Locally Sourced is a new monthly column by Senior Editor Benita Gingerella that takes an in-depth look at farm-to-table dishes popping up on noncommercial menus as well as the chefs and farmers behind them.
At Pennswood Village, a senior living community in Newtown, Pa., there’s one dish on the menu that residents look forward to every month: the dining team’s Wild Mushroom Lasagna.
“It's been a very popular vegetarian-forward dish,” says Executive Chef Edward Bremme. “By not doing it every day or making it readily available, it's kind of more like a treat for our residents. They can't wait until the mushroom lasagna comes back around.”
Along with creating anticipation among diners, another reason the dish is only served once a month is because like all good things, it takes a lot of time.
“It is quite a process,” says Bremme. “I will admit that it takes us about two days to get the final product.”
The dish starts, of course, with mushrooms. Pennswood recently began working with J Ambrogi Foods, an independent, family-owned food distributor based out of Thorofare, N.J., to source mushrooms from farms in the area.
“They have a very good rapport with some local farmers,” says Bremme.
Pennswood Village typically receives a mushroom blend made up of shiitake and portabella as well as the occasional oyster mushroom.
The mushrooms are run through a buffalo chopper, a piece of equipment that uses a series of rotating blades to finely chop produce, creating a mushroom duxelles.
The duxelles is then left to sit overnight so that all the moisture from the mushrooms can evaporate. The following morning, it is folded in between layers of pasta and three different types of cheese (fresh ricotta, Parmesan and mozzarella), and then popped in the oven for about three hours on low heat.
Once removed from the oven, the dish is set to rest in an Alto-Shaam [holding cabinet] so that, “all the cheese and the pasta and mushrooms kind of form into that nice, square block of lasagna that you're looking for,” says Bremme.
The dish is then served to residents that evening.
The growth cycle of a mushroom
Similar to preparing the mushroom lasagna, it turns out that cultivating mushrooms is also a time-consuming process.
“The job is very hard and labor intense work, not many people can do it seven days a week, day and night,” says Lauren Davis, administrative assistant for Ken Davis Mushroom Farms in Avondale, Pa.
Davis’ father-in-law's family has been growing mushrooms for over 100 years, starting in 1890. They’re one of the many farms that works with Ambrogi to provide local ingredients to chefs.
The farm cultivates a variety of brown and white mushrooms, including portabella, cremini, buttons, mediums and silver dollars.
To begin the mushroom growing process, compost is first set out to cure so that the organic material in it fully decomposes. It is then sterilized to 140 degrees. Spawn (the mushroom seed) is then planted in the compost and covered with peat moss and watered.
It takes about one month to cure the compost, according to Davis, and then around six to seven weeks to harvest the mushrooms.
A win with residents and staff
All the hard work poured into growing the mushrooms and preparing the lasagna, however, has resulted in many happy Pennswood residents.
The dish has become so popular that it has even become a favorite among staff members, who will mark their calendars when they know the dish will be available so they can make sure to snag one to take home for themselves or their family members.
"Our head of healthcare makes sure she gets one for her as well as her niece or her sister,” says Bremme. “She’s a vegetarian and she looks forward to that dish.”
Bremme encourages those who would commonly dismiss the veggie-forward dish to give it a try.
“If you've never had this dish, and you’re a, ‘I'll never eat anything other than traditional lasagna person,’ I challenge people to give this a shot,” he says.
While local mushrooms are always a component of the dish, sometimes other local ingredients make their way into the menu item as well. Since Pennswood is a Quaker facility, many of the residents have their own plot of land where they grow produce and herbs.
“I do source a few things from our actual residents,” says Bremme. “They’ll bring me things like parsley and basil, which could find its way into this dish.”
It doesn’t get more local than that.
Do you have a dish that uses local ingredients on your menu that you would like to see featured in Locally Sourced? Please send an email to Benita Gingerella at firstname.lastname@example.org