Fall went easy on us here in Chicago. It was long and sun-drenched and fringed in rust-colored leaves. And, best of all, it faded gently, slowly, nearly imperceptibly—almost as though it were melting away. So I’m having an easier time coming to terms with winter than I usually do. Dare I say I’m even liking it a little bit? December, I must say that this is a first.
It’s just that there’s something wonderful about the flat, hard edge of winter’s sunlight that glints off everything, making it look clean and new. There’s a magic in the little puffs of air that can suddenly be seen at your mouth, or the tufts of steam rising from street grates or building tops. There’s the smoke of logs burning in a fireplace, a sign that someone, somewhere, is having a cozy afternoon. There are the twinkling lights that belong to this portion of the winter—the first part, the holiday part. There is the chunky sweater, the one that threatens to swallow you whole. There is the thick scarf, wound tight around the throat. There was that first dusting of snow—so white, like someone tipped a bag of sugar high above us, letting its glittering contents float down to the ground.
There are the gorgeous new pair of gloves—or, um, there will be once I find a minute to go shopping. Like I said—winter snuck up on me.
And of course, there’s the winter fare. But, for me, that’s the easy part. There are the stews and soups and chowders and broths—all manner of things to be slurped up from a hot bowl. There are the hours-long recipes that yield meat that falls apart, cooking liquids that taste of layer after layer of flavor. There are warm drinks, in mugs meant to be cupped at your chin.
This dish hits all the right winter notes: creamy (check!); comforting (check!); warm (check!); easy and leftover-lending, for those energy zapping portions of winter I know too well (check!). I plan to trot it out over and over again this winter.
I consider it something to look forward to even after winter—inevitably—loses its luster.
I invented this dish in a pinch—we had friends (hi, Maggie!) coming to town and we decided, at the last minute, to eat in. Once we tried it (and loved it), I kicked myself for not writing down an approximation of the recipe. I cobbled a recipe together from memory for my sister (hi, Ali!) when she was in a pinch (friends coming over that very night for dinner) and sent it off over email. I tried it again for myself this weekend, this time not in a pinch, which gave me plenty of time to appreciate this recipe for what it is—a hybrid of lasagna and baked mac. With that pedigree, it’s sure to be good, but—even better—this offspring takes the best traits from each of its predecessors (baked mac’s tubular pasta, perfect for its sauce-trapping crevices; lasagna’s lovely marriage of zingy tomato sauce and creamy, rich cheeses).
Yield: 4 to 6 hearty helpings (it’s winter, you know)
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 box/bag of fresh baby spinach