Sunday, February 17, 2013

40th Birthday Mushroom Lasagna, Mushroom and Artichoke Lasagna with Cauliflower Bechamel Sauce

When my friend Angelo Musco decided to throw a 40th birthday party for himself with 30 guests coming for dinner I was unsure if that was a good idea. I mean who wants to work on your own special evening. I was even more uncertain when he decided he wanted to serve Lasagna. Well, I have to say, I could not have been any more wrong. I was worried that serving lasagna not in individual portions and vessels was going to be a mess. But the expense of buying those was too much. So he decided to just cut up lasagna and serve it. I was worried that it would be a runny mess but it worked out fine and was darn tasty at that.

I mean I have made a lot of lasagna over the years. Church dinners, friends or family gatherings or just for dinner one night. It is an effort but easy for a party and allows you to not be in the kitchen at all while the party is going on. My Mother and Grandmother both made lasagna every now and then. It was never an easy process. Boil the noodles, strain them, hold them. Make the sauce, assemble the lasagna and then bake it. And of course they made lasagna the good old Betty Crocker 1950's cookbook way with cottage cheese and ground beef in some kind of red sauce. Served up with garlic bread a green salad and Kraft parmesan cheese from the green can it was good. Well it was good for what it was.

It was not until I was 20 and had returned from my first stint of living in Europe that my Mother and Grandmother learned how to make "real" Italian lasagna. A friend of mine, a lovely young lady by the name of Arrianna, from southern Switzerland ( which is Italian) came to visit. She not only taught us how to make pasta by hand but also how to make proper lasagna. It was quite revelatory. In fact it was such a hit I don't think we ever made lasagna the same way again. Now my Father really loved Arrianna, all 5 foot 8, "Sophia Lorenesque" of her, but he really loved her lasagna!

So like a good Italian son, when Angelo made lasagna for the party he made his mother's recipe for meat lasagna, and another recipe for a mushroom lasagna for the vegetarians at the party. Everyone wanted to try try both though, they were excellent. And served just warm they were not the runny mess all over the plate I was worried they would be. In fact they were super yummy.

So I decided that for my colleague Melissa's farewell dinner from our company, I would make mushroom lasagna. I love it and I love how great a winter dish it can be. We have been having really cold weather in NYC this year and creamy, rich, gooey, cheesy, lasagna just seemed right. Plus she is a foodie, loves pasta, and loves when I cook pasta. So it was decided that was what was the menu.

But I did not want to just recreate other peoples mushroom lasagnas. I wanted to make it my own or at least somewhat my own ( given that there are no new things under the sun as I have said before!). I asked Angelo for his recipe and also looked around online and in my cookbooks. I took those as starting points. Then I set out to add in three elements to my recipe that would make the lasagna more interesting. First I decided to add  marinated artichokes. Mostly because I had them, but also because I love mushrooms and artichokes together. Secondly I decided to make the bechamel sauce with mashed cauliflower in it to add another subtle layer of flavor to the dish. Thirdly, I decided to use two very strong herbs to flavor both the sauce and the mushrooms adding another element of flavor to the dish. I stayed with traditional cheeses, ricotta, mozzarella, and parmesan. A touch a garlic some sauteed red onion and the dish was there. In fact is came spectacular. Truly!

So next time you want to take a little effort and make a lasagna that will make you a rock star with your family or friends, make this! Trust me even the Italians will love it! Enjoy Ya'll!

Forrest's Mushroom and Artichoke Lasagna with Cauliflower Bechamel Sauce

Makes 4 individual lasagnas or one 9 by 9 pan or lasagna

1 box non cook lasagna noodles ( home style flat not with curly edges)
1 1/2 pounds baby bella mushrooms sliced
1 medium red onion diced fairly good sized pieces
fresh rosemary
dried thyme
garlic powder
1 teaspoon of dried porcini mushroom powder if you have it.
1 pound cauliflower florets boiled in salted water drained well and mashed
10 oz shredded mozzarella cheese
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
8 oz ricotta full fat cheese
1 8oz jar marinated artichoke hearts
7 tablespoon each butter and flour
2/1/2 cups whole milk
1 cup white wine
salt and pepper
grated nutmeg
olive oil for cooking


In a saute pan heat 1 couple of tablespoon of oil. Cook onion till just soft add mushrooms and 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. 1 teaspoon dried thyme and 1 tablespoon fresh chopped rosemary and 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder, cook till soft then add 1/4 cup white wine and cook till absorbed more or less. remove from heat. Drain liquid and reserve.
In a pot melt butter and add flour cook 3 mins or until the flour pulls away with a spoon. slowly wisk in the milk and the remaining white wine. cook over med high heat till sauce thickens. add 1/2 cup parmesan cheese the mashed cauliflower and the mushroom liquid. Add 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, 2 teaspoons fresh chopped rosemary,  a teaspoon of dried porcini mushroom powder if you have it, and a shake or two of nutmeg. Season well with salt and pepper, then turn off heat and let cool. Taste for seasoning.
In a bowl mash the drained artichokes with the ricotta and the parmesan cheeses mix in 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder.

To assemble

Place some bechamel on the bottom place noodles on then layer 3 times the ricotta, the mushrooms and some mozzarella and then more bechamel. When done top with the last noodles top those with the remaining bechamel and sprinkle with dried thyme some rosemary leaves and some hot paprika or red pepper.

Cover with foil and hold till ready to bake in the fridge. Allow to come to RT before baking.
Heat oven to 375 and bake covered for 35 mins the uncovered for 20 more mins till browning and bubbling.

Allow to sit for 15 mins then serve. Enjoy Ya'll!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

New American Cooking: Southern Twist on Mexican Guacamole and Queso Dip,

Mexican food is for me one of the most enjoyable ethnic cuisines that are out there. I mean lets face it, what other ethnic food is more represented than Mexican in our popular culture. Well actually Italian food is still the number one ethnic food in the US in popularity, but Mexican is a comer, and coming up fast.

Now when I first encountered queso dip it was actually in a restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia. Rio Bravo was that restaurant. It was a chain I found out later but who cares. The fresh hot pressed flour tortillas that came out with the bubbling hot cheese dip called "queso" was one of the moments that I had a food revelation. I mean lets face it if it has cheese in it and it's melty I am never going to hate it. But this was fun and tasty.

Years have passed since that first queso experience. And my love for it has not dimmed. During one summer at Seaside Music Theatre, my Liz introduced me to making homemade queso the white trash way with Rotell Tomatoes and Velveta Cheese and Hormel chili no beans! Oh yeah with frito dippers it was good.

Guacamole is a little more of a staple in my culinary memory. I can remember my mother and grandmother making guacamole for many a "Mexican night" in our home kitchen. But the best guacamole I ever had was while spending time in the Pocono Mountains with my friend and director Tony Parise. He made a delicious take on guacamole which was really more of a dip using good old sour cream as an ingredient to add velvety richness to the guacamole.  I also had a guacamole prepared by my friend Fred Tessler ( of the Denver Tessler's) which was from his favorite mexican restaurant in the country, the Pink Adobe Restaurant in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which has mayo in it taking the creamy factor over the top.

So what is my take on these classic dishes that would make them remotely interesting you may ask. Well for one thing I decided that queso does not have to be served hot. In fact I decided to make mine as a homage to my favorite Southern cheese preparation Pimento Cheese Dip! Substituting in ingredients which would make it have a Mexican flair and flavor profile. And as far as the guacomole is concerned I thought I'd change up it's flavor profile a little for one reason. That reason is too often the guacamole flavor gets lost in a sea of similar spices and flavors in a big plate of Mexican food. So I thought what could I add that would really make it stand out. Well I took my cue from one of my favorite secret ingredients in many of my other dishes, Pickle juice. Yes Dill pickle juice and relish to change the taste just enough that it stands out and up against the chili and cumin flavors that are so pervasive in the Mexican Kitchen.

So while Rick Bayless may cringe, here are my takes on these two classic Mexican dishes, Enjoy Ya'll!

Forrest's Pimento Cheese Style Queso and Guacamole Dip Duo

Forrest's Pimento Queso

8 oz sharp yellow cheddar cheese, grated

8 oz Monterey jack cheese, grated

4 oz room temperature cream cheese

2 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce drained and chopped

1 (4 oz) jar pimentos, drained, rinsed, and chopped

1 (4 oz) can mild or hot diced green chilies, drained and chopped

2 tablespoons picked jalapeno peppers drained and chopped

1 fresh jalapeno pepper seeds removed and finely chopped

1/2 tsp cumin, or more to taste

1/2 tsp chili powder, or more to taste

2 green onions finely chopped

Black pepper to taste

Hot sauce to taste

1 1/2 Cups good quality mayonnaise like "Dukes" brand
Stir all ingredients until thoroughly combined. Serve with tortilla chips ( see note).

Forrest's Secret Recipe Guacamole Dip

4 ripe hass avocados chopped and covered with the juice of 2 limes 

1/2 cup fresh salsa fresco from the dairy case in the super market

1/4 cup dairy sour cream

2 tablespoons finely chopped and drained pickled jalapeno

1 1/2 tablespoon dill pickle juice from the jar

1 tablespoon dill pickle relish

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 tablespoon garlic powder

1 dash hot sauce

Mash and mix all ingredients until smooth. Serve with tortilla chips ( see note)

* Note about chips, Grocery store chips are fine however, if you want to kick it up a notch get your chips from your nearest mexican grill place like "Chipotle Grill" or the like, they are fresh and better tasting. Just sayin! 

Serve these two together as a great starter to your next Mexican meal at home or party, or use the guacamole as a secret taste weapon with your main course to add flavor depth to your meal.

Enjoy Ya'll!