I’ve been cooking and writing about it for decades: in books, magazines, and newspapers. Along the way, I’ve collected a list of my favorite recipes. Asparagus Lasagna is on my “great-recipe lineup.”
Asparagus and pasta are a perfect couple; they create a luscious contrast in flavors and textures, especially when bound with a creamy goat cheese-spiked sauce.
Roasting asparagus sweetens its grassy flavor, so before it is layered into the lasagna, I quickly roast the stalks in a 500-degree oven until tender and lightly browned. The tips are left raw and reserved for a tasty topping.
Fat stalks or skinny? Asparagus connoisseurs often disagree. Some prefer the pudgier wide stalks, while others argue that the slender “buggy whip” style asparagus is superior. Either one works in this recipe, but the thinner stalks require less time in the oven to roast to perfection.
Thin no-boil or oven-ready lasagna noodles are the best choice for the pasta element in this dish. These almost paper-thin dry noodles taste like delicate homemade pasta sheets once baked in the oven. Unlike traditional lasagna noodles, they don’t require precooking before they are layered into a casserole dish. They just need a gentle soak in cool water while the asparagus is roasting.
Once the casserole dish has been layered—pasta, sauce, asparagus, cheese—the reserved uncooked asparagus tips are assembled atop the dish along with some whipped cream (yes, I know it isn’t a hot fudge sundae: Trust me on this). One last thing, more grated Parmesan cheese is sprinkled over the top, and the dish is baked in a 400-degree oven. After baking, the whipped cream and cheese gives the dish a glorious brown gratineed appearance. Beautiful.
Sometimes I prepare the dish in two 8- or 9-inch square baking pans, but I love the more glamourous look of patchworking it into one large gratin dish. A few times I have layered in cooked-and-crumbled Italian sausage. It’s delicious that way, but I think omitting the meat shows off the asparagus to its best advantage.
Yield: about 6 servings
4 pounds asparagus, tough bottom portion trimmed and discarded
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt to taste
8 ounces “no-boil” or “oven ready” lasagna noodles, see cook’s notes
1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter, cut into 4 pieces
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups chicken broth, see cook’s notes
1/2 cup water
7 ounces soft goat cheese
1 to 2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest (colored portion of peel)
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
One and one-third cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided use
1 cup chilled heavy whipping cream
Pinch of salt
Optional garnish: sprigs of Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
Cook’s notes: You can use standard lasagna noodles, but they will require cooking and draining before assembling the lasagna. If you prefer, substitute 2 cups of vegetable broth for 1 1/2 cups of chicken stock and 1/2 cup water.
- Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Cut the tender tips off the asparagus and reserve. Place asparagus stalks on 2 rimmed baking sheets. Drizzle olive oil over the top of asparagus, and shake pans to coat asparagus. Place asparagus in a preheated 500-degree oven for 10 minutes, switching the pan positions from top rack to bottom halfway through roasting and giving the pans a shake to rotate the asparagus. Remove from oven and sprinkle with salt to taste.
- Meanwhile, soak lasagna noodles in cold water for 20 minutes (it is best to separate them and scatter them in a large bowl or pan so they won’t stick together). As you use the pasta, lift each piece from the water and let it drain. Turn oven to 400 degrees.
- In a large saucepan on medium heat, melt the butter. Add the flour and stir over medium heat for 3 minutes (do not brown). Remove from heat and, using a wire whisk, beat in broth and water in a thin stream. Return to medium heat and simmer to thicken it for about 6 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and add goat cheese, lemon peel and salt to taste; using a wire whisk, mix until blended and smooth. Stir in basil.
- Cut asparagus stalks into 1- to 1 1/2-inch pieces. Spray with nonstick olive oil spray or butter a 9-by-15-inch oval gratin baking dish (or two 8-inch or 9-inch square baking dishes). Arrange single layer of pasta in pan(s). Top with one-third of sauce. Top with one-third cup of roasted asparagus pieces and one-third cup grated Parmesan cheese. Continue to layer the pasta/sauce/asparagus/Parmesan – to create two more layers. Top with a layer of pasta.
- In a large bowl, beat the whipping cream with a pinch of salt until it holds soft peaks. Spread on final layer of pasta and top with reserved asparagus tips. Top with one-third cup grated Parmesan cheese. Bake in middle of a preheated 400-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes, or until golden and bubbling. Allow pasta to cool for 15 minutes before serving. If desired, garnish with sprigs of fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley.
Advance preparation: Can be made two days before (and stored airtight in the refrigerator) without the final addition of whipped cream and Parmesan cheese. The whipped cream needs to be added just before baking. You probably will need to add 3 to 5 minutes to the baking time, but check to make sure the top isn’t getting too brown. If it starts to get too brown, tent with a sheet of aluminum foil.
Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and has authored three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce,” and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce.”