Since I’ve been in California for roughly the past two weeks, I haven’t shared any foodie experiments or revelations. Yes, I cooked and ate delicious food on my trip, and yes, I brought my camera with me. However, I neglected to bring the correct cable to plug the camera into a computer and upload the photos. I’m home now, and certainly have things to share, but for the moment I’m much more excited about tonight’s dinner, which is currently just starting to emit cheesy delicious aromas from the oven.
I have never made lasagna before. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about how it’s labor intensive and time consuming, and since two of the major ingredients are ground beef and tomato sauce, I’ve steered clear. I like ground beef in hamburgers, and occasionally in burritos or meatloaf, but I’d prefer that it stay away from my pasta. As for the tomato sauce, since I’ve entered adulthood cooked tomatoes in almost any form upset my stomach. Therefore I have found a large number of alternative pizza and pasta toppings so I can still enjoy Italian cuisine. But lasagna… that was always a roadblock that I wasn’t overly inspired to circumvent.
Then N. and I went to Ashland for our two year wedding anniversary. In addition to the delicious food that we ordered from Pasta Piatti on Main Street (a must-visit, in my opinion), I salivated over most of the options on the menu, including, to my surprise, their take on the perennial classic: lasagna. Here’s their description, and tell me this doesn’t sound amazingly delicious: roasted wild mushrooms, layered pasta, spinach, ricotta, parmesan, arugula pesto, white sauce. I mean, I guess if you’re not a mushroom fan then it wouldn’t sound amazingly delicious, but I suspect substitutions could be made. I scribbled down this description on the back of a receipt that I’d jammed in my wallet, and it traveled through the state (and into the next!) with me for the next few weeks. Then we saw a dip into what might be the beginning of the fall season. The temperature dropped. The rain returned for the morning. It was conveniently Saturday so that I could go and pick up a few things from the Saturday Market. It was cool enough to turn on the oven, and so I decided to brave the lasagna.
It was a little bit time consuming, if only because there were multiple steps, but I wouldn’t call it particularly labor intensive. Here’s what I did:
- Reconstituted a package of shiitake mushrooms in a mixture of warm water and white wine for half an hour (tip: never buy dried shiitakes in the produce section; they cost about twice as much for about half as many mushrooms as they do in the Asian foods aisle!)
- Chopped and blanched a bunch of Italian kale and about ½ lb. of baby spinach, drained and cooled in a colander.
- Sliced and fried a generous handful of crimini mushrooms in butter, adding some pepper and the drained, squeezed, sliced shiitakes when the criminis were about half done. When both kinds were done to my liking, I deglazed the pan with some white wine (I had about a ¼ of a bottle I was trying to finally evict from my refrigerator) and then continued to cook the mushrooms just until the liquid had evaporated. Then I set them aside in a bowl to cool.
- While the mushrooms were cooking, I made the arugula pesto. I must confess, I love the idea but hate the practice of making my own pesto. I can never seem to get the ratios right. But for this dish, I had what I must call an ingenious fix. I had a container of store-bought pesto in the fridge, and I combined four or five TB. of this with probably 2 cups of arugula in my food processor and pulsed them together. Flawless, and so much easier than making it from scratch.
- Using the same pan as I cooked the mushrooms in (I’m big on reducing the number of dishes needed for a meal), I made a roux with about 3 TB. each of butter and flour, then added between 1 and 2 cups of milk to create a white sauce. When it was thickened, I added some pepper, freshly grated nutmeg, and the last few tablespoons of that pesky bottle of wine.
- Then it was time to assemble. Since I’ve never made this before, I actually found deciding which order to add ingredients to be the most challenging part. I put down some sauce first, then a layer of no-boil pasta, then a mixture of ricotta cheese and arugula pesto, topped by the veggies and sauce. Then I repeated, confining myself to three layers of pasta so our dinner would be heavy on the vegetables. On the top layer of pasta, I spread the last little bit of sauce, a little bit more ricotta and pesto, and then a generous layer of grated parmesan cheese. When I stuck it in the oven, it looked like this*:
When it came out 45 minutes later, it looked like this:
The cheese was browned and crusty, the sauce was bubbling up around the corners, and miraculously, my worst fears did not come to fruition, as the no-boil lasagna noodles were soft and chewy. I was secretly afraid they would be crunchy, because I’m not familiar enough with the product to know how they work. Here’s my review: the mixture of both greens and mushrooms was great, and made the dish taste satisfyingly healthy (well, as healthy as cheese-laden pasta gets, I suppose). The arugula pesto added a satisfying bitterness, which I’m sure was helped along by the kale. And of course, it was creamy and cheesy and actually came out of the baking dish in servable pieces, rather than collapsing all over itself in messy piles. Actually, if I may toot my own horn for a moment, the whole thing was rather beautiful. Somehow, despite not really knowing what I was doing, I got the proportions of fillings to cheese to pasta to sauce pretty much right. A nice crisp white wine would go nicely with a large square of lasagna, which is convenient as you could simply drink the wine you were also soaking and deglazing the mushrooms with.
All in all, it was a good, tasty dinner, but it’s definitely a work in progress. N. and I both decided that, lacking the usual piquant, acidic bite of the tomatoes in a red sauce, the dish was actually missing something. The flavors of the cheese, the pesto, and vegetables were good, but they were a little muddy without that sweet tangy top note of tomato. For next time, I will be making a few additions. To attempt to compensate for the missing acidity of the tomatoes, I’ll add extra lemon juice to the pesto mixture. We both agreed that maybe adding a sprinkle of parmesan cheese along with the ricotta in each layer would add a nice touch; I don’t use much salt when I cook, and sometimes the deep greens like spinach and kale need some to enhance their flavors. Extra parmesan mingling with the vegetables while they bake might accomplish this without actually having to add salt. I might also add some of my beloved Penzey’s Black and Red pepper blend the next time to the white sauce, just to spice it up a little bit. It was creamy and thick and good, but really, milk, butter and flour cooked together have only so much flavor on their own.
Other additions, or accompaniments, that have occurred to me since dinner include mixing finely chopped sundried tomatoes into either the white sauce or the mushrooms. They would add that intense tomato flavor without the heavy sauce that upsets my stomach. Thinly sliced fresh tomatoes in between each layer, or maybe only on the top layer underneath the parmesan cheese, might accomplish the same thing. Finally, an old friend from high school T. just told me about a sauce she makes of roasted tomatoes and red peppers that might do the trick, and I wonder whether a plain old roasted red pepper sauce would have the same zippy tang as tomatoes? Certainly it would be pretty, even if it was drizzled over the top or added plate-side. Lasagna #1: down. Lasagna #2 awaits…
* Nota bene: as a geologist’s daughter, I am all but obligated to understand and appreciate cross-sections as a method of conveying information. Conveniently enough, this seems like a perfect strategy for photographing lasagna!