Friday, March 12, 2010

I Heard Mushrooms Singing

Here’s another culinary entry. I found a great vegetarian recipe in Gourmet magazine. It’s called “Cheesy Polenta Lasagne with Mushroom and Seitan” (click here to see the recipe). I have said before that cooking, like poetry, is a wonderful alchemy in which ordinary things are transformed into the extraordinary. Well, this one was indeed cause for celebration. I must say up front, however, that I had to make some adjustments in the recipe. My wife is allergic to garlic, so I eliminated that (but I did add some onion). I’m not sure what cremini mushrooms are, and they were nowhere to be seen, so I used sliced baby portabellas. Being unable to find Italian fontina either, I substituted it with ricotta cheese. The gruyere was too expensive for this month’s budget, so I used one of those shredded cheese combos that included mozzarella, provolone, parmesan, asiago, and romano. I knew I could find the polenta at our local Publix, and the seitan would, of course, be available at The Golden Temple, Birmingham’s premier vegetarian and health food store (one of my favorite spots in town).

It was a cool and cloudy March afternoon when I began to prepare this new recipe. After making the cheese sauce and setting it aside, I cooked the onion (instead of the garlic) in a heavy skillet with some olive oil and then stirred in the mushrooms. I have sautéed mushrooms on many occasions, but I always use butter in the skillet followed by a healthy splash of sherry. This recipe called for no additional oil or liquid for the cooking of the mushrooms, which were to be cooked and stirred in a medium-high skillet for about three minutes. I was using a wooden spoon, and about halfway through the process, as the mushrooms began to moisten and soften, a beautiful chorus arose from the skillet. As the wooden spoon made contact with the mushrooms, a high pitched “singing” was heard (I was reminded of the notes made when a moistened finger moves along the rim of a wine glass – yet this sound was different). It was a joyful sound that I had never heard before in all of my culinary adventures. For me it set the tone for the new dining adventure that was in the making.

In the end, dinner was a great success. My daughter, who does not like mushrooms, went back for seconds, and said it was not like anything she had ever tasted. I found it appealing and satisfying. I was glad to have the opportunity to use seitan (a wheat-based protein) and polenta. I can recommend the dish to anyone. I cannot guarantee that your mushrooms will sing, and since I made so many substitutions I’m not sure how far my result was from the original. I’ll make this dish again, and one day may be able to follow the exact recipe.

May all your conversations be rewarding, and may all your cooking be joyful.

*    *    *

Here is the original recipe retrieved online at

Cheesy Polenta Lasagne with Mushrooms and Seitan
Gourmet | February 2009
by Maggie Ruggiero

Makes 4 to 6 servings
active time:35 min
total time:1 hr


For cheese sauce:
  • 1/2 stick unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1/4 pound Italian Fontina, coarsely grated (about 1 cup)
  • 3 ounces Gruyère, coarsely grated (about 1 cup), divided
  • Scant 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

For mushroom-seitan filling:
  • 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 10 ounces cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced
  • 8 ounces seitan (patted dry and thinly sliced)
  • 1/2 teaspoon thyme leaves
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 2 (16-to 18-ounce) logs ready-made plain polenta

Preheat oven to 425°F with rack in upper third. Lightly butter a 2-to 2 1/2-quart shallow baking dish.

Make cheese sauce:

Melt butter in a 2-to 3-quart heavy saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in flour until smooth, then cook roux, whisking frequently, until pale golden, 2 to 3 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat milk in a separate small saucepan until just about to boil. Add milk to roux in 2 batches, whisking constantly until very smooth. Bring to a boil, whisking, then cook, whisking, 30 seconds. Remove from heat and whisk in Fontina, half of Gruyère, nutmeg, and 3/4 teaspoon salt. Cover and set aside, whisking occasionally.

Make mushroom-seitan filling:

Cook garlic in oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat, stirring, until beginning to turn pale golden. Stir in mushrooms, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms are softened, about 3 minutes. Add seitan and thyme and cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms and seitan are slightly golden, about 4 minutes. Add water and cook briefly, scraping up any brown bits.

Assemble and bake lasagne: 

Spread 1/2 cup cheese sauce in bottom of baking dish.
Slice 1 log of polenta into 1/4-inch-thick rounds and arrange enough rounds to cover bottom of dish, overlapping slightly. Spoon half of filling evenly over polenta, then spread with half of remaining cheese sauce (about 1 cup). Slice enough rounds from second log to form a second layer. Cover with remaining filling, then cheese sauce. Sprinkle with remaining Gruyère and bake until top is just bubbling and slightly browned, 15 to 20 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.

Cooks’ notes: — Lasagne can be assembled 1 day ahead and chilled. Let stand at room temperature 30 minutes before baking.
—Any leftover polenta log can be sliced and sautéed in oil or butter to serve with eggs at breakfast.


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