In my father’s kitchen, anything called lasagna had red sauce, three kinds of cheese, sweet Italian sausage, and the heft of a door stop. The impressive height of his lasagna, a height created layer by painstaking layer, was a point of pride for him.
He was a wonderful cook of all the Italian and Italian-American dishes we ate: stuffed and rolled roast pork complete with cracklings, braciole either on the grill or stewed in sauce, meatballs, chicken cacciatore, calamari, scampi, spaghetti with clams, ravioli, fried squash blossoms, the vegetables from his garden…I could go on and on.
Sometimes when I am cooking I think about being able to go back in time to have one more taste of something he made. Something I don’t make at home because I know my version would never live up to his. What would I choose? The squash blossoms? The cracklings? Or just one of his salads, dressed by sight and by instinct with a pour of olive oil, a splash of vinegar, a pinch of salt – hardly a vinaigrette at all and yet the best complement to fresh greens I have ever tasted.
I would not, however, choose his lasagna.
The older my father got, the thicker and denser his lasagna became. In his last decade, when he had full responsibility for putting meals on the table, lasagna was not so much tasty meal as it was a milestone marker. Each year passed, he added to the casserole another layer of noodles and cheese, he produced an extremely substantial dish that announced, “Time’s ticking, but I’m still here, still constructing something, still cooking.”
And continue to cook it he did. He made lasagna for guests and to bring to others’ homes on holidays; he made it and froze it for my sister to have on hand during a busy work week; and he made it – ever taller, richer, spicier – to tempt my mother’s appetite when Parkinson’s made eating so difficult that she became indifferent to food.
A meal of my father’s lasagna during those last few years was nearly indigestible. Except, apparently, to him. He ate his way through it happily, unaware of anyone’s stomach-clutching discomfort, impervious to any of his own. He ate with relish and he ate with pride, and he cleaned his plate.
For a long time the propensity to build up and therefore weigh down the lasagna struck me as odd. The lack of restraint evidenced in this one dish was incongruous with the man who had such instinct about flavor and respect for ingredients. He went completely overboard with both in his lasagna.
For a long time I couldn’t understand why.
I’m not sure I understand now. I’m sure it had something to do with my mother. Tempting her with something good was a great service; tempting her with more of a good thing had to be the ideal, as far as he was concerned.
But I wonder if it didn’t have something to do with him too, with a diminishing ability to taste with age. With that loss of taste came the loss of the flavors of a favorite dish. Making lasagna bigger, bolder, cheesier, heartier might have been his way of hanging on to something he loved and missed.
If my father were able to come to dinner tonight he would not recognize my baked pasta as lasagna. Mine is not tall, heavy, or aggressively spiced, and there’s not a tomato in sight.
Instead it is filled with pieces of grilled chicken, sautéed leafy radicchio from Heron Pond Farm, a little bacon, and some caramelized onions. The sauce is a classic béchamel, and I have used very little cheese in the assembled dish. It is light enough to eat for a summer dinner and yet full of big flavors. My father might not recognize it, but I think he would approve.
Lasagna with Chicken and Radicchio
Heron Pond Farm offers a wonderful leafy green radicchio just barely tinged with red. It looks like a head of romaine but has the bitter bite of chicory. I love it. Sauteeing mellows the sharpness common to greens in the chicory family, showcasing the vegetable’s complex flavor in the process. Substitute your week’s chard or even spinach if that’s what you have; both would work well in this lasagna.
No-boil lasagna noodles are a wonderful thing. Not only are they a godsend on a hot day (no standing over a steaming pot, yay!), I think they improve lasagna’s texture. The finished lasagna will be lighter, almost melt-in-your-mouth like a lasagna that has been made with fresh homemade pasta sheets. Which you can by all means substitute if you wish. For my noodles, I buy Barilla, but I occasionally see other brands.
For the béchamel:
- 6 Tbsp. butter
- 4 Tbsp. flour
- 4 ½ cups whole milk
- ½ tsp salt, or to taste
- black pepper
Heat the milk to just warm in a small saucepan or in the microwave. Remove from the heat.
Melt butter in a medium heavy bottomed saucepan. When the butter begins to foam, stir in the flour. Stir until it is smooth and let the flour cook for a minute or two. Stir constantly so it does not burn.
Gradually add the warm milk to the mixture, stirring or whisking constantly. When all the milk has been added, stir the sauce until it begins to bubble and thicken. This will take about 5-7 minutes, give or take. Continue stirring through the whole process so the milk does not scorch.
When thickened until the sauce coats the spoon, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the salt, pepper, and a grating of nutmeg. Taste for seasoning, and add more salt if necessary. Set aside for assembly.
For the filling:
- the meat from 2 grilled or broiled chicken breasts (this is a great way to use up leftover chicken), shredded or sliced up
- 3 strips of bacon, cut into small pieces
- 1 large sweet onion, thinly sliced
- 1 head of radicchio cut into ribbons
Salt and pepper the cooked chicken pieces if necessary and set them aside.
Crisp up the bacon pieces in a large heavy skillet over medium to medium high heat. Remove the finished bacon from the pan and drain on paper towels or brown paper.
Drain off all but 1 tablespoon of bacon fat. In the remaining bacon fat, saute the onion slices, stirring occasionally, until they are caramel brown and soft. Remove from the pan to a plate or bowl and set side.
Place the radicchio into the same pan, reduce the heat to medium low, and stir to wilt. When this is soft, remove it from the pan to a plate or bowl and set aside for assembly.
- 1 cup grated or shredded parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 9- by 13-inch baking dish.
Stir two-thirds of the cheese into the béchamel. Put a ladleful of béchamel on the bottom of the baking dish and spread it out to cover. Lay 4 pasta sheets on top, slightly overlapping each.
Scatter across the top of this half of the chicken, half of the bacon pieces, one-third of the radicchio, and one-third of the onions.
Pour 1 ½ ladles full of béchamel over and top with four more pasta sheets.
Top this layer with one-third of the radicchio, one-third of the onions, and 1 ½ ladles full of sauce. Top with four more pasta sheets.
Scatter across the top of this the remainder of the chicken, the remainder of the bacon pieces, the last of the radicchio, and the last of the onions. Pour 1 ½ ladles full of béchamel over and top with the four last pasta sheets.
Pour the remaining béchamel over the top. With the no-boil noodles, it is necessary to cover them completely with sauce so they cook through and get soft. Top the casserole with the last one-third of the cheese. Place in a preheated oven and bake for 35-45 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbling and the top is golden brown.
©2010 Jane Ward