Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Mushroom & Asparagus Lasagne

Pasta is king. Endlessly versatile, it seems to go with almost infinite numbers of ingredients, hot or cold, light or creamy, meat or veg, quick to cook or it can take much longer. Of the slow to make dishes my favourite is far and away lasagne.

When I was a teenager we lived in a small city with a big Italian migrant population. In the school holidays it was always a special treat to go to the Italian Centre for lunch with my Dad and have scallops followed by lasagne. Most of the other diners were Italians - eating there was always a convivial affair. It no doubt added depth to my love affair with lasagne. But eating it in many other places since, some great some horrible, has made me know more versions than the delicate meat and ricotta version of the Italian Centre all those years ago in Wollongong.

I now have two favourites that I make at home - one is strictly for winter made with a base of oxtail slow cooked in red wine and the other is for almost any time - mushroom and asparagus. I have been making it for many years and it has always been a hit with whoever I serve it to. I think it is the subtle combination of flavours and textures - it harks back to the delicacy of the ones I used to lunch on all those years ago.

Mushroom & Asparagus Lasagne

500g/1lb of large field mushrooms, sliced
350g/12oz jar of asparagus
80g/3oz butter
2 tins plum tomatoes
1 large onion, finely diced
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons olive oil
Sprig of rosemary
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon plain flour
450ml/1 pint whole milk
100g/4oz grated hard cheese - this time I used caerphilly that was leftover from last week
Freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper
No cook sheets of egg lasagne

I find it best to make the tomato sauce the day before - it gives depth to the sauce and makes it quicker on the day. Gently fry the onion and 3 crushed garlic cloves in the olive oil till soft. Add the tomatoes, breaking them up if they are whole, and the rosemary and bay, and season. Bring to the boil, reduce heat to simmer and cook, covered, for 40 minutes.

Cut the mushrooms into slices about the size of your little finger. Melt half the butter in a heavy pan, add the mushrooms and stir to coat with melted butter. Grind some black pepper over, reduce the heat and cover. Cook until the mushrooms give up their juices, stirring occasionally. Simmer uncovered to reduce the liquid by about half. Check seasoning.

To make the cheese sauce, melt the remaining butter and add the last crushed garlic clove. Stir briefly then sprinkle on the flour. Stir and cook for a couple of minutes over a low heat till the flour is a warm biscuity colour. This is important because otherwise the flour will taste raw and the sauce will be a big disappointment. When the roux is cooked slowly add the milk a bit at a time, stirring to incorporate it into the flour. Keep adding and stirring until you have a smooth light sauce. Add all but a tablespoon of grated cheese and increase the heat. Stir till it's all melted and smooth. Grate about half a teaspoon of nutmeg into the sauce, mix then taste and adjust the seasoning.

Now build your dish. In a 23 x 35cm/9 x 13in pan line the base with the drained spears of asparagus and the cooked mushrooms, with their juice. Then cover with a layer of lasagne sheets. Next is the tomato sauce - after you've removed the rosemary and bay - then another layer of pasta. Finally top with the cheese sauce and sprinkle on the last of the grated cheese.

Bake in a moderate oven at gas 4/350F/175C for 40 - 50 minutes till the sauce is bubbling and the top is golden. Leave to settle for a minute then serve with crusty bread and salad. This will make 6 servings.

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