The world that fiction comes from is fragile. It melts into insignificance against the universe of what is clear and visible and known. It persists because it is based on the power of cadence and rhythm in language and these are mysterious and hard to defeat and keep in their place. The difference between fact and fiction is like the difference between land and water.
-Colm Toibin ("What is Real is Imagined")
While the rest of the country is sweltering and, in a lot of places, is in desperate need of rain, I'm currently looking out my window, watching as an ominous, ash grey mass crawls inland from the bay. My heater is on, I'm wearing thick socks and nothing would be so pleasant as a cup of tea or a Hot Toddy right now. So, yes, even though there's a small part of me that thinks that I must be crazy to write a post about lasagne, a dish that obviously involves turning on the oven in the middle of summer, I'm going to do it anyway. And only because, in Berkeley, particularly in July, it might as well be winter.
This kind of weather has long been one of the more frustrating aspects of my move from the east coast to the west. Initially, I didn't know how to handle it. What had happened to tank tops and sandals in the evening? Icy drinks and ice cream sandwiches on picnic tables as the sun set? It all seemed rather unfair; after all, is summer really summer when you're carrying a cardigan in your bag? The short answer is no. The longer answer--one that I've discovered in my six years here--is that there's something endlessly romantic about the swaths of fog that hang over the bay. There's something nice about not going outside and feeling like you immediately need to take a shower. And there's also something wonderful about knowing that the seasons blur together in ways that allow the simple act of turning the oven on in July to be a welcome event. In a lot of ways, I think of it as my very own indoor campfire.
And this vegetarian lasagne, for which I came across a recipe in Saveur several years ago, is one of my favorite things to make--come winter, spring, summer and fall. At the height of spring, I've served it with a simple salad, to be followed by strawberry cake; in the midst of summer, it can easily complement any grilled meat or fish. It's a lasagne that sticks to your bones, yet, thanks to its many herbs and vegetables, allows you to feel virtuous for eating so many healthy things at once. Combining both a Béchamel sauce and a mushroom-tomato-herb sauce, I'll admit that it's not the easiest recipe that I've ever attempted to recreate at home, but it's certainly worth the extra work.
However, when I first saw this recipe in Saveur, as tempted as I was to run to the grocery store and get to work, I was also a bit cowed by the length of the ingredient list (consider this your warning; don't be alarmed!). But once I set about making it, I realized that it's simply a matter of copious chopping. It's the kind of recipe that makes you invite a friend to dinner; then you get not only a dining companion, but also a chopping buddy and friendly sous chef in one. That being said, I've also made this recipe a few times by myself and once you get into a chopping rhythm, the mushrooms, carrots and herbs don't stand a chance. New Yorker Fiction Podcasts make the time (and the vegetables) pass by more quickly, too.
Beyond the occasional tedium of the chopping, what you end up with is well worth the price of a slightly sore thumb: layer upon layer of noodles, containing a mixture of tender mushrooms, mounds of melted cheese and a creamy tomato sauce. And I imagine that summer squash would make a nice substitute for some of the mushrooms, and maybe kale for the spinach, too.
I don't know if this description will have convinced you that this is a recipe worthy of summer, but, even if not, I hope you'll at least consider giving this a chance come the fall. I do recognize, after all, that we can't all enjoy the privilege of the Berkeley "summer."
Adapted from Saveur
Yields 6-8 slices, depending on whether it's a side or a main
Since I've been making this for years, I've adapted it a bit more to my tastes and methods in the kitchen. While the original recipe calls for only shiitake mushrooms, I use a combination of shiitake and crimini; this is both because of cost and health benefits (crimini mushrooms are surprisingly good for you!). Also, given all of the chopping, I prefer baby spinach to whole leaf, as well as pressing the garlic, rather than finely chopping it. And, when it comes to fresh herbs, which are less potent than their dried counterparts, I don't even bother to measure. I simply take handfuls, wash and chop and/or pull the leaves off of them. And since I prefer saltier cheese, I rarely make an Italian dish without using a mixture of Parmesan andPecorino-Romano. In this recipe, I think both work well, perhaps even better than the originally intended Fontina and Grana Padano.
I'll also add that each time I've made this lasagne, I've used a different amount of dried noodles. Sometimes I use 3/4 of a box (I use the no-boil kind) and there's no room in the baking dish for any more; other times, it's the whole box or something like 2/3. This is just more proof that recipes can only take you so far; they can't predict what will actually happen in the kitchen.
12 tablespoons unsalted butter1 shallot, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1/2 cup flour
5 cups milk
1 tsp. nutmeg
6 sun-dried tomatoes, packed in oil
6 sun-dried tomatoes, to be soaked in hot water
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and quartered
10 ounces crimini mushrooms, stemmed and quartered
1/2 pound baby spinach, chopped
6 cloves garlic, crushed in the garlic press
Several handfuls of Italian parsley, oregano, thyme and rosemary, chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
5 cups canned crushed tomatoes (I used ones with basil already added)
about 1 pound lasagne noodles
About 2 cups grated Parmesan
About 2 cups grated Pecorino-Romanosea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
-Grease a 9 " x 13" deep baking dish with butter.
-Cover the dried tomatoes with boiling water and let soak until tender. Then, drain and chop. Set aside until needed.
-To make the béchamel: heat 8 tbsp. of the butter in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat. Add the chopped shallots and carrots; cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the flour and cook for a few minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon. Then, slowly whisk in the milk and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, whisking until thick--about 20-25 minutes. Add nutmeg and season with sea salt and pepper
-In the meantime, heat olive oil and remaining butter in a large saucepan. Add the mushrooms and cook for about 10 minutes, or until a liquid has begun to form. Add the sun-dried tomatoes, baby spinach, garlic, herbs and tomato paste. Cook for 2-3 minutes and then add the canned tomatoes. Cook for about 10 minutes, letting the flavors set, and then set aside.
-At this stage, preheat the oven to 375 F.
-Then, spread about 2 cups of the tomato sauce in the baking dish.
-Cover the tomato sauce with a layer of no-boil noodles and then spread about 1 cup béchamel on top.
-Sprinkle with both cheeses, making sure to cover the expanse of the pan.
-Repeat the layering process two more times.
-At the final stage, when the pan can hold almost no more, top with noodles and the remaining tomato sauce, béchamel and cheeses. Spread evenly across the pan with a spoon.
-Put in the oven and bake, covered with foil, on a baking sheet for 1 hour.
-Then, remove the foil, raise the oven to 500 F, and bake for an additional 10-15 minutes, or until golden.