This is January’s entry in my Bon Appétit challenge – I forgot of course when I came up with that idea that November and December food magazines are generally full of highly ambitious and expensive Thanksgiving and Christmas feast ideas, and also that I would be running about between New York, London and LA (tiny violins) so my cooking time would be a bit squeezed. But I’m back, it’s January, the snow is still white and clean outside my window, and last night I made Bon Appétit‘s Swiss Chard Lasagna with Ricotta and Mushrooms. I quibble with ‘lasagna’ – I think it should take the plural ‘e’ – but I do not quibble with the results, for they were delicious.
I am beginning to realize that the way I write out recipes is my revolt against the conventions of published recipes. I loved Nigel Slater’s Appetite for his resistance to standard measurements, using instead vivid visuals like ‘slices about as thick as a pound coin’ and a ‘thumb-sized lump of ginger.’ It can be distracting as one ponders exactly how big Nigel Slater’s thumb might be in comparison to one’s own, but it is also empowering in that it helps you see and feel and judge the quantities on your own terms, not in the (to me, anyway) cold and mathematical 1/4 inch, 25 grams standard. Yes, yes, baking is an exception, but only up to a point. Anyway, I much prefer recipes that explain to you when something is necessary or where it could be substituted, where a quantity is precise for a reason, and what terrible thing could happen if you break a rule or bend an instruction. I suppose this just means that I write (adapt, rewrite) recipes for people like me, who are cooking in a small kitchen with limited pots and pans, limited time, and who are fairly relaxed around food. That’s why I try to tell a story with the recipe, and avoid the awful brusque imperative language that takes over printed recipes (I used to copy-edit recipes for a living, and tried to sneak in as many rewrites as I could. Recipes shouldn’t be equations or commands, I don’t think.)
Anyway, enough manifesto, and back to the lasagnaeae. This turned out beautifully, but 8 servings? There were four of us, and we polished off the whole thing. I don’t think this would feed more than 6, and you would probably need some salad and bread on the side if you were trying to stretch it that far. Or perhaps we’re pigs.
First, make your béchamel sauce. Melt 3/4 stick, or 6tbsp butter in a medium saucepan, and add about 1/2 cup flour. I have usually made my roux with equal parts butter and flour, and here I did add more flour than the recipe called for, but the roux won’t gather into a ball. Which it turns out, is just fine. Stir the roux until smooth, for a couple of minutes, then gradually add 2 1/2 cups milk. Grate in a generous pinch of nutmeg and a slightly smaller pinch of ground cloves. Keep stirring – the sauce will thin out and then thicken up again in a few minutes. Simmer until it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, as they say rather unhelpfully. You’re looking for custard here, not cream. When the sauce is thickened nicely, turn off the heat and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F or your local equivalent.
Prepare the vegetables. And here I am going to deviate from the recipe a bit, in the interests of not requiring every pan in your kitchen. So, chop two medium onions and four cloves garlic. Heat a slug or two of olive oil in a large sauté pan, with a lid, and add the onions and garlic, with a pinch of crushed red pepper, if you have it. I completely missed this step, and it was still delicious, but a little kick of heat would probably be good here.
Rinse a pound of Swiss chard – red, green, or rainbow if you’re fancy (I’m fancy. Look at those leaves!)
Tear the leaves from the stems and rip into shreds (take that, chard!) Leave them to one side, and chop the stalks into small chunks, that you can then throw in the pan with the onion and garlic.
Slice 1lb cremini mushrooms (you could use chestnut instead, but you need something with a bit of meaty flavour, not plain little white buttons) and add them to the pan.
Cook together with the onion, garlic and chard stems until the mushrooms have browned, and everything is soft and fragrant. Add the torn chard leaves, still wet from the rinsing, and put the lid on the pan. After a minute or two they should have wilted from the steam, and you can stir them together with everything else.
Assembly time! Grease a suitable, medium sized oven dish with olive oil – BA suggests 13x9x2 inches, and rectangular if possible for easy noodling (my oval dish, the lid to my beloved Ikea dutch oven, worked in a pinch. I thought this pan was a joke, but I now think maybe I need it…)
Your layers will consist of:
– one pack no-boil lasagne I used an 8oz-pack of Ronzoni oven-ready lasagna, about 12 sheets.) If you can’t find no-boil, just follow the instructions, but it seems harder not to find no-boil these days.
– one 15oz tub Ricotta cheese
– about 6oz strong-flavoured melting cheese, like Fontina
– 8tbsp grated Parmesan.
Yes, it’s a three-cheese lasagne. Although, I do think you could play around with the cheese types and quantities, and you might be able to use extra Fontina and no Parmesan if necessary. Essentially, you need something creamy, something melty and stringy (and with a kick), and something strong and salty.
Assemble the layers like so: béchamel sauce (reheat and stir back to a smooth consistency); followed by a layer of noodles, a layer of vegetables, a few dollops of ricotta, a handful of Fontina, and a sprinkling of Parmesan. Depending on the dimensions of your pan, you might have two or three layers – just aim to make them as even as you can, and season as you go. I think I had three layers. Finish with a layer of noodles and the last of the béchamel.
Cover with foil, and bake for 30 minutes in a hot oven. Remove the foil and continue to cook for 20-30 minutes more, or until you have finished your game of Wii Bowling. The lasagne is done when it is bubbling, golden, soft and hot all the way through (test with a sharp knife.) Who’s hungry?