I find the Dark Days challenge to be no challenge at all when it comes to meat and poultry, and to some degree seafood. I didn’t realize until now how many sources we have within even a dozen miles to get ethically and organically raised poultry, lamb, pork and beef. Prepared slowly and simply, these have turned out so far to be utterly delicious, needing little embellishment. A great discovery! And complementary to our excellent local dairies and creameries. This is transformational for my cooking.
However, while I grew up in a family of avid hunters, fishermen and farmers, my immediate family is not full of enthusiastic meat-eaters. While some are, others are vegetarian altogether and still others prefer meat as a condiment, as I do. We love our raw and slightly cooked vegetables in salads, and thrive on grains that are simply not local. Therefore, one of my winter challenges is to concoct meals that don’t depend on meat and that feature fresh vegetables. I also have a pint-sized freezer so unlike some lucky folks participating in Dark Days, I don’t have a large stock of seasonally frozen veggies or anything else. I do keep a root cellar and have a refrigerator full of produce that is just now starting to dwindle, plus a pantry full of canned food. While I’m happy to get to prepare meat and blog about it, I also want to prepare dishes that are more typical of our eating habits.
Enter the mushroom and cabbage lasagna. The word lasagna, like terrine, timbale and tagine, originated with the name of a vessel, a pot used for cooking certain foods. Eventually, these designations morphed into the name of the food prepared in the vessels. In the case of lasagna, which originally meant a layering of foods baked together, the term ended up referring to the pasta component of the dish as well as the dish itself.
While I could, as some have in the Dark Days challenge, decide that pasta is considered local if homemade from organic wheat milled nearby despite being sourced farther away (and I may too based on my original declaration and a discovery preparing this meal as you will see), I decided that Napa (or Chinese) cabbage could take the place of the noodles. It offers the right dimensions and texture. This choice also pleased the carbo-phobes in our midst. I have done something like this before with chard and kale and was re-introduced to the idea by a recent article in the New York Times. While I tinkered with the recipe (of course), the inspiration was from Elaine Louie’s column “The Temporary Vegetarian.”
I layered parboiled cabbage leaves with thinly sliced potatoes, and a combination of sautéed chopped cabbage, port wine-infused mushrooms and béchamel sauce, and topped the whole dish with a superb local cheese that resembles Gruyere. I thought about using the creamery’s blue cheese but did not want to overwhelm the other flavors. To make the béchamel, I used my own butter (Yay! Finally!), a couple of tablespoons of organic whole wheat flour that was locally milled, and local organic non-fat milk. My butter imparted a richness that would have suggested that I’d added heavy cream. The whole wheat flour, from Daisy Organic Flours, Lancaster, PA, was so nutty that one would have thought I’d grated nutmeg into the mix, as I would have done if using conventional flour. That flour is amazing and I have high hopes for the next experiment with it. I actually used no salt or pepper in my version but added it to the recipe to accommodate others’ taste.
I had acquired a bunch of organic “purple carrots,” also from Lancaster, PA, and grated them. Tossed with a little walnut oil, they made a lovely, flavorful, crunchy salad that was a good counterpoint to what turned out to be very rich lasagna. This was a delicious, though somewhat non-photogenic (sorry), combination, which proved to me that thoughtfully produced local ingredients are well worth the effort and modest extra cost compared to the results.
Mushroom and Cabbage Lasagna adapted from Elaine Louie, New York Times
Napa cabbage, 1-2 lbs or greater
12 oz mixed mushrooms (I used a combination of cremini, oyster and shitake)
¼ c white port or white wine
2 tsp and 1 tbsp butter (for different uses)
1 tbsp flour
1 c milk, heated
Optional: grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste
2 medium potatoes, peeled if necessary and thinly sliced
½ c grated cheese
7 x 11 inch baking dish or equivalent
Remove enough large outer leaves from the cabbage to fit into your pan in three layers. (For me, this meant six leaves, trimmed in the vertical dimension.) Chop some of the remaining core to equal 3 cups cabbage.
Saute the chopped cabbage in 1 tsp of butter, turn down the heat and cook, covered, until tender. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Clean the mushrooms and chop them into ½iinch or smaller pieces. Melt about 1 tsp butter in a wide pan over medium high heat and add the mushrooms. Let them cook undisturbed for a few minutes until they start to brown, turn down the heat, stir them to cook the other side and add the port or wine, cooking until the liquid is absorbed. Set aside.
Make the béchamel. Melt the remaining 1 tbsp butter in a saucepan over medium heat and add the flour, whisking to combine and cooking until lightly brown. Gradually add the heated milk, and cook over medium to medium-low heat, whisking occasionally, until thick. Set aside to cool.
Combine the mushrooms, cabbage and béchamel and season to taste. Slice the potatoes. (Do this at the last minute to avoid browning.)
Layer the ingredients in the baking pan. (Depending on your pan, you may want to coat it with additional butter.) One third cabbage, one half potatoes, one half mushroom mixture. Repeat and top with remaining cabbage leaves and grated cheese.
Cover the dish with foil and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake until the potatoes are cooked through, approximately another 20 minutes. Let cool 10-15 minutes before serving.
Makes about 6-8 servings.