For some reason I want to tell you all “quick, quick, make this lasagne!” I have an odd sort of urgency about it, and I have no idea why. Maybe it’s that I think the asparagus is going to go scurrying off into hiding before too long, or that soon it will be too hot to even consider baking something 45 minutes, let alone having that something include a creamy sauce. Or maybe it’s just that it’s delicious and we should all hurry up and make it so we can eat it (or eat it again, if you’re me).
Not that lasagne is something you can really hurry. Its architectural layers require some care and engineering to assemble if you want it to come out with beautiful, colored striations, which you do because then it looks a bit like a cool white, green, and brown sandstone cliff. And, it takes some time to bake, no way around that. But, all the more reason to get right to it, and not wait around hemming and hawing about whether lasagne should be on the weekend agenda!
I love lasagne. It feels so pleasantly familial to eat it. Yet, I don’t make it very often, and I’m not sure why. Wait, scratch that. I do know why. It’s because much of the time there are just the two of us here at dinner, and lasagne is the food of the large crowd. The family reunion potluck, the ski-team dinner, the 13 kids are coming for a sleep over what on earth am I going to make, occasions. Often it doesn’t seem quite worth it for two. And though it makes splendid leftovers – I always think lasagne tastes even better the second day – well, if you make a really big one, it can take a little uncomfortably long to work your way through it.
I remember one night, not too long after I had graduated from college, and I was cooking only for myself. I got home late from being out with friends and realized I had some ground beef that was going to go bad if I didn’t use it soon. In my mind, this morphed into, if I didn’t use it immediately, so I took it upon myself to make a lasagne right then and there. I think it came out of the oven right as the hand of the clock was ticking over to point at 2 am. Then, I ate lasagne for two meals a day for the whole next week, at least. Lesson learned. Lasagne is best for a group.
But, this last week, I got an earworm about the idea of asparagus lasagne with white sauce, and I couldn’t shake it. So, when we had some friends over for dinner a couple of days ago, I decided to make one. I searched about for good recipes to guide me (I can throw together a red-sauced lasagne in my sleep, but I was feeling a little hesitant about my abilities with a white one), but nothing looked remotely like it would fit the conceptual lasagne I had developed a yen for.
They all had you precook the asparagus, which I was sure would leave it as totally spineless green goo by the time the baking step was over. And most called for about 6 types of cheese, which admittedly is probably delicious but also sounded like it would send my dinner guests floating off on a river of melty, gooey oil (I’ve had some overly cheesed lasagnes and I swear, they can make you break out on the spot, they’re so oily). So, I finally decided I’d make something up myself.
I made a garlic infused bechamel for the white sauce, which adds an extra step, but it also gives the sauce some of the flavor complexity that white sauces are often lacking. Then I decided to use some ricotta as my cheese, in addition to the creamy bechamel, because we all know that ricotta is really the best part of any lasagne and I would feel bereft without it.
A generous amount of Parmesan finishes the dairy line up and adds some (I think) necessary sharpness and nuttiness (I have a suspicion that goat cheese would fill the same role quite nicely). A pinch of nutmeg also cuts through any heaviness in the sauce.
Then come the vegetables. I knew from the start I wanted to use asparagus, and I filled the layers with short pieces of the uncooked stalks; as I suspected they would, they were plenty cooked by the time the dish came out of the oven. I also added some mushrooms, sauteed with a hint of thyme. Asparagus, mushrooms, and creamy pasta are a classic spring-cooking triumvirate, and they certainly don’t disappoint here. However, if you’d like you can easily mix things up with the veg, throwing in some sliced cherry tomatoes for freshness, or spring peas for delicate sweetness, or spinach for leafy bulk.
When I make lasagne, I really like to use the flat noodles that you don’t need to boil beforehand. It makes me feel a little more like I’m using homemade noodles that I had rolled out in sheets myself. Would that I were that hardcore. One of these days, when I’m feeling extra ambitious, I think I’ll actually give that a try. (Homemade pasta is so easy, it should only really add 20 or so extra minutes of prep-time, and much of that is waiting time that you could use to cook your other ingredients. Of course, it will also add a big cloud of flour settling all over your kitchen, but that’s just par for the course, at least on the weekend.) It’s almost certain to render an already scrumptious lasagne into something indescribably delicious.
Then you just build your layers and bake the lasagne until it’s a beautiful, bubbling, creamy dream. Add a salad and this is truly perfect for for a casual get together with friends. Or for many delicious days of leftovers.
White lasagne with asparagus and mushrooms (serves about 8 )
- 1 package of flat, no-cook lasagne noodles
- 3 1/2 cups of whole milk
- 4 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed (but not chopped up)
- 1 big splash olive oil
- 1 lb. sliced mushrooms
- 1 tsp. fresh thyme (or 1/2 tsp. dried)
- 4 Tbs. butter
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
- 1 lb. ricotta cheese
- 1 egg
- 1 cup (packed) grated Parmesan
- salt and pepper
- 1 bunch of asparagus, washed, tough ends snapped off, and cut into 1 inch pieces
- Roll up your sleeves and put on an apron because this is, admittedly, a little bit of a process. But, it’s worth it! Pour the milk into a large saucepan and add the smashed garlic. Over medium heat, bring the milk to a simmer. Then take off the heat and set aside to infuse while you cook the mushrooms.
- Heat a large splash of olive oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and stir. Cook for about 5 minutes, until they start to give off their juices, then stir in the thyme. Continue cooking until all the moisture has evaporated and the mushrooms are tender. Take off the heat and season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Strain the milk into a mixing bowl, removing the garlic pieces. Give the saucepan a rinse if you need to. Then, in the saucepan, over medium heat, melt the butter until it’s foaming. Stir in the flour to make a smooth paste. Let this cook 1 minute (you don’t want it to brown like you would in a roux, though), then whisk in the garlic-infused milk bit by bit, stirring vigorously to avoid lumps. Let this sauce cook, stirring pretty constantly, until it thickens, 3-5 minutes. Then take off the heat, add the nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste (about 1 tsp. of each, I’d guess), and set aside. This is your bechamel.
- In the bowl you just used for the milk, whisk together the ricotta and the egg. Stir in 1/2 cup of the Parmesan cheese and about 1/4 cup of the bechamel, to make it easier to spread.
- Preheat your oven to 375F. Now it’s time to put this bad boy together! Pour just enough bechamel sauce to coat the bottom of the pan into a 9X13 inch baking pan. Add a single layer of lasagne noodles on top. Spread 1/3 of the ricotta mixture over this. Sprinkle on 1/3 of the mushrooms and 1/3 of the asparagus pieces, then cover these with about 3/4 cup of the white sauce. Repeat with 2 more layers of noodles, ricotta, vegetables, and white sauce. Then, cover this with a final layer of noodles. Pour the remaining white sauce over the top and sprinkle with the last 1/2 cup of grated Parmesan. Cover the lasagne with foil.
- Bake the lasagne covered for 30 minutes, then remove the foil and bake another 10-15 minutes uncovered, until browned and bubbly on top (if you want to make the lasagne ahead, you can also take it out of the oven about 15 minutes early, let it cool, and then reheat it in the oven at 375F before you want to serve it). Allow the lasagne to stand for 10 minutes at room temperature before slicing it. Serve warm with a big old green salad of arugula drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice.