Asparagus and White Bean Lasagna
Mike was helping me carry in my grocery bags.
Mike: “What’s with all the asparagus?”
Tina: “I’m going to make lasagna for dinner tomorrow night!”
Mike: “Oh, that sounds great babe! But what’s with all the asparagus?”
What can I say, I’m a big asparagus fan! I like it steamed, roasted, grilled, baked, smothered and covered, raw julienned….I just like asparagus. One of the best things about spring is the fresh, sweet asparagus that starts going on sale in all the stores. Big ol’ fatties or pencil thin stalks, no matter how it weighs in there will always be a place on my plate. I’ve been feeling all luxurious lately, so at first when I bought 2 bunches of asparagus I was thinking about a rich, creamy quiche with bacon and asparagus…but then I got side tracked by the imported cheese section of the store, and my happy eggy dreams were a wash in favor of asparagus smothered in a thick cheesy sauce. God do I ever love cheese.
Through the curious cravings of my imagination, and through the various sections of the grocery store (deli: fresh pasta sheets. Dry goods: navy beans…..) things started to firm up and take shape. Asparagus in cheese sauce is great, but oh boy do I love pasta. There could be pasta AND cheese sauce. And I just bought a bunch of peppers……and did I mention that the weather turned on us again and I wanted a bit of comfort food?
When spring time cravings collide, at least I could turn to an asparagus and white bean lasagna. It’s light but still rich and cheesy. It’s flavorful but not overwhelming. This is spring time comfort food, in my opinion. Not too heavy, nice and bright with fresh seasonal ingredients, and with enough dairy to give a hippo a heart attack. I couldn’t ask for more.
Asparagus and White Bean Lasagna
- 2 large sweet red peppers
- 2 large sweet yellow peppers
- 1 head garlic
- 2 tsp dried basil
- 1 tbsp dried oregano
- 1/2 cup chicken stock
- 1/2 cup buttter
- 1/2 cup flour
- 5 cups milk
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg
- 2 large bunches of asparagus
- 1 can (19 oz) navy beans *
- 2 cups finely grated asiago cheese
- 1 450 g small (4.5″) wheel Port Salut cheese **
- 2 packages fresh whole wheat lasagna noodles ***
- salt and pepper to taste
Required: One large lasagna pan or deep casserole dish, at least approximately 9″x13″x4″ but 10″x15″x4″ will be a perfect fit.
* If you can’t find navy beans, Great Northern or white kidney beans would be a good substitute.
**Port Salut is a semi-soft cheese that originated in the Brittany region of France. It has a washed rind which is generally fairly orange, and a soft interior which is creamy and nutty. Although the taste of Port Salut is rather mild, as the cheese matures it can sometimes settle into a rather funky aroma – don’t worry though, that’s just the Cheese Fairy waving her magical incense around your dairy products. Nothing to be afraid of, really. Although Port Salut is recognizably French, there are wonderful versions now that are being made in Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands and Scandinavia…so don’t discount the cheese just because it’s not waving a French flag. If you aren’t a fan of Port Salut you could use a similar Trappist style cheese, such as Saint Paulin, Saint Andre, Reblochon, or even domestic Oka in a pinch.
Preheat your oven to 450ºF.
Lightly spray a baking sheet with non stick spray and lay down the peppers. Separate the garlic cloves but don’t peel them – they’re far more comfortable in their own skins then you would think. Intersperse the unpeeled cloves around the peppers and place the tray in the center of a hot oven for 10-12 minutes. Remove the garlic cloves from the pan and let them cool off to the side in a small bowl or whatnot. The papery skins should be just starting to peel off, and the cloves will be soft and squishy in that roasted garlic way. Flip the peppers and put them back into the oven for another 12-15 minutes, or until they’re well blackened in spots and heavily blistered.
While the peppers are cooking it doesn’t hurt to be productive, so if you would like something to do I would suggest thinly slicing the round of Port Salut and shredding the Asiago.
As soon as your peppers are blackened and out of the oven, turn the heat down to 350ºF.
The peppers will be easier to skin if you let them steam themselves for a few minutes before starting to peel. I’ve tried the old paper bag trick, and the plastic bag trick (HORRIBLE MISTAKE) but the easiest way I’ve found is just to throw the super-hot peppers onto my cutting board and cover them with a bowl for 5-10 minutes. They will literally start to steam themselves as they cool, which makes it much easier to just peel the skin right off when they’re cool enough to handle.
When your pepper is peeled, discard the skins and seeds. Let the peppers drain until most of their residual liquid is gone, and then toss them into a blender. Peel the garlic and add the whole cloves to the blender along with the basil, oregano and chicken stock. Puree the mixture until it’s smooth, and season it well with salt and pepper to taste.
Now then, let’s get started on the bechamel! It’s usually wise to make bechamel sauce the LAST thing you do when you’re making a pasta dish, because as it sits and cools the sauce will begin to firm up and congeal.
In a large heavy bottomed sauce pan melt the half cup of butter over medium heat. As soon as the butter is melted (move quickly because you don’t want it to brown) add the flour and whisk it thoroughly until it forms a thick paste. Let this paste cook down for a minute or two, stirring occasionally, to get rid of the raw flour taste.
Slowly pour in a cup of milk, whisking constantly as you do. The buttery flour will seize onto the milk and get very thick immediately, so keep pouring in the milk at a nice slow speed and whisk it constantly to make sure that there are no lumps, bumps, or other undesirables.
Let the mixture simmer, whisking regularly so that it doesn’t form a skin. Add in the nutmeg and season the sauce with salt and pepper. Let the sauce continue to cook until it thickens up considerably and has the texture of an Alfredo sauce or a rather runny yoghurt. Huh. Maybe neither one of those analogies will help you. Okay, thicken it until it can generously coat the back of a spoon, but make sure that you don’t thicken it until it’s gloppy like sour cream. Yes, that’s better.
At this point, take it off of the heat and be prepared to continue whisking it every few minutes to make sure that a skin doesn’t form while you’re busy with other things.
At this point you might be doing a mental tally and going, “Huh. I’ve got a big bowl of roasted red pepper sauce, PLUS a giant saucepan of bechamel….all for one wee little lasagna.” Let me put your heart to rest. First of all, this is not just a wee little lasagna. It’s a honkin’ big pan full of gooey springy goodness. More importantly, however, is that the pre-packaged ‘fresh’ (or quick cook) lasagna noodles tend to absorb a hella lot of liquid. To keep them from drying out, you’ll want to make sure that you keep a rather liberal hand with the saucery.
In a large roasting, casserole or lasagna pan (mine is about 9.5″ x 14″) spread 3/4 cup of the sweet red pepper sauce inside the bottom of the pan. Drain and rinse the can of beans and add them to the remaining sauce in your bowl.
Start laying down a single layer of noodles, overlapping them just slightly (by no more than 1/4″) as you go. Make sure that the lasagna noodles completely cover the bottom of your pan, trimming them and using sliced sheets and scraps if necessary to make sure that you have an even layer that fully covers the base.
Snap the woody tips off of the asparagus spears and discard them. Spread a thick layer (1/3 of the bechamel sauce) over top of the lasagna noodles and arrange the asparagus spears over them in a top-to-tail fashion. Dot the asparagus spears with 1/2 of the thinly sliced Port Salut cheese.
Lay a second layer of lasagna noodles on top, being sure to completely cover the asparagus and go right over to the edges of the pan. Spread half of the beans and pepper sauce over top of the noodles, and sprinkle them with 1/2 cup of the grated Asiago cheese.
Repeat with another layer of bechamel (half of what you have left), asparagus and Port Salut, and then one more layer of beans and Asiago.
Lay a final layer of lasagna noodles on top. As you build the lasagna it’s okay if some of the corner pieces are raised because they’ll help to hold it together in a crust. When you get to the top though, trip the pointy corners into a curve so they nestle neatly inside the pan. Spread the remaining third of bechamel on top and sprinkle on the remaining 1 cup of Asiago cheese.
And don’t mind my ghetto cell phone in the background of this picture. I keep meaning to upgrade to an iPhone, but then I get sidetracked by the sight of a shiny nickel and totally forget to bring myself into the 21st century.
Cover the lasagna pan with tinfoil and tuck it into the center of your 350ºF oven for 35 minutes.
Uncover the pan (keep your tinfoil though as you can reuse it in a little while) and return it to the oven for another 20 minutes, or until the top is bubbly and browned.
Very loosely tent the lasagna with that first round of tin foil and let it rest for 10-15 minutes before digging in.
This super rich and cheesy lasagna scoffs at the thought of garlic bread, but doesn’t mind a fresh green salad on the side.
Cutting through you’ll see layers of soft asparagus smothered in ooey-gooey melted cheese, and creamy white beans nestled in a sauce of bright and rich roasted peppers and nutty-sweet garlic.
I was always slightly curious about the Pastafarian religion. The thing is, I know without a shadow of doubt that if I DID have to choose a religion I would probably do much better as a Pastafarian than as a Catholic. I mean, as a Catholic you get to confess all of your sins and problems to somebody who has no choice but to listen (PS – I do that anyway) but you only get to drink wine once a week, and they give you such tiny little portion cups in church. As a Pastafarian, I’m pretty sure that swilling Chianti is incorporated as a fundamental daily ritual, right after brushing your teeth and praying for a world free from powdered Parmesan. Yessiree, Pastafarians HERE I COME!!!
Ah, who says lasagnas are only for the fall and winter? Comfort food knows no such bounds. More importantly, who says that lasagna has to take 2 hours of prep time? Certainly not me. I had this beast assembled and in the oven in 35 minutes flat. So….that’s that. Go forth and eat noodles.