Easter in Italy is pretty predictable food-wise. Like most good Italians I almost always cook lamb. You’d think that after years of cooking the same cut of meat I’d get adventurous in the recipe department. But even though I toy around with the idea of delving into Wolfert or Bittman for something a bit – I don’t know – Middle Eastern? I always go back to the same old, same old.
I order a whole young organic lamb (whose innards I cook up a few days before) , slather it with rosemary, garlic and olive oil. Then roast it in our wood burning oven up in Todi on a bed of potatoes. Who would mess with that? Peas or asparagus, cooked simply, on the side.
Antipasto is also carved in stone. Domenico is from Bari and so we always have sopressata which his mother brings up in her suitcase from Puglia. Then there are hard boiled eggs which we eat cut in chunks and drizzle with olive oil. A jumble of fresh fave and a hunk of pecorino completes that course.
Dessert? Pastiera. Is there anything else?
But the first course, that’s another thing. At least here I feel free to change year to year. One year it might be asparagus soup, another pasta al forno. This year, since I’ve got artichokes on the brain, I decided Lasagna ai Carciofi was in order. I didn’t bother looking up a recipe, since I knew I wanted it to be as simple as possible. Mostly artichokes, with just three layers of pasta and enough besciamella to hold it all together. And handfuls of grated parmigiana and pecorino (that goes without saying).
By the way, this lasagna turned out so good that it just might become a tradition. Maybe.
Lasagna ai Carciofi
(Serves 10 as main course, 15-20 as first course)
I know that making and using fresh sheets of lasagna is probably a whole lot better. But…I love the ones that you don’t even have to cook. I even think that they give a lighter texture which I like, especially when making a dish that is rich in butter and milk. And speaking of besciamella, you’ll notice I substitute chicken broth for almost half of the milk. That’s my attempt at making it a tad less heavy.
Also, I know some people love to add on the layers with lasagna. But I think you should never ever have more than three layers of noodles, otherwise it just turns into a solid brick.
10 large artichokes
1 Tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 Tablespoon butter
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 cup white wine
400 grams lasagna noodles, approx (I use the ones that don’t need cooking first)
1 1/2 cups grated parmesan
1 liter/ 4 cups milk
3/4 liter/ 3 cups chicken broth
100 grams/ 7 Tablespoons butter
100 grams / 1 cup flour
Clean the artichokes, trimming off the outer leaves and inner choke. Cut then into eighths and let them soak in a bowl of water with lemon until ready to use. (see my post about cleaning artichokes)
Chop the onion and place it, along with the thyme, in a pan big enough to hold all of the artichokes, with butter and olive oil. Add salt and pepper and cook over low heat until onion is softened. Add the drained and dried artichokes. Stir and add a half cup of water and cover the pan.
Let the artichokes cook for about 8 minutes or so, with the lid on. Lift the lid and stir them. They should be getting pretty soft. Add the wine and let it boil away. Let the artichokes cook until very tender, but not falling apart. Add a bit more water if you need to. Turn off heat.
Mix the broth and milk and heat gently.
To make the besciamella put the butter in a pot big enough to hold the milk and broth. Let melt and then slowly add the flour, stirring all the time. It will get quite thick. Once you have added all the flour keep stirring, over low heat, for a couple of more minutes.
Slowly add the hot milk and broth, stirring with a which or wooden spoon. It will look clumpy at first but will eventually thin out. Once you have added all the liquid keep stirring over low heat until the besciamella is the consistency of crepe batter. You want it kind of liquidy, since you’re using dry noodles.
Now you’re ready to assemble the lasagna. Choose a big roasting pan (about 13” x 16”)
and butter or oil it. Using a ladle, cover the bottom with some besciamella, enough to cover it completely, about 1/8 inch. Lay a layer of the dry noodles on top of this, side by side, to form the first layer. Ladle some more beciamella on top, covering the noodles. Then add half of the artichokes, spreading them out evenly. Sprinkle 1/2 cup grated parmesan, a few tablespoon of pecorino and some salt and pepper.
Repeat with another layer: noodles, besciamella, artichokes, cheese, salt & pepper.
Lay a final layer of noodles, cover generously with besciamella (you should be almost to the bottom of the pot) pouring some more in the sides and making sure you cover every square inch of dry noodle. Finish with more cheese.
Cook in a preheated, 350F/180C oven for about 25 minutes, until the lasagna is nice and bubbly and the top is browned.
Let rest about 10 minutes before serving. It’s even better if you let it cool completely, even in the fridge, and reheat later that day or the next.