A few years ago, I got a call from a guest who was about two hours away from coming to dinner. He’d called to tell me that he and his new wife had become vegetarian. Quite frankly, my initial impulse was to continue cooking the dinner I’d planned and let the two of them survive on the baked potatoes I was cooking. They were the only completely vegetarian item on the menu that night. I managed to control myself, eliminated the pancetta in the spinach and forgot the pie with its Crisco crust and served the berries for the filling all by their lonesome. Inside, I seethed.
I have no objection to vegetarianism. But at times I’ve wondered how serious its practioners are. When we entertain at the beach, the general rule is all houseguests will be accommodated. Not too long ago, we had two such visitors, who, as the food was being served, announced their vegetarianism. Fortunately, there was salad and there was a vegetable gratin. But there were also the most wonderful butter beans that were cooked in half a pound of bacon. Telling me they would “eat around the bacon”, the two of them devoured the beans. But when I removed the serving dish, there was no trace of bacon. Did that night start them on a road to vegetarian ruin or was their bacon encounter a one-night stand?
Given a little warning, I’ve since embraced the opportunity to explore some really excellent food that is completely vegetarian. A visit from our friend, Stephen, always gives us an opportunity to delve into vegetarian recipes. As an omnivore, I enjoy the challenge of cooking for Stephen and any number of good things that his exclusively vegetarian diet has introduced me to. This visit was no exception. And this lasagna is truly exceptional. From Saveur's great "The New Comfort Food--Home Cooking from Around the World" (Chronicle Books 2011) Here was something that, with a meat sauce, would have been an almost too-hearty dish for this time of year. Instead, the layers of mushrooms and the meat-y tomatoes, the creamy béchamel, the two cheeses—even the pasta—were light and delicious. Not at all heavy, it was the perfect thing to serve with a simple green salad and some crusty French bread. And believe it or not, I got the whole thing in the oven in under an hour. The lasagna noodles went straight into the dish uncooked which not only saved time, it also gave the lasagna the body to hold together beautifully. Try this. I think you’ll be amazed at how light, delicious and healthy it is. Here’s the recipe:
Recipe for Vegetarian Lasagna adapted from Saveur’s “New Comfort Food” (Chronicle Books 2011)
12 tbsp. unsalted butter
12 sun-dried tomatoes
1 shallot, chopped
1 shallot, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1⁄2 cup flour
5 cups milk
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
Salt and pepper
3 tbsp. olive oil
2 lbs. shiitake and white mushrooms, stemmed, quartered
2 cups fresh basil leaves OR 1/2 lb. of baby spinach leaves
6 cloves garlic, chopped
3 tbsp. chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 tbsp. chopped oregano
1 tbsp. chopped thyme
1 tbsp. chopped rosemary
1 tbsp. tomato paste
5 cups whole canned tomatoes, ( 2- 28 oz. cans) crushed)
1 lb. lasagna noodles
2 1⁄2 cups grated grana padano
2 1⁄2 cups grated fontina
1. Grease a 9"x 13" baking pan with 1 tbsp. butter. Cover dried tomatoes with 1 cup boiling water; soak for 20 minutes. Drain. Chop; set aside.
2. Make béchamel: Heat 8 tbsp. butter in a 4-qt. saucepan over medium heat. Add shallots and carrots; cook 5 minutes. Add flour; cook 2 minutes. Whisk in milk; boil. Reduce to medium-low; simmer, whisking, until thick, 20–25 minutes. Add nutmeg; season with salt and pepper.
3. Meanwhile, heat olive oil and remaining butter in a 6-qt. pot over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms; cook 10 minutes. Add dried tomatoes, basil leaves or spinach, garlic, parsley, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and tomato paste; cook 3 minutes. Add canned tomatoes. Cook for 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Set sauce aside.
4. Heat oven to 375˚. Spread 2 cups tomato sauce in baking dish. Cover with a layer of noodles. Spread 1 cup béchamel over top; sprinkle with 1⁄2 cup of each cheese and 2 cups tomato sauce. Repeat layering 2 more times. Top with remaining noodles, tomato sauce, béchamel, and cheeses. Bake covered with foil on a baking sheet for 1 hour. Remove foil; raise oven to 500˚. Bake until golden, 15 minutes.
SERVES 6 – 8