Riddle me this. When it’s a Monday, and you’re so tired you can’t keep your eyes open at work, and you can feel your exhaustion slowly sliding into something like a low-grade fever, what’s the normal-person response?
A. Tough it out at your desk until the end of the workday.
B. Hide in the supply closet with a mug of tea and a sweater.
C. Go home early and sleep.
D. Go home early and spend an hour and a half at the stove making mushroom lasagna with bechamel sauce, from scratch.
Yeah. Turns out I’m not so normal.
What can I say? I was reading the New York Times, and paged over to the Recipes for Health column, and right there was a photo of a slice of mushroom lasagna, lounging on a plate, robed gently in cheese and just the right shade of oven-brown on top. I tucked it away in the back of my mind, until it pushed its way insolently to the front as I was sitting on the subway headed home that recent Monday.
I had to have it. I just did.
I may have been slightly removed from reality, but I wanted that lasagna.
- Soaking and draining a pack of (expensive, hard-to-find) dried porcini mushrooms
- Separating the sand from the soaking liquid and reserving it
- Sauteing fresh and soaked dried mushrooms
- Reducing a mixture of red wine and the mushroom soaking liquid until it’s thick
- Making a roux in a separate pan
- Turning the roux into bechamel sauce very slowly, using both a whisk and a rubber spatula
- Boiling half a pound of no-boil lasagna noodles (!), three or four at a time (!!), and laying them out to dry before assembling each layer
And that’s not even counting the baking time.
I’m sure all the meticulous work made for a slam-bang delicious lasagna. How could it not? But this was a weeknight. I decided to cut corners.
I sauteed some mushrooms with salt and pepper till they turned glossy and dense, then made the bechamel in the same pan, using the whisk to both scrape and stir. I skipped the boiling (really? who boils no-boil lasagna noodles?) and made some haphazard layers, then stuck the whole mess in the oven.
Then came the part where my body started to scream for sleep, and by the time the lasagna came out of the oven, I’d lost any inclination to eat or photograph. Whoops.
Fortunately, lasagna is a friend to both refrigerator and freezer. I sliced it, squirreled away the portions, and waited until I felt better to actually taste the damn thing. Which was pretty damn good. Next time I’d up the herb quotient, and probably replace half the milk in the white sauce with broth, for a lighter result. But it had the right combination of crunch and salty cheese and ooey-gooeyness and chew, and that’s really all I was looking for.
Next time I’m under the weather, though, I’ll skip the recipe-testing and just go straight to bed.
Mushroom Lasagna (serves 4-6)
Adapted liberally from Recipes for Health
1 lb. cremini (“baby bella”) mushrooms, sliced
2 large garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp fresh rosemary or sage, minced
3 tbsp olive oil, divided
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
2 cups cold milk
1/2 lb. lasagna noodles (regular or no-boil)
Grated Parmesan to top each layer of the lasagna (about 1 cup, give or take)
Salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste
If using regular lasagna noodles, boil them until just shy of al dente and drain thoroughly. Let dry on paper towels and set aside.
In a heavy, deep-sided skillet, heat 1 tbsp olive oil over medium heat. Add mushrooms, along with a heavy pinch of salt and as much black pepper as you like. Saute, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, until the mushrooms are richly colored and tender, and any liquid has completely evaporated. Remove the mushrooms from the skillet and set aside.
Heat the remaining 2 tbsp olive oil in the same skillet, again over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds, just to take the edge off, then whisk in the flour to form a roux. Cook, stirring constantly, for about 3 minutes, until the roux is just starting to take on the faintest hint of a golden color. Stir in the rosemary or sage, then whisk in the cold milk all at once. Bring to a simmer, whisking pretty much constantly the whole time, until the mixture begins to thicken. Turn the heat down to low and continue to simmer and whisk constantly for 10-15 minutes, occasionally scraping down the sides and bottom of the skillet with the whisk, until you have a thick, glossy, spoonable white sauce with no raw flour taste left. Remove from heat and set aside.
When you’re ready to assemble the lasagna, preheat oven to 350º F with a rack in the top third, and lightly oil or cooking-spray an 8×8 (2-quart) rectangular baking dish. Spread a very thin layer of the white sauce over the bottom of the baking dish. Lay down a layer of lasagna noodles over the sauce, overlapping as needed to completely cover the bottom. Spread another spoonful of sauce over the noodles, then evenly distribute about one-third of the sauteed mushrooms on top and cover with Parmesan. Repeat with two more layers of noodles, sauce, mushrooms and Parmesan. Top the whole thing with a final layer of noodles, the last of the sauce, and the rest of the Parmesan.
Cover the baking dish with foil and bake for 30 minutes, then remove the foil and bake another 5-10 minutes, until the top is golden brown and the edges are crisp. Let sit for a few minutes, just so you don’t burn yourself, then slice into portions and serve. MUSHROOM MUSHROOM.