Tis the season for frantic calls from friends and increasingly they go something like this: “I’ve got a bunch of people coming over and some are vegetarian. Quick, what’s one of those dishes you do?” Whether you get the heads up or not, just assume you’ll be feeding some non-meat eaters over the holidays. The best strategy is to plan on something that goes both ways, a vegetarian main that can also pass itself off as a substantial side dish. And make plenty of it because come on, you know even the most committed carnivores will put some on their plates.
My answer? Mushroom lasagne. Lasagnes of any kind are a slam dunk, a sure crowd-pleaser. From the cook’s perspective though, following lasagne recipe directions can require several Tylenol and an advanced degree in math. I’ve streamlined mine to alleviate any stress in that department.
With its undulating cheese-flecked top just beckoning for furtive little samples, this lasagne is all about mushrooms enveloped in a creamy sauce and supported by thin layers of tender no-boil lasagne sheets, which by themselves deserve a Nobel Prize for Food Innovations We Can’t Live Without. The sauce is based on what culinary students learn as béchamel and what my mother called a white sauce. To it, you add a mass of sautéed mushrooms. There’s no need for fancy ones here. Save your money and go for the humble white mushrooms. When cooked down and almost caramelized, they pack a terrific wallop of flavor on their own.
Okay, so I suggest adding some dried porcini and yes, they could be considered one of those “fancy” mushrooms, but inexpensive little bags of them hang in the produce aisles in supermarkets and a mere half ounce takes most anything they are paired with far deeper into that woodsy place. In the spirit of the season, they are generous in their giving; after only fifteen minutes of soaking, those stiff little chips magically transform flavorless water into a potent, fat-free stock that I use in place of some of the milk in the sauce.
Experienced lasagne makers, take note: There’s a nifty trick that gives this version a suave touch: It’s a gossamer coating of whipped cream layered on top instead of sauce before the final flurry of grated Parmigiano. Former executive food editor Zanne Stewart turned a bunch of us on to this fillip when she returned from a week at Lorenza de Medici’s cooking school in Florence back in the late ’80s. Rich as cream may sound, it’s actually lighter than the sauce, and together with the cheese, it bakes into an iconic image of golden brown deliciousness. I guarantee it’s truly irresistible.