You know, I lived in Italy for five months and don’t recall ever eating a gooey square of lasagna. No manicotti, no stuffed shells, no casseroles overflowing with cheese, crushed tomatoes, and ground beef. Not even a meatball. Why? Because those aren’t standard menu fare of ristorantes in Roma, in Firenze, and Napoli. Instead, you’re face planting into plates of penne dressed in pesto, plump gnocchi in garlicky cream sauce, tortellini swimming in bolognese. Most of the dishes involved no more than five, fresh from the source, ingredients.
Today, in my own kitchen, I like to respect that simplicity. Praise it, even. I daydream about my time spent in the European boot. Write a love letter to linguine, sing a song about semifreddo. In reality, I was there for no longer than half a year. Not long at all. But moving to a foreign land for any length of time is so jarring and new that I think you end up more fiercely attached to it.
I had only taken one semester of Italian before I was handing my passport over to security, boarding a flight to Florence. Sure, I’ve always had a knack for languages, but I wasn’t necessarily prepared to shoot the breeze for more than un minuto.
Twenty four hours later, I was in an apartment, taking classes on Italian cinema, art history, and eating gelato like a daily multi-vitamin. Good for heart health, I think.
When you’re forced to adapt to a new environment, to make yourself a home away from home, you do so with a passion. With more tenacity than you would moving from Boston to Brooklyn. And in the end, I learned as much, if not more, about myself as I did about the Colosseum. The week before I departed Rome, I was holding my own in arguments with the local signore at my favorite farm stand about the price of bread. I had that fingers pressed together hand wave down pat. Showed up at the Pope’s doorstep for a cup of sugar.
That time of travel and exploration is so dear to my heart. Cooking Italian food in my American home, now, feels like flashbacks from a favorite movie. No, not Titanic. Though if Leo had been in my memories of Italy, I guarantee I’d be replaying that mental video til the tape burned out. And yes, I just referenced VHS. Don’t tell me you’ve switched to DVD.
Below is a recipe for a bubbling, ooey gooey, cheesy lasagna. Well over five ingredients. It pays homage to Italy, but feels more over the top, more American in its robustness. A happy marriage of wholesome ingredients and cheese-laden decadence. I’ve loaded it with roasted vegetables, a vibrant and flavorful marinara (I’d recommend making your own but if you’re of the jarred persuasion, I recommend Rao’s brand), creamy ricotta, and fresh mozzarella. If it does nothing else for you, the smell in your kitchen will be enough to make you smile.
Roasted Vegetable Lasagna
- 1 medium eggplant, sliced into 1/2″ thick rounds
- 1 zucchini, sliced
- 2 cups cremini mushrooms, chopped
- olive oil, for brushing the vegetables
- 4 cups of homemade marinara sauce (or 2 jars if you prefer to buy it)
- 12 sheets of “No Boil” lasagna pasta (Barilla brand is what I used)
- 1 15oz container of ricotta cheese (I use part skim)
- 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
- 1 egg
- 1 TBSP dried oregano
- 2 tsp dried basil
- 1 TBSP minced fresh garlic
- 3 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
Preheat the oven to 425°. Brush your vegetables on both sides with olive oil and place in a single layer on a two large baking sheets. Roast them for about 15-20 minutes, or until tender and beginning to brown. Remove to a wire rack to cool and lower the oven heat to 375°.
Spread one cup of the marinara sauce into the bottom of a greased 13×9″ pan.
Now spoon 1 cup marinara over that mozzarella layer
Then 4 more noodles. Followed by another 1/3 of the ricotta mixture.
And then the zucchini. Top this layer with another cup of mozzarella, another cup of sauce, four more noodles, the last of the ricotta, the mushrooms, the last cup of sauce, and finish with the remaining one cup of mozzarella. Let’s be honest, the layering doesn’t matter quite as much as you think. But to be clear it’s this general pattern: sauce, noodles, ricotta, veg, mozzarella. Then begin the order again with the sauce until you run out…see what I mean? The only real important thing is that you have a layer of sauce and mozzarella for the very top of the lasagna.
Cover with foil and bake for 55-60 minutes at 375°. Remove the foil and bake for an additional 5 minutes to let the cheese get nice and bubbly. Let the lasagna cool for at least 15 minutes before cutting so that it can set up and not ooze all over town.