Spring vegetable lasagna with ricotta cheese
I know, I know. Lasagna is meant to be a lovely pasta dish made up of tender layers of pasta baked between juicy tomato sauce (with or without meat), melty cheese, and maybe some eggplant or similar sturdy vegetable that becomes soft and silky during the cooking process.
Over the years, the individual lasagna became quite popular at my restaurant, Wildwood. The format gave the kitchen the creative freedom to adjust the ingredients as the seasons shifted and changed. Once baked, the top and edges of this version get crispy, which some eaters love and others find less desirable. If you fall in the latter camp, you can control the texture by covering the lasagna as it bakes. If you like the top layer of pasta to be crispy, remove the cover during the last 15 minutes of baking.
This spring version includes three to four vegetables. Think English peas, fava beans, stinging nettle pesto, blanched and sliced baby artichokes. There are many options. The recipe below calls for asparagus, spinach and thinly sliced raw zucchini ribbons in the middle.
You can serve this lasagna with a little tomato sauce on the side (a nod to the traditional dish) or simply drizzle some olive oil and lemon juice over the top.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
8 large spears asparagus, peeled and halved lengthwise
1 pound fresh spinach
1 pound whole or skim milk ricotta cheese
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Zest and juice of one lemon
Salt and cayenne pepper
Four 8-inch by 5-inch sheets fresh pasta (or trim pasta to accommodate the amount of filling and layers)
1/3 cup olive oil
1 medium zucchini, ends trimmed and thinly sliced lengthwise using a mandolin or by hand
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped thyme leaves
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
To prepare the vegetables, fill a medium-size saucepan with water and generously salt it. Place the pan over high heat and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, prepare an icebath by filling a large bowl with cold water and a few handfuls of ice cubes. Set aside.
After the water comes to a boil, reduce the heat to a brisk boil and add the asparagus pieces. Cook the asparagus for 1 minute, remove it from water and directly into the ice water bath. Return the water to a boil, add the spinach to the water and blanch 10 seconds before straining. Remove the asparagus from the water bath, and add the spinach. When the spinach is cool enough to handle, use your hands to gather it up and squeeze out every bit of water possible. Set aside.
Combine the ricotta, Parmesan and lemon zest and juice with salt and a little cayenne pepper. Taste, add more seasoning or acid as needed, and set aside.
Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Blanch the pasta sheets, one at a time, using a pair of tongs or wide metal spatula to lower the sheets into the boiling water. Cook 15 seconds and transfer the pasta to a dry surface, such as a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Lightly rub or brush the cooked pasta with olive oil to prevent the sheets from sticking to one another. Set the pasta sheets aside to cool.
To assemble the lasagna, choose the container in which it will be cooked, whether a baking sheet or individual dishes. This way you avoid any tricky or awkward maneuvering of the whole multi-layered lasagna.
Using one pasta sheet as the base, spread a thin layer of the ricotta cheese mixture over it, leaving 1/2-inch clear all the way around.
There's no science to which vegetable goes on the bottom, so the layer them in any order that pleases you. I started with asparagus, spread with another layer of cheese, followed by a layer of raw zucchini sprinkled with salt and chopped thyme. A pasta sheet comes next, with a thin layer of cheese and a loosely arranged layer of spinach. Add a final sheet of pasta, cover the pan(s) with foil and put them in the oven to bake immediately. (The lasagna can also be refrigerated at this point, and held until you're ready to bake and serve it, up to a day in advance.).
Bake the lasagna covered for 30 minutes. Remove the foil after 30 minutes for crispy edges, or leave it on for the final 15 minutes if you prefer your top sheet of pasta soft. Make certain the lasagna is warm in the middle and remove it from the oven.
Let sit 5 minutes before cutting into pieces and plating the lasagna. Serve as it is, with a little tomato sauce on the side, or sprinkled with some olive oil and lemon juice.