A béchamel sauce request—how very Betty Draper of you, Twitter followers. When it comes to old school standards, this classic white French “mother sauce” is a far more tasty and usable recipe than many of the lost arts lurking in my grandmother’s 1969 Betty Crocker cookbook (aspic, anyone?). Béchamel is essentially cream (or, in most modern incarnations, milk) warmed and thickened with a roux. Chefs have tinkered around and staked claim to the “perfect” recipe for centuries—some insist on the addition of freshly-ground nutmeg, others on onion stock. I prefer to keep mine down to as few ingredients as possible, since béchamel is meant to be a base, not a scene-stealer. Butter, flour, milk and the old S&P to taste.
When you’re making béchamel, you’re building a sturdy foundation for a cast of savory characters. The most important trick is to go Ina Garten-style and use the best quality ingredients possible. Yes, this means the “good” milk. No, you cannot use 1% milk here, and if you’re eyeing that carton of skim, you may as well just throw your entire dish down the garbage disposal now and spare dirtying more dishes. We’re making creamy sauce here, people. You can take a walk and eat a salad tomorrow. Second most-important hint? Don’t dump cold milk into the roux. For the creamiest, thickest decadence, gently warm the milk in a separate saucepan first. Not to boiling, but just until the edges of the pan are lined in tiny milk bubbles.
Now what to do with your vat of decadence? Part of béchamel’s mid-century popularity is its power as leftover glue. With this sauce and a starch, whatever was hanging around the deli and vegetable drawers could be transformed into a casserole (or, as my Midwestern ancestors would’ve called it, “hot dish”). Add your favorite cheese and you’ve got the beginnings of a macaroni and cheese that will steal hearts and earn you a dirty reputation. My batches of béchamel are the beginnings of my beloved vegetable lasagna. Cut the richness and the guilt, since hey, there’s greens in there.
Serve with a vodka gimlet and an icy stare.
1 recipe béchamel sauce (below)
1 package dry lasagna noodles
2 leeks, halved and thoroughly cleaned, then thinly sliced
3 tomatoes, sliced with the seeds and juices removed
½ cup shredded Romano cheese
2 ounces fresh goat cheese
1 bunch of fresh spinach, rinsed
2 cups garlic spears, cut into 1” strips (if you can’t get your hands on these fantastic specimens, asparagus will work as a stand-in)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 ½ tsp Italian seasoning
¼ tsp red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper
Fresh chiffonade of basil and parsley for garnish
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a large sauté pan warm 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Add the fresh spinach along with ¼ cup water. Sauté until the spinach just begins to wilt, 1-2 minutes. Remove spinach from the pan and reserve. Add an additional 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the pan, and sauté the leeks and garlic until fragrant, 2-3 minutes. Add garlic spears and continue to sauté until spears are tender, another 4-5 minutes. Add the Italian seasoning and pepper flakes, stir and remove from heat. The spear pieces should be the texture of al dente asparagus when removed from heat.
Spread the bottom of a 9” by 13” baking pan with a solid layer of béchamel sauce, approximately 1 cup. Cover with a row of lasagna noodles. Top with ½ the spinach, ½ the leek mixture, ½ the sliced tomatoes, ½ the goat cheese and 1/3 the Romano cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste, then cover with another layer of lasagna noodles. Top the fresh noodles with another cup of béchamel, repeat the layer with the second 1/2 of the vegetables and goat cheese, then another 1/3 of the Romano. Top with a 3rd layer of noodles and add a final cup of béchamel to finish. Cover the pan tightly with foil, and bake for 55 minutes.
Remove from the oven and carefully peel back foil (careful, these things tend to be hot). Top with the last 1/3 of Romano and the fresh basil and parsley. Re-cover, and sit for 10-15 minutes before serving.
6 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons flour
3 ¾ cups whole milk, gently warmed
Salt and pepper
In a large saucepan melt the butter over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk constantly until combined and thickened but not browned—we’re making béchamel, not gumbo. Process will take 5-6 minutes. While still whisking, slowly and steadily add the milk. Turn the heat up a tick and keep stirring until the mixture comes to a boil. You’ll feel and see the sauce thickening. When boiling drop the heat to low and continue to cook for 2-3 additional minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and remove from heat.