the spinach chronicles

Evidentially, a large portion of this country has been busy breaking all sorts of heat records for June. National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Keeney reported in the New York Times two weeks ago that much of the U.S. is experiencing conditions that we normally don’t have until August. “The heat has been pushed north all the way into Wisconsin, and in the North especially, we are seeing temperatures 15 to 20 degrees above normal,” said Keeney.
Allow me to set the record straight. I can assure you that this “brutal heat wave” has not, in any way, shape or form, found it’s way past the Mason-Bibon line on into Northern Wisconsin. The south shore of Lake Superior has been officially chilly, wet, and grey for pretty much the last three weeks. I think there might have been a day in early June when the thermometer pegged at 66ºF, but it was so short lived, it’s hard to recall. The sun is out today, but we’re still hovering in the upper 50’s.
My peony bush has been poised and ready to bloom since the end of May, but it simply refuses budge in this weather. I go out and look at it every morning. And every morning, it looks the same. I can pretty much hear it. “No! I won’t!” I guess I don’t blame it. I haven’t exactly been frolicking around outside either. My first summer beach read of the season was devoured under the weight of two down comforters.
I can guarantee you that my sweet corn will nowhere near be knee high by the Fourth of July. Even the snap peas, who prefer it nice and cool, look miserable. They are slowly inching their way up the trellis – more out of duty than anything. Don’t even ask about the peppers. They are stuck in a wallow of self-pity. Really, the only thing in the garden that seems genuinely pleased with the current state of affairs is the spinach. But hey, I’ll take it. It’s been a cold, misserable, rainy June. At least I’ve got spinach to show for it.
My routine of late involves slogging out to the garden during breaks in the rain to keep the spinach picked and give the rest of the garden a rousing pep talk. I came in the other day with a big basket of fresh spinach, mixed with a few handfuls of tender little lamb’s quarter leaves, thinking that a steamy pan of lasagna would do nicely to take the chill off. Only I wasn’t sure if I had the energy to construct it. I like lasagna, but to be honest, I find it a bit exhausting. Generally by the time I am done, I have dirtied just about every dish in the house, the kitchen is a mess, and I barely have the strength left to eat. Still, my taste buds were having trouble pushing the notion of fresh spinach lasagna out of my mind. I quickly ran through the process in my head, searching for ways to simplify. No boil noodles, jarred pasta sauce, layer the veggies in raw, skip the Béchamel sauce. I rallied. Let the spring spinach chronicles continue.
In the end though, I caved on several of my proposed simplification techniques. The mushrooms went in raw, but I did end wilting the spinach just slightly. It cost me another pan, but when I looked over a the heaping mound of raw spinach I was concerned it would be too bulky and unruly to layer into the pan. I could have opened a jar of pasta sauce, but I had some canned plum tomatoes too. I knew I couldn’t beat a simple sauce made with olive oil and fresh green garlic. Damn. Another pan. And how could I not use a white sauce with crimini mushrooms and all that fresh spinach? It would be a crime. What’s one more pan? But by golly, I held my ground with the no-boil noodles. One pot and one colander, saved!
The recipe looks long, but it’s really not so bad – especially considering that you end up with enough food to last you through the week, or to invite a few friends over at the last minute – which is what we did. I promise that it’s worth the couple of extra pots and pans (this coming from a woman who does not have running water). And it’s a perfect celebratory, feel-good kind of meal. Tuck it in your back pocket for a cool summer’s night dinner on the porch, or for fall – if you happen to be lucky enough to live somewhere that actually gets warm, or dare I even imagine…HOT.
Fresh Spinach & Mushroom Lasangna

12 ounces no-boil lasanga noodles (or enough to cover 3 layers in your pan)

The Red Sauce:
1/3 cup olive oil
1 – 2 stalks green garlic, chopped (or 4-5 cloves garlic)
3 teaspoons red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon salt
1 28 ounce can diced, fire roasted tomatoes
1 28 ounce can plum tomatoes, roughly chopped

Warm the olive oil in a sauce pan and and add the garlic, red pepper, and salt. Saute briefly until the garlic is just tender, but not brown. Add the tomatoes, juice and all and gently simmer for about 20-30 minutes until the sauce thickens up to your liking. Adjust the seasoning as necessary.

The Veggies:
10 ounces fresh mushrooms, sliced
14 ounces fresh spinach, washed and coarsely chopped (I used 12 ounces of spinach and 2 ounces of lamb’s quarter)

Lightly steam the spinach to wilt it – just for a minute or two. Or if you are feeling bold, you can try layering it in raw (let me know how it goes!)

The Ricotta:
2 eggs, lightly beaten
15 – 16 ounces ricotta cheese
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 bunch fresh chives, chopped

Combine all in a bowl and mix well.

The Cheese:
2 cups grated mozzarella
2 cups grated monterey jack

Combine together in a bowl.

The Béchamel Sauce:
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 – 1 1/2 cups milk
Salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste

Melt the butter in a small heavy saucepan. Slowly stir in the flour, mixing with a fork or whisk. Keep stirring for 1 -2 minutes until the mixture just starts to brown and smells fragrant. Keeping stirring as you add the milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring often until the mixture thickens up, about 5 to 10 minuets. Remove from heat and season with salt, pepper, and a dash of fresh nutmeg.

Layer Up:
Pour a thin layer of the red sauce in the bottom of your baking dish. Follow with a layer of noodles, 1/3 of the ricotta mixture, 1/3 of the spinach, 1/3 of the mushrooms, 1/3 of the white sauce, and 1/3 of the grated cheese. Repeat the process to make 3 layers, ending with the grated cheese.

Bake in a 350ºF oven for about 40 minutes until the cheese is bubbly and slightly browned. Remove from oven and sprinkle with 1/2 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese. Let stand 10 – 15 minutes before slicing.

2 Responses to “the spinach chronicles”

  1. 1 Gina June 29, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    I’ve never heard of bechamel sauce on lasagna. Do you drizzle it over the top? It sounds delicious, as usual, Jill.

  2. 2 GarlicPig June 29, 2011 at 8:00 pm

    I just divide it roughly into thirds and drizzle a little over the top of each grated cheese layer. :-)

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