The word “lasagna” is a classic example of onomatopoeia. There is a richness, fullness and promise of something deeply satisfying when it rolls off your tongue. Lasagna sounds as good as it tastes — if you make it properly. American lasagna has suffered the fate of many ethnic favorites and morphed into a mushy, tasteless mass with emphasis on abbondanza instead of quality ingredients and exquisite flavor. I'll help you right the wrong with my sophisticated tre colori recipe.
This lasagna is layered with satiny butternut squash puree, bay leaf-scented béchamel, basil and pine nut pesto, and mozzarella. I've reworked this recipe numerous times to discover that perfection is found in using oven-ready lasagna noodles and fresh mozzarella. Fresh pasta essentially disintegrates. Boiled noodles are too thick and dominate instead of complement the sauces and cheese. It's the much easier, boil-free noodles that execute a winning job of absorbing the flavors of the various ingredients for a well-balanced casserole. Remove this from the oven, allow it to sit for ten to fifteen minutes while you pour yourself a glass of Gavi, and then slide a generous portion onto a warmed plate. You'll be transported by the combination of colors and tastes that are nothing like what a meat and ricotta lasagna delivers. Follow this indulgence with a simple salad.
Tre Colori Lasagna
1 (1-1/2 to 2-pound) butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 cups chicken broth
6 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons flour
3 cups whole milk
Solid dash of nutmeg 2 bay leaves 2 cups pesto (homemade or your favorite store bought)
12 no-boil lasagna noodles
2-1/2 cups grated fresh whole-milk mozzarella
1/3 cup grated Parmesan
2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1/3 cup pine nuts toasted
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino cheese
For the butternut puree
Heat chicken broth and add the squash. Simmer over medium heat until the squash is tender, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes. Cool slightly and transfer the squash with a slotted spoon to a food processor. Add enough broth to give it a smooth and satiny consistency. You may reserve the remaining broth to use later.
For the béchamel
Melt the butter in a heavy medium-size saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk for two minutes until completely incorporated and slightly browned. Gradually whisk in the milk. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, whisking the entire time. Don’t worry if you see lumps — they'll blend into the sauce eventually. Sauce should start to thicken after a few minutes. Add the nutmeg, bay leaves, freshly cracked pepper and a pinch or two of salt. Cook for a few more minutes and then remove from heat. Allow the sauce to cool and leave in the bay leaves until you’re ready to assemble, as they'll continue to flavor the sauce.
For the pesto
Toast the pine nuts in skillet over medium heat. Place basil, garlic and pine nuts in a food processor and pulse until blended. Stream olive oil in with the processor running until you have a chunky puree. Do not over process. Add salt, pepper and cheese, pulse a few times, then remove from the processor. Position the rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Now grab your favorite 9 x 12 lasagna casserole. Spread an even layer of pureed squash over the bottom of the pan. Add a layer of 4 noodles. Repeat squash. Follow with dollops of pesto, then dollops of béchamel, and sprinkle the grated mozzarella. Repeat layering. Sprinkle remaining mozzarella and finish with parmesan. Tightly cover the baking dish with foil and bake the lasagna for 30 minutes. Continue baking uncovered until the top is golden, 10 to 15 minutes longer. Remove from the oven and let the lasagna stand for 15 minutes before serving.