"What do you do for recreation?"
"Oh, the usual. I bowl. Drive around. The occasional acid flashback."
Oh, and I also hold screenings of late-nineties cult flicks over steamy, delicious, homemade lasagna.
My friends, welcome to my best blog to date: The Lasagnski Fest.
It all started with my beloved roommate attending The Lebowski Fest in Louisville, KY, a few months ago. Her costume was "New Shit Has Come To Light." (Lebowski fans will know what I'm talking about.) Well, this March, the Lebowski Fest is coming to Chicago (keep an eye out for The Guys Down at the Crime Lab). We were discussing this one night at Michael's, and the conversation somehow led to favorite foods, and my pal Kent (a repeat blog guest) mentioned that his favorite food was lasagna. I told him it was my specialty.
Well, a few beers and one hell of a swerge later, The Lasagnski Fest was on all our to-do lists. The beautiful Sarah M. (one of The Guys Down at the Crime Lab and also a lasagna enthusiast), Kent, and of course Jess, were on board for a Fearless lasagna dinner, White Russians galore, and a screening of the Holy Grail of stoner cult classics itself.
Now's the time to mention that, before tonight, I had never seen The Big Lebowski. Or rather, I had TRIED to watch it several times, but just never made it through (I have the attention span of a sparrow and absolutely no ability to stay awake past 9:30 PM). I had my work cut out for me.
This is me and Kent in my kitchen. He not only made fabulous White Russians, he made them in an actual Kahlua shaker!
Check me out in my new Fearless Cook personalized apron:
FEARLESS FACTOR: I'm gonna have to say 8, although I didn't realize just how fearless I was being until I only gave myself an hour and a half to accomplish two (time-intensive) lasagnas, including grocery shopping and travel time. It was like Iron Chef! I even made Jess take all the pictures, because I knew I'd get stressed and forget to do it. I've made many a lasagna that resemble my meat-and-veggie version, but the bechamel-based mushroom lasagna was pretty new to me, so that upped the ante, too.
2 16-oz. containers ricotta cheese
18 lasagna noodles (about 1 pack)
fresh basil, oregano, and parsley
1 jar tomato pasta sauce (any kind)
1/3 lb. hot Italian sausage
1/2 lb. ground beef (very lean)
1 c. thawed frozen spinach, cut and drained
2 lbs. mixed wild mushrooms (I used oyster, baby bella, and shitake)
1/2 stick butter
4 T. flour
3 c. milk
1 c. grated parmesan cheese, fresh
STEP ONE (starting with the meat and veggie lasagna):
Halve the zucchini lengthwise, then halve the halves lenthwise again, and slice it into small pieces. Defrost/microwave the spinach, and drain it (just squeeze handfuls of it over the sink).
Using both containers of ricotta, empty them into a large mixing bowl. Chop the herbs (equal amounts of each, about 1/2 c. total after chopping), and add them to the ricotta. Sprinkle some salt and pepper to taste into the mix, and stir until combined.
Brown the sausage and the beef in the same pan (this flavors the beef while cutting the spiciness of the sausage). Drain on a paper towel (this cuts out a lot of the fat from the meat).
Boil the noodles. After they're done, pour out 3/4 of the hot water, and add several cupfuls of ice to the pot, stopping the cooking process and making the water cool enough to touch. In a glass 9 X 12 baking dish, begin to layer the lasagna. When you reach into the pot to get each noodle, be careful so you don't tear them. To drain the excess water off, hold each one by the top edge, and slide your index and middle fingers down the noodle (one finger on each side) to "squeeze" the water off.
Lay three noodles carefully across the bottom of the dish. Using a spoon, spread the ricotta mixture onto the noodles (this takes some finesse, so be patient, and don't tear the noodles). You can really just put it on there in clumps and then spread it out with your fingers. When you're finished, pour 1/3 of the sauce evenly on top.
Top that with the zucchini slices.
Repeat the layer of noodles, ricotte, and sauce, then add the meat.
Repeat the layer of noodles, ricotta, and sauce, then add the spinach.
Top with about 1 c. mozzarella cheese, and bake at 375 for about 40 minutes.
STEP SIX (beginning the mushroom lasagna):
In a skillet over high heat, heat about 1 T. olive oil and cook the mushrooms (half the batch at a time) until they're caramelized, about 5-7 minutes.
To make the bechamel sauce (which is a creamy white sauce that's used in very traditional lasagna), melt a half stick of butter over medium heat in a large skillet. When it's mostly melted, add in the flour slowly and stir to combine, until it forms a roux (a yellow paste). Whisk in the milk and continue to whisk as the milk gets hotter, eliminating any lumps. Cook until it begins to thicken (about 5 minutes). Don't let it get too thick.
Layer the noodles in the bottom a dish exactly the way you did for the meat-veggie version. Ladle the bechamel over the top of the noodles, spreading around so it covers it all. Spread 1/3 of the mushrooms over the top. Sprinkle liberally with the grated parmesan.
Repeat for two more layers, then cover the top with about 1 c. mozzarella cheese. Bake at 375 for 40 minutes.
Allow the lasagnas to cool for 10-15 minutes, so they sort of "congeal." If they're too melty, they're impossible to serve.
This is the meat and veggie one:
And this is the mushroom. Ain't it a beaut?
From left to right: Kent, Sarah M., Jess. Cheers!
THE JUDGES VERDICTS:
JESS: They were great. But in general, you're an under-saucer. I could take more sauce. The mushroom one got a little...cream of mushroomy. It would be nice to have another flavor besides the mushroom. But they were both so good. The meat one, to me, was perfect.
SARAH: This is absolutely fabulous and the flavors are phenomenal, but I think you should add more tomato chunks, or tomato sauce. I love tomatoes!
KENT: You guys are bitches. Just kidding. I have to say I'm not the biggest mushroom fan, but the mushroom one was really good. And I don't like spinach that much either, but I didn't notice the things I don't like about it when it's in there with the meat. It's a good way to hide it. They were both awesome.
[ME: How would you compare it your lasagna standby, Stouffer's frozen version?
KENT: Well...Stouffer's is really good. And they did just come out with an Italiano version. They're stepping it up. How about you come over and I'll make you Stouffer's and we'll watch YOUR favorite movie.
ME: My favorite movie is Clueless.
MY VOTE ON MY DISH: I give it 9 stars! Both of them! 9 stars each! OK, OK, I can make a mean lasagna, at least the traditional way. Although I do agree with Sarah that the meat one could've used some more sauce (some of it always sort of evaporates/soaks into the noodles in the oven). I was afraid that the zucchini wasn't going to be tender, but it turned out great. As for the mushroom one, next time I would use more mushrooms (they were a little sparse - I felt that the bechamel-to-mushroom ratio was off a bit), and maybe use a tad less flour in the bechamel. It sort of bakes up in the oven and gets a little too "solid" for my taste. But the flavors all blended well in both versions - no one ingredient overpowered any other.
Kent's White Russians were absolutely perfect, and went surprisingly well with the meal. (Or maybe that was just because I was already on my third one by the time the lasagna was baked.)
MY VOTE ON THE BIG LEBOWSKI: I give it 7.5 stars. I admit that I'm biased because so many of my friends are such ardent fans, but I truly enjoyed it this time around. It's one of those movies that really does get better with subsequent viewings. I specifically enjoyed the smart dialogue and unique lexicon of The Dude. I can't say that I followed the plot 100%, but plots never were my strong suit anyway.
Thanks so much to my guests for coming over and for bearing with me as I became an Achiever over the course of the evening. The lasgna abides.