FOOD WISE: Before making cheese, visit the dairy

By CHEF RENEE MORGAN

Roasted Butternut Squash Lasagna

Remember those commercials with the happy cows from the California Dairy Board? As someone who owns an annoying rooster, my favorite is the one where the cows hit the snooze button, a.k.a. annoying rooster. If you don’t know the one I’m talking about, you can check it out out on You Tube™. By the way, I call my rooster coq au vin, because that’s what I threaten to make of him if he doesn’t shut up.

Last week, I visited the Texas happy cows at a place called Dyer Dairy. Dyer Dairy is located on State Highway 29 east of Georgetown. They typically maintain somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 milk cows, consisting mostly of jersey, holstein, brown swiss and ayrshire cattle. Boy, do these cows have a great life!

The dairy is owned and run by multi-generational dairy farmers and ranchers. The facilities are immaculately clean and well-run. The cows are fed a nutritionally complete diet and live a stress-free life, which makes for some of the most delicious milk I’ve ever had.

I first found out about Dyer Dairy through my friend, Sara, who owns the Wild Type Ranch. She’s a cattle rancher in Cameron and I met her at a farmer’s market a few years ago. Sara is my go-to supplier for beef. A few months ago, I was in a beef bone marrow crisis….yes, you read right. I needed beef bones to roast for a fancy dish I was making for a swanky event in Dallas and Sara came to my rescue. She agreed to meet up with me at the Dyer Dairy so I could get the bones.

I’d never even heard of this dairy. But here’s the thing….I could tell the moment I drove up that this would be a place I’d visit again. They have a little Mercantile on-site where you can buy Grade A raw milk, butter, cheese and cheese-making kits. They also feature beef from Wild Type Ranch, as well as their own beef, honey, chicken, pork, coffee and veggies from other local farms. Everything is so fresh and I love that all the product is local and organic!

While I was there, I picked up two gallons of raw milk and a book on cheese making. The milk is so rich and thick and you can see a thick cream line, where the cream separates and rises to the top. I figured I spend a fun weekend experimenting with cheese making. I know you probably think I have a warped since of fun, but none-the-less, I’m pretty excited with my results. With a couple gallons of milk, a piece of muslin, some lemon juice and non-iodized salt, and a rennet tablet I got from the dairy, I made my own ricotta and mozzarella.

The lady at the dairy recommended I start with the ricotta because it’s the easiest. You simply mix the lemon juice and salt into the milk and slowly bring the milk up to 185-195℉, stirring frequently to prevent scorching. When the curds separate from the whey, you drain the mixture through the muslin for about 30 minutes. Ta-Da! Ricotta!

Oh my goodness, soooo much richer and creamier than the stuff in the grocery store!

Feeling confident, I decided to move onto the mozzarella. I made mozzarella once in culinary school, but it was already in the curd form. We didn’t start from the raw milk.

I was feeling very mother earth right about now. It was the same basic concoction as with the ricotta with the addition of rennet (and something called lipase if you use grocery store milk). If you were in the FFA in school, you may already know about rennet. If not, here’s the deal.

Back in the day, when making cheese was in its infancy, it included the process of aging the milk in the stomach of a baby sheep. The baby sheep had to be less than two days old because its stomach would contain several substances, including colostrum, which would allow the milk to become cheese. These stomach linings and substances were the rennet. Thank goodness, nowadays we have rennet in tablet form.

Admittedly, the mozzarella process was a bit more involved. The timing and temperatures are more specific and matter a lot more. Still, it’s one of the easiest cheeses to start with. First, the milk must warm up to 55℉, at which point you must add the lemon juice (and lipase, if you are using grocery store milk).

Then heat the milk to 90℉, stirring constantly. Next, stir in the rennet, cover the pot and leave undisturbed for about 5 minutes. It should look kinda like a custard. After cutting the curds with a knife, heat them to 105℉, moving the curds gently with a spoon. Remove from heat and continue to stir slowly for 2-5 minutes. Next, comes a whole series of heating the curds, alternating with kneading, which distributes the heat evenly through the curds. Keep repeating this process until the cheese stretches like taffy. It is done when it becomes smooth and shiny. See what I mean? A little more complicated. I made a pound of plain mozzarella and I also made a roulade (kinda like a jellyroll) of mozzarella, prosciutto and basil. Yum!

Now, what to do with my treasures? I mean, there is nothing that isn’t made better with the addition of cheese. Am I right? I worked hard for this cheese. Any old dish just wouldn’t do. My husband has said that we almost don’t have room to sit in our house for all of my cookbooks. He’s right, but don’t tell him I said so.

Anyway, I poured through all my collection until I found it, a recipe in one of my Michael Chiarello cookbooks for a roasted butternut squash lasagna that sounded heavenly. I usually make up my own recipes, but you can never go wrong with Michael Chiarello. It even has a gorgeous, cheesy mornay sauce over it. A moment of silence, please. It was golden, bubbly, rich , cheesy goodness and it was….AHHHmazing! I feel another trip to the dairy coming on.

Roasted Butternut Squash Lasagna

Serves 8-10

Adapted from a Michael Chiarello recipe. (This recipe is a bit involved but totally worth the effort, especially for a special occasion or company dish.)

For the toasted spice rub:

mix 1/4 cup fennel seeds, 1 tablespoon coriander seeds, 1 tablespoon black peppercorns, 1 1/2 teaspoons red pepper flakes, 1/4 cup chili powder, 2 tablespoons sea salt, 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon. Grind in a spice grinder. Set aside.

For the squash:

3 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2 inch chunks

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped sage

sea salt and ground black pepper, to taste

1 tablespoon toasted spice rub, from above (save the rest in an airtight container for other applications)

2 cups whole-milk ricotta

1 cup grated parmesan

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1 pound dried lasagna sheets

For the sauce:

2 quarts whole milk

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons minced fresh sage

2 tablespoons minced garlic

6 tablespoons all-purpose flour

sea salt, to taste

1 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1 pound mozzarella, shredded

1 cup grated parmesan

1 1/2 teaspoons toasted spice rub, from above

1. Preheat oven to 400℉. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. In a bowl, toss the squash with olive oil, 1 1/2 tablespoons sage, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 tablespoon spice mixture. Spread the squash in a single layer on the baking sheet. Roast until soft and beginning to brown, 40-50 minutes.

2. Transfer the squash to a food processor and puree until smooth. In a large bowl, combine the squash, ricotta, 1 cup parmesan, eggs, 1 teaspoon nutmeg, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Stir until well mixed and refrigerate until needed. Reduce oven temperature to 375℉

3. Prepare lasagna sheets al dente according to package directions. Drain, toss with olive oil and spread out on a baking sheet.

4. To make the sauce: In a large saucepan, bring the milk to a low simmer over medium heat. Adjust the heat so the milk stays hot but doesn’t continue to simmer. In a large pot, melt the butter. Add the remainder of the sage and the garlic, and cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant and the garlic begins to soften, about 30 seconds. Add the flour and stir for 2-3 minutes to combine well with the butter. Do not allow mixture to color. Add the milk all at once, whisking to avoid lumps. Add 2 teaspoons salt and the remainder of the nutmeg, and adjust the heat to maintain a low simmer. Cook, whisking frequently, until the sauce coats the back of a spoon, about 8 minutes.

5. Butter two 9 by 13 baking pans and set aside. Spread the lasagna sheets out on a flat surface. Spread about 3 tablespoons of the squash evenly over each sheet, leaving the last 1/2 inch empty. Sprinkle each one with about 2 tablespoons mozzarella. Beginning at the coated end of the sheet, loosely roll each sheet into a cylinder. As each cylinder is formed, lay them in a single layer, seam side down, in the baking dishes. Pour the sauce evenly over the rolls, dust with the remaining parmesan and then the remaining spice mixture. Bake until golden and bubbling, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Remove from oven and let rest 5 minutes before serving.