Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Vegetable Lasagna with Wild Mushroom Sauce

I think for most people there is always a recipe that they think is insurmountable.  Something that really will test them.  For me, it is this vegetable lasagna with wild mushroom sauce that I remember as a child.  It was something that my aunt made at a family get together in Syracuse, New York.  Now these things may not sounds at all hard or difficult but trust me, they are. 

First you should know my aunt, Eleni is one of the best cooks.  She always produced the best meals.  None of them were straight forward either, she always made the most difficult recipes seem simple.  My mom always looked up to her cooking and would tell stories about some of the meals she would prepare, this veggie lasagna in particular.  Another thing about this recipe is it came from Great Good Food by Julee Rosso, a co-author of the Silver Palate cook book, every recipe of which is an undertaking! These cook books are definitely not a how-to.  They assume you know a whole lot about cooking.

My mom undertook this recipe ages ago, and it was great, but it requires A LOT of effort.  To the point where she said if you decide to make this, you should make two and just freeze the other.  When I was building my recipe box, I was going through my mom's and decided to grab this one.  Where I actually re-wrote all of the other recipes on an index card, this one I just left alone, it was just too long to bother re-writing.

The cookbook describes the lasagna as "moist and loaded with vegetable, this recipe looks like it will take hours, but the preparation time should actual be only about a half and hour.  Best of all, it's so flavorful, no one will ever miss the meat." Note - they totally LIED!  from start to finish, this recipe took basically 3 hours and 45 minutes.  The preparation alone took almost 2 hours!

So after all this build-up here is the recipe (I made a couple of substitutions that I will explain later but basically followed it closely):

Mushroom Sauce
  • 1 oz dried wild mushrooms
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup freshly chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1 can (28 oz) Italian plum tomatoes with basil
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
Cheese Filling
  • 1 container (15 oz) nonfat ricotta cheese
  • 1 package (10 oz) chopped spinach, cooked, drained, and squeezed dry
  • 1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk
  • 1 cup shredded Parmesan
  • freshly ground salt and pepper
  • 1 red bell pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded, and julienned
  • 1 green bell pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded, and julienned
  • 1 yellow squash, thinly sliced and steamed (about 3/4 cup)
  • 1 zucchini, thinly sliced and steamed (about 3/4 cup)
  • 1 pound eggplant, thinly sliced, sprayed or wiped with canola oil, and broiled until lightly browned
  • 2 artichokes, outer leaved and fuzzy cores removed, hearts halved and thinly sliced
  • fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup halved and thinly sliced onion
  • 10 lasagna noodles, cooked and drained according to package directions
  • 8 oz shredded nonfat mozzarella cheese
  • 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan
So as you can see from the ingredients along, it requires A LOT of preparation - the vegetables alone!

The first step has you go ahead and reconstitute the mushrooms.  Instead, I used fresh mushrooms.  A combination of shiitake and cremini mushrooms.  My first step was to go ahead and clean the mushrooms and sliced them thinly and set them aside in a bowl (a theme throughout!).  I figured I needed to start somewhere!

probably more than the require amount, but I LOVE mushrooms

My next step was to start preparing the vegetables so that they even matched the requirements listed above!  I cut the peppers into quarters and took out all the seeds and set them on a cookie sheet.  In an effort to save time, I thinly sliced the eggplant (as directly), but I just added them to the same cookie sheet, then start a new one with the rest.  I generously dribbled olive oil over the peppers, and sprayed the eggplant with canola oil spray.  I also sprinkled kosher salt over all the veggies and slid the cookie trays into a 400 degree oven.  The eggplant was not looking so great after about 15 minutes so I took them out and dribbled some olive oil over them as well and put them back in the oven.  After another 10 or 15 minutes I took the eggplant out of the oven as they were beginning to brown.  I left the eggplant to cool a bit on the tray and I put the peppers back in the oven.

browned eggplant
 At that point I sliced the zucchini and summer squash and added them to the pot to steam up.

When they were done, I added them to a bowl and set them aside.  When the eggplant had cooled a bit, I added those slices to the same bowl.

steamed zucchini and summer squash and browned eggplant
At this point, knowing I am not the best multi-tasker, I set about and prepped all the rest of the ingredients.  So I chopped up a cup and a half of onions and set the chopped onion aside.  I am terrible at estimating how much onion I need, case in point, at the store I bought two fairly big onions, and actually only needed about 3/4 of one onion.

I then set about chopping up the parsley I needed as well as the rosemary and added them to a bowl for later.  The plum tomatoes I purchased were not "with basil" so I added a couple of dashes of the dried basil I had on hand to the bowl.

herbs and mushrooms

Rather than using fresh spinach, I just used frozen spinach, so I defrosted the box in the microwave and then made sure I soaked up all the excess water with some paper towels.  Again, I then set the spinach aside in a bowl.  Also, rather than fussing with fresh artichokes, I used canned artichoke hearts.  I drained the can and then sliced the hearts and set them aside in a bowl.  I sprinkled some lemon juice over the top of the hearts so that they would not brown.  That was about the only "tip" the recipe provided!  The hearts definitely were not great, and I would much rather the flavor of real hearts, but that would be way too much work!

At some point during all this preparation, the peppers were cooking along until they were fully roasted, probably about 40 minutes total.   

roasted peppers
As you can see, I started to slice them before I roasted them - bad idea as they just got crispy in the oven, not roasted.  I just tossed those ones.  Once out of the oven I let the peppers cool just enough so that I could peel the skins off.  The peeling is a surprising easy task (or should be) because of the roasting process.  After they were peeled, I julieened them and added the peppers to the bowl with the other veggies.

all the veggies

Because I am crazy, I actually cooked the lasagna in advance, I mean I was prepping everything else.  Nick gave me a hint and told me to add some olive oil to the water it help prevent the pasta from stick afterward.  When it was done, I did not rinse it with cold water, rather I just drained the pasta thoroughly and, again, set aside.

The store somehow did not have any buttermilk.  Luckily Nick thought to look up a substitution, which was rather easy.  All I needed to do was add 1 teaspoon of lemon juice per half cup or milk and let it sit for about five minutes.  I just used skim milk. 

So finally, all my preparation work was done.  Yes, this took me way longer than the half hour predicted by the cookbook.  I know I am a slow chefette, but wow, I am not THAT slow!

a portion of the prepped food!

So ya, STEP 2 of the recipe!  In a large skillet (11in diameter pan), I heated the oil over a medium heat and added the chopped onion.  I sauteed these until they were clear (about 5 minutes).  Next I added the can of plum of tomatoes and the bowl I had prepared of all the herbs.

Next, I broke up the plum tomatoes with the back of my fork.  Then I added the bowl of sliced of mushrooms.  I then added salt and pepper to the mixture.  One thing about my prep, it did make me feel like I was on the food network with everything all set up in little bowls to add!  I allowed this sauce to simmer, uncovered, for about 20 minutes.

sauteing mushroom sauce

The next step was preparing the cheese mixture.  I combined the ricotta cheese, spinach, buttermilk and 1 cup of Parmesan cheese (salt and pepper to taste).

cheese mixture

Then, in my 9 inch pan (yes two pans going now!), I added the chicken stock and the sliced artichokes to cook over medium/high heat.

cooking artichoke hearts

I cooked these until they were a tender-crisp.  This was hard to get considering they were not fresh...so basically I cooked them for about 4 minutes.  Then I added the artichokes to the bowl with the rest of the veggies, leaving behind the chicken stock.  After the artichokes were removed, I added the rest of the chopped onion to the pan to steam in the chicken stock.  Once they were done I added them to the bowl of veggies as well.

At this point I was ready to assemble the lasagna!  Yes, almost 3 hours later!!  I greased a 9 x 13 inch pan and spread a few tablespoons of the mushroom sauce in the pan.

a few tablespoons spread around

Next I covered the dish with a layer of the noodles and covered those with half of the cheese filling and then sprinkled half of the mozzarella cheese on top of the cheese filling.  Next I took about half of the veggie mixture (trying to get a good mixture of them all) and spread that out on top of the cheese.  Then I spooned out about 1 cup of the mushroom sauce to add on top.

1 layer assembled!
Then I repeated those steps all over again and then added the final layers of the noodles.  There was a bit of the mushroom sauce left at this point that I topped off the whole lasagna with along with a 1/4 cup of Parmesan cheese.   
fully assembled, ready for the oven!

Now that it was finally all assembled, I covered it with tin foil and cooked it for a half hour at 350 degrees.  Then I removed the cover and cooked the lasagna for another 15 minutes.   After it was cooked, I had to let it stand for about 10 minutes before digging in!

cooling....we are very hungry at this point!
Once it was cooled, we were able to dig in...almost 4 hours later.  I was exhausted, but it was totally worth it!

layers oozing out!
plated with a sprinkle of Parmesan on top, ready to be eaten
This was definitely delicious, but quite the undertaking.  However, it is satisfying because you can taste all the hard work in each bite.  All the different flavors work so well together, the dish may feel empty if you did not include something!  Although, I am not a pepper fan and since those do require a lot of effort, I would consider skipping those.

I would highly recommend this dish, but make sure you do have some time to prepare everything.  I am sure you could do some of it ahead of time as well.  I know I am slow in the kitchen, so maybe not the full 3 hours 45 minutes it took me, but still a solid 2 or 2 and a half hours is possible!  It was a perfect Sunday afternoon dish to make when I had some time.  Also, when it was so cold outside, this really warmed us up.

I feel very accomplished having made this dish start to finish.  Even more accomplished since it came out tasting great.  I was nervous for Nick's first bite, because if something was wrong, I would have been crushed!

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