I never make lasagna. It’s not that I don’t like it. I mean, who doesn’t like lasagna? Fascists, probably. Or people with no taste whatsoever. Like most casseroles—and let’s face it, lasagna is just a fancy casserole that has more panache than say your classic Midwestern Tater Tot Casserole because it’s Italian and therefore inherently more interesting and yummy—it’s comfort food. And what’s more comforting than layers of cheese, noodles and sauce? (Witness macaroni and cheese, duh…) Not a lot…
When I was a kid, my mom’s lasagna was one of the better recipes in her repertoire. She got the recipe from a diabetic cookbook. Since it was a recipe for 1970s diabetics, it was pretty loaded with meat and cheese, both of which were supposed to supply protein as part of the diet (yes, cheese was considered protein!). Interestingly, that recipe called for cottage cheese rather than ricotta, as an attempt to cut down (ha!) the cheese calories for diabetics. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that real lasagna was supposed to have ricotta, not cottage, cheese in it.
Anyway, that recipe was actually pretty tasty despite its copious hamburger and mozzarella. To this day, I can still remember the smell of that sauce wafting through the house and what a comforting smell it was. My mom would often start the sauce in the morning, as well, and put it in the slow cooker to simmer for the entire day, which made the smell of the sauce permeate the whole house even more, if not our entire block. Unlike most meat sauces, this recipe also called for rosemary, which I think completely made that sauce.
I’ve been thinking about lasagna for a few months now and using non-traditional veggies (things other than spinach) for it. Although I do still love my mom’s recipe, it is pretty darned heavy, so it should only be eaten as a rare, probably in winter, treat. Instead, last winter I was thinking about butternut squash. But lasagna—again, being a casserole—is also meant to feed a crowd. It is not really food for the single cook. You really sort of need to have at least one more person around—if not an entire dinner party—to make it. Otherwise you have to either freeze or eat it all–and one person just should not eat lasagna every day for two weeks. You could have a cheese overdose!
Being someone who tries to get her greens in on a regular basis, I recently started noodling, so to speak, on the idea of greens other than spinach in lasagna—specifically swiss chard. And mushrooms. Last fall I had a chard and mushroom pot pie at The Cavalier in San Francisco that was just delicious, so this lasagna is in part inspired by that meal. What I didn’t want to do was use a red sauce for my lasagne because, although I love tomatoes, red sauce doesn’t necessarily sound like a good sauce to use with chard and mushrooms, and, even though I love red sauce, I try to watch my tomato intake because they give me reflux. L
Which left me with trying to figure out a sauce for this lasagna idea. Béchamel seemed the most appropriate, but a bit bland. I wasn’t really looking for a milky tasting lasagna—that just sounded weird and a bit unappetizing.
A couple Thanksgivings ago I came up with this crazy ass mushroom béchamel sauce to use as a substitute for cream of mushroom soup in a cornbread stuffing recipe. The recipe called for a Family Size can of mushroom soup, and I really just couldn’t stomach the thought of that much processed cream of ‘shroom in my stuffing that year. Instead, I decided to make up my own mushroom sauce as a substitute. Basically, what I did was rough chop a variety pack of different kinds of mushrooms and sautéed them with some rosemary and thyme. Then I made a béchamel sauce and added the mushroom mixture and some white wine for extra flavor. Wow—it was pretty good. It reminded me of a homemade mushroom and wild rice soup recipe from the Moosewood cookbook that I had tried years ago. Good stuff! And an excuse to have another lasagna sauce that includes rosemary.
I also wanted to add some protein to this so I could cut down on the cheese since there would already be plenty of milky stuff in the béchamel sauce. I like Italian sausage, but I’m not a huge pork eater, so I opted for Italian chicken sausage.
Since I didn’t want s-loads of leftovers around, either, I purposely made this recipe on the small side so I could put it in a 8.5×11 casserole rather than your usual 9×13 or larger. To make a larger pan, just up the amounts of everything a bit—for instance 4 or 5 sausages instead of three, or three or four bunches of chard instead of two. And lest you think I ate the whole thing, I did invite my friend L.- over but he got sucked into some damned work conference call at 8 pm on a Sunday (tech jobs, blecch), so I froze a huge chunk for him.
Of course, another thing—in addition to the volume of food—about lasagna is that it can be fairly labor intensive. I would not recommend making this on a weeknight after work when you only have an hour between getting home and the kids’ bedtime. This is a weekend project. And unless you have lots of helpers, prep everything beforehand and have your mise en place en place so that the whole process goes more smoothly, otherwise you’re likely to burn something in the process.
Swiss Chard Lasagna with Italian Chicken Sausage and Mushroom Béchamel
For the chard mixture:
2-3 tbsp. olive oil
½ large onion, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 bunches swiss chard, stems chopped and leaves cut into ribbons
For the mushroom béchamel
1-2 tbsp. olive oil
1-1½ lbs. mixed mushrooms, roughly chopped into small bits (can use any combo of button, shiitake, oyster, cremini, etc.)
2 tbsp. fresh thyme
2 tbsp. fresh rosemary, chopped
2 tbsp. butter
2 tbsp. all purpose flour
2 cups milk (I used 1½ c. 2 percent milk and ½ c. whole milk, but whatever kind you want to use will do)
¾-1 c. white wine
3-4 links Italian chicken sausage, removed from casings
¾-1 c. grated cheese (I used a 3-cheese blend of asiago, parmesan and fontina that you can get at Whole Foods) for layering
½ c. grated parmesan, to top lasagna
Lasagna noodles (I used no boil ones—easier!)
1) For mushroom mixture, heat olive oil in medium sauté pan over medium heat. Add approximately half of chopped mushrooms, a pinch of salt and thyme and rosemary. When mushrooms have reduced significantly, add the remainder of the mushrooms, another pinch or two of salt and pepper. Set aside when reduced.
2) In large sauté pan, brown chicken sausage. When cooked through, remove from pan and set aside in bowl.
3) Add olive oil to sausage drippings, then sauté onions. Add garlic when onions become fragrant and slightly translucent. When garlic becomes fragrant, incorporate chard stems to onion and garlic mixture. Cook until stems are almost fork tender, then add chard leaves. Cook until leaves have wilted, then set aside.
4) Preheat oven to 350°F.
5) As chard is cooking, you can start your béchamel. Melt butter in a large saucepan. When melted, add flour and cook over medium heat until flour begins to brown a bit and smells slightly nutty. Add milk and white pepper and whisk, making sure to smooth out any flour lumps.
6) When sauce has thickened, combine mushroom mixture with sauce. Add white wine and salt to taste. Simmer over low heat, making sure to stir every so often so that it doesn’t overcook and stick to the bottom of the saucepan. You should continue tasting this until it reaches the flavor you like, then it’s done.
7) Into the bottom of your baking pan, ladle 2-3 scoops of sauce, enough to cover the bottom of the pan. On top of sauce, place enough lasagna noodles to cover as much surface area of the pan as possible. Then layer ingredients as follows: more mushroom sauce on top of noodles, ½ chard mixture, ½ sausage, ¼-1/3 c. grated cheese mixture, noodles, then repeat. The top layer of the lasagna should consist of noodles, then sauce, topped with parmesan.
8) Bake for 30 minutes or until top has reached desired level of browning.
Some thoughts on potential variations:
– Sub shredded chicken or turkey for sausage.
– Use some other sort of green such as dino kale or collards instead of chard. I used plain old green chard for this, but you could easily use red or rainbow, as well.
– Make a pink sauce instead of mushroom béchamel by using half tomato sauce, half béchamel. If you still want to have mushrooms in the lasagna, reduce the amount you use by 1/3-1/2 and add them to the chard mixture and leave out the thyme and rosemary.
– If trying a pink sauce, consider adding basil and/or rosemary to the pink sauce.
– And if you want to get really cheesy, use ricotta or cottage cheese as one of the layers for the lasagna. I’d suggest layering ricotta on top of your noodles, then veggies, meat, sauce, grated cheese, more noodles, repeat.
– Leave out meat for veggie version.
– If you are so inclined or want to avoid gluten, you could also substitute sheets of yuba (tofu skins) for your lasagna noodles. They actually make a great noodle substitute and are super high in protein and healthy!
I thought this was one of my better creations. Just watch the salt in the sauce – I think I overdid it a tad. Taste along the way. You probably only need 1 tsp or so of salt in the sauce.
All recipes and photos copyright of Foie Gras and Funnel Cakes unless otherwise noted.