The Food Maven Diary
It will be the height of artichoke season when my cooking class arrives at Tenuta Seliano next week. The Tenuta (that means "estate" in Italian) has gorgeous fields full of artichokes. It's one of the farm's major crops. In August, as soon as the hay is mown and the corn is harvested, both to feed Cecilia's 600 head of water buffalo, the artichoke plants are put in. I love to watch their progress as I return every three months, and of course I love to eat them.
And we will be eating artichokes -- at practically every meal. And my class will learn to cook them in several ways – alla Romana, which is braised with garlic, parsley and mint; stuffed and stewed in tomato sauce, Salerno style; fried in an egg and Parmigiano batter (Neapolitans call this indoratti e fritti, gilded and fried); and in this baked lasagne rich with bechamel, mozzarella (actually cow's milk fior di latte, not the local mozzarella di bufala), and some grated Parmigiano and diced onion for flavor.
Anna, the head cook at the farm, likes to put pancetta in everything (well, I exaggerate), so I use some in this lasagne, as she does. But you can make a perfectly delicious dish – and both vegetarian and kosher, to boot – if you leave out the pork and substitute just a little more olive oil.
NOTE: If you're interested in joining me for a culinary tour and cooking classes in late June, late August, or between Christmas and New Year – or you're just curious about what I'm up to – click on Cook At Seliano Culinary Tours on the red navigation bar to the left.
Lasagne di Carciofi
Makes 6 to 8 first-course servings
For the bechamel:
5 tablespoons butter
5 tablespoons flour
3 cups whole or 2% milk
1 teaspoon salt
A few fresh gratings of nutmeg
For the artichokes:
5 large Globe artichokes, preferable with stems attached
1 ounce pancetta, finely minced (about 2 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (or 3 tablespoons if not using the pancetta)
1 medium onion, minced (about 1 cup)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 3/4 cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Padana Grano cheese (about 4 1/2 ounces)
1/2 pound day-old, refrigerated mozzarella (cow's milk), cut into approximately 1-inch square, thin slices
1 pound lasagne
To make the bechamel: In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. With a wooden spoon, stir in the flour and let cook, bubbling vigorously, for 2 minutes, stirring a few times. Remove the pan from the heat and let stand until the cooking stops.
Add all the milk and stir well until the flour-butter mixture (the roux) is fully dissolved. Place the pot back on medium heat and, stirring constantly, scraping the bottom of the pan, cook until the mixture simmers and thickens. Season with salt and nutmeg. Set aside.
To prepare the artichokes: Squeeze the juice of the lemons into a large bowl or pot filled with cold water and at least 2 trays of ice cubes. Save the lemon shells.
Prep 1 artichoke at a time. Pull off all the outside leaves of the artichoke. (Bend them down to snap them off at their bases.) Rub the base of the artichoke with the squeezed out lemon shells. Using a small paring knife, trim off any dark green leaf bases from the base of the artichoke. Trim the stem well, cutting away all the dark green. Cut the base in half through the stem. Rub again with lemon wherever you have cut. Place the artichoke in the acidulated ice water. Repeat with all the artichokes.
Just before cooking the artichokes, cut the stems off the bases and slice the stems very thinly crosswise. Slice the bases very thinly.
To cook the artichokes: In a large skillet, heat the oil and pancetta together (or just the oil) and sauté the onion until well wilted, about 5 minutes. Add the artichoke slices and cook until tender, stirring them from time to time so they cook evenly. If the onion or artichokes begin to brown before the artichokes are fully tender, or the artichokes begin to stick, add a few tablespoons of water. Let the water evaporate before finishing the cooking.
To cook the lasagne: Bring at least 5 quarts of water to a rolling boil, then salt it with 3 tablespoons of salt. Add the pasta and stir to separate the pieces. Let cook about 10 minutes (for most brands), stirring occasionally, until the pasta is a little firmer than you would cook it for eating immediately. Drain and run under cold water. Arrange the strips of lasagne on a clean dish towels to dry.
To assemble and bake the lasagne: With a rubber spatula, spread about 3/4 cup of bechamel on the bottom of a 13- by 9- by 2-inch baking pan (there's no need to grease or butter it). On top of the bechamel, arrange a layer of lasagne, slightly overlapping the pieces. You may have to cut a piece or two of the lasagne to make a full layer.
On the lasagne, distribute about one third of the artichokes and onion, about 1/3 cup of the Parmigiano, and about 1/3 of the mozzarella.
Make another layer of pasta. Spread on another 3/4 cup bechamel. Distribute another third of the artichokes, grated cheese, and mozzarella.
Make one more layer as above, using half of the remaining bechamel, all the artichokes, all the mozzarella, and half the remaining grated cheese.
Top with the remaining lasagne, spread on the remaining bechamel, and sprinkle with the remaining grated cheese.
Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 30 minutes, at which point the lasagne should be bubbling and the top will be a very lightly golden color.
Let stand about 10 minutes before cutting and serving.