and apples that takes advantage of both ingredients in their prime. The difference here is at the very end. When pureeing, I added several tablespoons of corn miso.

More typical of brothy Asian soups, this lightly sweet and salty soy paste gives the soup an extra layer of flavor with savory undertones. Any light miso would do nicely, although corn seemed most seasonally fitting.

Consider substituting sweet pumpkin for the squash as another way to make this soup stand out.

The salad was a typical Tuscan melange of mildly bitter greens (any autumn greens fit the bill) topped with shaved carrots, thin apple slices and toasted pine nuts. Brightening things up was a sweet and tangy strawberry vinaigrette with cider vinegar.

My guests could select from three types of lasagna (and many opted for a bit of each) — a standard meat and cheese, a vegetarian with cheese and tomato sauce, and a special experimental batch.

The latter substituted a well-seasoned squash puree for tomato sauce, and nestled thin slices of sweet potato between the layers of noodles and cheese. The result was a surprising and satisfying harvest dish that was as attractive as tasty.

By now a bit bloated, we wound up the meal with a delicious flourless chocolate cake that combined loads of cocoa with pureed almond slivers. It’s a dense and chewy alternative to the typical fluffy chocolate cake.

For the lasagna, both traditional and no-boil noodles work well. Be sure to follow the directions called for by whichever you use. The potatoes are cut very thin, so there is no need to peel.

Squash and sweet potato lasagna

12 ounces (about 1 packages) lasagna noodles

1 pounds butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

3 medium sweet potatoes, cut into very thin slices

1 cup water

2 cloves garlic, peeled

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

18 ounces (three 6-ounce packages) shredded mozzarella cheese

12 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

If using lasagna noodles that must be boiled, cook according to package directions, then drain and rinse with cold water. Spread the noodles flat on kitchen towels and set aside.

Bring 1 inch of water to a boil in the bottom half of a steamer. Place the squash in the steamer basket, cover and cook until tender, about 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer the squash to a blender or food processor.

Keep the water in the steamer boiling. Steam the sweet potato slices for 5 minutes, or until just tender.

While the sweet potatoes cook, add the water, garlic, salt and pepper to the squash and puree until very smooth. Set aside. When the potatoes are finished, remove from the heat and set aside.

Lightly coat a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with the olive oil. Spread about 4 tablespoons of squash puree over the bottom of the baking dish, then place a layer of noodles over that. Spread another 4 tablespoons of squash puree over the noodles.

Arrange a single layer of sweet potato slices over the squash puree, then sprinkle 3 ounces (half a package) of mozzarella and 2 tablespoons of Parmesan cheese over them. Cap with a layer of noodles.

Add four more layers of squash puree, sweet potato slices, cheese and noodles, in that order. Top the final cap of noodles with remaining cheese, but no squash puree.

Cover the lasagna with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake an additional 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let stand for 5 minutes before serving. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

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