The snow under my feet squeaks in the 7-degree morning as I leave my front walk and start to run up the hill. My breathing quickens as I climb, climb, climb in the already-blinding blue sky sun. Past the houses, past the open fields, past the small hut, and onto the narrow trail that leads to the forest. It’s quiet here in the trees, where the snow trades its high voice for a lower, softer chant. The light grows more delicate too; it filters down among the pines in narrow columns, sparkling from time to time with snow that dances down from shaken boughs. The terrain eases back to rolling and my pace increases. My fingers slowly emerge from my sleeves and I quiet my breathing. Here in the Ponderosas, the air smells of beeswax – fresh, clean, comforting – and I am buoyed by the scent. Around the sweeping turns I run, rounding corners that open to brightness, clear space. I am gifted views of the flat, endless land below me, hazy and snow-blue in the morning light. I am gifted views of the steep, slab-y mountains above me, glinting pink and gold, wrapped in their winter coats. The yellow grasses peeking from the snow wave their greetings and I smile, good morning.
The longer I run, the longer I live, the softer, more open I feel. I breathe in the land and slowly, slowly, it settles into my lungs, my heart. Like the trees, the rocks, the trail, the scrub, I am part of this small stretch of earth where the plains meet the mountains, and it is part of me. It is part of me like the ocean is part of me and the beech forests are part of me and the deeply carved lakes are part of me. Each of these parts make me stronger, more flexible. From here, I am in the ground and in the sky, witness to the magic and the harshness that is the world, the land, before me.
I believe in many things, but most of all I believe in Humankind and Earth. The sacred is found in the hearts of our neighbors, in the reach of the mountains, in the song of the sea. I know goodness because I know the sunrise, the stars, the golden hour of dusk. I know fear because I know fire and thunder and cold and anger. I know love because I know the luscious moon and the renewing change of the seasons and the soft embrace of the moss.
When my heart is ready, I pause in the open light and turn my face towards the golden warmth of the sun. I can see so much from where I stand; peaks and soft hills and layers of evergreens and frozen streams, with a narrow path winding its way through, winding its way onward. That path holds more goodness and fear and love and I know I will travel further on it soon. For now though, I turn and move down the mountain, my soul quenched by its current path and the morning light.
My husband, the same man who makes his own kombucha and cheese, also has a thing for foods straight out of the ‘50s - meatloaf and casseroles in particular. After years of teasing, it turns out that these are foods I may have underestimated. During the cold months, it can be hard to beat a casserole. This one is inspired by my mother’s winter lasagna, with a casserole-y twist for my sweet spouse. We like to make it over the weekend and save if for dinner mid-week when it’s dark and cold and we need something especially cozy.
BUTTERNUT SQUASH AND KALE CASSEROLE
1 large butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cubed
11/2 tsp. salt, divided
¾ tsp. freshly ground black pepper, divided
½ tsp. garlic powder
¼ tsp. hot pepper flakes
1 medium yellow onion, sliced
1 bunch lacinato (dinosaur) kale, stemmed and roughly chopped
2 Tbls. butter
2 Tbls. all-purpose flour
1 cup vegetable or chicken stock
1 cup milk
1 lb. pasta (I like rigatoni, ziti, or rotini)
6 oz. shredded mozzarella cheese
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees.
Rub a large baking sheet with about 2 Tbls. olive oil. Place the butternut squash on the sheet and sprinkle it with 1 tsp. salt, ½ tsp. black pepper, ½ tsp. garlic powder, and ¼ tsp. hot pepper flakes. Toss the butternut squash in the spices to make sure everything is evenly coated and then roast for about 25 minutes, or until the squash is soft and a little caramelized at the edges.
While the squash roasts, add a drizzle of olive oil to a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté for about 5 minutes, until soft and translucent. Add the kale along with ½ tsp. salt and ¼ tsp. pepper and sauté until soft, another 7 minutes or so.
Bring 5 quarts of water and a few pinches of salt to boil in a large sauce pot. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions. Drain and set aside.
Transfer the kale and butternut to a 9”x13” casserole dish and set aside. In the same skillet you used to cook the kale and onion, melt 2 Tbls. of butter over medium heat. Once the butter starts to sizzle, add the flour and stir well, cooking until you have a thick paste. Pour in about ¼ cup of stock and stir well, until the sauce thickens. Add about ¼ cup more stock and then continue this process until all the stock and milk has been added to the pan and you have a nice, thick roux.
Lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Add the cooked pasta to the casserole dish with the kale mixture and then top with the roux. Stir well to combine, tasting and then adjusting the seasonings as needed. Sprinkle the top of the casserole with mozzarella, then cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake another 15 to 20 minutes, until the cheese is well browned.