One of the most distinctive features of Italian cooking is that you don’t really need recipes. You never measure, apart from the occasional pasta weight. The ingredient list is always flexible, depending on what is available and looking good. This is usually an advantage, that makes Italian food so versatile and light, in a way, but it can be sometimes a limitation. Perfection is elusive and hard to repeat, and you often just get it plain wrong. Almost all italian ‘cuochi’ will tell you that the first time they make a dish, it is typically stellar, and when they make it again, it turns out poorly – always when you have guests coming for dinner.
Some dishes are more subject to risky substitutions than others, maybe because they potentially forgive more. Other dishes are so risky, that most people won’t mess around with them. For instance, consider ravioli: you could invent a filling from scratch, but you’d be probably calling for disaster. Too wet a filling will break the pasta and sometimes fillings that look dry leak water unexpectedly after a while. A nice tasting filling may well turn out to be bland and boring on a ravioli.
One of the most forgiving dishes, on the other hand, is lasagne. You can literally put anything in it – meat, vegetable, fish or shellfish. You need to pair it with some sauce in order to cook the pasta, be it tomato based, ricotta based, bechamel based or a combination thereof. This is pretty much the only rule: then, you just need to follow your instinct.
Sometimes mistakes are possible. My mistake is usually that I make them too rich: I still remember some very heavy lasagne with Stilton and walnuts, a six serving pan, which fed twelve people with leftovers, because of its greasiness (I was replacing my old friend gorgonzola with Stilton. Stilton has 35% fat, gorgonzola 25% and is more pungent, though you don’t taste it until you don’t make it melt). On the other hand once in a while you cook lasagne that are just perfect, with the right consistency and balance of flavours. And next time you prepare them, you just can’t remember which cheese you added, or whether it contained ricotta, or how you exactly cook that ingredient… Well, yesterday I made some artichoke lasagne that, to my taste, were spot on. So I’ll record it here.
I am not suggesting this is a straightforward recipe, especially if you 1) can’t buy really good ready-made pasta and 2) are not too familiar with artichokes. I can buy pasta which is just as good as home-made, maybe even better, and at the price I can buy the flour for, roughly – so why bother? I will miss my pastificio here – they make lasagne when you ask for them: take some sheets out a big box, put them in a huge pasta machine, make a large sheet and then cut whatever pasta you like; they even told me that if I bring them my dish, next time, they’ll cut the lasagne to measure. Bliss!
Artichokes are not only one of my favourite vegetables, but relatively cheap and in season now. It takes a while to clean them though. Lasagne are a bit time consuming if you make everything in one go, but with a bit of planning it is actually quite easy to start ahead, and once made they can stay in the fridge for a few days or even in the freezer for a while. Just perfect for all occasions.
This goes again to Presto Pasta Nights, this time hosted by Girlichef- it was so much fun last week, with a truly great roundup, and I’m looking forward to this week’s entry. I will stop with my carbohydrate binge sooner or later, but not quite yet..
Lasagne with artichokes
Makes eight portions
fresh pasta sheet 800 gr (a little less if dry – if making from scratch, make pasta with 700 gr flour)
1 garlic clove
250 gr ricotta
500 ml milk
500 ml vegetable stock (I made mine with carrot, celery, onion, green of spring onions, white pepper grains, fennel seeds, cloves, bay leaf, parsley)
50 gr butter
3 tablespoon all-purpose flour
parmesan, 150 gr
pinch of nutmeg
1 tablespoon olive oil
a little vegetable oil
Start by making the sauce. Heat to the boil milk and stock. Melt the butter. Add the flour to it and mix well, destroying any lumps, then add the tiniest amount of liquid. Stir well, then add a bit more, then stir again, making sure no lumps are formed. When you have added in about half of the liquid put the sauce back to the stove, stirring constantly. Add the remaining liquid and cook for about 15 minutes, stirring all the time, making sure the sauce thickens (not too much) and it does not taste of raw flour any more. Add salt, pepper and a small pinch of nutmeg. If disaster happens and your sauce is full of lump, just use a hand blender to smooth it up.
Clean the artichokes, removing all tough leaves and keeping the whole stalks separated. Start with the stalks: peel them, taking off any tough string, cut into small rounds and cook with a dash of olive oil, half a glass of water (or stock) and a garlic clove, peeled. When they are soft blend them with the ricotta, adjust salt and pepper and set aside.
Cut the artichoke flowers in half, take off any beard, and cut each half into 3-4 pieces. They should have a good bite size. Cook them with 1/2 a tablespoon of olive oil in the same pan used for the stalks. When they are slightly golden add a bit of water to the pan and cook, covered, until they are tender but still whole.
Prepare the lasagne: heat a large pot over the fire, larger and more shallow than what you’ll use for pasta. When it is boiling add salt and a dash of inexpensive oil – this prevents the lasagne from sticking to each other when you cook them. Have a slotted spoon and a big kitchen towel ready by the stove. Immerse a sheet of pasta or two in the water, horizontally, so that they can move freely . Let cook for about two minutes from the boil, then take ut with the slotted spoon to the kitchen towel. Don’t put them one on top of the other, or they will stick and break.
Now it is time to actually build the lasagne. It all depends on your organisation skills. If you are a multitasker, you can mount the lasagne while you cook the pasta, but if you are a single tasker, just cook all the pasta and lay it all on kitchen towels. Either way you should cook all the pasta the way I have described above. Take an oven dish, cover the bottom with a dash of sauce, add a layer of lasagne, a few tablespoons of ricotta, some bechamel, some artichokes and a sprinkle of parmesan. I made five layers, but this can vary with your pan size: mine was 23×33 cm. Estimate how many layers you can do after this first one and divide your assets accordingly: the last layer should contain no artichokes, just bechamel and ricotta, and more parmesan than the others. If you are running out of something, you can make the ricotta and bechamel go further by thinning them with a little milk.
Cook it in a hot oven to 220 degrees for 20 minutes, then grill it for 30 seconds to get a nice golden top.