Lasagna terrifies me.
For years, I dreamed of re-creating the Italian comfort classic in my kitchen, but I was always scared off by the many potential pitfalls. It’s too dry. It’s too soupy. The noodles are undercooked. The noodles are mush. The noodles are stuck together in a giant starch-bomb. Who are these kitchen acrobats willing to walk the cheesy Cirque du Soleil tight-rope of perfectly baked lasagna?
Well, I know of one lasagna superhero, and she’s been the greatest deterrent of all to my taking on lasagna. It’s my mom. She makes lasagna once a year for Christmas dinner, and it’s outstanding. Her take on the classic lasagna is hearty and packed with flavor, and it comes out perfectly every time.
I just can’t compete with that. It seemed pointless to attempt a classic lasagna knowing it would never measure up to Mom’s. So I decided the only way I could bake a lasagna that didn’t leave me feeling dead inside would be to take it in an entirely different direction.
I knew I wanted to nix the traditional red meat sauce and use a béchamel punched up with tangy goat cheese instead. Then I held a series of vigorous auditions in the produce department, and after much deliberation, ultimately cast asparagus, lemon, and thyme as the leads. Diced, sautéed pancetta plays a salty, supporting role. (Sorry, I’m watching the Oscars.)
The resulting lasagna is almost as delicious as Mom’s, but could not be more different. It’s really the perfect dinner for a late February evening, when I’m still craving winter’s creamy comfort foods, but I’m ready for bright, fresh flavors. The tender asparagus and sunshiny lemon zest reach out from under a velvet blanket of cheese and pasta to invite springtime to stay for dinner.
Continue reading for the Asparagus Lasagna with Pancetta, Goat Cheese, and Lemon recipe
- 2 large garlic cloves, peeled
- 2 pounds fresh asparagus
- ¼ pound pancetta, diced
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 2 cups 1% milk
- 4 ounces goat cheese
- White pepper
- ⅓ cup chopped Italian parsley
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
- Zest of 1 lemon
- ½ pound lasagna noodles
- 1 cup 4-cheese Italian blend
- Fill a large stock pot with water, and add the garlic cloves. Bring to a boil while you trim the asparagus by breaking off the woody ends. Do not throw the ends away. Yet.
- When the water comes to a boil, add a pinch of salt and the woody asparagus ends. Reduce the heat to medium low, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove the asparagus ends and the garlic cloves from the water and discard the stems and garlic. Do not discard the water.
- Bring the water back to a boil, and add the asparagus stalks. Boil for four minutes, then transfer them to a bowl of ice water. Again, do not discard the cooking water. Allow the asparagus to cool for a few minutes, then drain. Set the asparagus aside.
- In a large skillet brown the pancetta until crisp. Remove from the pan using a slotted spoon.
- Add the butter to the rendered pancetta fat and melt over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook, stirring constantly for about 1 minute. Add the milk all at once and whisk constantly. When the mixture reaches a boil, remove from the heat and stir in the goat cheese, parsley, thyme, and lemon zest. Add salt and white pepper to taste. Thin out the white sauce with about 1 cup of the asparagus cooking water.
- Bring the rest of the asparagus cooking water back to a rolling boil, and add the lasagna noodles. Cook per box instructions; drain.
- Line a 13 x 9-inch baking dish with foil. Spread a very thin layer of white sauce over the bottom of the dish. Cover with a layer of pasta, then top with ⅓ of the asparagus, ⅓ of the pancetta, and ⅓ of the white sauce. Repeat the layers two more times, ending with the white sauce. Sprinkle on the shredded cheese.
- Cover tightly with plastic wrap if storing in the refrigerator (can be stored up to 2 days before baking).
- Preheat oven to 350.
- Cover the lasagna tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 35 minutes. Remove the foil and bake an additional 10 minutes until golden brown. Allow to set up before slicing.