05 July 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: Lasagna alla Genovese

SARONNO, Italy - Last Saturday was a perfect day for the Riviera so Gary, Chris and I took an early morning train out of Milan and headed west. Fortunately we had reserved seats because it seemed like everyone else in Milan had the same idea.
Church of the Madonna of Montallegro
After a rather captivating morning in Chiavari, we took a ten minute train ride to Rapallo and headed up to one of my favorite Riviera spots, Montallegro for lunch. (see http://thisitalianlife.blogspot.it/2012/02/life-montallegro.html for more about Montallegro).  It’s a bit of a haul to get up there, first the breathtaking ride in the funicular – aka ski lift - that takes you on high above the tree covered mountain and then the trek up the stony path and open air staircase to the church of the Madonna of Montallegro.

The church itself is worth the trip, but if you go around to the back of the church and take the path through the dense forest – a little like a Hansel and Gretel - at the end of the path there isn’t a gingerbread cottage, but a small, family run hotel/bar/restaurant, il Pellegrino. It is set in a clearing of towering, ancient trees with long, graceful.  leaf filled branches that protect you from the midday sun. If you choose a table under the trees, and everyone does, you can sit and enjoy great food and one of the most spectacular views of the Riviera to be found.
The Path Through the Woods
The menu isn’t extensive, a smattering of pastas and main courses, appetizers appropriate for the season – melon and prosciutto seemed to be everyone’s appetizer of choice that day, including Gary and Chris. I passed on an appetizer, but not on the pasta. Gary ordered homemade tagliolini with Porcini mushrooms that was so delicious he swooned with every mouthful. Chris tried the ravioli with nut sauce, a Ligurian specialty, and I ordered lasagna with pesto. A mezzo litro of house white, a local white wine from the nearby hills behind Chiavari and we were in seventh heaven. 

Sitting up on that mountainside, with a cool breeze coming in off the sea, a spectacular view of the Riviera, good food, great service, it was a perfect afternoon. It’s no wonder we lingered until well past 4 PM, and we were not alone. None of the other diners seemed to be in any particular hurry to get back down Rapallo and the blistering 90 degree day either.
Fresh, Green Ligurian Basil
Lasagna with pesto is a great summer dish, light and tasty and relatively easy to prepare. The technique is exactly the same as that for regular lasagna. Sauce on the bottom of the pan, layer of noodles, more sauce, more noodles, well you get the idea. In this recipe the sauce is made of pesto and béchamel. 

You can use the no-boil lasagna noodles if you want, just remember that they need a lot of sauce to cook properly, or you can use regular lasagna noodles and pre-cook them. Or, if you are lucky enough to have a pasta shop nearby, you can use fresh lasagna noodles, which are the best.

I found this recipe for lasagna with pesto on theitaliandishblog.com and the only thing I changed was the sprinkle of oregano on top. It's probably one of those small variations that you see in all regional cooking, and there certainly isn't any harm in a bit of oregano, but in my Ligurian experiences it has always been served with a sprinkle grated Parmesan and small pieces of mozzarella on top. Other than that the recipe is a true and authentic version.  
 Pesto Lasagna
makes an 8x8 inch pan
4-8 servings

10 - 20 no-cook lasagna noodles or fresh pasta sheets, cooked or regular lasagna noodles, cooked


3 ounces of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, cut into chunks
1-1/2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
1 garlic clove
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup olive oil

1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cups milk (whole or lowfat)
1 chicken bouillon cube (half, if using Knorr)
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3/4 cup grated fresh mozzarella cheese

 Make the pesto:

Place the chunks of Parmigiano cheese into the food processor and process until finely ground.  Add the basil, garlic and pine nuts to food processor.  Process, using pulses, till finely chopped.  With machine running, add the olive oil until pesto is smooth.

Make the béchamel: 

In a heavy medium saucepan, melt the butter.  Whisk in the flour and stir for a couple of minutes, until the flour is cooked.  Add the bouillon cube and allow to dissolve. Whisk. Add about a third of the milk, slowly, and whisk over medium heat.  Add the nutmeg and pepper.  When the sauce is smooth, add another third of the milk and whisk.  When the sauce is smooth again, add the rest of the milk and whisk until smooth. Transfer to a heat proof bowl or Pyrex cup and let cool slightly. (If your sauce is lumpy, just strain it.)

Assemble lasagna:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In an 8x8 pan, place about 1/3 cup of béchamel to coat the bottom of the pan. Lay first layer of lasagna noodles.  Add enough béchamel to coat the noodles.  Add some pesto and spread into the bechamel.  Add a handful of grated Parmesan.  Continue to layer the noodles, béchamel, pesto and Parmesan until the last layer of noodles.  On top of this, spread béchamel only, add the rest of the Parmesan and top with the mozzarella.  Wrap tightly with foil (preferably Reynolds No-Stick foil).

Bake for one hour (if using regular, cooked noodles) or one hour and 15 minutes (if using no-boil noodles). Remove foil and bake for 10 minutes more, until top is golden.  Remove from oven and allow to sit for 15 minutes before slicing.

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