I’ve confessed before that I’m an opinionated cook. Sprouted garlic, green bell peppers, dried herbs are on my brain’s no-no list, which at the same time tries keeping an open mind toward all cuisines, previously unknown tastes, and new ways of seeing the infinite possibilities of cooking.
But we cooks have our favorite menus, our old standbys, things we rely on when we suddenly find out eight people are coming over for dinner and we’re bored with offering up the usual well-known fare.
In my case, it didn’t help that four of the guests were vegetarians. Like it or not, that’s the direction in which many diners are headed, especially those who think existing commercial meat production is loathsome and that only public protest can curb inhumane practices (some of them urged on by Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, “Eating Animals”).
Thanks to my daughter-in-law, I recently rediscovered lasagne (the plural form is correct), an Italian standby and a low-cost, low-labor way to feed the masses, a dish (I confess) that I’d eschewed when thinking up menus for dinner parties. When served lasagne recently at a very upscale restaurant in Rome, I was taken aback, suspicious that the chef just wanted to get rid of bits and pieces in the kitchen, saving a penny or two in the midst of Italy’s ongoing financial crisis. Instead, I luxuriated in a beautifully layered dish, light as air, which I can’t remember ever ordering in the past unless it was the only available choice.
Then came my daughter-in-law’s superior artichoke lasagne, which she managed to assemble after a long day’s work, caring for two kids, and dealing with the sudden void of a fired nanny/housekeeper. Bits of cheese between the layers were her secret.
In most cities, fresh pasta is available either in sheets or precut tagliatelle or fettucine. Sheets are best for lasagne. If you have a pasta machine, you can make your own in minutes with the help of a food processor, no pre-cooking necessary (see “Pasta Perfect” ). I have also used fettucine, which worked just as well.
When artichokes hit the markets, low-cost, low-labor way to feed the masses or any others in that spirit. Choose ‘chokes that are firm, olive green or deep purple and green, without shriveled leaves and papery texture. They should also be closed at the tops, as the ones with slightly opened tips are usually the last of the picking and tough as nails, even with lengthy cooking.
Start with 8-to-10 small or 4 large artichokes. Ruthlessly remove the tough outer leaves to get to the lovely yellowish/greenish leaves that expose the tender interior.
If you happen to have a donkey (we do), it will be thrilled with these morsels, but if you don’t, you can steam the leaves and, using your teeth, scrape off the tiny bit of heart left.
Cut off the tops of the artichoke hearts, cut each one into thin slices, lengthwise, and sprinkle liberally with juice from a large lemon. Peel and chop fine a large, sweet onion and garlic clove.
Generously oil a baking dish for six to eight people. Heat the oven to 185C (350F).
In a large skillet, heat 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil and when hot, add the onion and garlic. Sauté this for a few minutes, add the slices of artichoke, cover, and cook until the mixture is soft, adding a little white wine if necessary for liquid. Salt and pepper to taste, and scissor in a sprig of mint. Put this in a food processor bowl and pulse until the mixture is blended, leaving small pieces of the artichoke for texture.
Next comes the making of a simple béchamel sauce.
Melt 2 generous tablespoons of butter in a saucepan, add 2 tablespoons flour and cook until light brown, stirring all the time. Add 3-to-4 cups of milk, stirring constantly, until the sauce thickens. Salt to taste and add a pinch of nutmeg and cayenne pepper. At this point, you can choose to mix some of the artichoke mixture with the béchamel, or make separate layers in the dish.
Begin with a layer of pasta and cover the bottom of the baking dish. Spread a layer of the artichoke/béchamel mixture over the pasta. Dot with small bits of Taleggio or any soft cheese (in France, I used pur chèvre, and it was perfect), then a light sprinkling of Parmigiano Reggiano.
Now, begin again with pasta, sauce, cheese and Parmesan until you’ve used up the ingredients. Save a bit of béchamel to finish as it makes a pretty presentation, and sprinkle with Parmesan and olive oil.
Bake for 20-to-30 minutes with a sheet of aluminum foil over the top for the first 15 minutes. Remove the foil to allow the lasagne to brown.
Let it sit a moment before serving.
No restaurant will be able to top this wonder, which is even better on the second day.
For a change, you may use braised leeks or asparagus, sliced thin and sautéed, in place of the artichokes.
Just remember, the donkey gets the leaves, not the hearts.