In the United States, lasagna almost universally entails tomato sauce, mozzarella and ricotta. However, a recent visit to Italy reminded me that the lasagna family is, in fact, vast and varied. There are hard-boiled egg and meatball-stuffed lasagnas from Naples; chicken liver studded ones from Le Marche; Bolognese and béchamel-swathed examples from Emilia-Romagna.
But there was one version that made me run to pull out my lasagna pan as soon as I got home: white lasagna. Made with a béchamel sauce and often meatless, white lasagnas are plush, creamy showcases for seasonal vegetables — artichokes in spring, zucchini in summer, mushrooms in the fall, radicchio in winter — layered between thin sheets of pasta, then baked until golden.
This version evokes spring with a combination of leeks, asparagus, spinach and peas, all of which are much quicker and easier to deal with than fresh artichokes. And into the bargain, having a mix of different vegetables gives this lasagna an exquisitely complex flavor.
Like most lasagna recipes, it’s a bit of a project. You need to make the béchamel, sauté the vegetables, then layer everything together with four kinds of cheese (mozzarella, Parmesan, Pecorino Romano and ricotta).
But unlike some lasagna recipes, you don’t have to make the pasta by hand. You don’t even have to search out fresh lasagna noodles from the store. Dried noodles from the box (either no-boil or regular) work exceptionally well here, because the liquid from the béchamel and all the vegetables will cook the noodles as the lasagna bakes, saving you what Marcella Hazan describes as the “necessary nuisance” of cooking, washing, wringing and drying the pasta. One doesn’t deviate from Marcella’s instruction lightly, but that’s a lot of nuisance.
She and I do agree that lasagna suffers no harm from being prepared up to two days ahead. You can assemble it ahead and bake it as your guests arrive, or else assemble and bake it ahead, then reheat just before serving. Both methods make for a great dish, but you’ll end up with a firmer, easier-to-slice lasagna if you bake ahead and reheat. Or you can time things to let the freshly baked lasagna rest for 30 minutes before serving.
Lasagna may have left behind a lot of cousins in Italy when it became American, but there’s still so much to learn from the extended family.