Pesto Lasagne: one of the (many) hidden gems of Italian food.

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Although the great reputation of  Italian food in the world is always a reason for pride to a food lover like me, to see how very limited the concept of “Italian food” sometimes is can get a bit frustrating. Pizza, pasta, panna cotta, and tiramisù. With these few dishes, we have already covered a good 90% of the menu in any regular Italian restaurant around the world. But Italian food is so much more than that! And even with pasta, you can have thousands of shapes, dressing and cooking methods. But so many times it looks like that in Italy we only eat carbonara, tomato sauce, and ragù (if you are not sure what ragù is, don’t worry it’s just because someone insists calling it “Bolognese”, but so you know…that does not mean anything in an Italian kitchen).

And that is why I thought that it was the time to write about a dish that I particularly love, but that is unlikely that you will ever hear, not only abroad but even in many region of Italy: Pesto Lasagne. Of course everybody knows this wonderful, comforting dish, but generally lasagne are identified with a very specific recipe ofh layers of pasta, ragù (to be repeated as a mantra, please, “ragù, not Bolognese, ragù, not Bolognese, …”), béchamel, and parmesan. They are delicious, but let’s face it, after 20, 30 times they can be a it boring. But lasagne are so versatile, in Italy every region has its own traditional recipe, they can be made vegetarian, with all possible combinations of ingredients. And in a small, charming region of the North West of Italy, Liguria, lasagne are made with one of the best sauces that Italian cuisine has ever produced: Pesto.

Pesto is typical from Liguria and made of few, simple but delicious ingredients: fresh basil, olive oil, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan, salt and pepper. As my good friend Sara, born and raised in Liguria, and from whom I have taken inspiration for this recipe, would tell you, the true pesto is always eaten with potatoes and green beans, no matter what kind of pasta you use. So, if you take a classic lasagne recipe and replace the ragù with all these ingredients, you will end up with a fresher, lighter, even almost summery version of this Italian classic. To me, this is a wonderful change to the usual “lasagne routine”, especially during the grey Finnish winter: it shows how versatile Italian food is, it reminds me of close friends far away, and it is full of green, my favourite colour!

Hope you enjoy!

Recipe

1 pack of dried egg-pasta sheets (you can make your own egg pasta if you feel brave and patient enough, the recipe call for 1 egg for each 100gr of plain 00 flour, a pinch of salt and a lot of elbow grease, but pasta sheet that is sold everywhere is shops and supermarkets is still very good)

250 gr basil, including the stalks

3 large garlic cloves

100 gr pine nuts

grated parmesan (to taste)

250 ml extra virgin olive oil

2 litres full fat milk

80 gr plain flour

40gr butter

40ml vegetable oil

a pinch of nutmeg

salt

pepper

4 large boiled potatoes

400 gr boiled green beans

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Prepare the pesto. Basil, in pesto, should be cut quite coarse and it can be done manually with a cutter: in this case, simply combine basil, garlic, pine nuts, cut in small pieces add the olive oil (adjust the amount to taste), the grated parmesan, salt, and pepper to taste. If you are using a food processor, I recommend to process first garlic and pine nuts together, and add basil and oil only afterwards, to avoid over processing the basil. Let the pesto rest for a couple of hours.

Prepare the béchamel. Melt very gently the butter with the vegetable oil in a large pan; as soon as all the fat is melted, remove from the heat and add the flour whisking vigorously to avoid the formation of lumps. Add the milk gradually in batches and mixing well in between each batch. Return to a medium-low heat and bring to the boil while stirring constantly (in particular, make sure no flour is attaching to the bottom of the pan). The sauce will start thickening close to the boiling point, let boil for about 3-5 minutes and keep stirring.

Set pesto, pasta sheets, béchamel and grated parmesan to build the lasagne and a large and high rectangular oven dish. Boil for about 3-4 minutes the pasta sheets that will cover the bottom of the pan in the first layer. Add some béchamel to the bottom of the dish together with a little vegetable oil and spread out evenly. Cover the bottom of the dish with the first layer of boiled pasta sheet. After this first layer, the rest of the pasta can be added as it come out of the pack. Scatter 1 potato cut into thin slices and about ¼ of the green beans on top of the pasta, pour ¼ of the pesto on top in generous spoonful sprinkle with parmesan (for very cheesy lasagne you can add some other cheeses like mozzarella that melt easily) and pour a couple of full ladles of béchamel. Repeat 3 times to have 4 layers in total. I normally keep a bit of extra béchamel for the last layer as it prevents the lasagne from drying out too much in the oven.

The lasagne can be now let to rest, a couple of hours or even overnight, before cooking. Just remeber tht the longer they rest the softer the pasta will be once cooked. Cover the lasagne with aluminium foil and place in a hot oven at 200°C for 30 minutes. Remove the foil, lower the temperature at 180°C, and cook for about 30 minutes. Make sure that the lasagne are ready to come out of the oven at least 20 minutes before eating: like for any other type of lasagne they are best eaten after resting a bit at room temperature. During the resting time (about 15-20 minutes), you can cover them again with the foil used earlier in the cooking to prevent them from drying out.

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