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It was 2 a.m. on a chilly fall morning in my New York apartment when my wife was suddenly awoken from her sleep by a loud clatter. She wearily dragged herself out of bed, narrowly missing stepping on the dog in her bleary-eyed walk out of the bedroom. I thought I'd gotten away scot-free when my wife walked in and caught me just as a drop of creamy sauce fell off my finger to the floor.
"What are you DOING at two in the morning?!" she asked in her I'm-not-really-yelling-but-I-am-in-my-head voice.
"Um...," I stammered. "Uh..." I knew she'd never believe me if I told her the truth, so I decided to use my previously successful tactic of offering her an excuse before I offered an explanation. "Er... I couldn't sleep!" That should satisfy her curiosity.
"Yes, but what are you doing, and why are you making so much noise, and why does it smell like bechamel and creamed spinach in here?"
"Well... I couldn't sleep so I decided to make a lasagna."
She stared at me blankly for a moment, turned around, and shuffled back to the bedroom, muttering, "What did I marry?" under her breath.
If she had given me a longer chance to explain, I would have been able to foist the blame squarely on the shoulders of Serious Eats community member KarmaFreeCooking, who started up a Talk thread titled, "Vegetarian Lasagna Throwdown—Ideas To Win Over Any Meat Eater", explaining that she'd been issued the challenge of bringing a vegetarian lasagna good enough to compete with a meaty lasagna to a lasagna party.
I was not invited to this party, nor was I officially challenged, but challenge accepted anyway.
One night and a whole lotta cookin' and tweakin' later, here's what I got. It's not strikingly original in its flavors, but damn if it ain't rich and delicious.
We start with a base of lightly creamed spinach. I considered going the easy route with frozen leaves, but figured that if the ultimate version is what we're after, and we're already putting in the not-insignificant amount of work required to construct a lasagna, using fresh spinach was not asking too much.
Some spinach lasagnas will have you blanch the leaves in water, then ring out the excess. Far easier is to just wilt them in a pot along with some sautéed garlic and olive oil. From there, a hit of heavy cream and a grating of nutmeg is all they need.
Ricotta is a classic ingredient in an Italian-American lasagna, but I personally find the texture to be grainy and bland once cooked (mostly because store-bought ricotta just stinks). Instead, I use a trick I learned from Cook's Illustrated: Replace the ricotta with some whole fat cottage cheese pulsed in the food processor. It stays moist during baking and adds some great tang to the finished dish. I added the pulsed cottage cheese along with some chopped spinach and an egg to the spinach layer.
For the mushrooms, I made a classic duxelles by cooking the chopped button mushrooms down with butter, shallots, thyme, and heavy cream. A dash of soy sauce adds some meaty depth to them, while lemon juice brightens things up.
For the final component, I made a bechamel (that's white sauce to us Americans, or besciamella, if you're of the Italian persuasion), a simple sauce of milk thickened with flour and butter. I stirred in some grated mozzarella and parmesan for extra cheesy flavor. (It's best to stir the cheese in off-heat so that it doesn't curdle)
I used to go through the tedious process of par-boiling thick lasagna noodles before constructing my casserole, but made the switch over to no-boil noodles a few years ago. The only problem with them is that if you use them straight out of the box, they absorb liquid as they cook, making it difficult to gauge how moist your layers need to be before baking. The solution? Soak the noodles in water before baking. By separating the soaking and the cooking phases of the noodles into two distinct steps, it's much easier to tell what the finished texture of the lasagna will be like before you bake it.
And, dear wife, I hope you like the results, because it's gonna be your lunch and dinner for the next four days.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.