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It has been a busy week of testing and tasting in my little kitchen, faithful dog Tann Mann by my side. On the menu? The wonderful, versatile world of bechamel, as I seek conclusion of the bechamel chapter in the latest book project.
It's been good news all around, as it should be for anyone working with this creamy, mild sauce. First, it's pretty difficult to err preparing a bechamel, which is a simple blend of butter, flour, shallot, milk, and/or cream. Second, it's really fun to come up with flavor pairings to embellish and enhance the bechamel base.
Frequently, people ask me how I come up with recipe ideas. An idea can come from friends, a long walk with a head full of recipe ruminations, or a tasty restaurant feast. But, more often than not, it is a simple product, usually a vegetable, that gets me started. This is the first flavor layer, which will hopefully yield a perfect flavor and texture symphony that bursts in happy mouths and souls.
And so it was product inspiration that got me started this past week. At the market, I came across a bin full of spectacular shitakes (sidenote: also some beautiful, fresh asparagus. The asparagus got me thinking about citrus, specifically orange, and a mild onion flavor and bright color, the kind that chives offer with panache. Thus came the asparagus gratin I made with an orange/chive bechamel. This recipe needed a little tweaking, however, because the walnut topping I opted for turned out to be too much. After a little time back at the drawing board we hit the mark. Besides, Tann Mann appreciated a few walnut treats.)
But it was the shitakes that formed the first flavor layer for this recipe. They ultimately combined with morels, portobello, leeks, and more to yield a lovely lasagna that my friendly neighbor taste-testers deemed "Wonder bar," "Perfect—don't change a thing," and "divine." Yeah—I'll take it! This does not happen every day, and it's very welcome when it does.
I happened to have a chunk of fragrant, creamy Port Salut cheese in the fridge, so this was whisked into the bechamel base, transforming it into a variation on the sauce theme, called a Mornay. Fresh thyme, leeks, and the sweet richness of Marsala brought it all together. It's a little bit time consuming and a little bit rich, but with a small side salad, it's still the perfect meal for early summer. Also, it can be completely assembled a full day ahead, refrigerated, and baked in a brief 30 minutes, as guests enjoy an aperitif and easy company.
Wild Mushroom and Leek Lasagna with Marsala and Thyme Mornay
(Serves 8 to 10)
1/2 ounce dried morels
1 cup dry Marsala
4 TBS olive oil
2 leeks, cleaned, trimmed, quartered, and finely diced
6 cups shitake mushrooms, thinly sliced
3 cups portobello mushrooms, cut into 1/4" cubes
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup dry Marsala wine
3 TBS white wine (suggest Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio)
For the pasta:
1 pound dry lasagna
Water to cover
Several tablespoons salt
3 TBS olive oil
For the cheese filling/toppings:
2 cups ricotta cheese
1/2 cup fresh mozzarella Perline (tiny cheese balls) or grated fresh mozzarella
1 cup grated Parmesan
For the Mornay:
4 TBS unsalted butter
1 shallot, finely chopped
4 TBS all purpose flour
2 cups skim milk
1 1/2 cups Half & Half
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Reserved Marsala from the morels
2 TBS fresh thyme, finely chopped
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
3/4 cup Port Salut cheese, coarsely chopped (or substitute Fontina)
Combine the morels with 1 cup dry Marsala in a small, non-reactive bowl. Heat on high for 1 minute in the microwave. Set aside to re-hydrate the mushrooms, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a large, deep skillet, heat the olive oil over medium high. Add the leeks, stirring, cooking until just softened, about 5 minutes. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Add the shitakes and portobello mushrooms, stirring to coat and soften. Season these lightly with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to medium and continue cooking until the mushrooms (they will look like a LOT at first) have softened, about 7 minutes. Increase heat to high. Add the 1/2 cup Marsala and cook until the wine has reduced to nothing. Repeat with the white wine. Meanwhile, using your hands, squeeze the Marsala out of the reserved morels, and finely chop the morels. Add these to the mushroom mixture, stirring to combine. Reserve the Marsala soaking liquid for the sauce. Turn off the heat and set the sautéed mushroom/leek mixture aside.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water up to a rapid boil. Season generously with salt. Add the lasagna all at once, and cook to package directions. The goal is to cook the pasta to al dente. Count on about 8 to 9 minutes, depending on the brand used. Drain the pasta once it's cooked and set aside.
While that's happening, measure out and prep the ricotta, mozzarella, and Parmesan, and have it ready for the lasagna assembly. Preheat oven to 375 degrees and lightly oil or butter a lasagna pan or a large, rectangular casserole pan.
Prepare the Mornay. In a large sauce pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the shallots and sweat to cook down for about three minutes. Add the flour, whisking to combine. Cook through for another 3 minutes. Add the cold skim milk and cold Half & Half, streaming in as you whisk. Increase heat to medium high, whisking the entire time. Once the sauce has come to just below a boil, it will thicken to a thin pudding consistency. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper. Add the reserved Marsala from the morels, thyme, nutmeg, and Port Salut cheese. Continue to whisk until the cheese is fully melted and incorporated. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.
Time to compile the lasagna!
Pour 1 cup of the Mornay onto the bottom of the pan and spread with a spatula to evenly distribute. Top with a layer of slightly over-lapped lasagna noodles (you will need about 5 or 6 for each layer, loosing broken pieces to fill any gaps in the corners, etc). Top that with 2 cups of the mushroom/leek mixture, spreading with a spatula to evenly distribute. Top with 1 cup of ricotta, spread to even with a spatula. Drizzle with 1/2 cup of the grated Parmesan. Top with another cup of Mornay, spread to distribute. Repeat with another layer of lasagna, remaining mushroom mixture, another cup of ricotta, and another cup of Mornay. Finish with another layer of lasagna and a thin coating of the remaining Mornay sauce.
Cover with foil and bake for 25 minutes, until heated through and bubbling. Remove the foil, and add a layer of the remaining Parmesan and mozzarella, scattered across the top. Cover with foil and return to bake for another 10 minutes. Remove the foil, and bake a final 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to stand 10 minutes before cutting.
Serve with sprigs of fresh thyme and a fresh green salad.
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