Buenos Aires – While it is traditionally believed that lasagna originated in Italy, there are claims that it came from a very similar dish called loseyns (pronounced lasan) that was being eaten in the court of King Richard II (England) during the 14th Century. This is disputed by the Italians, and for good reason – they know that English food prior to Marco Pierre White was inedible and not worthy of stealing the recipe – just ask him. But, Richard, as of course you’ll remember, became king at the tender age of ten, when his father, Edward the Black Prince, and grandfather, Edward II, both died very suddenly. What isn’t widely known, and for mysterious reasons cannot seem to be found in any history books (but is passed down by secret oral family tradition), is that Richard’s nanny was a nice yiddishe-mama, who used to cook him up a dish of lukshin noodles with a little fleishik and pomidor, or meat and tomato. Leave it to a ten year old king who was busy trying to kill anyone trying to get in the way of his eventual power to mispronounce it. That recipe was worth stealing, and the Italians promptly did so. That’s my story of the origin of lasagna, and I’m sticking to it.
There is some spurious etymological claim that the word lasagna is derived from the Greek word lasanon meaning chamber pot. The word was supposedly borrowed by the Romans as lasanum to mean cooking pot. The Italians then used the word to refer to the dish in which what is now known as lasagna is made. Chamber pot? Chamber pot? I don’t think so. I think etymologists have too much time on their hands. I mean, early Roman cooking may not have been any great shakes, but from chamber pot to cooking pot? I’m sticking with my Yiddish noodles.
Over the years, lasagna (or lasagne as the British like to refer to it, somehow thinking that a large baking dish full is plural and will feed more than one person), has been changed, adapted, played with, added to, subtracted from, and turned into Garfield’s favorite dish. Back in the days when I lived in the grand city of Hoboken (New Jersey, not Georgia or Belgium), we used to go to a restaurant simply monikered, Michael’s. Every night a different creative take on lasagna. There was no real other reason to go there. The rest of the food was merely good, the lasagna, invariably spectacular.
Over the years, I’ve followed in the footsteps of that yiddishe-mama (whom I believe was a great-aunt of mine, numerous times removed, the only member of that side of the family to leave Pinsk), and created many a version, including my world famous white eggplant and salmon one, which one day I’ll share with you. Yesterday, however, was a pot-intensive creation of a chicken and mushroom lasagna. I say pot-intensive because it took so many individual components, each cooked separately, to put this together – the one thing, I did it all late morning in order to get it ready for lunch – most of these components could be made separately, over a day or so beforehand, and then assembled for the final cooking an hour before you need it.
The first thing was to create a béchamel sauce, or white sauce as it’s often simply called. In its origin, béchamel was a simmering of veal stock, milk, butter, flour, onion, and seasonings, or at least as best anyone authoritative can determine. In practice, and what I whipped up, it is a sauce made by whisking hot milk into an un-browned butter and flour roux (cooked just long enough for the raw flour taste to be cooked out of it). I also needed a tomato sauce, just a simple one of warmed crushed tomatoes with some basic herbs – marjoram, bay leaf – plus salt and pepper. Then of course, it was on to the two different duxelles, the chicken mixture, and the pasta itself. The last of these I didn’t make, though I have in the past. There’s a nice store a couple of blocks away from me where they make fresh pasta every day, so I picked up a stack of lasagna sheets and merely boiled them up to a nice al dente.
A duxelles is basically a seasoned mixture of chopped mushrooms and shallots that has been cooked down until it becomes almost paste-like. It’s often used as sort of a spread on the inside of a roast, or something similar, that is stuffed, to provide extra flavoring. While there is a classic recipe, it can easily be varied, and since I had two different kinds of mushrooms to work with, I decided to make two different types of duxelles. The first, a couple of dozen white button mushrooms, cleaned, and tossed into the food processor with a couple of shallots, salt, and white pepper, chopped finely, and then cooked down. Duxelles needs to be stirred pretty regularly – you don’t really want it to brown – the idea is to get the mushrooms and shallots to release all their liquid – which will happen very quickly, allow that to evaporate, and then pull it off the heat just when the liquid has all disappeared.
The second duxelles I started with dried porcini mushrooms. I reconstituted them in a bit of water, then I strained and threw those into the food processor with some chives, salt, and black pepper. After coarsely chopping, I followed the same basic cooking method, though first I added back in most of the mushroom cooking water – I wanted them to reabsorb the flavor that had leached out into the water. This duxelle was a bit less paste-like, though if I’d have had fresh porcinis it would have been much the same as the first. By the way, though it’s traditional to use butter in making duxelles, I used olive oil (pure, not extra virgin, which just gets destroyed when heated to high levels) throughout this dish.
Since the food processor was already warmed up, I tossed a couple of boned chicken thighs and legs into it, along with the white part of a leek, some salt, and a few hot pepper flakes. For those who want a vegetarian version, just substitute a third type of mushroom for the chicken and make a third duxelles, using that and the leeks. Note the pattern with its variations – one of those fundamental things I was talking about yesterday in regard to the Top Chef folk that was missing – the idea of building on some basic ingredients rather than making every component of the dish completely different and praying that they will fuse in the oven via divine intervention. At the same time all this was going on, I’d stuck a big pot of water on to boil, with a bit of salt, and thrown in some thinly sliced globe zucchini, which I cooked until they were soft; and then the pasta sheets, cooked until al dente. At this point you need to work relatively quickly, because otherwise the drained pasta sheets will start to stick together quickly (toss them with a little olive oil to help prevent that).
Assembly was easy, except I couldn’t find a regular baking pan – my original idea having been to make one layer of each filling. So I grabbed a bread pan and doubled it up, making two layers of each in rotation – regular duxelles, chicken, porcini duxelles, zucchini (sprinkled with marjoram and salt), interleaved with pasta sheets. Each layer also got a bit of sauce – the two duxelles each got mixed with a bit of béchamel sauce, the chicken and zucchini with the tomato sauce. On top, a bit of each sauce as well. Intentionally, this lasagna had no cheese, though something like a nice asiago would have gone well with it. Tossed in the oven at 350°F (180°C) for about half an hour to just brown it up a little and let all the flavors come together. And, voila!, a nice dish of lukshin, just like my great-aunt used to make for King Richard. By the way, the two of us polished this off in one sitting…