Author Notes: I took the title quite literally: Your Best Cheap Feast. First, nothing says feast like lasagna, and its slide immediately slotted into view. Next, cheap. That meant working with ingredients I tend to consistently have on hand: carrots because I have bunnies; the same goes for spinach (though I siphon off my share for salads); I couldn't live without mushrooms - plain brown ones, though white will do nicely, too; goat cheese aleays; I discovered a 28-ounce can of roasted yellow peppers in the pantry,pilfered from a booth I'd worked at a food show, as good a money in the bank; and once every couple of years, I order a full ounce of Spanish saffron (let me know if you want my source). I'd intended to make my own pasta, which for lasagna is extremely easy because it just has to be long, thin, and flat; however, when poking through the pantry I found two partial boxes of oven-ready (no pre-cooking required, in other words) lasagna noodles. I know, I know, some are cringing at the very thought, but remember: cheap, and to me that meant working with what I already had. Besides, this is supposed to be a feast, which infers fun, not forced labor. As well, there is always milk in the refrigerator, and vegetable stock in the freezer. And olive oil on the counter. All of which made the whole most certainly mine, and the best I could do under the circumstances.
The one ingredient I needed from the store was mozzarella cheese. As I rode over on my bike (I'm campaigning for sainthood, you see), I scrolled through the layers as I saw them in my mind. When I thought about the mushroom layer, wondering what to sauté along with them, I yelped out loud at the thought of, oh yes!, leeks. But when I got there and saw that two of them would cost four dollars and realized that I'd need at least 4 if not more, I decided to pull from the pile of onions waiting back at the so to speak ranch, and splurged instead on some heavenly fresh mozzarella.
You know how messy lasagna can be to serve, even when it has rested for a while after emerging from the oven? You know, also, how much better it tastes as leftovers, once all the flavors have blended? Well, think about thinking about this as a giant leftover. Bake it at least 24 hours before you plan to serve it. Cool it, cover it with plastic, refrigerate it. Remove it from the refrigerator a couple of hours before you begin reheating it. Set the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the plastic and replace it with a sheet of parchment, followed by foil. Fit about at least an hour of reheating time into your timetable. To be sure, stick a thermometer through the covering layers into the center. It should read 165 degrees. Continue baking until it does. And when it does, remove it from the oven, let it sit for about 15 minutes, then serve your feast with great joy.
You might not use all of both of the sauces. No matter. Stir together the leftovers and refrigerate. In a couple of days, cook some of your favorite pasta, stir isome pesto alla genovese (the green stuff) into the sauce mixture and toss with your pasta and a couple of ladlesful of pasta water. Salute!
FOR THE SAUCES: ROASTED CARROT AND SAFFRON BÉCHAMEL
- 4 pounds carrots, peeled, 1/2" rounds
- 4 yellow onions, peeled, 1/2" dice
- 12 cloves garlic, smashed & peeled
- 6 ounces olive oil
- 4 teaspoons salt
- 24 grinds of a pepper mill (I counted)
- 24 ounces vegetable stock -
- 4 tablespoons butter (1/8 pound)
- 4 rounded tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 32 ounces whole milk
- 1 teaspoon saffron threads crushed between your palms (clap your hands together afterwards to dislodge what may have stuck to them)
- Sea or kosher salt and pepper to taste
FOR THE LASAGNA
- 1.5 pounds mushrooms, caps wiped with a paper towel, then stemmed, 1/4" slices
- 1 yellow onion, peeled, 1/4" dice
- Olive oil
- Sea or kosher salt and pepper
- 1.5 pounds spinach (I used cleaned & bagged)
- Olive oil
- Sea or kosher salt and pepper to taste
- 2 pounds fresh mozzarella, 1/4" slices
- 16 ounces oven-ready lasagna noodles
- 10 ounces goat cheese
- 28-ounce can roasted red, yellow, or orange bell peppers, drained, cut into 1/4" slices
- To make the Roasted Carrot Sauce, preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Toss together in a roasting pan the carrot rounds, diced onions, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. Cover tightly with foil. Roast for about an hour, until carrots are extremely tender when pierced with a knife. When done, remove from oven and remove foil. Scrape the contents into a food processor or blender. Add only enough vegetable stock to make a smooth, tender sauce that can be dispensed from a ladle, about 24 ounces. Taste, and adjust seasonings if necessary.
- While the vegetables are roasting, make the Saffron Béchamel. First warm the milk in a microwave for 5 to 7minutes. It doesn't have to be hot, just nicely warm. Melt the butter in a stainless steel saucepan. Once the water has cooked off and the foam subsides, stir in the flour. Cook only until it is a pale golden color. Add the saffron, then whisk in the milk 8 ounces at a time. The mixture will thicken and turn a color you'll want to paint on a wall. As you add more milk, the consistency will thin nicely, and color pale. After all the milk has been added, continue cooking, stirring with either a flat-bottomed wooden or heatproof spatula until it reaches a soft simmer. Continue cooking and stirring for about 15 minutes to cook out the floury taste. Season to taste with salt and pepper at the end. Technically, you should use white pepper, but if you don't have it, go ahead and use some fresh-ground. Life will go on.
- Film the bottom of a large skillet with olive oil (probably 4 ounces) and warm it over medium-high heat. When hot (the oil will shimmer, or "ribbon"), add the mushroom slices. Sprinkle with some salt to encourage the water to leave more quickly. Sauté, stirring now and then, until you no longer see water boiling in the bottom of the skillet. Taste, then season with salt and pepper. Remove the mushrooms to a bowl. Save the stems for your next batch of vegetable stock.
- Return the skillet to the heat, and add some more olive oil, 3 or 4 ounces. When hot, add the spinach. Again, sprinkle with some salt. Keep the spinach moving about as it wilts. When all has softened, cook for a couple of minutes more, then remove from the heat.
- Reduce oven heat to 350 degrees. Begin assembling the lasagna. Brush the bottom and sides of a 9" x 13" baking pan with olive oil. Ladle enough of the carrot sauce into the bottom to spread into a thin, cushioning layer. Arrange a layer of noodles on top. Next, add a layer of mozzarella, followed by the mushrooms. Ladle a layer of béchamel over them, then add another layer of noodles. Spread the spinach mixture over the top. Break the goat cheese into chunks with your fingers and arrange them as evenly as you can over the spinach. Ladle on enough of the roasted carrot sauce to cover it all well. Spread on another layer of noodles. Arrange a layer of mozzarella over them, followed by a layer of sliced roasted peppers, then ladle on a layer of roasted carrot sauce Add another layer of noodles, followed by one of saffron béchamel sauce.
- Set the baking dish on a baking pan - just to be sure, you know. Bake for about 30 minutes, until sauces are visibly bubbling and surface is nicely browned. Remove from the oven and let sit for 15 minutes before slicing and serving.
- Have you noticed that lasagna is one of those dishes that tastes even better reheated as leftovers? So, to make serving even better and with less pressure, bake it at least 24 hours before you plan to serve it. Cool it completely, then cover with plastic and refrigerate. Remove to room temperature about 4 hours before you plan to serve it. Allow to sit at room temp for 2 hours. Be brave. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove plastic from the pan, and replace it with a layer of parchment and another of foil. Bake until sauces are bubbling and a thermometer inserted at the center reads 165 degrees. Remove from the oven and let sit for 15 minutes.
- Remove coverings, and serve your feast with great joy. And some bottles of wine. Cheers to a feast!
- This recipe was entered in the contest for Your Best Cheap Feast