Sunday, April 1, 2012

Spring Lasagna with Asparagus & Mushrooms

Asparagus lasagna is a joyous welcome to celebrate spring and the end of winter. Tender new spears of asparagus and earthy mushrooms sing the praises of a long-anticipated thaw. I could certainly see it on an Easter menu, especially as an appetizer.

I paired this lasagna with simple, pan-seared shrimp with lemon and a bit of jalapeno.

I had planned to layer this with shrimp. But at the last minute, I backed out and chose shredded pieces of ham, instead. It was a smart move. The ham, together with the smoked mozzarella, worked wonders with the other ingredients. 

And, no, there is no easy way to prepare it. There's a lot of chopping. Mixing. Layering. Grating. But you can always do the chopping the day before which just seems to make things go easier. In fact, you can prepare the entire dish the day before and refrigerate until ready to bake. 

Traditionally, the asparagus is quick-blanched then dunked into an ice-bath until ready to use. Because my spears were pencil thin, I didn't bother. Had they been thicker, I probably would have split them lengthwise. You may, of course, chop them; I like the drama of the entire stem. It's your call.

Please do not omit the smoked mozzarella. I used a pre-packaged blend of shredded Italian cheeses to layer between the pasta. In the bechamel sauce, I used fresh-grated Grana Padano.

I used leeks with the mushrooms (and a bit of shallots)  only because I had them on hand. If you don't have them, just increase the shallots to 1/4 cup. I used Barilla no-bake lasagna noodles. Just be sure to soak them in hot water before using. I like them much more than the frilly ones.

I generally remove and discard mushroom stems. When using deli ham
for cooking, choose something like "ham off the bone"
which has some fat to it.

  • 1/2 lb. fresh asparagus, trimmed (the weight is after the trimming)
  • 1 tablespoon chopped shallots
  • 1/3-1/2 cup chopped leeks
  • 1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
  • 2-3 cups sliced mushrooms (I used Baby Bellas--one 8 oz. container)
  • 2-4 slices deli ham (I use ham-off-the-bone)
  • 3/4 cup shredded smoked mozzarella
  • 1 cup mixed Italian cheese
  • 1/2 package Barilla No-Cook Lasagna Noodles
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Bechamel Sauce
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped shallots
  • 1-2 medium garlic gloves, pressed
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 cup low-sodium chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan
  • Grated nutmeg

Lightly oil a 10 x 7 baking dish. Set aside. Preheat oven to 350 F degrees.

Wash and cut asparagus to fit pan. Place upright in a glass or small bowl to drain.

In a medium frying pan, add a bit of olive oil. When hot, add the mushrooms. Stir until they begin to wilt and give up their juices. Then add the leeks and one tablespoon chopped shallot. Add the thyme. Cook until tender. Salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Place the pasta sheets in a pan of hot tap water while you prepare the sauce. A bread pan works perfectly.

In a medium pan, add the butter and cook over medium heat until melted. Add the shallot and garlic and cook just until tender being careful not to scorch them. Reduce heat if necessary.

Add the 1/4 cup flour and stir, cooking over low medium heat for several minutes. You want to "cook" the flour a bit without burning it or the shallots and garlic. When it turns "nutty," begin adding the milk in 1/3 cups, whisking well after each addition.

Add chicken stock 1/3 cup at a time. Continue to cook until thickened. Lower heat and allow to simmer for several minutes.

Add several grates of fresh nutmeg. Whisk and taste. Now add the cheese a little at a time and whisk until melted and incorporated. Remove from heat. Reserve one-half cup of the sauce.

Remove lasagna noodles from pan and, if necessary, cut to fit your lasagna pan.

Smear a thin layer of the sauce (just a couple of tablespoons) on the bottom of your pan. Cover with one layer of lasagna noodles. Cover that with 1/3 of the remaining sauce. Sprinkle one-third of your mushroom mixture over that. Arrange 1/3 of your asparagus over the mushrooms and sprinkle with 1/4 cup of the smoked mozzarella and about 1/3 cup of the mixed Italian cheeses. Shred the ham over all.

Adding more cheese will not make your lasagna better.
It will only make it oily and greasy. Go light.

Repeat two more times ending with a top layer of lasagna. Spread that with the reserved 1/2 cup of sauce. Sprinkle with remaining cheese.

Cover with greased foil and bake in a 350 F oven for 30-35 minutes. Remove cover and increase heat to 500 F and bake just until the top in golden brown.

Allow to cool 20 - 30 minutes before cutting. It needs this time for the pasta to absorb the cheese and the juices, otherwise you will have slices that are a runny mess.

Notes: I really debated to place asparagus on the top of the lasagna but decided against it. I really only wanted to do it for visual pizzazz. In the long-run, I figured they'd just get mushy and I prefer a golden-brown top. As soon as this came out of the oven, I put on some fresh oregano sprigs from the garden. Next time I'll put on more.

If your bechamel sauce begins to thicken, don't be afraid to add a bit more milk or stock.

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