06 February 2014

AUNTIE PASTA: Lovely Lasagna

CHIAVARI, Italy – For my entire life, at least up until the time I moved to Italy, I thought lasagna was large, flat noodles, meatballs or sausage or both, ricotta cheese, rosy red tomato sauce and parmesan cheese all stacked in layers and baked in the oven. Then I moved to Liguria and found that lasagna can be something entirely different.  In Liguria it is still made of large flat noodles but it isn’t red, it’s green, and there isn’t a smigen of ricotta cheese or meat in it.
 Lovely Liguria
But that was only the beginning.  As time went on, not only did I discover green lasagna, but I discovered there was lasagna that wasn’t even called lasagna even though there was no doubt that’s exactly what it is.  It seems every area in Italy had a variation on the lasagna theme and their own special name for it. 

For example, in the nearby region of Marche and in some areas of Umbria they make lasagna not with meatballs or sausage, but with chicken livers, sweetbreads, bone marrow, calf brain, beef or truffles and sometimes Marsala wine. And even though technically it is lasagna, they don’t call it lasagna they  call it vincisgrassi.  In Emilia, more specifically the city of Bologna, they make the type of lasagna I’m most familiar with, and it’s just called lasagna. They don’t put ricotta cheese in it though, just a layer of white sauce called béchamel.
 La Marche's Vincisgrassi
But sometimes, even if a dish is called lasagna, it would be difficult to pick it out of a lasagna line-up. Take ‘white’ lasagna for example. There are over 215 variations of ‘white’ lasagna including lasagna with zucchini and béchamel sauce, lasagna with ricotta, lasagna with ricotta, pesto and spinach and lasagna with artichokes and cheese and lasagna with eggplant and artichokes. 215 variations! It’s enough to make you want to reach for the phone and order a pizza.

It isn’t until you get down south in Campagna and Sicily that lasagna starts to look like the lasagna I grew up with, well almost. It’s true that there is no béchamel in the pasticcio di lasagna in southern Italy and fresh ricotta cheese is in, but then they take it one step further and add hard-boiled eggs, semi-hard cheeses like provolone and vegetables and stuff which throws my recipe for a loop. 

 Spinach and Ricotta White Lasagna
In ancient Rome, 100 years before Christ was born, there was a dish that was kind of like lasagna, called Lasana or lasanum which come from the Greek word “laganon” and means large, flat sheets of dough cut into strips.  The Romans cooked their lasana with vegetables and cheese.  It took a few centuries for some unknown someone to realize the advantage of creating layers of pasta and putting stuff between them.  Apparently that happened sometime around the year 1300.

I would be derelict in my duty if I didn’t tell you that there some historians claim the Romans got the recipe from the Etruscans. What does seem to be true is that the pasta the Etruscans and Roman’s ate was not like the pasta we know today.  The Roman lasagna may have looked different and tasted different but it was made from the same wheat flour we use unlike the Etruscan version which was made from spelt, an ancient type of wheat also known as dinkel wheat, or hulled wheat.

Not only that but there seems to be some truth to the story that it was the Arabs who were making pasta and eating it long before the Etruscans, Romans or Italians came on the scene. They even invented ‘dried’ pasta, which is what we all buy today and to prove it there is proof of this in a cookbook entitled  "Ibn 'to Mibrad" written in the year 800. There is also a recipe in that ninth century cookbook for ‘rista’ or noodles seasoned with cooked lentils, which is exactly what I’m making for lunch today. But as usual, I digress so let me get back to lasagna.

 Lasagna alla Genovese
Time has moved on and today lasagna has become a symbol of Italian cuisine in the world. Today’s recipe is – I can’t say my favorite because the truth is I like almost all of the versions, but let’s say it’s one of my favorites, lasagna al pesto all Genovese. I chose this recipe because it isn’t as well known as many of the others, it’s easy and if you like pesto I think you’ll like it.

Lasagna with Pesto alla Genovese

Serves 4

1 lb lasagna noodles, cooked
Béchamel sauce
Approx. 1 cup grated parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper Q.B.
Olive oil to grease baking pan

Cook the lasagna a few at a time, in boiling salted water for no more than 2 minutes each. Remove them from the boiling water with a slotted spoon and lay them to dry on clean cloth, being careful not to overlap the strips.

Prepare a classic béchamel with butter, flour and warm milk, and add a sprinkle of nutmeg and salt when its cooked. Let cool slightly, the stir in pesto. You can make it half pesto half béchamel but personally I think it’s better if there is just slightly more béchamel.

Heat oven to 190 degrees C/375 degrees F. Lightly grease a 25/35 cm/ 9 x 13 inch baking pan and spread a little béchamel and pesto mix on the bottom. Then alternate layers of lasagna, béchamel/pesto mix and grated parmesan cheese. Finish with a layer of béchamel, top with a few pieces of butter and an even sprinkling of parmesan cheese.

Bake for 30 minutes, let sit out of oven for at least 10 minutes before serving.

Marcella Hazen’s Bechamel Sauce

(about 1 2/3 cups of medium-thick sauce)

 2 cups of milk
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick butter)
¼ teaspoon salt
Sprinkle of nutmeg


In a medium saucepan, heat the butter over medium-low heat until melted. Add the flour and stir with a wooden spoon until smooth. Over medium heat, cook until the mixture turns a light, golden sandy color, about 2 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the milk in a separate pan until just about to boil. Add the hot milk to the butter mixture ¼ cup at a time, continuously whisking with a wire whisk. When you’ve added ½ cup of milk you can then add the rest and whisk until very smooth. Bring to a slow bubble and cook until the sauce is as dense and thick cream.  Season with salt and nutmeg, and set aside until ready to use.

Note: if you make béchamel ahead of time and refrigerate it, it will firm up. The best way to bring it back to a useable consistency is to slowly warm it in the upper half of a double boiler. If it’s too thick, just thin it out with a little (very little) warm milk until it is the consistency you want.

This recipe was adapted from The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazen (Alfred Knopf New York 1992).

1 comment:

  1. Hi Phyllis,
    did you know that many years ago in Liguria lasagne al pesto where simply boiled lasagne seasoned with pesto, like giant pasta al pesto? I remember that when I was a child, my parents took me to the restaurant near Chiavari on our way to Monterosso my father's home town. For me it was a big disappointment, because I expected 'real' lasagne baked in the oven, with all the trimmings.