When I was last in New York, I was lucky enough to get a table at I Sodi, a small Italian restaurant in West Village serving awesome cocktails and rustic Tuscan fare. There I had the most delicious vegetarian lasagne I have ever tasted (I exaggerate not). Layer upon layer of al dente pasta with an oozing cheese and artichoke sauce, spiked gently with fresh nutmeg. I couldn’t pluck up the courage to ask for the recipe, so I’ve tried to work it out for myself, and this isn’t too far off.
Nutmeg is such a haunting spice; it’s a ghostly reminder of the white sauces and rice puddings from my childhood. I can’t recommend enough that you use fresh nutmeg and finely grate it yourself; the ready-ground nutmeg seems to have such a mouth-numbing, almost ferric, flavour. Fresh is best.
INGREDIENTS - SERVES 6–8
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 500g chestnut mushrooms, very finely chopped (I use a food processor)
- 500g fresh lasagne sheets
For the sauce
- 125g unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
- 125g plain flour
- 1 litre milk
- 500ml vegetable stock
- 200g (drained weight) artichoke hearts from a jar, finely chopped
- 1½ teaspoons finely chopped rosemary
- 1½ teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
- 1½ teaspoons sea salt flakes (or ½ teaspoon table salt)
- 1½ teaspoons coarse black pepper (or ½ teaspoon fine)
- 350g Gruyère cheese, plus a little extra for the top, finely grated
- 2 tablespoons vodka (or white wine)
Heat a large frying pan over a high heat and add the olive oil. Once the oil is hot add the onions and mushrooms with a pinch of salt and pepper, and fry, stirring very frequently, for a good 5 minutes, until softened and fairly dry – the aim here is to try to remove as much moisture from the onions and mushrooms, and cooking them at a high heat will do that quickly, if they are stirred – otherwise they’ll burn. Remove from the heat.
For the sauce put the butter into a large saucepan over a medium-high heat and allow it to melt, stirring occasionally. As soon as the butter has melted, add the flour and beat vigorously with a wooden spoon until everything comes together into a very thick paste. Allow this paste to cook for a minute just until it turns a touch darker, then slowly add the milk, beating frequently after each drop. The mixture will seem to get even thicker at first, but this is normal – don’t panic.
As the milk is absorbed, you can start to add the stock in the same way. By this point, I find it useful to switch to a whisk to ensure the sauce is very well mixed. Allow the sauce to bubble for a minute or two. Add the chopped artichokes, rosemary, nutmeg, salt, pepper, cheese and vodka. Reduce the heat to low and stir, for 3 or 4 minutes. The sauce should be as thick as double cream and as smooth as possible. Remove from the heat and set aside until needed.
Stir the cooked mushrooms and onion into the sauce.
Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/gas mark 6. Grease a 20cm square cake tin (not loose bottom) with butter, then line the base with lasagne sheets, trimming them to size if necessary. Pour over just enough of the sauce to cover the pasta then repeat the layers until all the sauce and pasta is used, but do make sure that the last layer is sauce and not pasta. Sprinkle over a little extra Gruyère and bake for 50–60 minutes,or until the sauce is bubbling and the top is very deeply bronzed, perhaps crispy. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes before serving.