I just couldn't go to San Diego without treating my best friend (and her very gracious roommates) to a home-cooked meal. After a really taxing day of reading, lunch, and sitting on the beach, we hit up the grocery store to prepare for our feast. We had a ton of fun cooking (and I tried to impart what little knowledge of the culinary world I have to Alisha, who was a capable sous chef as well as kitchen DJ), and the meal turned out to be quite a success!
We had several bottles of wine to sample (all wonderful), and both vegetarians and omnivores to please. It was a lot of hands-on time in a typically cramped apartment kitchen, but it was a great night with new friends in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
(makes 12 servings)
12 lasagne noodles
1 package frozen chopped spinach
1 medium yellow onion
1 jar roasted red bell pepper, drained and patted dry
2 T. olive oil
1/2 head broccoli
2 T. butter
2-3 T. flour
2-3 c. skim milk (or any kind you have)
3/4 lb. shredded mozzarella cheese
1 large container part-skim ricotta cheese
1 jar marinara sauce
fresh chopped basil
fresh thyme, leaves only
salt and pepper
(makes 8 servings - you might want to cut this recipe in half)
4 large chicken breasts
juice of 2 large lemons
1 large bunch fresh parsley, chopped
1 large shallot, chopped
3 T. capers
2 c. dry white wine
4 T. butter
3 T. olive oil
1/2 c. flour
Boil a large pot of salted water. Cook the lasagne noodles until they are al dente. Drain, then return to the pot, and fill with cold water and ice cubes (this is a patented method by yours truly). Get a 9 X 12 casserole dish ready by spreading a few spoonfuls of marinara sauce in the bottom of it. Pick up a noodle, and holding it by the top, carefully run the index and middle finger of your other hand down the noodle, getting rid of excess water. Place it lengthwise in the dish. Do this with two more noodles.
Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Boil the broccoli for just a few minutes, until it is bright green and a little tender. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix the ricotta and about half the mozzarella, the basil and thyme, and some salt and pepper to taste. Stir until well-combined. Using a spoon and your fingers, spread 1/4 of the ricotta mixture over the noodles until they are covered. Drain the broccoli and chop it into little pieces. Spread the broccoli over the ricotta mixture. Pour about 1/2 the marinara over the broccoli.
Go ahead and get the next layer ready: drain and place three more noodles over the broccoli layer, then top those with another 1/4 of the ricotta mixture. Chop the onion and the roasted red pepper. In a large pan, heat the olive oil. Saute the onions until they're golden brown, seasoning with a little salt and pepper. Set aside.
Get the bechamel sauce ready: in a saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and whisk in the flour. When it forms a roux, cook for 1-2 minutes, then whisk in the milk. Bring to a boil, add salt and pepper, and stir constantly until the mixture thickens. You may have to reduce the heat a bit, but make sure to bring it to a boil first. Spread the onions and red bell pepper over the ricotta. Top with the bechamel sauce (just enough to cover the surface of that layer).
Lay three more drained noodles on top. Spread with another 1/4 of the lasagna mixture. Top that with the spinach.*** Top with the rest of the marinara sauce. Preheat the oven to 375.
Lay the last three noodles on top, spread the remaining ricotta mixture over them, then top with enough mozzarella cheese to cover it all. Bake the lasagne for 30-45 minutes, until cheese is melted and beginning to brown, and edges are melty. Remove from oven and allow to "rest" for 10-15 minutes before cutting.
While the lasagne is baking, make the chicken piccata: slice the chicken breasts in half lengthwise (or skip this step by buying thin-cut chicken breasts). Spread the flour out on a plate, mixing in some salt and pepper. Dredge each chicken breast in flour and set aside. In a large frying pan, heat half the butter and olive oil over medium-high heat. Fry the chicken on each side until browned, seasoning a little more as you go; add more olive oil and butter to the pan as needed. Set chicken aside, or if the chicken is thicker and not cooked through in the middle, place in the oven for 10-15 minutes with the lasagne to finish cooking.
Turn the heat down to medium, and add a little more olive oil. Add the shallots, and cook until lightly browned. Deglaze the pan with the white wine, scraping up the brown bits. Add the lemon juice, and turn up the heat. Add the parsley and capers and cook until reduced/a little thickened. Remove from heat and stir in a chunk of butter. Serve alongside the chicken, drizzling it over the chicken on the serving platter if desired. Serve with the lasagne and a fresh green salad. Enjoy!
***The best way to deal with the spinach is to microwave it with a little water until it's room temperature, then thoroughly drain it by pushing on it with the back of a spoon until it is very dry.
This was, admittedly, quite an involved meal, considering I was serving 8 people. I was trying to please both the vegetarians and the meat-eaters, hence the two dishes that are really more of main courses on their own. The good news is, it came out really great! The chicken was moist and flavorful, and the piccata sauce was the perfect astringent complement to the creamy, cheesiness of the lasagne. The lasagne, interestingly, tasted almost exactly like Stouffer's veggie lasagne, except much fresher, less salty, and with no chemical-ish aftertaste. Lasagne is always a lot of work, but it's always worth it, and it's definitely a crowd-pleaser.
One of the best things about lasagna is that you can put whatever you want in it: I've made sausage lasagna, butternut squash lasagna, beef lasagna, mushroom lasagna, and probably a whole lot of other ones I can't remember. The bechamel sauce is a traditional touch - we certainly never had that at home growing up. I've also made them with vodka sauce, which is amazing. I particularly like the combination of the bechamel and the tomato sauce - it gives it a subtle creaminess that doesn't overpower the delicate flavors of the vegetables.
Thanks so much to my fabulous host Alisha, my wonderful dinner guests, and to my readers! More soon...