Circle of Friends: “Once again, I’m saved by the miracle of lasagne!”-Garfield
I have a story about lasagna that I’m not exactly proud of. Well, the story, not the pasta. Flashback to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, circa 1984. The common kitchen. I’m making lasagna. Yes, when everyone else was ordering pizza, I was boiling curly noodles and grating cheese. Not all the time, of course – just when the hankering for real, homey comfort food hit hard. When the casserole came out of the oven, all bubbling and gooey, I beckoned my new freshmen friends and we all sat cross-legged on the lounge floor and dug in. We practically inhaled the Pyrex dish in record time, eating way more than we should have, but it was just so good we couldn’t help ourselves, including my first roommate – one of the planet’s sweetest inhabitants.
Moving-in day was the first time that Amy and I had actually met – so, I really didn’t know what to expect from this stranger that I would be living with. As I walked wide-eyed into our tiny little dorm room, I saw this angelic blond, sitting at her desk, unpacking some of her things – most notably, a few framed pictures of her family and a Bible. I’m not gonna lie. My first thought was, “Uh-oh.” Now, I’m a huge fan of The Good Book, believe me, but I was afraid that the Consecutive Social Security Numbers Roommate Placement Lottery had put me with Miss Goodie-Two Shoes and I might be in big trouble. I smiled nervously and raised an eyebrow as I wondered what she might think of me when I started to unload My First Semester of College Survival Kit: four huge bottles of red wine and a carton of Virginia Slims Ultra Lights (hey, I was going through a serious rebellious phase and no, I don’t smoke anymore). We couldn’t have been more different but somehow we clicked and became fast friends.
After that night of stuffing our face with lasagna, we all went to some of those Friday night “social mixers” on campus. You know…keg parties! (My folks are so proud!) And sweet, innocent Amy, I do believe, had her first taste of cheap, draft beer. Correction: beers. She giggled giddily…uncontrollably. She even smoked clove cigarettes (I’m watching this dying, truly dying). It was quite shocking to see this very uncharacteristic wanton behavior from a pretty straight-laced gal! Most unfortunately, though, her fun-filled night ended badly (you can probably guess how) and the poor thing suffered a historical hangover the next day. And to make matters even worse, her parents (super sweet people!) were on their way for a weekend visit and to take us out to dinner. Not that I know anything about having a collegiate hangover (cough), but from what I’ve been told, apparently the last thing you want to do when you’ve spent the majority of the night pleading to God that if he gets you out of this “mess,” you’ll never, ever drink again, is to even think about food.
I have to say, she put on a good face, albeit a slightly green one, but her mom and dad were none the wiser to our earlier shenanigans. So, off to Franklin Street we went for a family + roommate-in-tow meal. Okay, this is the part where I became horrible. I toyed with my infirm roomie in the most awful way.
“Hmmm,” I said as I perused the menu at Four Corners restaurant. “Let’s see. What looks good to you, Amy? Oh, I know! How about the lasagna? You love lasagna, right?” I mercilessly teased. Her parents got in on the action, too, heartily concurring with that choice of entrée.
She gave me a sheepish look and, unfettered in my malicious mission, I continued my torture. “You know what? That’s what I’ll have. I’ll have the lasagna!”
And, as if the thought of her last supper weren’t enough, I pressed onwards and went for the jugular when the food arrived.
I impishly forked up a huge bite and waved slow, small circles in her face, saying, “Here! Try some, Amy! We can share it! Oh, it’s so good! No? Well, ooookay…” I trailed off.
I told you I was awful. I thought she might have to excuse herself to the ladies room after that reminding whiff, but she remained stoic as an oak. I also thought she would hate me after that stunt, but she did not. I told you she’s the sweetest, most forgiving person in the world.
Which reminds me. Amy, if you’re reading this, what’s the statue of limitations for apologies? Hopefully, I can just get it in under the wire to one of the best people I have ever known. And, if I’m lucky, you have successfully blocked out that fateful night and come full circle back to your love of layered pasta and cheese, my friend.
Now, I love a good meaty/ricotta/tomato-based lasagna as much as the next guy. And I had every intention of giving you that recipe. But sometimes it’s life’s happenstance that intervenes and something really great happens. After we wrapped the photo shoot for the béchamel sauce a little while back, being my frugal self, I didn’t want to waste it. I had planned to make the creamy linguine with bacon and peas for supper that night but decided to use up the excess of mushrooms (from another shoot) in my refrigerator and make a lasagna. It turned out so fantastically, I had to share. For a refresher course on how to make a béchamel or white sauce, check out the link below the recipe.
- kosher salt
- 12 dried lasagna noodles
- For the white sauce:
- 4 cups whole milk
- 2 bay leaves
- dash freshly grated nutmeg
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- ¼ cup all-purpose flour
- freshly ground black pepper
- For the mushrooms:
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- 6 cups sliced mushrooms
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
- 1 cup white wine
- For the lasagna:
- 2 cups (packed) fresh baby spinach, washed, dried and stems removed
- 3 cups freshly grated Parmesan
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bring a large pot of water seasoned with 1 tablespoon of kosher salt to a boil. Add the lasagna noodles and cook until al dente, about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain and set aside.
- In a glass measure, add the milk, bay leaves and nutmeg. Microwave for several minutes until warmed through – don’t boil (or you can do this in a saucepan, too). Discard the bay leaves.
- In a large saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Add in the flour; whisk until smooth. Cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Gradually add in the hot milk, whisking until blended. Bring to a boil; cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the sauce is thickened, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- In a large sauté pan over medium heat, melt the butter with the olive oil. Add the mushrooms and toss to coat all pieces with the butter and olive oil. Cook until the mushrooms start to turn golden. Add in the thyme and wine; cook until the liquid has completely evaporated (this could take up to 10 minutes or so, depending on how much liquid the mushrooms express. But don’t worry – it will boil down). Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the white sauce and check for seasoning.
- Assemble the lasagna: spread a little of the sauce in the bottom of an 8 x 12 x-2 inch baking dish (I use my trusty Pyrex glass one). Place a layer of noodles on top (I “shingle” or overlap 4 noodles) followed by ⅓ of the sauce, 1 cup of the spinach and topped with 1 cup of cheese. Repeat another layer. Place the last 4 noodles on top; spread the remaining sauce over the noodles and sprinkle over the remaining 1 cup of cheese. Drizzle the top with some olive oil and bake, uncovered, until the lasagna is golden brown and bubbling, about 40 minutes. Let the lasagna rest for at least 10 minutes before slicing.
Planning: This elegant lasagna is a perfect dish for entertaining. You can assemble the dish in the morning and refrigerate until about an hour before you want to serve it. You’ll need to tack on a few more minutes in the oven if it’s right out of the fridge.
Product Purity: I use baby bella mushrooms. Remember, always cook with a wine that you would drink and buy good Parmesan that you grate yourself.