Last year, on the night before Thanksgiving, I was suddenly struck by the mad desire to make something real for dinner. Never mind that I had a cheesecake to bake and egg whites to whip, all I could think about was removing some of the excess food from the fridge and cluttered counter tops--Delicata squash from the CSA box, kale from a trip to the market, the remaining cranberries from making the cranberry jam for the Cranberry Margaritas--to make way for the turkey and the onslaught of leftovers to come.
As I considered the ingredients before me, I began to see the makings of Thanksgiving casserole. The combination of sweet squash and tangy cranberries immediately appealed to me and I could see them working nicely with sautéed kale. I just needed something to hold it all together--something both chewy and creamy. Looking in my cupboard, I settled on Emmer Farro, which retains its bite while it cooks; for the creaminess, the answer was simple: only a Béchamel would do and one that, true to Thanksgiving, would contain shallots and sage. Although I knew what I was envisioning would take some effort to prepare, the healthy promise of a vegetable-laden dish seemed worth it, especially before a big feast.
Although I wanted to see my kitchen inspiration through to the very end and taste a dish that embodied what I consider to be the best of Thanksgiving, I also think that making this dish was my way of "easing" into the holiday. There's such chaos on the actual day itself--are the potatoes ready to be mashed? Did I forget anything on my shopping list? Will the turkey be ready in time?--and, on some level, such fatigue by its end (blame the turkey if you will, but apparently it is really dessert's fault!), that I just wanted to sit and celebrate quietly: Just me, Elektra and the Greek; no feeling of running a culinary marathon; no worries; only a few dishes in the sink; and, most importantly, good food and plenty of gratitude.
Don't get me wrong; I love hosting every year, planning a menu and cooking for my friends. I also know that, at the end of the day and despite all of the fuss, Thanksgiving really isn't even about the food. Cliché that it is, it's about the companionship, the meeting of different traditions and the creation of new ones.
Although hardly old enough to warrant the term "tradition," this casserole has managed to earn its place on my short list of Thanksgiving musts and traditions. With its roasted cranberries and squash nestled against wilted kale and plump farro, the casserole is not only striking--maroon, emerald and a soft shade of pumpkin orange, or as I like to call it, fall on a plate--but it also layers competing flavors and textures in a way that can only help to elevate the meal. It's the ideal companion for the turkey; that is, if it doesn't manage to steal the show itself.
Farro Casserole with Cranberries, Squash, Kale and a Sage Béchamel
yields about 6-8 servings
This casserole is quite filling on its own and, because it's full of fruit and vegetables, makes an excellent Thanksgiving side dish for vegetarians. That said, it can also easily become vegan by holding the Béchamel sauce; in this case, I would suggest not sautéeing the kale and, instead, tossing it with the still-warm farro and roasted cranberries and squash so that it wilts a little. The whole dish can then be drizzled with a simple dressing of olive oil (1 tablespoon) and lemon juice (1/2 lemon) and will be more like a grain-filled salad.
While I like having this dish be almost equal parts fruit, vegetables and grain, it would be simple to double the recipe. Rather than doubling all the ingredients though, I would recommend cooking two cups of farro and using the same amount of cranberries, kale and squash. There will still be balance, but the casserole, thanks to the additional grains, will have a little more substance.
Although I haven't tried it myself, there's no reason to believe this couldn't be prepared a few days in advance and then popped into the oven shortly before your feast. For those who like to pace themselves, the cooking process could also be done slowly, so as to be less intimidating: on Monday, you could make a big pot of farro (some could even be frozen for later use); on Tuesday, the cranberries and squash could be roasted and the walnuts toasted in the still warm oven; on Wednesday, you could sauté the kale, make the Béchamel and assemble the dish.
For the casserole:
-Preheat the oven to 400 F, butter a medium-sized casserole dish and set aside. Then, line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
1 cup Emmer Farro, rinsed, soaked overnight and drained
5 cups water or broth (vegetable or chicken)
-In a medium saucepan, combine the drained farro and the water or broth.
-Bring to a boil and then lower the heat.
-Cover the pan and let cook for 50-60 minutes. The farro is ready when it has plumped up and softened, yet retains a somewhat chewy texture. The farro won't absorb all of the liquid, so be sure to drain off the excess.
2 Delicata Squash
a sprinkling of salt and pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups (6.7 ounces) cranberries
dash of salt and a sprinkling of pepper
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon olive oil
While the farro is cooking, halve and seed the squash, then cut it into half moons. Quarter the larger half moon slices into small cubes and cut the smaller ones into thirds. Spread the cubes on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
-Lightly sprinkle the squash with salt and pepper, then drizzle the olive oil over it.
-Toss to coat.
-Place the cranberries in a small bowl and add salt, pepper and brown sugar. Stir.
-Add the olive oil and toss to coat. Spread the prepared cranberries out on the other parchment-lined baking sheet.
-Put the two baking sheets in the oven (cranberries on top rack, squash on the bottom) and let the cranberries roast for 20 minutes. Remove the cranberries from the oven, then toss the squash and leave it roast for another 10 minutes.
10 ounces Tuscan (or Dino) kale, roughly torn from the stems
1-2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
enough olive oil to coat a large frying pan
salt and pepper, to taste
-While the squash and cranberries are roasting, soak the kale for a few minutes in a large bowl filled with cold water and 1 tablespoon of distilled white vinegar.
-Massage the kale, softening it and helping to remove any insects that have latched onto the leaves.
-Drain the kale and, if necessary, soak and drain again.
-Dry the kale by spinning it in a salad spinner.
-Heat a large frying pan (preferably cast iron) on medium heat, add enough oil to coat the bottom and add the kale.
-Saute for five minutes or until the kale has wilted and become tender.
-Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
1/2 cup (2 ounces) walnuts
-After roasting the cranberries and squash, toast the walnuts in the preheated oven for 5 minutes.
-Remove from the oven, let cool for a few minutes and then roughly chop and divide into two even piles.
-Place the cooked farro in the grated casserole dish and add the cranberries, squash, kale and walnuts. Stir to combine, then sprinkle in half of the chopped walnuts. Stir again. Now that the casserole is assembled, turn to the Béchamel.
For the Béchamel:
1 shallot, finely chopped
6-8 sage leaves, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup whole milk
a few dashes of ground nutmeg
sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
3 ounces grated Gruyere cheese
-Heat the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat until it melts.
-Once the butter is sizzling, add the shallot and chopped sage and cook until the shallot has softened and become translucent.
-Add the flour, stirring it in with a wooden spoon. It will become a smooth paste.
-On low heat, slowly whisk in the milk, adding a little at a time. The sauce will gradually become thicker.
-Once thickened, remove from heat and sprinkle in both the nutmeg and salt and pepper.
-Then, stir in the grated cheese until it fully melts into the sauce.
-Pour the Béchamel over the assembled casserole and top with the remaining chopped walnuts.
-Place in the oven for 25-30 minutes and cook until the sauce is bubbling.
-Remove and enjoy!