Italian Sundays: Spring Vegetable Lasagna, and a Vegan Spring Ragù

It was March when they got married. The almond trees around their house were loaded with pale flowers that washed all of the countryside with their delicate scent.
But there were none in the bride’s hands.
Her wedding gown was a long, thick black coat that warded off the last trails of winter chills. Long, black robes was all the newly wedded women were going to wear.
They walked up the castle to reach the small church. Both the groom and the bride had 10 siblings each, and the cheerful crowd that climbed the steep cobbled road through that 1200’s village was animated by kids with their hair unusually combed and friends who had – finally, more than one reason to rejoice: spring was coming, the war was over, and they were going to have lunch with their dear ones.
The previous day, they milled flour and brought it to the baker. They foraged herbs and collected the very first harvest of spring vegetables, then their family made lunch for the guests.
My grandparent’s wedding smelled of stacks of hay and wild flowers. It was on a sunday, as sundays are always a time for celebration.

Italy - Italian countryside

 

Spring sundays in Italy smell like Lasagna. As Easter approaches, but meat is still not included in most people’s lunch plans, a unique array of wonderful plant-based foods decorate the table: Bruschetta with fava beans and eggs, wild nettle soup, and these spectacular lasagna, which – believe it or not, are even better than the meat version.

“At the end, you’ve got to tear a piece of bread and clean up the plate,” Says my grandfather. All grandfathers insist that their grandchildren do it, and I still dishonor them greatly as I never do.
“it’s got to be baked pasta on a Sunday,” says he, taking a puff from his cigarette. He’s a farmer with the elegance of a prince.
“Do you know how good it is to just scoop up the sauce straight from the pan? The only time I didn’t do it we were at a restaurant…” he laughs,  his perfectly combed hair shining in the sun as he nods. “This is why I never liked restaurants. But hey, it was the anniversary of our wedding.”

Spring vegetable lasagne with artichoke, asparagus, pea mushroom vegan sauce - bread

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These two recipes are a true spring staple, and every time I eat lasagna I am amazed at how better it actually is with a vegetable-based sauce rather than a meat-based one. Even though the vegan ragù totally fits in the healthy food section, I’m not sure I can say the same about the lasagna, but honestly – who cares. This is sunday comfort food at its best. They are a labor of love and require some time to put together, so it is very likely something you won’t be having too often.

The good thing is, it pretty much takes the same effort, whether you make these for 2 or 10 people. So, make them for a gathering, or make and freeze them. You can make them in advance and bake them right when you need them.

The ragù alone can be declined in many ways: you can use it to dress any pasta, or as a base for a frittata. If not using straight away, put it in jars and freeze it.

Both things are real crowd pleasers that sit well in your freezer.
Happy spring, everyone.

Spring Vegan Ragù

1 medium Onion
1 medium Carrot
1 Celery stick
5 Artichokes, cleaned
1 pound Asparagus spears, tough stalks removed
1 cup Peas, possibly frozen
7-8 Champignon mushrooms
1 oz Dried Porcini
3/4 cup Olive oil, possibly extra virgin
1/2 cup white wine
Salt & Pepper

  • 1. CUT THE VEGETABLES
    First, soak the dried porcini for at least an hour.
    For the asparagus, cut off the tough butts, and chop them into small pieces. Clean the artichokes by removing the outer tough leaves (you can refer to the guide in this post), cut them in quarters, and julienne them. Also finely chop the mushrooms. Squeeze the porcini and finely chop them, too, reserving the water. Wash the celery stick and carrot and scrub them clean. Get rid of the onion skin.
  • 2. MAKE THE SOFFRITTO
    ‘Soffritto’ means stir-frying onion, celery and carrot in olive oil (like french mirepoix, essentially). Chop these three vegetables as finely as you can, then add them to a pot that can hold all of the ingredients, along with half of the oil. Stir-fry until aromatic, about 3-4 minutes. Add the rest of the oil, and the chopped asparagus, mushrooms, porcini and artichokes. Dump in the peas – you can add them to the pot straight from the pan.
    Mix everything well.
  • 3. FINISH IT OFF
    Add the wine, a good pinch of salt and pepper, and let the wine cook off – it should take a couple of minutes. Once it’s dried, give everything a good stir and add 3/4 cup to 1 cup of water. Let it cook, half covered on low for 30 minutes, until the water has reduced and created a creamy consistency with the vegetables, which should be very very soft.
    You might need to add another splash of water. Keep an eye on it around the 15 minute mark.This sauce freezes very well and can be made a couple of days in advance. It is really amazing to dress any kind of pasta.
Spring vegetable lasagne with artichoke, asparagus, pea mushroom vegan sauce

The lasagna, before and after baking

 

Spring Vegetable Lasagna

For the Bechamel Sauce
1 Stick of butter
4 cups (1 liter) Whole milk
5 heaping tbsp Flour
A pinch of salt
A good grating of nutmeg

For the Assembly
Fresh pasta, made with 3 eggs and 300g flour
Bechamel Sauce
Spring Ragù
Grated Parmigiano or Grana

  • 1. HAVE THE SAUCE READY
    Make sure you have the sauce ready when you start. You can make it in advance to relieve yourself of some work.
  • 2. MAKE THE PASTA
    Make the dough according to my pasta guide in this post.
    Roll it out so that you can cut sheets that are going to fit your container.
    Bring a large pot of water up to a boil, and lay some tea towels or cloths on a table. Once ready to cook, dump your pasta sheets in the boiling water a couple at a time, and cook for 3-4 minutes. Drain and lay on the cloths, so you can dry out most of the water.
  • 3. MAKE THE BECHAMEL
    To make the bechamel, start by melting the butter in a pot. Once it mostly melter, stir in the flour and whisk well with a balloon whisk. You want to create a smooth roux. Once you obtained that, pour in half the milk, melt the roux, and pour in the rest of the milk. At this poin, you have to keep whisking the sauce very gently until it starts smoking. Never stop, or it might stick! Once it starts to smoke it will also start to thicken. Whisk faster as the sauce thickens, and whisk very vigorously once it gets to a very creamy consistency. Whisk well for a minute, and turn the heat off. The sauce will thicken more as it cools.
  • 4. ASSEMBLE
    Preheat the oven to 250Cº and have all of your parts ready, and start with a layer of veggie sauce on the bottom of your baking vessel. Mix in some bechamel, and add the first layer of pasta. Cover the vessel as evenly as you can, then go with the next layer: veggie sauce, bechamel, grated cheese, pasta. You should get up to 3 or 4 layers.  Finish with sauce, bechamel and a good sprinkling of cheese. I am not giving directions on how much sauce or bechamel to use, as everyone has their preference and you could do it in one big vessel or several small ones, which would change dosage. Decide whether you want heavily loaded lasagna or something where you have a prevalence of pasta, but ultimately try and balance things out.
    What you should do with larger trays of lasagna is pre-cut the portions before sticking them in the oven.
  • 5. BAKE
    Bake your lasagna for about 30 minutes. It could be a little less for smaller vessels, or a bit more for larger ones. the rule of thumb is that once they’re well browned and crispy on top, they’re ready. You could also bake them for a slightly shorter time and finish them off under the broiler. Let them cool for 5 minutes and serve and delight yourself in all the goodness.

Are there any recipes that really mean Sundays to you? I’d love to know!

Spring vegetable lasagne with artichoke, asparagus, pea mushroom vegan sauce

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