Recipe: Lasagna with Spring Greens, Guanciale, and Spiced Besciamella
It’s been a cold spring in New York. Must be lasagna season. But not any lasagna, not the beloved Southern Italian lasagnas of my childhood, filled with ricotta, meatballs, sausage, tomatoes, mozzarella. One with a lighter style. I had to take a trip to the Genoa of my mind to decide my direction here. And there it was, a food memory of Liguria, its beautiful pesto lasagna, made by alternating layers of Genoese pesto and besciamella between sheets of pasta. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the genius dishes of Italian cooking. A streamlined concept that is surely worth improvising on. I figured I’d replace the pesto with a mess o’ young spring greens, make a thin, smooth besciamella, and that would do it. Then I started fiddling with spices.
The flavor of besciamella (Italian béchamel) is pretty much set. My usual is everyone’s usual, with nutmeg, a pinch of cayenne, and a bay leaf, producing a deep milky taste with a hint of spice. This time around I decided to go fragrant. I wanted a bit more spice, but I didn’t want the dish to scream curry. So I started adding a pinch of this, then tasting, then a pinch of that and another taste. I called it a day when the bubbling aroma turned warm and rich but hadn’t gone Asian on me. Where I stopped was at allspice, cardamom, coriander, and Aleppo pepper, while keeping the nutmeg and bay leaf. I think it worked well with the wilted greens and guanciale filling.
What I believe:
I believe lasagna should be loose and flowing. When I cut a piece and put it on a plate, it should breath. Not spread into a big, sloppy mess, but just relax. I don’t let lasagna “rest” when I take it from the oven. No need, the way I cook it. I construct it not so deep and cook it on high heat, uncovered, for a crisp top and a lighter interior. That way enough liquid evaporates without the thing overcooking into a compact block.
Lasagna with Spring Greens, Guanciale, and Spiced Besciamella
For the spiced besciamella:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
1 fresh bay leaf
A big pinch each (about ⅛ teaspoon) of Aleppo pepper, black pepper, allspice, cardamom, coriander, and nutmeg
For the rest:
Extra-virgin olive oil
¼ pound guanciale, cut into small cubes
2 shallots, chopped
2 garlic cloves, sliced
5 cups mixed greens, leaving a bit of water clinging to them: spinach, baby kale, arugula, mustard, the leafy part of broccoli rabe, and anything tender enough to collapse with a quick sauté
1½ cups freshly grated grana Padano cheese
¾ pound fresh lasagna sheets, boiled, cooled, and laid out in the usual way, where ever you can find room (sometimes draped over the rim of my bathtub)
To make the besciamella: In a medium pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the flour, and whisk until it’s blended into the butter. Sauté a minute or so, without letting it brown, to get rid of the raw taste. Add all the milk, and whisk well to blend. Add all the spices and a decent amount of salt. Whisk a few times, and then let it slowly heat, whisking frequently. Keep whisking while keeping it at a low bubble, until the sauce becomes thick and smooth, about another 3 minutes. That should do it. Cover the surface with plastic wrap, so it doesn’t form a skin.
In a large, deep skillet, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the guanciale, and let it render some of its fat. Add the shallot, and sauté until softened. Now add the garlic, and cook just until fragrant, a few seconds. Add as much of the greens as you can, turning them in the oil until they wilt enough for you to add the rest of them. Cook, uncovered, until they’re just tender, about 4 minutes (sprinkle with a little water if they’re dry). Season with salt, black pepper, and a little Aleppo.
Preheat the oven to 425 degree.
Choose an approximately 10-by-12-inch baking dish about 2 inches deep. Drizzle in a little olive oil to lightly cover the bottom of the dish, and put down a layer of pasta. Make a layer of greens, drizzle in a layer of besciamella, and sprinkle on some grana Padano. Repeat the process, ending with a layer of pasta. Now mix a tablespoon of olive oil with about 2 tablespoons of warm water, and pour it over the pasta. I like to do this when I’m not working with a liquidy sauce. A bit of moisture assurance. Finish with the remaining besciamella and a sprinkling of grana.
Bake uncovered until it’s hot and bubbling and the edges are browned, about 20 minutes or so. By the time it takes you to get it to the table, it’ll be ready to cut.