A Simple Feast

Winter food festive red – words that belong together to me – in part because of a long-standing holiday tradition with my painter friend in Anchorage (and thoughts about the holidays do begin to surface now). For years, with our families, we ate Christmas Eve and Christmas Day meals together, trading who cooked which. Eventually the “red meal” (usually lasagna) became mine, because my friend is better at cooking turkey.

Lasagna has so often starred for company and special meals that now I try to branch out. But the other day, talking about a dinner needing to be made in a tight schedule, but also to be festive for friends to celebrate both a birthday and Big News, my husband said, ”It’s hard to beat lasagna.”

Lasagna with red sauce and stuffed with many vegetables.  Lasagna using some favorite store-bought sauce – easy to make ahead and keep in the fridge. Easy to make two at a time for many people, or to freeze one for another night. (Leftovers are always popular.)

Uncooked vegetables vary with the season, but always include kale or chard. Wash, remove the mid-ribs, and tear into small pieces.  Because it cooks down so thoroughly, a big bunch will fit, even though that looks impossible piled in a colander. (For sturdier kale, a three or four minute par-boil makes for a tender green.) Sliced zucchini and mushrooms add texture and flavor.

It goes together in classic layering (to reverse the analogy – like garden beds), a little sauce, dabs of ricotta, a lashing of mozzarella, layer of vegetables, and repeat again. Sometimes my over-enthusiasm with greens requires flattening by pushing down a little after the last noodle layer. Top with sauce, sprinkle with Parmesan, cover with tinfoil, and bake at 350° for at least an hour.

Baking all those vegetables inside means this meal is complete with salad and crusty bread. It smells good cooking and the heavy, red casserole dish looks cheerful when pulled from the oven. If the pre-dinner snacks and chatter take longer because of fun – that’s fine. It’s a forgiving dish that allows for relaxed hosts.

Pears, both opulent red or gilded gold, decorate winter kitchens and meals. Because this meal is a celebration for a fruit-for-dessert lover – I get to make another favorite of appropriate hue: Mark Bittman’s “Pears Poached in Red Wine.” Bittman calls for Bosc pears, but lately we have beautiful red pears from a Washington grower. They’ll be perfect simmered with water, wine, sugar, lemon, and cinnamon sticks – then refrigerated overnight.

After the warming lasagna, the chilled pears, served whole topped with their syrup – will be refreshing – and celebratory.

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