Asparagus Lasagna: Luscious Side Dish or Vegetarian Main

aparagusSizedYears ago, long before Gourmet magazine closed up shop, I found (to my mind) the queen of asparagus-pasta combinations: food writer Zanne Early Zakroff’s Asparagus Lasagna.

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It’s an exquisite meatless dish that can function as a main course, first course or luncheon dish.

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One-inch lengths of roasted asparagus stalks are combined with a creamy sauce accented with goat cheese and plenty of finely grated lemon zest and layered into lasagna-style perfection.

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Although this recipe can be made with cooked standard lasagna noodles, paper-thin lasagna noodles called “no-boil” (or “oven ready”) are the best choice. Because of their thinness, they taste like delicate homemade pasta sheets. Plus, they don’t require precooking before they are layered into a casserole dish.

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Once the casserole dish has been layered, the reserved uncooked asparagus tips are assembled atop the dish. One cup of whipping cream is whipped with a pinch of salt and spread over the tender tips. Grated Parmesan cheese is sprinkled over the top, and the dish is baked in a 400-degree oven. This final layer of cream and cheese, baked in a hot oven, gives the dish a glorious brown “gratineed” appearance.

 

I felt compelled to make a couple of small changes to make the recipe “my own. “ I added 1/4 cup of fresh chopped basil to the sauce. I adore the taste of basil with fresh asparagus. Also, I changed the baking pan from two (8-inch) square baking dishes, preferring to use one large gratin dish. Though the change requires the cook to fit the lasagna noodles in a patchwork design so they work properly in a pan with rounded ends, I prefer the dramatic appearance of one large dish.

Either way, it works. On occasion, I’ve added cooked, chopped Italian sausage to one or two of the layers, but I think omitting meat shows off the asparagus best.

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Asparagus Lasagna
Yield: Makes 8 servings
4 pounds asparagus, tough bottom portion trimmed
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt to taste, kosher salt preferred
8 ounces “no-boil” lasagna
1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter, cut into 4 pieces
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups chicken broth or vegetable broth
1/2 cup water
7 ounces mild goat cheese
1 to 2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon peel (zest)
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
One and one-third cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup chilled heavy whipping cream
Pinch of salt

Cook’s notes: No-boil lasagna noodles are thinner than standard dried lasagna noodles and have a more delicate taste. They require no cooking before layering into a lasagna; in their production, they are precooked and dried, and their starches are sprayed off. No-boil noodles are available at specialty food shops and some supermarkets. My Albertson’s sells two brands of no-cook lasagna noodles. You can use standard lasagna noodles, but they will require cooking and draining before assembling the lasagna.

  1. Preheat oven to 500 degrees.

2. Cut the tender tips off the asparagus and reserve. Place asparagus stalks in 2 large baking or jelly-roll pans. Drizzle olive oil over the top of asparagus, and shake pans to coat asparagus. Place asparagus in a preheated 500-degree oven for 10 minutes, switching the pan positions from top rack to bottom halfway through roasting and giving the pans a shake to rotate the asparagus. Remove from oven and sprinkle with salt to taste.

3. Meanwhile, soak lasagna noodles in cold water for 15 minutes. It is best to separate them and scatter them in the bowl so they won’t stick together. Drain.

4. In a large saucepan on low heat, melt the butter. Add the flour and stir over medium heat for 3 minutes (do not brown). Remove from heat and, using a wire whisk, beat in broth and water in a thin stream. Return to medium heat and simmer for 5 to 6 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and add goat cheese, lemon peel and salt to taste; using a wire whisk, mix until blended and smooth. Stir in basil.

5. Cut asparagus stalks into 1- to 1 1/2-inch pieces.

6. Spray with nonstick olive oil spray or butter a 9-by-15-inch oval baking dish (or two 8-inch square baking dishes). Arrange single layer of pasta in pan(s). Top with one-third of sauce. Top with one-third cup of roasted aspagaus pieces and one-third cup grated Parmesan cheese. Continue to layer the pasta, roasted asparagus pieces and Parmesan to create two more layers. Top with a layer of pasta.

7. In a large bowl, beat the whipping cream with a pinch of salt until it holds soft peaks. Arrange asparagus tips atop the final layer of pasta. Spread whipped cream over asparagus tips and top with one-third cup of grated Paramesan cheese. Bake in middle of a preheated 400-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes, or until golden and bubbling.

Advance preparation: Can be made 2 days before (and stored airtight in the refrigerator) without the final addition of whipped cream and Parmesan cheese. The whipped cream needs to be added just before baking. You probably will need to add 3 to 5 minutes to the baking time, but check to make sure the top isn’t getting too brown. Allow it to cool for 15 minutes before serving. Garnish with sprigs of fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley.

Source: Adapted from a recipe by Zanne Zakroff in the April 1992 issue of Gourmet magazine.

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