Before my body shows a single sign of illness, it predicts the future by craving tea. Maybe that sounds unassuming, but I will always ALWAYS choose coffee over tea when well. Yep, I’m one of those. The crazy coffee drinker who swears by her Aeropress and loves that dark roast, with the real cream of course. Side note: I recently was on a spell of coconut creamer, but I have to agree with Laura’s sentiments that the store bought stuff is never quite right. Here’s waiting on the messy cookbook for her magical elixir. Anyway, weeks ago, before I left for Dallas, I got that tea craving and tried to deny it. Steve gave me weird looks when I started slurping his beverage of choice, depleting the abundant stock of dried leaves in the cabinet at an alarming pace.
Predictably, the cold followed, then, unpredictably, a throat infection. I have never received as quick a diagnosis as I did at the doctor’s last week. Maybe he was in a rush to get to the crowd in the waiting room–literally, people were standing–but he took one peek down the gullet and picked up his Rx pad. Good news for me: no gagging throat culture! Bad news for me: confinement to the couch with barely enough energy to even open my laptop, let alone step into the kitchen, over an entire weekend (and more, as things lingered into Monday and Tuesday).
Wednesday was really my first day as a somewhat functional human. The first day I really had to get into the kitchen and back to the blog. When you love what you do, and your office is ten feet from the couch, it’s not like being sick back when you were an accountant dreading 14 hour days. Back then, a sick day was a reprieve. Now, Steve has to listen to me cry (literally, sob) when I’m sick, starting out as a reaction to pain but then morphing into sheer whining about how I can’t cook when I’m sick and I miss blogging and blah blah blah. He’s a little worried about how our future children will handle a basic cold.
The only thing was, WHAT was I going to make??? Before “the sickness”, I had this whole pretty editorial calendar planned out, with a mix of recipes I’ve been playing with for breakfast or have tasted at restaurants or that just sounded awesome and begged to be created. Among them: olive tapenade, a cherry pie smoothie, and Asian kale salad with watermelon radishes and breadcrumbs. None of them fit the comeback I was feeling, though, so I took Adriene’s advice and started going with the flow. The flow being my culinary roots: midwestern comfort classics with a healthy, seasonal twist. Aka, the food I love to eat. I revisited Balancing Active (giggle-worthy beginner photography, if you care to look) to fetch my mac and cheese knockoff recipe, lentils and cheese, and I knew flecks of roasted red pepper confetti were just the celebratory touch the dish needed.
And then a good thing got better. I took the long way to the grocery store, down a winding, 30 mph gentle hill filled with my dream homes and covered for miles with an archway of orange New England fall leaves, and when Mansfield Avenue spit me out in Darien, I found the firehouse and the farmer’s market sign staring me in the face at that red light. Every Wednesday, noon to five. It was 2:40 PM, and guess what day! Something in me knew that running my fingers over blue potatoes still covered in dirt and oogling over fall pies would seal the deal on my health. And if I needed another sign, as unlikely as a tea craving, I had cash in my wallet. Yes, that green paper stuff that they collect in exchange for Connecticut grown produce and homemade chocolate chip cookies, of which I brought home six.
Lentils and cheese served in ramekins are perfectly cute, and also a time saver if you don’t want to run the oven while you work on the cheese sauce. But, hours before, I contemplated how to really make the dish look special in photos when plated in a ramekin, and nothing came to me. Without making the connection, I picked up a couple of the most adorable, just bigger than palm-sized spaghetti squash, at the market, thinking that as my health ramped up, my appetite might, just might, make a return from the soup and applesauce diet. Something about that drive, though. On the same route home, it just popped into my head. Lentils and cheese in roasted spaghetti squash! Extra cheese sauce dripping down into the spaghetti squash noodles, kind of like a low carb alfredo? Um, yes and yes. It’s pretty, it’s photogenic, it saves me from having to make a whole separate salad or veggie to go with the meal, which is not my thing at all. Those midwestern comfort food roots call for a one-dish meal whenever possible.
I texted my sister to make sure I should go with the spaghetti squash instead of baked potatoes as a vehicle, which she confirmed. And good thing, because last night, I somehow managed to screw up BAKED POTATOES. They were crunchy. How is it that I can laminate deep dish pizza dough yet I struggle to properly bake a potato??? I need help. And apparently not from Ina’s not-so-foolproof baked potato recipe. Not that easy, Ina.
Okay, back on track. When these spaghetti squash boats, for lack of a better description, came out of the oven, all browned and bubbly, complete with real deal, roux-based three cheese sauce and the crispiest herbed bread crumbs, I became fully alive again. These are the recipes that complete me. When I’m sick and hundreds of miles from my sprawling home state, all I need is a huge forkful of cheesy, one-dish dinner to keep me happy until I’m back in Minnesota in EIGHT days to begin mine and Steve’s wedding festivities! Oh, and the big, steamy cup of Aeropress coffee with heavy cream that’s half gone at my side right now.
Make it faster
Yes, the full recipe is a little time consuming. If you love to cook like me, save it for a weekend and relish that kitchen time! If you don’t love to cook, or if you, in fact, despise cooking, but you still want to eat lentils and cheese in spaghetti squash boats (which is a basic human right), then here are some ideas/tips:
- Buy a jar of roasted red peppers, instead of roasting them yourself. (save 35 minutes/3 dishes)
- Skip the roux (the flour/butter mix). Heat the milk/cream to a simmer then stir in the cheese (like in this recipe). You can even skip the shallot and garlic, or just throw them into the milk while it heats, instead of cooking them first. It will be just a bit thinner but still delicious. (save 15 minutes/1 pan)
- Serve in ramekins, instead of roasted squash. Baking time is the same–just watch for the breadcrumbs to brown. (save 10 minutes of prep and 30 minutes of cook time/2 pans)
Make it seasonal
Have you stumbled upon this recipe in the dead of, um, spring? Do all the spaghetti squashes look like they came from a foreign land, because they probably did? Don’t worry, you still have options for a cool vessel in which to serve lentils and cheese:
More spaghetti squash recipes
Because you can never have enough:
- Spaghetti squash pie
- With handmade lemony pesto and sauteed mushrooms
- With this mushroom marinara
- Instead of zucchini noodles here
- 1½ C French green lentils
- 2½ t kosher salt
- 2 red bell peppers (or ¾ C diced roasted red peppers)
- 1½ T olive oil
- 2 small to medium spaghetti squash, halved lengthwise and seeded
- 1½ t ground black and/or white pepper
- 2 C milk or cream (I used 1 C whole milk + 1 C hemp milk)
- 3½ T butter, divided
- 1 medium shallot, finely chopped (about ¼ C)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1½ T all purpose flour
- 2 C shredded fontina or Gruyere cheese
- 2 C shredded white cheddar cheese
- ¼ C crumbled blue cheese (optional)
- 1 C fresh or dried bread crumbs
- 1 T chopped parsley
- Combine lentils, 2¾ cups water, and ½ teaspoon salt in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 15 to 20 minutes, until lentils are edibly tender but hold their shape. Drain, rinse in cold water, and set aside.
- Preheat broiler (low setting, if there's an option) and move oven rack 8 to 12 inches from heat. Rub outside of peppers in a thin coat of olive oil and place on their sides on a rimmed baking sheet. Broil about 13 minutes, until blackened on one side. Turn peppers 90 degrees and broil another 5 minutes. Repeat one or two more times, until peppers are blackened all over and very soft. Transfer to a glass mixing bowl and cover with plastic wrap, a dish towel, and a dinner plate, to seal in heat. After 15 minutes, peel, stem, and seed the pepper by hand. Do not run under water (it eliminates the smoky flavor). Chop into ¼" pieces and set aside.
- Preheat oven to 425 (F) and move rack to middle position. Generously oil exposed flesh of squash halves and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Place face down on a rimmed baking sheet and add a tablespoon of water. Roast squash 25 to 30 minutes (or more, depending on size) until tender when squeezed with tongs, but not collapsing, and browned on cut flesh. Remove from oven and turn squash face up. When slightly cooled, transfer to a baking dish with sides high enough to hold the squash upright. Use a fork to gently loosen most of the strands of squash, without disturbing the browned edges. Turn oven down to 375.
- Heat milk gradually in a small saucepan until it just begins to simmer. Turn off heat. Clean the saucepan used to cook the lentils. In it, melt 2 tablespoons butter over medium, then add shallot and garlic and cook until softened but not browned, 3 to 5 minutes. Add flour and stir with a wooden spoon about 4 minutes, turning down the heat if the mixture bubbles vigorously, starts to brown, or sticks to the pan. Switch to a whisk, and carefully pour milk into the flour mixture while whisking, mixing well. Increase heat to medium high and bring to a simmer while whisking. Then, switch back to the wooden spoon and simmer gently for about 5 minutes, until sauce has thickened slightly. Turn off heat and whisk in cheese, half at a time, until melted. Season sauce to taste with salt and pepper.
- In a mixing bowl, combine lentils and half the cheese sauce. Keep adding cheese sauce until desired ratio is reached. Fold in red peppers, being gentle to avoid turning the mixture orange from the pepper liquid. Spoon lentils and cheese into the prepared squash, piling it as high as it will safely go.
- Melt 1½ tablespoons butter and combine in a small bowl with the breadcrumbs, parsley, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Top each squash with a fourth of the mixture, pressing it down to help it adhere. Bake (at 375) for about 25 minutes, until breadcrumbs are golden brown. Serve warm.
If you use vegetarian cheese, the recipe is vegetarian.
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