Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Vegetable Lasagna with Parmesan Bechamel Sauce - Take Two

Featured Ingredient: Ricotta Cheese

In sunny 60 degree weather, what do you serve?  It's too high up on a thermometer for a heart-warming stew.  It's hardly the dog days of summer when something grilled with a side of fresh salsa is in order. I think this is the perfect territory, for something fresh, yet filling and cheesy -- like a vegetable lasagna. A great way to take advantage of spring's fresh bounty of produce appearing in your supermarket, at more affordable prices.  The most prominent right now is Asparagus.  Nothing says spring more than those long slender stalks that my son used to call "trees."

I'll admit this is not a time-saving recipe.  But it's worth the work.  You can think of it as saving time during the week, as you can make a big batch in 9" X 13" pan and reheat portions the next couple of nights, depending on the size of your family.   You can also reduce prep time as I did in this recipe with no boil lasagna noodles.  The lasagna is layered with a mix of asparagus, broccoli (mostly florets), fresh spinach and shredded carrots along 3 cheeses (parmesan, ricotta and mozzarella) along with a creamy flavor infused bechamel sauce.  I thought it would be too heavy, but because the vegetables are so light, it actually works well.
I'm calling this take two as the last time I attempted it using a different strategy, but the same basic recipe, my lasagna was lacking height and bulk and ended up on the watery side.  Fortunately this version is not dry, nor do you have to worry about floating pasta... well maybe not exactly floating but wading?

Key things ensure your vegetable lasagna does not come out watery whether you use boil or no boil noodles.

1. After you saute your vegetables let them drain off any excess moisture.

2.  If using no boil noodles, don't let them sit in water to be a bit more pliable.  (Except for maybe the top layer pieces, as they are not weighted down with as much liquid and moisture as the middle and bottom layer of pasta.) You end up having more than enough moisture in this recipe so use them dry as it gives them something to soak up. 

3.  Add an egg to your ricotta. In baking, eggs are used to set liquids, batters etc.  So it doesn't hurt to have them add a little bit of their protein to help the cause. (Plus it seems to make the ricotta fluffier).

Vegetable Lasagna with Bechamel

Sachet D'Epice
1/4 small onion
1 bay leaf
10 black peppercorns
Cheesecloth and Butcher String

Make a sachet d'epice.  I learned this in culinary school.  Wrap a quarter of an onion, a bay leaf and about 10 peppercorns into cheesecloth and tie with butcher string. This helps infuse the onion flavor into your bechamel sauce, while keeping it silky and free of little bits of onion.

Sachet d'epice

Parmesan Bechamel Sauce
5 tbsp butter
4 tbsp flour
4 cups milk
1 tsp salt
1/8 tsp ground fresh nutmeg
1/4 cup finely grated parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 375F
Melt butter into a large saucepan over medium heat and whisk in flour to form a loose roux. Stirring very frequently let this bubble for a couple of minutes or until it reaches a golden color. 
Whisk in milk slowly for the first cup then add the rest.  Attach your sachet to the pan handle and dip into pan. Add salt. Continue whisking until milk comes up to temperature and mixture begins to thicken.  Stir in nutmeg and parmesan cheese.  Remove from heat and keep warm.

Parmesan Bechamel

Vegetable Lasagna
9 no boil noodles
Extra virgin olive oil as needed
4 cloves garlic minced
10 oz fresh baby spinach (I used one 5 oz. box and the spinach literally disappeared as it cooked down)
One large bunch fresh broccoli (I mostly used the florets and the top portion)
2 cups shredded carrots
20 large asparagus spears
(Bottom line is you are looking for at least 6 to 7 cups of cooked vegetables)
32 oz. Part Skim Ricotta cheese (most of the container)
1 beaten egg
1 block grated Part Skim Mozzarella cheese (like Polly-O) not the fresh kind remember too much water content
Grated Parmesan cheese as needed
Salt and Pepper as needed
Fresh Parsley for garnish

Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a large skillet.  Add spinach.  Saute one minute and 2 cloves garlic, salt and pepper.  Cover and steam/saute until bright green and wilted.  Remove to a colander over a large bowl and let drain.

Add more olive oil if needed and add broccoli, asparagus and carrots.  Saute one minute to release moisture and add 2 cloves garlic, salt and pepper.  Like the spinach cover and steam/saute until vegetables are still bright and crisp tender.   Remove to colander with spinach to drain.

Mix ricotta (nearly the entire container) with egg.

Begin assembly. Lightlhy cover the bottom of the pan with bechamel sauce.  Add three no boil noodles going across, spread apart evenly.  Lightly spread a good amount of ricotta cheese on the pasta, top with heaping spoonfuls of the vegetable mixture cover with bechamel sauce.  Then sprinkle with mozzarella cheese.
Add another layer of pasta and repeat.
Add final layer of pasta. If you soaked these in hot water for a few minutes.  Pat them dry before you add to the pan. Pour over bechamel sauce and top with mozzarella and parmesan cheese.

Tightly cover the sides with tin foil, but carefully tent the top as to not have the cheese stick to the foil.  Bake for about 40 minutes.  Remove foil and let bake an additional 10 minutes until bubbly.   If it still doesn't have that nice golden color.  Broil for a couple minutes until desired color.

Let rest on a rack for 15 minutes.

As with all lasagnas, it will taste better and come out the pan better the next day.  Hey it may have been hard work, but you don't have to worry about dinner tomorrow.
Vegetable Lasagna with Parmesan Bechamel Sauce

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