Part of the pleasure for me of tucking into a lovely, hearty, saucy lasagna is the surprise of what I’ll find inside. The hot layers hold within them all sorts of delicious little morsels that entice me bite after bite—the al dente noodles, the savory, robust sauce, the little bits of vegetables and meats, the fresh herbs and the bubbly, melted cheeses—playfully keeping me guessing what my next delightful bite will contain. Each layer is there to be filled and built upon, to be a support for the next layer, until all of the layers are complete and are finally topped with a sprinkling of cheese that becomes the gorgeous, golden, gooey crust that covers and seals all that is contained within. It reminds me of the way that different periods, layers, of our lives are filled with various experiences, some challenging and some scrumptiously joyous, all meant to be learned from and built upon, until the sum total of those experiences culminate in some wisdom and understanding.
Childhood is a time of daily learning, for discovering how things fit together and what boundaries are. Without even knowing it, our interactions and observations during this time are the precious ingredients that are the warm filling for the first layer, the foundational layer, of the rest of our lives. Adulthood ushers in the addition of responsibility along with the assumption that by now, there’s a strong understanding of how things work, how far boundaries can be pushed, and of results and ramifications. Our growing understanding of relationships gets added to the pool of ingredients for our middle layer. In older age, a mellowing seemingly begins to happen, the kind that only comes with the many experiences of life and of actually living through all that life has provided. By then, a lot of truth has often been revealed, and through the actual testing of it, our understanding of how things work ideally becomes more complete. It’s discovered that all of the layers of life, with all of their component ingredients, have been there to serve and give structure to a total life.
The layers of lasagna are like the layers of life. Experiences are the surprise ingredients that support each next phase, until everything is topped off, finally, with a sprinkling of wisdom to seal it all. How much more gooey, delicious and enticing could it all be? If you ask me, I can’t think of a tastier way to view life.
Taste what’s good and pass it on.
Six-Cheese Lasagna with Pancetta, Spinach and Asparagus in a Summer Basil-Cream Sauce
• Summer Basil-Cream Sauce (recipe below)
12 lasagna noodles, cooked according to package instructions
4 cups, packed, baby spinach leaves
2½ cups ricotta cheese
1½ cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1¾ cup shredded Italian four-cheese blend
12 ounces asparagus, thin spears, cut into bite sized pieces and blanched
8 ounces pancetta, small dice, cooked until crisp (bacon can be substituted)
• Pinch salt
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
2 tablespoons fresh chopped basil for garnish
-Preheat the oven to 400 degrees, and line a baking sheet with foil to place the lasagna pan onto to avoid dripping.
-Using a 12 ½” x 9 ½” (roughly) baking dish, add about 1 cup of the Basil Cream sauce to the bottom of the dish as a coating, and then add 4 of the cooked lasagna noodles over top of the sauce; next, add 1 cup of the Basil Cream sauce to the noodles, and spread out with the back of a spoon or a spatula to coat evenly; next, add 2 cups of the baby spinach leaves in a nice, even layer, and then 1 ¼ cup of the ricotta cheese, in small, even dollops over top; next, evenly add ½ cup of the mozzarella cheese and ¼ cup of the four-cheese blend, and then about half of your blanched, bite-size asparagus pieces and about ¼ cup of the crisp pancetta; sprinkle on a pinch of the salt to give the vegetables a little extra flavor, being careful not to add too much; next, repeat the layering process by adding another 4 cooked lasagna noodles over this, and press down gently to compact it a little bit; add another 1 cup of the Basil Cream sauce and spread out evenly, and add the remaining 2 cups of the baby spinach leaves, evenly; add the remaining 1 ¼ cup ricotta cheese in small, even dollops, then another ½ cup of the mozzarella cheese and ¼ cup of the four-cheese blend, then the remainder of the asparagus pieces and another ¼ cup of the crisp pancetta (reserve about 1 tablespoon of pancetta for garnish), and again, a little pinch of salt over the vegetables; finally, add the 4 remaining cooked lasagna noodles over top, pressing down again to compact the lasagna, and add 1 cup of the Basil Cream sauce, smoothing over evenly again; add the remaining ½ cup mozzarella cheese and remaining 1 ¼ cup four-cheese blend evenly, and finish by sprinkling the teaspoon of Italian seasoning over the cheese; trim off any over-hanging pieces of lasagna noodles to create a clean edges
-Place the baking dish with the lasagna onto the foil-lined baking sheet and into the oven to bake, uncovered, for about 30 minutes, or until golden-brown on top and bubbly; remove from oven, allow to cool for a few minutes before serving.
-Cut equal servings of the lasagna and place onto plates; drizzle over top some of the remaining warm Basil Cream sauce, and sprinkle on a few bits of the remaining crisp pancetta and also some of the fresh, chopped basil leaves.
Summer Basil Cream Sauce ingredients:
8 cups low-fat milk
1 tablespoon all-natural, low-sodium chicken base
4 cloves garlic, pressed through garlic press
2 teaspoons salt
1teaspoon Italian seasoning
¼ teaspoon black pepper
4 ounces unsalted butter
4 ounces all-purpose flour (about ½ cup plus 3 tablespoons)
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons lemon zest
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup, packed, fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
-Add the milk to a medium-large pot and set over medium heat; add the chicken base, the garlic, the salt, the Italian seasoning and the black pepper to the milk and whisk to incorporate, and allow the milk to slowly come to the simmer, being careful not to let it boil over—stay close by; once it starts to simmer, turn off the heat.
-In another medium-large pot set over medium-low heat, add the butter and allow it to melt; once melted, add the flour and stir together to create a “roux” or thickener; cook this roux for about 1-2 minutes to cook out the “raw” flour taste, then slowly add the hot milk to this roux, whisking continuously all the time to prevent lumps from forming; once all milk has been added, whisk until you’re sure there are no lumps and the cream sauce is smooth; allow the cream sauce to very gently simmer, uncovered, for about 5-10 minutes to thicken a bit, whisking occasionally; after that time, turn the heat off from under the cream sauce, and whisk in the Parmesan, the lemon zest and juice and the chopped basil leaves; stir well to incorporate, and check/adjust the salt level, if needed; allow to cool slightly before using for the lasagna, or make a day ahead and keep in fridge until you’re ready to make the lasagna, at which time it can be reheated.