Despite the homage below to my willingness to substitute rashly and too much, I found myself seized over the weekend by the need to tackle not one but four recipes in the service of a mushroom-and-port lasagna. “Mel,” I hear you say, “seriously, four recipes? For a hot mash of mushrooms, cheese, and pasta? What’s your effin’ problem?”
My problem--in this instance, anyway--is that I haven’t made anything I haven’t loved from Annie Somerville’s Fields of Greens (1993). I was a vegetarian for fifteen-ish years and went back to this one again and again, long after most of the Moosewoods had been wrung dry of their charms, such as they were. So when it became clear that (1) it was really cold and wet out, and (2) something had to be done with those pre-Christmas mushrooms in the fridge, I knew where to turn, even though—even though—the recipe itself uses phrases like “labor of love” and “preparation is lengthy.” Sometimes that’s just how it has to be.
Watson was having none of it, opting instead to compile a one-pot squash-and-beaner that was a good cupboard cleaner—and has made for good lunches this week—but didn’t address that need for a January hot dish and didn’t do anything about the mushrooms, either.
But of course, by the time I’d scanned the recipe in all its complexity, there was shopping to be done. For starters, we didn’t have enough mushrooms.
Recipe number 1 was essentially for mushroom sauce, and it entailed some mushroom stock, which under other circumstances could have meant that this would be actually a five subrecipe extravaganza. Luckily, we had some frozen into a solid, disturbing-looking mass in the freezer, right next to the pierogi.
So while that was heating up, I soaked some porcinis and sautéed half an onion in some olive oil. Incidentally, have you ever known a cat to like to lick olive oil bottles? The bad one of ours does, and frankly it’s gross. But you didn’t need me to tell you that. Anyway, to the onions I added the porcinis (chopped up), their liquid, a whole lot of minced garlic, some white port, and cooked it all down into a savory mess, which I transferred to a bowl. In the same pan, I melted some butter and whisked up a roux, thickening it gradually with the mushroom stock. This, friends, is indeed how one makes a roux. To the successful sauce, I returned the savory mess from above, and things are off to a good start.
On to recipe 2: mushrooms and leeks. Leeks are probably the most wasteful vegetable I know, other than my brother-in-law--all those lovely green tops, useless for much of anything besides more stock. But whom are you going to argue with about it? Anyway, a couple cups of those sliced lovelies go into some oil and get sautéed for a bit with some thyme and garlic and such, then covered and steamed for about 8 minutes before getting pulled from the pan. This pan is about to really go through holy hell, but I decide not to mention it to Watson, who would worry. I crank the burner up to high, promptly incinerating some stray leek bits and nearly one of my eyebrows. To the pan I add just a drop of oil and half the mushrooms. They sizzle and start to melt, but not nearly as fast as the pan is blackening. I add some more chopped garlic, which doesn’t really affect the situation at all, and some more port, which does help. I remove this batch and repeat the exercise, despite a look of concern from Watson, who leaves the room. A few minutes later, she returns and wonders if our carbon monoxide detector is on the fritz. Seeing as we removed it from the ceiling some weeks back on account of suspicious behavior, this seems a reasonable supposition.
To try to disguise what I’ve done to the pan (OK, her pan actually), I’ve thrown more port, the first batch of mushroom, and the leeks back into it and shut off the burner, all the while making “isn’t this just heavenly, dear?” noises. Watson, unfooled, is opening a number of windows and doors, which is sort of unfortunate (see observation about “wet and cold,” above). But at least we’ve reached the end of recipe 2.
Recipe 3 is simplicity itself. I blorp a container of ricotta into a bowl and mash it with some beaten eggs, Parmesan, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Heck, that barely counts.
Recipe 4 is a herb béchamel. After realizing we don’t have enough milk, running out through one of the open doors/windows to go to the 7-11 on the corner, and returning to find that we might, actually, have just enough milk after all, I take the first fateful steps down the path to not making a roux.
See, what the recipe calls for is this: scald some milk in one pan, while melting some butter in another. Into the butter, stir some flour. Now, given that I had made a more complex roux earlier this same evening (we’re about 90 minutes into the process at this point, by the by), one might well imagine that I would know what to do next. And, indeed, should you consult page 155 of Field of Greens, you, too, will see what to do next.
Reader, I did not do that.
Nevertheless, I charged ahead—still worried about how I was ever going to clean that seared pan—and let the béchamel burble away with some bundled fresh herbs, as I began to assemble the actual lasagna. No, I am not going to get into the whole boil/no-boil thing. The answer is always no-boil.
So: mushroom sauce, pasta, mushroom sauce, leek/mushroom mixture, cheese (Gruyère and Parmesan), pasta, ricotta mix, pasta, mushroom sauce, cheese, pasta. And now, with the oven preheated, all I need to do is “Pour the béchamel over the lasagne, spreading it evenly to cover the corners.” This proves difficult because what I have is not a spreadable sauce but rather a pan of hot milk. For in making--or, rather, not making—the roux, I scraped the butter and flour into the milk, rather than the other way around, and as a result that nice rouxy thickness never developed.
Actually, it was worse than that. Watson was pitching in around the time of the roux misstep, and I actually told her to scrape the butter and flour into the milk, rather than the other way around, Trusting soul that she is, she did. That’ll teach her to listen to me. (I am reliably informed that she was biting her tongue forcefully at this moment, which will teach me not to ask her what that grimace is about.)
Alas, into the oven all the same—and if I do say so the kitchen smells pretty damn good about this time. But as the baking time passes, and then some, there is still this undeniably liquid quality to what’s in the pan. Around this time, Watson forswears her taciturnity and says, in effect, “That’s not how you make a herb béchamel, you know.”
Crestfallen, I consider taking to the tub, but instead we sit down to some mushroom-noodle milk soup. Later I scrub the pans with Kennedy-esque vigor. ("You certainly are domestic today," said Watson.)
The next day, we discover that several hours in the fridge has done a world of good, and that we now have a reward worthy of all the seemingly wasted effort. No, really, it's terrific. Try it yourself sometime.