My husband’s grandmother loved Canadian rye whiskey, which she kept in recycled airline cocktail bottles in her purse. She believed in the four “L”s: living, loving, learning, laughter, all pronounced in a Queens accent so thick you could spread it on a bagel. Her chicken soup remains legendary. “Wouldja like a plate a soup?” she’d ask (or so I’m told). Nanny died last week at the age of 91.
I met Nanny less than 10 years ago, so I never really knew her in her prime, when she was a beautiful, young grandmother lavishing attention on her grandkids. I kind of feel like I knew her back then, however, if only from my husband’s stories of Pacific Northwest vacations in a camper, or the summer they all went to Montreux, Switzerland for the jazz festival — trips that went a long way towards establishing his wanderlust and probably led to our itinerant lifestyle today.
Recently, I’ve stared a lot at the photos of my husband as a toddler, which he brought back from his grandparents’ house a few weeks ago, picturing the loving arms that hugged him. One of the (many) scary things about death is that the people who knew you as a baby, who remember those years better than you, disappear, taking a part of your childhood with them.
After we heard the news, my husband went out and bought a bottle of Canadian Club in Nanny’s honor. That night, he sipped a couple of fingers on the rocks while I drank leftover Champagne and made baked pasta, kind of like macaroni and cheese, but with the addition of pumpkin, chard, sage, and mushrooms. Part of being in a relationship means your partner’s sadness becomes your own. This dish celebrated autumn, but it was also comfort food, cozy and warm.
Fall Harvest baked pasta
I first read about this pasta on Bear with a Wooden Spoon, which was inspired by this recipe by Scandilicious. But I made so many changes and modifications, based on what I had in the fridge and my own hypochondriac impulses, that I’ve created my own.
Serves 4 (hungry) people
Half a small pumpkin
3 tablespoons canola oil
3 tablespoons flour
1 pint milk
3/4 cup buttermilk
Pinch of nutmeg
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 small basket of mushrooms, sliced
1 small Swiss chard
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2-3 fresh sage leaves, finely chopped
1/2 lb whole wheat penne
1/2 cup cheddar cheese, grated
5-6 sage leaves
Preheat the oven to 200ºC/400ºF). Wash, seed, peel and cut the pumpkin into 1-inch chunks. Drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper and roast for about 20 minutes.
Prepare a roux by adding the flour to the hot canola oil in a saucepan, stirring constantly until it smells warm and toasty, and turns faintly brown. Add the milk and whisk over low heat until the mixture thickens. Off heat, add the buttermilk, nutmeg, cayenne pepper, salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings.
Bring a large pot of water to boil for the pasta. Meanwhile, in a sauté pan, brown the mushroom slices in a little oil, and then stir in the garlic, crushed red chili and minced sage leaves. Wash the chard and remove the green leaves (save the stems for another recipe) and chop finely. Add the chard to the mushrooms, season, cover and allow to cook for 10 minutes or until softened. Meanwhile, cook the pasta for 5 minutes.
When the chard has softened, combine it with the béchemel, pumpkin chunks and cooked penne, stirring thoroughly and adding dashes of pasta cooking water to keep the mixture loose. Taste and adjust seasoning. Pour the mixture into a lightly greased baking dish and scatter with the grated cheese and sage leaves. Bake for 10 minutes, or until bubbling. Raise the oven to broil and lightly brown the top until golden (about 3 minutes).