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8 Dec 2008

Mushroom lasagna – Well, I’ve had a rather busy and stressful week, but it’s time for another entry. This one is going to be another exploration of the world of food and cooking, complete with photos as usual. In fact, there are going to be more photos today than usual—I took about eighty photos of the process and managed to trim down that number to twenty. So I’ll give a quick introduction and then get right into the pictures.

“It’s more of a European lasagna with a white sauce and a red sauce, and mushrooms instead of meat.”

The Friday before last, we had company over for dinner, and I decided to make my mushroom lasagna. It’s not an American-style lasagna, with meat and ricotta (or, as my father uses, cottage cheese), but more of a European (I guess) lasagna with a white sauce and a red sauce, and mushrooms instead of meat. I didn’t realize this until I was preparing the dish this time around, but I suppose you could call it vegetarian lasagna. I could have sworn that I had covered this dish before here on Liminality, but a search of the archives shows that apparently I haven’t so here goes.

We start with the stars of the dish—the mushrooms. The types of mushrooms I use vary depending on what I can get my hands on, but shiitake (seen in the photo above) are invariably part of the mix. I took this photo and the next three photos in the waning November afternoon sunlight, and I like the way they came out.

I don’t know what these mushrooms are called in English—in fact, I don’t know if they even have an English name. In Korean they are called “baengmansongi” (“baengman,” or “baek-man” means “one million”—or so I’m assuming, not having access to the Chinese characters), and they are a newly developed hybrid. I can tell you that they were the most fragrant of the mushrooms that went into the lasagna. Even though it’s been over a week now and we don’t have any of these left in the fridge, I can still remember exactly what they smell like. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean I can describe the smell very well. I guess I would have to say they have a distinctive earthy aroma, but that aroma is also quite fresh-smelling—like a temperate forest after a spring rain. That’s the best I can do until they invent scratch-n-sniff monitors.

These mushrooms, on the other hand, should be familiar—Agaricus bisporus, known simply as “Western mushrooms” in Korean and “button mushrooms” in the West (or “portobello mushrooms”). It’s actually unusual for me to use these in my mushroom lasagna, but I decided to break with tradition this time.

These are another mainstay of my mushroom lasagna. Their scientific name is Pleurotus ostreatus, which I have seen paired with the common name of “oyster mushrooms.” However, Wikipedia says of their stipes (stems): “Often absent. When present it is short and thick.” My best guess is that these mushrooms take different forms in different parts of the world. Here, they have long stipes and small caps. I’ve also seen these referred to as “mini oyster mushrooms” here, so maybe that’s the difference. At any rate, they are tasty, and they always go into my mushroom lasagna, along with the shiitake.

What you saw in the previous photos were obviously just some samples. The amount of mushrooms I sliced up was far greater—enough to fill this large pot (it has a diameter of about 25 cm or so).

The next step is to cook the mushrooms, and this takes a while. Because they’re going into a lasagna, there can’t be a lot of liquid, and you certainly don’t want to discard all that good mushroom juice. So the answer is to keep cooking them until the liquid evaporates and the flavor is cooked back into the mushrooms. Toward the end they have to be stirred continuously to make sure they don’t burn. As you can see in this photo, the volume of mushrooms has decreased considerably.

Here we have the seasonings that will be going into the white (béchamel) sauce: salt, nutmeg powder, white pepper, a bay leaf, and four cloves.

Then we have half an onion, blended. This is mixed into two cups of whole milk, and the bay leaf and cloves go into that mixture (I put them into a teabag-type pouch so they’re easier to fish out later on). This mixture is then heated until just before it boils (you’ll see the steam start to rise from the surface of the liquid) and then seasoned with the salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

While the milk-and-onion mixture was heating, I prepared a light roux with four tablespoons each of butter and flour.

These are the two components of the white sauce just prior to mixing. I turned the heat back on under the roux and poured in the milk mixture, stirring furiously all the while.

Once the liquid goes into the roux, you need both hands—actually, it would be nice to have three: one to pour, one to hold the sauce pan, and one to whisk—so I have no pictures of the process itself. This is the finished product, though. (And yes, as with the Welsh Rabbit, I used a metal whisk in a non-stick pan. I realize this is a no-no, but we didn’t have any non-metal whisks on non-non-stick saucepans at the time. Since this lasagna was made, we have picked up a stainless steel saucepan, so this will hopefully be the last time you will have to witness such a horror.)

The next component I prepared was the tomato sauce, but since that was simply a matter of combining a can of sauce with a can of puree, there’s really no point in including a photo here. Suffice it to say it was a rather simple process—much simpler than making sauce from fresh tomatoes, which was what I had planned to do. Hyunjin, however, insisted that I would be much better off taking a shortcut just this once, and she turned out to be right.

What you see in the photo above, though, are the ingredients for the pasta noodles themselves (Hyunjin also suggested I buy the lasagna noodles as well, but I quickly dismissed this idea for the heresy it was). One cup of semolina flour, one egg, one tablespoon of olive oil, and some water to make sure the dough has the right consistency.

And now we skip straight to the finished noodles—if you want to see the process of dough- and noodle-making itself, you can check out my ravioli adventures with Kevin, which has quite a few photos of both processes. You’ll notice that some of the noodles here have ragged edges. They’re not supposed to be this way, but I was in a bit of a rush and probably could have added a little more water to the dough when kneading it. More importantly, It’s been so long since I’ve made pasta that I folded the first sheet through improperly. You want to get a fairly wide sheet and then fold the edges into the center to eliminate the raggedness, but the first sheet ended up long rather than wide. Since the noodles were going to be used in a casserole, though, I didn’t worry too much about the ragged edges and decided to put the most ragged noodles at the bottom. No one noticed anything was amiss in the end.

Here are the ingredients for the lasagna, all ready to go: noodles, the white sauce, the mushroom mix, grated mozzarella cheese, and tomato sauce. The white sauce is glistening because it is covered in plastic wrap. All white sauces immediately start to form “skins” on any surface exposed to air, so in order to prevent that you can cover the sauce with plastic wrap, pressing down lightly to make sure the wrap contacts the sauce. When you’re ready to use the sauce, just peel off the plastic wrap (it peels off cleanly) and you’re ready to go.

I must admit that I rather like this photo. To start the layering process, I first dumped three noodles into a pot of boiling water (the same pot we used for the mushrooms—washed, of course). Because the noodles are fresh, they don’t need very long to cook. I think I left them in for about three or four minutes, but I think I probably could’ve gotten away with two or three minutes.

While the noodles cooked, I coated the bottom of the pan (this is an 8-inch by 8-inch pan—I guess we bought this one in the States) with a thin layer of tomato sauce to prevent the lowest layer of noodles from sticking. On top of that went a nice layer of white sauce.

Next up is a layer of mushrooms, followed by another layer of tomato sauce, and then we’re into the next layer.

I did four layers of noodles with three layers of mushrooms in between them, so we ended up with a final red-noodle-white layer on top, and then a layer of cheese. I only just managed to fit everything in the pan—at least, I managed to use all the noodles and mushrooms. I ended up having a little white sauce and a lot of tomato sauce left over.

And here’s the final product. It stayed in the oven a little longer than I would have liked, thanks to a timing mix-up, but I managed to save the cheese from burning. It is nicely browned, though, and even though the top layer of noodles rose up out of the pan, nothing spilled over the sides (although I did put down a layer of foil underneath the pan just to be sure).

What would dinner be without company? On the right are Last and his wife Petronella (I hope I’m spelling that right). They live three floors above us, and I’ve known Last since last semester, when we both arrived at HUFS at the same time. He teaches in the Graduate School of International Area Studies—even though it’s a different school, we have classes in the same building. They both hail from Zimbabwe via England, and they’re our only real “neighbors” (as in, “people we don’t simply nod to in the hallway”).

This picture was taken after dinner, when we were sitting around drinking wine and talking about world events (of Zimbabwe’s current leader, Last said, “Our president is not that popular with a lot of people.” I replied, “I know how you feel.”) and various and sundry other topics. You can see the remains of the second course, pork chops, on our plates. That’s right—the lasagna was only the first course, and we ended up eating less than half of it. The 8x8 pan ending up producing about 6-8 reasonably-sized servings, or about 4 American-sized servings.

I didn’t get the chance to take a photo of the individual servings of lasagna during dinner, as it was time to get eating, but I did manage to take this photo of the last leftover portion late last week. It looks a bit messy, and it is—unlike a meat-and-cheese lasagna, the mushrooms make this one difficult to cut and serve, and it doesn’t really like to stay together. It’s still quite good, though.

And that about wraps up it for this session. Believe it or not, but I have another food entry in the pipeline—I decided to experiment in the field of pizza last Saturday—but I’ll probably do another non-food entry before I put that one up. I do actually have other things I want to write, but with the semester coming to a close it’s been rather busy, so we’ll see how it goes.

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