Lasagna, the pizza of pasta. Delicious sauce, a little filling, a lot of work. As unique as a your fingerprint, lasagna is anything you want it to be. I set out to make it with my favorite pizza toppings, mushrooms and green peppers. There is a reason people don't make lasagna every night, yet few dishes are as satisfying to make, serve and eat. Much like pizza, I have yet to meet a person who would refuse a hot hunk of lasagna, and this one gets a special luxury of fresh mozzarella and ricotta cheese, 2 locally grown mushrooms and a luxurious tomato cream sauce made with local tomatoes.
Tomato Cream Sauce
Since tomatoes are in season in every one's garden right now- this recipe is basically an elegant way to get rid of a lot at once. This is a great fake out vodka sauce, would be excellent for chicken or eggplant parmesan, and would be great spiced up with some chili flakes. This sauce freezes very well, and it is imperative that this sauce is salted after the liquid has been reduced by half or 2/3rds to ensure proper seasoning. If you have home grown roma, pear or plum (paste) tomatoes, 20-25 of those would be preferable, but since i had them, i used a combination of big beef and celebrity tomatoes. This recipe makes about a half gallon of sauce- because why make a little when you can make a lot and have some for later!?
15-20 medium sized tomatoes.
1 small white onion
2 large shallots
4 medium to large garlic cloves, peeled
1 large green pepper
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried herbes de provence
2 tablespoons dried italian seasoning
2 teaspoons dulce or sweet smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon pepper
salt to taste (after the sauce is completed)
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3/4 cup heavy cream
Wash the tomatoes, and remove any stems. With a paring knife, score each tomato with an "X" on the bottom to assist in peeling. In a large pot of salted water, boil the tomatoes for 3-4 minutes. Remove the tomatoes, and dunk them in ice water to stop the cooking. Peel each tomato, cut out the core and set aside in a large bowl. Using your hands, squeeze and squish the tomatoes until they are in small to medium sized pieces. Drain the tomatoes through a colander, or sieve and reserve the juices. Set aside 1 cup of tomato juice for the mushroom filling. Set aside remaining tomato juice, and get started on the vegetables for the sauce.
Heat a large pot (like the one you used to boil the tomatoes) on medium, and heat the olive oil until it shimmers in the pan. While the pan is heating, medium dice the onion, shallots and green pepper. Saute the onions and peppers until they are translucent and slightly brown. Add tomato chunks and turn the heat to high and bring to a boil for 3 minutes. Reduce to medium low, and add dried herbs and whole peeled garlic. If the mixture is too chunky- add some of the reserved tomato juice, (or if you're using roma or paste tomatoes- add water) until it is the consistency of a chunky soup. The mixture will reduce by half or two thirds, so start out by using less liquid so the flavors will concentrate, and take less cooking time. Simmer on medium low for 1-3 hours depending on volume and desired consistency. Stirring occasionally. I like my sauce to reduce about 2/3 and be nice and thick. Using an immersion blender, puree the mixture well. Add cream and stir well. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Rustic Triple Mushroom Filling
Local mushrooms and fresh cheeses can be found at farmers markets, or a specialty food store like Ellwood Thompsons here in Richmond, VA. If you can't find wood ear mushrooms, use more shiitake, or any other mushroom you like. I like the wood ear for the meaty and interesting texture, as well as the smoky and woody flavors that play well with the funkiness of the fontina cheese.
1 package of Dave and Dee's Oyster Mushrooms
1/2 pound of local shiitake's- de stemmed and cleaned
1 package of dried wood ear mushrooms
1 cup tomato juice
8 ounces fresh whole milk ricotta cheese
1 1/2 cups shredded fontina cheese, 1/2 cup reserved for top of lasagna
8 ounces fresh buffalo mozzarella, or 2 large mozzarella balls. reserve 1/2 a mozzarella ball for top of lasagna
1/2 cup shredded asiago cheese (for top of lasagna only)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or vegetable oil
salt and pepper
Boil the reserved tomato juice (in a microwave is fine) and add the dried wood ear mushrooms. let the mushrooms steep for about 15 minutes. Heat a large stainless steel frying pan on medium high heat. Clean and de-stem the shiitake and oyster mushrooms, and rip the caps into about 1 inch pieces. Heat oil in the pan until it smokes slightly, and saute the mushroom pieces until they are golden brown. Add reconstituted wood ear mushrooms and saute lightly. De glaze the pan with any remaining tomato juice. salt and pepper lightly towards the end of the cooking. In a medium sized bowl, mix together ricotta cheese, shredded fontina and mushrooms.
1 pound good quality lasagna- preferably the kind with the ruffled edges. I do not recommend no boil lasagna- mainly because i don't have much experience with them.
2 tablespoons olive oil
In a large pasta pot, boil salted water, and cook lasagna noodles for 10 minutes- or until they are just a bit harder than al dente. drain the noodles and on a wire rack placed on a baking sheet, shingle the lasagna noodles - saving any broken noodles for a lasagna patch if needed. This process can be a tricky one- since the noodles will stick together if you wait too long, or you burn your fingers if you touch them too much. I recommend silicone tipped, spring loaded tongs for ease of handling, or brave fingertips.
Assemble the Lasagna
Preheat the oven to 400
In a large dark coated lasagna or deep rectangular metal pan, butter the sides and bottom. In the bottom of the pan ladle about 8 ounces of sauce into the bottom. Shingle 4 or 5 lasagna noodles at the bottom of the pan. Smear half the cheese and mushroom mixture over the noodles and top with 6-8 ounces more of sauce, and rip up one ball of buffalo mozzarella- or enough to cover the sauce. Repeat this process 2 or more times until your pan is full. Top the lasagna with shredded fontina, asiago and mozzarella cheese, and a couple grinds of fresh black pepper. Bake for 35-45 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbling from the sides of the pan and the cheese is golden brown. Let the lasagna sit at room temperature for about 20-30 minutes so it can set up and be sliceable. No matter how much you want to eat it right away, this last step is crucial. Nothing is worse than trying to eat molten lasagna quickly, and that is a lesson you only need to learn once. If the Lasagna pan is very full, place the pan on a foil lined baking sheet for accident prevention.
Serve with crusty garlic bread and a nice beer, and you've got yourself a date.
Special thanks to my sister Pizzalicious Lauren for helping me peel and squish tomatoes.