Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Perfect Mushroom Lasagna- You must try this one!

I love traditional Italian pasta dishes. I do. I mean, who doesn't love a big hunk of cheesy lasagna or a bowl of perfectly cooked spaghetti with tender meatballs and rich delicious marinara sauce? I also like to challenge myself to give those traditional recipes a new twist- something uniquely "me" in flavor combinations that I love, and it's even better when you add a boozy twist.

I admit it, I am on a cognac kick. No, I am not hanging out in the local bars getting hammered. I have been cooking with it like crazy. It warms up humble cheese soup, makes caramelized onions so much more special and takes simple mushrooms to a whole new dimension. And that, my friends, is where I am going today. Cognac and mushrooms. And cheese. And herbs. Baked. Oh man.....

What does this have to do with classic home cooking? Everything. I'm going to take everyday lasagna and turn it into something really special, really delicious and really my style.

Let's talk about mushrooms for a few minutes. Growing up pretty much all my mom ever cooked with was plain canned button mushrooms. In the spring Dad would hunt morels and usually came home with bags full. Of course, Mom was in the Breading and Frying Club when it came to morels, so my experience as a child with wild mushrooms was pretty limited. It wasn't until I became an adult and began exploring unique and unusual foods that I fell deeply in love with wild mushrooms. Cooking with fresh mushrooms is very different than Mom's cooking with canned mushrooms. Today's modern supermarkets have a much larger variety than back then, and if you venture into an Asian grocery store, you will find even more unique varieties.

Even when I am making a wild mushroom dish I like to start with a few white button mushrooms. They are flavor sponges and readily absorb all the delicious flavors they are mingling next too, especially the cognac *wink wink*  Portobella mushrooms are so popular and you can find the big boys or baby bellas- both are delicious. Porcini, Cremini, Oyster and Chanterelle mushrooms show up in the store once in a while and many of them grow wild- if you're an experienced mushroom hunter, go get them! Puffball, chicken of the woods, and pheasant backs are pretty common in Iowa, so I might have them from time to time if I am brave enough to battle ticks in the woods. But for this recipe, I am going to venture back to the city for some mushrooms from the BIG supermarket and avoid the woods for now. It doesn't matter what kind of mushrooms you use, as long as you have around a pound and a half to two pounds. 

NOTE: If you use shiitakes, remember to remove and discard the ENTIRE stem. It's too tough.

So.....Wild Mushroom Lasagna is on the menu, and you will need-
  • 1 1/2 to 2 lb assorted mushrooms
  • 3/4 cup butter, divided
  • 1/4 cup olive oil, divided
  • 4 scallions, sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup cognac
  • 1 quart whole milk
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 cup Parmesan cheese
  • 1 package lasagna noodles
  • Herb Oil (recipe follows)

Get a large stockpot of water going if you are using the cooked kind of lasagna. Add the noodles when the water comes to full rolling boil and cook according to package directions. Drain into a colander and set aside. I used the no boil lasagna noodles.

While the water is coming to boil, preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Wipe the mushrooms clean and trim off the stem ends. You don't want to WASH the mushrooms because, like I said, they are sponges and will become soggy. Slice some of the mushrooms and cut some into chunks. In a large skillet melt 2 tablespoons butter with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add  the mushrooms and saute for 5-10 minutes until mushrooms are nicely browned. Add the scallions and garlic; cook and stir a couple minutes. Sprinkle the cognac over the pan, then cook until evaporated. and remove to large bowl. Set aside.

I wish you could smell these- mushrooms, garlic, cognac....
To make the bechamel sauce, start by heating the milk in a saucepan. In a large saucepan melt 1/2 cup butter. Stir in the flour and cook for a few minutes to cook out the raw flavor. Add the hot milk all at once and cook, whisking constantly until the sauce is thick and rich. Season with salt, pepper and the nutmeg.

Don't let the roux brown or the bechamel will be dark.
Now we're ready to assemble the lasagna. I like to use a 9x9 stoneware pan. Spread a small amount of the bechamel sauce in the bottom and cover with a layer of noodles. Doesn't have to be picture perfect- no one is going to see it. Spread with more sauce, then add half the mushrooms, sprinkle with 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese. Keep building: noodle, sauce, mushrooms, Parmesan, noodle, sauce and finish with Parmesan cheese on top. Pop it in the oven and bake about 45 minutes to an hour until hot, bubbly and browned on top. Allow the lasagna to rest about ten minutes before cutting. Serve drizzled with fresh Herb Oil drizzled lightly over each serving.

Herb Oil
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup Italian flat leaf parsley leaves
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
  • a few sprigs thyme, leaves removed
  • pinch of salt

Make sure you have FRESH herbs for this. It is not possible to use dried herbs in this recipe. Blend everything together in a mini food processor. Trust me, you NEED a mini food processor in the kitchen for things like this. Makes such a huge difference in making herb oils and blending together small sauces. If you don't have one, crush or muddle the herbs in a small amount of the oil, and then mix it all together. Extra virgin olive oil is important to use because of it's fruity quality.

And how did it turn out? Awesome!! The bechamel is rich and creamy, the mushrooms are so hearty and delicious I never missed the meat one bit. It looks uber rich but it's really a pretty light dish- no heavy mozzarella and ricotta, just a few tablespoons of Parmesan cheese, and believe me, that is all you need. The drizzle of herb oil is a clean and fresh note but it's just fine without the oil. 

Talking about this lasagna with a friend tonight made us throw around a few other ideas- we're both big squash nuts, so maybe a butternut squash lasagna will be on the menu soon.......perhaps.......

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