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Lasagne al Pesto (Pesto Lasagna)

11 Oct

Lasagne, one of the most popular Italian dishes, has a long and interesting history.  A popular tradition traces its origin to the ancient Greeks. In fact, the name “lasagna” is actually not Italian at all!  It comes from the ancient Greek language and means dish or bowl, but over time, the term lasagne has come to refer to layers of thin pasta that are cooked with and separated by different ingredients such as meat, fish, vegetables or cheese, as well as besciamella, or béchamel, sauce, of course.  You have may tried the traditional Lasagne with Bolognese sauce, but maybe not the Lasagne al pesto that I am going to present today.  The pesto sauce makes lasagna even more special and delicate, a tasty delight for your palate, and is an excellent vegetarian dish (remember, however, that it does contain eggs and dairy products).  You can enjoy this dish as a first course (like we Italians do) or as a main dish.

LASAGNE AL PESTO

Preparation time:  1 ½  hrs.          Baking Time:  30 min.
Servings:  4

 

INGREDIENTS
1 l (approx. 4 cups) besciamella sauce
180 g (¾ cup) pesto
6 sheets of Lasagne pasta (20 x 10 cm; 8 x 4 in)

Pesto
3 medium sized garlic cloves
60 g (2 cups) fresh Sweet basil
40 g (⅓ cup) pine nuts
70 ml (⅓ cup) olive oil (Extra Virgin)
50 g (½ cup) grated Parmesan cheese
Sea salt to taste (optional)

Besciamella Sauce
1 l milk (approx. 4 cups)
100 g (⅔ cup ) all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon of salt
30 g (2 tablespoons) unsalted butter
Freshly ground pepper and freshly grated nutmeg to taste

DIRECTIONS
Preheat the oven to 170°C (350°F)

Pesto (makes about 1 cup)
1.Toast the pine nuts for about 5 to 6 minutes on a baking sheet in a preheated oven at 170°C (350°F) or stirring constantly in a non-stick skillet on the stove.  Set aside
2.Wash the basil and dry it.  Drop the garlic in a running food processor.  Add the basil and pine nuts until it becomes a grainy mixture
3. Slowly add the olive oil in a constant stream while the food processor is on to reach the desired consistency
4. Add the Parmesan cheese and pulse until blended.  Add a pinch of salt to taste and set aside.

Besciamella Sauce (makes about 4 cups)
1. In a medium saucepan mix the milk and the flour well with a whisk until smooth.  This will prevent any lumps from forming
2. Add the salt
3. Cook 3-4 minutes (medium-high heat) stirring constantly
4. Lower the heat as soon as the mixture reaches a slow boil and then continue to cook for about 10-12 minutes, stirring constantly to the right thickness (smooth and creamy).  Add the butter.  Stir constantly to ensure that it doesn’t stick or burn
5. Remove from the heat.  Mix well the besciamella sauce with pesto.

In an 11-cup baking pan (23 cm x 18 cm; approx. 9 in x 7 in), spread a paper-thin layer of besciamella mix.  Arrange the pasta sheets side by side, covering the besciamella in the bottom of the baking pan (about 2 lasagna sheets).  Break the pasta, if necessary, to make a complete layer from side to  side.  Spread some of the besciamella (about ⅓) evenly on top of the pasta, followed by another layer of pasta.  Repeat this process until you have a total of three layers of pasta and finish with the remaining besciamella.  Bake for about 30 minutes, until top is brown and bubbly (follow the suggested baking time on the lasagne package).  Let it rest at room temperature for about 8-10 minutes before serving.  Sprinkle some toasted pine nuts on top and serve.

Note: Pesto is not too difficult to make, but tasty and fresh basil is not easy to find all year round.  Pesto is a pasta sauce which originates from Genova, in the Liguria region of northern Italy, and is made with fresh Sweet basil (Mediterranean basil) and pine nuts.  If you don’t want to make fresh pesto, then look for a  good Italian brand in the grocery cooler or with the canned sauces.  One final word of caution!  Make certain that the ingredient list on the package specifies “olive oil”!  –Paola

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Risotto di Zucca (Winter Squash Risotto)

6 Oct

IT’S PUMPKIN SEASON!

Fall has arrived, nature has changed its colors from green to yellow, red, brown and ochre, we have exchanged our summer wardrobes for the winter ones and changed the types of food on our tables. It’s pumpkin season!  Winter squash is a very nice vegetable, suitable for preparing a variety of recipes ranging from risotto to ravioli, soup to pasta sauce, cakes to croquettes – and even all by itself.  Fall’s famous vegetable, in addition to being a tasty part of many recipes, is a very good and healthy choice of food, an excellent source of beta-carotene (pro-vitamin A), a good source of fiber, potassium, iron, folate, magnesium and manganese.  Pumpkin is low-calorie and contains lots of water, thus a perfect ingredient to use when slimming down.

RISOTTO DI ZUCCA (WINTER SQUASH RISOTTO)

Preparation Time: about 2 hrs       
Cooking time:            1 ½ hrs + 15-20 min.                   
Servings: 4

Squash or pumpkin risotto is extremely popular in northern Italy during the cold months. Little wonder, because a good winter squash has a delightful tangy sweetness to it, while the risotto has a splendid creamy texture, perfect on a cold, gray winter day with a nice glass of Italian wine!  There are several varieties  of winter squash you can use; the one I like the most is zucca di Mantova (Cucurbita maxima, Kabocha).  It takes its name from Mantova, a city in northern Italy, where it grows.  It has a very sweet, tender flesh, tasting like a cross between sweet potato and pumpkin.  It is large, round and squat, dark green and mottled, often with bumpy skin.  A good alternative is butternut squash (Cucurbita moschata) that also has  sweet and nutty taste.  When you choose your pumpkin make sure it is firm all the way around. 

INGREDIENTS
Zucca di Mantova (half) about 750 g (1 ½ lb)
1 liter vegetable or chicken stock
80 g (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
300 g (1 ½ cups) Italian Carnaroli or Arborio rice
240 ml (1 cup) dry white wine, at room temperature
25 g (¼  cup) grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly white ground pepper

DIRECTIONS
Preheat the oven to 200°C (390-400°F).  Cut pumpkin in half crosswise and scoop out the seeds and stringy material.  Wash in plain cold water.  Place the pumpkin halves on a baking sheet and bake for about 1-1/2 hours or until the flesh is very tender when pierced with a fork.  Don’t worry if the edges are browned. The natural sugars actually caramelize and give it a richer more complex flavor.  When it is cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh and mush it with a fork.  Set aside half of the puree. You can freeze the other half in a plastic bag or air-tight container for another risotto.

  1. In a saucepan over medium heat, warm up the stock
  2. In a large saucepan heat 50 g (4 T) butter.  Add the chopped onion and sauté for 2-3 minutes over medium heat.  Add the rice and stir thoroughly for about 3 minutes, in order to “coat” the rice well with the butter and onions.  (This helps regulate absorption of the wine.)  Add the wine and stir until is completely absorbed
  3. Add a soup ladle or two of the stock until the rice is just covered, and stir continuously with a wooden spoon. When the stock is almost completely absorbed, repeat this process for about 15 minutes (it depends on the rice’s cooking time, which should be clearly indicated on the package)
  4. Add the squash and cook for about 2 minutes.

The end of the cooking is critical for the final texture of the dish, so when the rice is nearly  tender to the bite, but with just a hint of resistance (al dente), and the liquid you have added up to this point has been mostly absorbed (the risotto should seem a bit “soupy”), add the Parmesan and butter to taste, about  30 g (2 T).

Remove your risotto from the heat.  At this point, stir the risotto vigorously to blend in the cheese and butter.  You can also add some salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.  Let it stand for 1 or 2 minutes and serve immediately (plan your timing well – it is very easy to overcook risotto!).

Note: Cooking pumpkin is much easier than you think.  There are different methods: Boiling, Steaming and Roasting.  Roasting is my favorite one because it give a richer flavor.  You can roast the pumpkin some days in advance and freeze it until you are ready to use it. This process will speed up your risotto preparation time. 

It is important to know about rice when buying for risotto; choose short-grained round or semi-round rice, rich in starch; among the best rice for making risotto are Italian Arborio and  Carnaroli.  Don’t forget that risotto requires a great deal of attention and continuous stirring!  Risotto is a perfect gluten-free dish.  -Paola

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