Monday, August 17, 2009

Fresh Green Pasta, and a Creamy Lasagna

Why is it that everything I post must begin with a disaster? Again, I'll say this: the product was pretty delicious. And yet, it seems I'm a disaster in the kitchen.

After weeks of plane-hopping and all-too-brief reunions with family and friends, followed by the dreaded unpacking, it seems I am finally more or less moved in here in Oakland. Three cheers for that. Sure, I'm surrounded by paintings and photographs ("what goes on that wall?") as well as a surplus of curtains ("are you sure these don't go anywhere?"), but, for the most part, the boxes are gone, the shelves are sagging with books, and I even feel a little more organized than I was in the last place.

With things beginning to fall into order, I deemed yesterday appropriate for a cooking project. No simple stir-fry would do -- no, no, my sister got me a pasta roller for my birthday, and yesterday I was determined to use it.

And use it I did. And use it. And use it. For hours I labored over this pasta -- not just the dough, mind you, but preparing layer after layer of toppings for a lasagna of my own design: fresh tomatoes, caramelized onions, salty garlicky sauteed rainbow chard, and a mushroom cream sauce, all nestled between stacks of home-made spinach noodles, and topped with crumbled Gorgonzola. Everything would be chopped just a little larger than usual, so you could taste each flavor separately. I saw the bubbling top, the dripping sauce as I puled a piece from the pan, the crisp edges... It was going to be great.


By the time I was done with it all, poor timing had left the windows steamy, me exhausted, and I wasn't even sure that I was in the mood for the lasagna anymore. I also worried that it was too much cream and too little cheese, that it would be too rich and still flavorless. All in all, it didn't even look particularly good to me.

Nonetheless, I was proud, and excited to cook it up and see what came out. I opened the oven and... nothing. Stone cold.

I looked at every nob, searching for something I missed. Nothing.

And so I found myself, the end of the day, surrounded by dishes, holding ten pounds of unbaked lasagna in my hand, and with no oven to cook it in.

Lovely.

In the end it turned out the be the pilot light, we got it lit later in the evening, and I baked the lasagna for lunch. It was... almost everything I wanted it to be. The only thing I would change is perhaps upping the Gorgonzola by a bit, and doubling or even tripling the chard. In other words, more ingredients! More! More! But for you, those changes will be reflected here.



Callie's Green Lasagna
(pasta and sauce adapted from The Silver Spoon)

For the pasta:
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
4 eggs
generous 2 cups spinach
pinch salt

Wash the spinach and cook it using just the water that clings to its leaves. Drain and blend together with two of the eggs and blend together, careful not to whip the eggs. (The original recipe simply calls for "cooked, well drained and chopped" spinach, which is eventually added to the eggs, which are just "lightly beaten." I found that for a really green pasta, rather than just a white one with green specks, it was best if the spinach was blended together with half of the eggs, allowing for a much finer cut of spinach, as well as lending the green color to the eggs prior to mixing together with the flour.)


Sift the flour and a pinch of salt into a mound on a counter or cutting board. Make a deep well in the center and add the spinach-egg mixture along with the other half of the eggs. Using your finger, stir the egg mixture in a circular motion, careful not to let it spill over the sides. Trace the edges of the well with your finger in order to gradually incorporate the flour. When the mixture in the middle is thick enough that it won't spill everywhere, add the rest of the flour and mix it all together with your hands. If it is too damp, add a bit more flour. If it's dry, add just a touch of water -- a couple of drops at a time. Shape the dough into a ball and knead for at least ten minutes. Cover and let rest for at least fifteen minutes, or just set aside while you prepare the other ingredients.




Mushroom B├ęchamel Sauce

3/4 c butter (1 1/2 sticks)
1/2 c flour
4 1/2 c milk (or 2 1/4 c milk and 2 1/4 c cream)
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
5 heaping cups thinly sliced mushrooms
6 Tbs heavy cream

Melt one stick of butter (1/2 c) in a pan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour. Pour in the milk (or the milk and cream -- I did this because I ran out of milk, turned out rich but delicious), whisking constantly until it starts to boil. Season with salt, lower the heat, cover and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for at least 20 minutes. The sauce should not taste floury. Remove the pan from the heat. Taste and add more salt if necessary (it should not be too salty) and season generously with pepper. If it's too runny, return to the heat and add a pat of butter mixed with an equal quantity of flour.

Melt the remaining better in a separate pan. Add the mushrooms, cover and cook over low heat for about 10 minutes until they release all their liquid. Remove the lid, increase the heat and boil off the liquid. Add to the sauce. Gently fold in the 6 Tbs cream, unless the sauce was made with cream, in which case this can be omitted.


Fillings:

2 medium-to-large onions, chopped
4 Tbs olive oil
3 to 4 large tomatoes
6 cloves garlic, chopped
3 bunches Swiss or rainbow chard (or spinach -- but it's not nearly as good!)
1/4 to 1/2 pound Gorgonzola cheese (more if you like it really strong)

Heat a large skillet over a medium-high flame and add 2 tablespoons of the oil. When it's hot, add the onions, toss to coat, and lower the flame a bit to slowly cook. Stir occasionally, until they begin to caramelize, but haven't yet lost their texture fully. Remove from the pan and set aside.

While the onions are cooking, chop the tomatoes into pieces that are about 3/4-inch-square, and a half-inch thick. Set aside.

Chop the leaves of the chard and throw away the stems or reserve them for another use. Reheat same pan in which the onions were cooked and add the remaining oil. Add the garlic and saute until it begins to brown. Add the chard and a generous helping of salt and cook, stirring constantly, until the leaves are tender and wilted. Remove from pan and set aside.


Assembly:

Preheat the oven to 350. Grease a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish with butter.

Roll the pasta into sheets as thin as possible and cut into squares or long strips. Boil for just 1 to 2 minutes before removing from water and begin to assemble the lasagna. (If I were to make this again with fresh pasta, I may try it without boiling first.)

Starting with a layer of pasta, alternate: pasta, sauce, tomatoes (thickly dotted), onions, chard (either a thin layer or small piles evenly dispersed). If you want a strong Gorgonzola flavor, add a layer of cheese in the middle. Repeat layers until you run out of ingredients, ending with a layer of pasta topped with the b├ęchamel. Crumble the cheese over the lasagna.

Bake for 45 minutes to an hour at 350 degrees. It will also keep in the refrigerator for several days prior to being baked.

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