Not long ago I made a new Twitter friend, Helena Kyriakides, whose company operates food tours and cooking classes in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy. We came upon each other through a posting on asparagus risotto, but what got me into the kitchen was a photograph of a plate of springtime asparagus lasagne served at a restaurant outside Bologna. It wasn’t one of those carefully lit, precisely framed pictures whose artifice can make uninteresting food look appealing: It was a snapshot simply recording a dish whose merits were obvious from the first glance. It seemed to be just pasta layered with béchamel, sliced asparagus and long-aged parmesan. Helena confirmed that rough outline, though there was probably more to the luscious-looking dish than the short shopping list would suggest.
The smart way to proceed would have been to ask for the recipe, but too much information and the goal of duplicating someone else’s dish can be a deterrent to actually cooking: What if success had depended on an ingredient not found in my pantry? The plan was to eat asparagus lasagne for dinner, so it was best to build on the many other layered pasta dishes I’ve known and cooked over the years.
I began a few hours ahead of time by making a batch of pasta dough with 150 g (a little more than 5 oz) flour and 110 g egg (one big whole egg and two yolks, weighing just under 4 oz), and a fairly thick béchamel using a roux composed of 2 oz (60 g; 4 Tbs) butter and the same weight (a little less than half a cup) flour, to thicken 2 cups (475 ml) whole milk, plus salt, pepper and just a hint of nutmeg. (Note that, depending on the pan in which you assemble the lasagne, you may have leftover pasta and/or béchamel, neither of which you will allow to go to waste.)
For the asparagus, I started with a generous bunch of thin to medium spears from a trusted farmers’ market producer, saving the tips for the next day’s fried rice and the tougher ends to be boiled and pureed for some undefined purpose. The middle 50 per cent I did not peel as I might have done for a different dish; I just cut the spears across into thin discs 1/16 to 1/8 inch (1.5 to 3 mm) thick, yielding about 1-1/2 cups (360 ml by volume), though a slightly larger or smaller quantity would have been fine. Eat one: it might have been tough if you’d chomped down on the whole stalk, but it’s tender when cut like this, across the fibers. To enhance their flavor, I sautéed these in butter over high heat for about 30 seconds with a little salt. (Now taste another piece: The asparagus flavor is deeper, right? Cooking with fire really was a great discovery. So was salt.)
When the pasta dough had rested (leave it wrapped up for a half hour or longer), I used my aged hand-cranked machine to roll it to the second-thinnest setting. You could take it to the thinnest, but I prefer more noodle per cubic centimeter of lasagne. I cut each strip into lengths of about 7 to 8 inches (18 to 20 cm) and blanched them in salted boiling water for 20 or 30 seconds, then used a large skimmer to move them into a bowl of cold water (note that they become much bigger when blanched). Thence, I laid them out on towels to remove surface water. I turned the oven on to 375º F (190º C) – set the knob a bit lower if you have a convection/fan oven: this isn’t a dish you want to get brown and crisp on top, though the edges will become alluringly toasty.
Next, I used a rubber spatula to mix the briefly-sautéed asparagus with most of the béchamel, not that there’d be any harm in using it all: I was thinking of a particular asparagus-to-béchamel ratio, of which you can get an idea in the photos below. I buttered a classic Pyrex oven dish measuring 6-1/2 by 8 inches (16 x 20 cm, roughly) at its widest, laid in a sheet of blanched pasta, spread it with a thin layer of asparagus-bechamel mixture, topped this with a generous grating of our favorite parmigiano reggiano, added another layer of pasta, leveling the filling below with my fingers, and continued until I’d nearly run out of béchamel: after five layers – or was it six? Inevitably, pasta sheets needed to be trimmed to fit and scraps used to fill in gaps; all this patching is invisible within the lasagne, but do try to use single sheets for the bottom and top layers. I used a little heavy cream to thin the last couple of tablespoonsful of béchamel-asparagus mixture, and spread it over the top pasta sheet, sprinkling it with parmesan and dotting it with butter, but only a little bit.
This is not to be a thick panful of lasagne like those 100-layer assemblies you read about: mine was 1-3/4 inches (45 mm) deep, and that was just about right for flavor, texture and ease of handling and eating.
I baked it, covered, for 30 minutes and uncovered for a further 10, then removed it from the oven to cool for 10 or 15 minutes before cutting into rectangles and carefully serving. Jackie and I ate 80 per cent of it as our entire dinner; as a first course this quantity would serve six or even eight people.
This is an elegant thing. It tastes of asparagus (vividly), and that flavor is spread around your mouth by the creamy béchamel and cheese, with a contrasting texture added by the pasta. It was hard to resist the temptation to add at least one other flavor (an herb is what I considered), but I’m glad I stuck to my original plan. Looking ahead to summer, I can imagine making a version with peas: shelled, briefly sautéed and roughly crushed.