Lasagna al Pesto (Lasagna with Pesto Bechamel)

Lasagna al Pesto (Lasagna with Pesto Bechamel)

This is a great lasagna that is fun to assemble and delicious to eat. It includes a recipe for Bechamel (Besciamella in Italian), which is basically a white sauce made of flour, butter, and milk. Bechamel is used in a number of different dishes, and in Italy it is very frequently found in lasagna. In fact, Bechamel is used in the most basic, classic lasanga recipe. Bechamel is also found in a number of French dishes, although adding a pinch of nutmeg to the sauce is typically Italian.

Ingredients:

500gr of lasagna pasta sheets
2 1/2 jars of pesto (190 gr per jar)
1l of milk
100gr flour
nutmeg
60gr of butter

Directions:

Besciamella (Bechamel sauce):

1) Melt butter in a pot under low heat.
2) Add flour and mix until it becomes a sort of dough. Simmer it at very low flame until it becomes golden.
3) Add 1L hot milk
4) Blend / mix the milk into the dough (using a hand-held mixer)
5) Add a pinch of salt and nutmeg
6) Cook 8-10 mins until the sauce is moderately liquid

Lasagna:

1) Cook each sheet of lasagna pasta in boiling water for 4-5 minutes. Make sure you continuously stir the water so the pasta sheets don’t stick to each other.
2) When cooked, place the pasta sheets on a plate so they don’t touch each other, preventing them from gluing together.
3) When the Bechamel sauce is ready, mix it with the pesto to obtain the pesto-Bechamel sauce.
4) Spread a thin layer of the pesto-Bechamel sauce onto the bottom of your baking pan. Then layer with the pasta sheets, the diced mozzarella and slices of the smoked cheese. Repeat with another layer of the mixture, sheets, etc.
The final layer should be the pesto-Bechamel sauce. No cheese should be poking through or it may burn.
5) Bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes at 200C (392 F). Serve warm with freshly grated parmesan cheese.

*Alteration – can add sauteed spinach to the Pesto-Bechamel sauce

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Homemade Pasta

The Italian and I graduated into real Italian cooking territory the other day when we made HOMEMADE pasta! It was so much fun to make and was facilitated by the gift of a pasta maker by a very good friend of ours, whose culinary delights have already been featured on this blog (here and here.)

The pasta maker is a fascinating machine – you just feed a wad of dough into it and watch as it flattens out right in front of your eyes into a thin sheet. We have one of the hand-crank models that clamp onto your table or counter top with a vice. Our pasta maker has the capability to make three different types of pasta – tagliatelle (long, flat, ribbon-shaped), spaghetti, or flat sheets for ravioli. For our first pasta-making escapade we chose to do tagliatelle.

The pasta dough was fairly simple to make, and just required a bit of kneading. Once that was complete we fed the dough through the machine several times, decreasing the setting each time until we got a very thin, long sheet. Then we fed that sheet through the machine on the tagliatelle setting and got perfect ribbon-like strips! Those without a pasta machine can improvise by using a rolling pin to get the dough as absolutely thin as possible and then cut it by hand into the desired shape.

One thing to keep in mind is while the cut pasta is drying they should not touch each other or they will stick together and form a big pasta lump. Either hang them to dry on the back of a chair or a broom stick or sprinkle flour between the layers so they don’t stick.

We served our tagliatelle with a very simple tomato sauce so as not to overwhelm the flavour of the fresh pasta. It turned out deliciously!

Basic pasta dough

Ingredients:

  • 1 2/3 cups Italian flour
  • 2 medium or large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • A pinch of sea salt

Directions:

  • Sift the flour onto a clean work surface and make a well in the center with your fist.
  • Break the eggs into the well and add the oil and a pinch of salt to the well.
  • Gradually mix the egg mixture into the flour using the fingers of one hand, bringing the ingredients together into a firm dough. If the dough feels too dry, add a few drops of water; if it’s too wet, add a little more flour.
  • Knead the pasta until smooth, 2 to 5 minutes. Lightly massage it with a hint of olive oil,
  • Put the dough into a plastic food bag, and allow it to rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. The pasta will be much more elastic after resting.
  • Feed dough into the pasta machine until desired thinness/shape is achieved.
  • Note: Fresh, homemade pasta cooks very quickly in boiling water, only needs about 3 minutes!

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Pasta al Forno (Oven Baked Pasta)

In Italian, “al forno” means “in the oven”, and the term can be applied to anything baked in the oven including pizza, breads and pasta. Pasta al Forno is one of my favourites. The double cooking of the pasta makes it a bit softer than the typical “al dente” style, while the oven gives the pasta a nice golden crispiness that has an unbeatable texture and crunch.  There’s a lot of different ways to experiment with this type of dish, and I’d like to try some later on with pumpkin and pancetta,

Ingredients:

  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1.2 kg minced beef (I used turkey)
  • ½ tsp chopped oregano
  • ½ tsp chopped thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 250ml red wine
  • 500ml tomato passata (pureed tomatoes)
  • 250ml water
  • 200g frozen peas
  • 450g rigatoni pasta
  • 4 tbsp grated parmesan, plus extra for serving

Directions:

Heat oil in frying pan. Sautee onions, then add garlic and minced beef. Cook over high heat until beef is brown. Break up any clumps. Can also try adding carrots and celery for more veggies.

Stir in oregano, thyme and bay leaf. Season with salt and pepper. Add wine and cook until it is absorbed. Add passata and water. Cover and simmer for an hour, stirring occasionally. Add peas and remove from heat.

Preheat oven to 190C (374 F ). Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the rigatoni as instructed on the packet.

Place a few spoonfulls of the sauce on the bottom of a deep oven dish. Add the pasta. Scoop half of the remaining sauce on top of the pasta. Cut half the mozzarella and sprinkle on top, followed by two tbsp of parmesan. Scoop the remaining sauce on top, and scatter the remaining mozzarella and parmesan on top.

Bake in the oven for 20-30 minutes, until the top becomes a bit crusty. Serve with extra parmesan on top.

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Pasta with ‘Nduja Sauce

Nduja is one of the more interesting Italian specialty foods I’ve come across recently. Native to the southern Calabria region, the uniquely soft salami is spicy and packed with the fiery flavor of red peppers. It can be enjoyed spread thin over crackers or bread, used as the base for a stew or in a spicy pasta dish, brushed onto chicken, fish, or other meats, or layered as a topping for pizza.

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Nduja is made from the throat meat and fat of pigs.  The meat is chopped finely, then combined with salt and the ground hot pepper, which is also grown in Calabria, to form a paste. The meat paste is then piped inside a natural hog casing of the intestine and secured with hand-knotted hemp string before being hung in a curing chamber. It is smoked for about a week and then dried for three weeks or longer. The texture could be described as being similar to pâté, although slightly coarser, spicier and smokier.

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‘Nduja spread on crackers

The sausage paste has only recently become known outside of southern Italy. In England, you can find it at Waitrose as well as other specialty shops. When cooking, a little goes a long way, and just one tablespoon of the paste can sufficiently spice up a tomato sauce for pasta. 

 

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Pasta with ‘Nduja Sauce

Ingredients:

1/3 Cup Finely Chopped Onions
4 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 Cloves Garlic, Peeled & Minced
Approximately 3 Tablespoons Nduja Removed From The Casing
1 (14 Ounce) Can Pomodorini Tomatoes (See Note Above For Alternatives)
Salt & Pepper
1/2 Cup Cooked Chickpeas
1/4 Cup Chopped Fresh Parsley

250 Grams Penne Pasta

Directions:

In a small saucepan heat the olive oil and cook the onion until it is translucent.
Add the garlic and nduja and stir until the nduja melts into the oil.
Add the tomatoes, salt, pepper, chickpeas, and parsley and cook over low heat for about 10 minutes.
Cook your pasta until “al dente” and drain.
Return the pasta to the pot, add the nduja sauce and cook for a minute of two over high heat stirring constantly.
Serve hot. Can add Parmesan cheese or Ricotta cheese.

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Creamy Butternut Squash Pasta

This is a fun recipe that I found online. The Italian had never tried anything like it, so I’m not sure it would be considered a traditional Italian recipe, but it certainly was a good one!  I had made roasted butternut squash for dinner the night before and still had half the squash leftover so it was a perfect use for it. The original recipe called for boiled squash but I improvised and used my roasted one instead. The sweetness of the squash spiced with nutmeg and the salty parmesan was a winning combination!

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Ingredients:

1 small butternut squash
Olive oil
12 ounces penne pasta (or spaghetti)
1 1/2 cups water or vegetable broth
1/2 cup diced yellow onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Directions:

1. Sprinkle butternut squash with salt and olive oil  and roast in oven at 450F (220C) for about 35 minutes or until soft. Remove the skin. (Alternately, remove skin first and boil diced squash in boiling pot of water for 12-15 minutes.)

2. Place cooked squash in a food processor/blender. Puree the squash, adding the water or broth until it becomes smooth and reaches the desired consistency.

3. In frying pan, heat 1T olive oil and add garlic and onions. Sautee until onions are translucent, about 3-5 minutes. Add the pureed squash. Stir in parmesan cheese. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper.

4.  Add the pasta and mix until coated evenly. Serve hot.

Spaghetti con Bottarga e Pomodorini (Spaghetti with Bottarga and Tomatoes)

Bottarga is a unique food that is found in the Mediterranean and most often associated with Sardinian cuisine. I became a fan on the several trips to Sardinia I’ve taken with the Italian, where Spaghetti with Bottarga is a staple in his family’s summer home.

Bottarga is a salted and dried roe of either tuna or grey mullet. It is often used as a condiment and can be sprinkled on a variety of dishes besides pasta for a bit of extra flavor, including scrambled eggs, risotto or even salads. It can either be sold in a block or else already grated or sliced, and it has a deeply bright orangish-red colour and an intense, savoury flavour.

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Bottarga

Spaghetti con Bottarga e Pomodorini (Spaghetti with Bottarga and Tomatoes)

Ingredients:

Spaghetti (400 grams)

Cherry Tomatoes, chopped (1.5 cups)

Garlic (2)

Onion (1)

Basil (12 leaves)

Pepper (to taste)

Extra Virgin Olive Oil (4 T)

Bottarga, grated (2-3 T per person)

Directions:

Cut the cherry tomatoes in half. Chop garlic finely. Chop onion (slices or chunks, depending on preference.)

Heat a pan on medium and add oil. Add garlic and onions until onions turn translucent. Add the tomatoes and cook for about 5 minutes until they are soft. Add pinch of salt and lower the flame.

Cook the spaghetti in salted water until al dente. Add the spaghetti to the pan with the tomatoes along with pepper to taste and the basil leaves. Cook another minute or two.

Serve on plates. Each person can individually add their desired amount of grated bottarga (usually around 2-3 T) to their plate. Mix the bottarga into the spaghetti.

Enjoy!

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Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Spaghetti alla Carbonara is a go-to meal for the Italian – a hearty dish that is quick and easy to make. Originally from Rome, the dish is based on eggs, Parmesan cheese, bacon and black pepper. Some recipes also use cream, but the Italian says the original version (and the only kind he’ll make) is made without. An interesting tidbit from Wikipedia: after the Second World War it was very popular in Rome when many Italians were eating eggs and bacon supplied by troops from the United States.

The below recipe has been dictated by the Italian, who often cooks by eye, so quantities will be approximate.

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Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Ingredients:

Spaghetti (or linguine) – around 150g per person

Pancetta in cubes (or bacon) – around 100g person

Onion (optional)

Eggs – one per person

Salt

Black pepper

Parmesan cheese

Directions:

Buy pancetta in cubes. If not available, cut regular bacon into small, square strips.

Cook pancetta in frying pan with one teaspoon of oil. Option to add thinly sliced onions.

Bring water to a boil in tall pot. Add spaghetti. When water starts to boil again add a tablespoon of salt. Cook spaghetti until al dente. (Al dente is usually one or two minutes prior to the cooking time indicated on the package.)

Drain pasta. Take about half of the pasta and put in frying pan with pancetta. Cook on medium for roughly 10 seconds. This manner of cooking is what Italians refer to as “far saltare la pasta”, or making pasta “jump”. This is to make the pasta infused with the oil and bacon flavorings.

Put contents of frying pan into the tall pot with the rest of the spaghetti and stir.

When pasta is well covered with the pancetta sauce, add a total of one egg per person, one egg at a time, to the pot. As soon as the egg hits the pasta you must stir the pot rapidly and vigorously so that the egg white does not cook.

Finish the dish with black pepper to taste.

Serve with Parmesan cheese.