I make this dish quite frequently. In fact, I am learning that with certain dishes (lasagna, enchiladas, risotto) it is about understanding the method-behind-the-madness that makes me adore the dish. If I wrap my mind around the specific cooking method and components of a dish—it serves as a starting point for all sorts of adjustments and substitutions. If you love seasonal cooking, this is a great way to go: this will give you license to insert the season’s best!
For example: lasagna. Lately I have been making a lot of mushroom lasagna. But for this time of year, you can dice up piles of onions and pre-blanch wintery greens, roast some garlic—and layer them right in. Here are the basics:
1. a main component (for my secret lasagna its sausage tomato sauce; in my mushroom lasagna I saute mushrooms with hoards of black pepper and slivered sage).
2. lasagna noodles (fresh are ready; dried you need to pre-blanch).
3. cheese (as simple as Parmesan or if I am making a vegetarian lasagna perhaps feta and mozzarella…).
4. bechamel or a ricotta ‘paste’—this is that wallpaper paste consistency that adds texture, color and flavor to the classic lasagna dish.
All components are cooked or prepared in advance: the red sauce, bechamel, grilled/sauteed vegetables and lasagna noodles if using dried. Then its a matter of layering and baking (or my favorite: layering and freezing for later!). To layer a lasagna, you usually spread a little sauce on the bottom of the dish to prevent sticking and give moisture to the bottom layer of noodles. So start with a scant few Tablespoons of bechamel or red sauce on the bottom of your baking dish. Then 2-3 layers of noodles/sauces/cheese. Top with the bechamel ‘paste’ then cheese (I like to mix the cheese the last little bit of cheese with homemade breadcrumbs—and 1-2 T olive oil—for the ‘topping’). Last time I served mushroom lasagna with roasted cherry tomatoes, still on the vine. A stunning combination of colors and flavors!
3/4 LB lasagna noodles (I buy fresh but plan to start making my own; dried works too, just make sure to parboil the noodles before assembling the lasagna).
4 cups whole milk
12 T butter
1/2 cup flour
1 tsp coarse pepper (for bechamel)
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 1/2 LBS mushrooms
bunch of sage
1-2 tsp coarse pepper (for mushrooms)
1 cup Parmesan (just grated)
optional: bread crumbs (preferably rosemary bread crumbs)
Oven to 375. Grate cheese. Cook lasagna noodles, if required. Make bechamel: simmer milk in pan, melt 8 T butter in saucepan, add flour and stir, cook 1 minute. Pour hot milk into roux (roux = flour plus butter) and whisk to blend. Add salt, pepper, nutmeg and cook over medium low 5 minutes. Set aside. Cook mushrooms: Saute chopped mushrooms in 4 T butter (I sometimes use some rendered bacon fat or half butter/half olive oil) over medium high, just until mushrooms release liquid (3-5 minutes); lower to medium low and add minced sage and coarse pepper. Cook another 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat.
Assemble: spread a little bechamel in baking dish, place layer of noodles on top, paste a layer of bechamel on noodles, then mushrooms (1/3 of the mushrooms), 1/4 cup Parmesan. Repeat. Repeat again. Top with layer of noodles, remaining bechamel and the last 1/4 cup of the Parmesan. Bake for 45 minutes.