Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ham and Spinach Lasagne

We couldn't decide what to get for dinner the other day, and we ended up buying some dry-cured ham. In the store, it looked like a teeny little ham, but it turned out to be two pounds. Now, two pounds is a lot when you're talking about a wet-cured ham (the only kind we had ever previously eaten), but it's a whole lot when you're talking about a rich, salty, dry-cured country ham.

On the ham's first night, we made a delicious Potato Gratin to go with it, but still had a lot left over. The leftovers made some delicious sandwiches, but I feared that the rest would go to waste. Some brain storming, though, led to the idea of a lasagne.

Now, lasagne is not one of my favorite foods. Yes, it's pasta and I love pasta, but I just don't love lasagne because it's generally heavy in a bad way (not a potato gratin way), the noodles are thick and goopy, and it's just not too interesting.

But I thought that very thin homemade egg noodles might nicely replace the thick, slimy noodles that are generally the undoing of a potentially good pasta dish. Not only would they be delicate and tasty, there would be no need to cook them in a pot of water. There would be no handling of molten hot ribbons of slipperiness, there would be no breakage of noodles, and there would be no messing around with the reportedly sub-par 'no-cook' lasagne sheets.

The other part of the heavyness problem, I thought, was the ricotta. I think that it's a stealth player, in that it seems innocuous enough and light enough, but secretly, it's adding more slimy, gunky heaviness to the dish. Homemade ricotta might be an improvement, but I just didn't have time for that. Therefore, there was to be no ricotta in this lasagne.

The third part of my lasagne plan involved doing away with the ubiquitous tomato sauce. There's nothing wrong with a tomato sauce, and I love tomato sauce, but I just didn't think that it would play nicely with the ham.

Therefore, this white lasagne recipe from Epicurious sounded perfect--no ricotta, no tomato, just a nice bechamel, and I basically made the printed recipe and added the ham and spinach. Like some of the reviewers of the original recipe mention, it is important to taste everything along the way--your bechamel should taste great before it's added to the dish. And don't do what I did and forget to add the flour to the butter before adding the liquids. That's what a bechamel is, and I managed to mess that part up.

Lastly, a lot of lasagne recipes call for eggs, and I've come to the conclusion that the eggs play the same role of saboteur as the ricotta. In fact, I felt like the eggs ruined my laborsome work of art. They turned a silky, beautiful bechamel into a curdly mess, and their flavor almost overwhelmed the more delicate flavor of the white sauce. Therefore, there are no eggs in the recipe printed below.

So mess-ups and all, this is now my answer to lasagne--thin, homemade noodles, a tasty bechamel, and some simple additions. The leftovers are delicious, and if you're expecting company, the lasagne can be assembled ahead of time and kept refrigerated until you're ready to start cooking; just add a few minutes to the cooking time.

Ham and Spinach Lasagne
(Partially adapted from Epicurious)

  • A one-pound bag of frozen spinach
  • One recipe homemade pasta
  • 1 cup finely diced cooked ham, or about 6 ounces prosciutto, diced
  • 3/4 cup minced  shallots
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon (freshly!) grated nutmeg
  • 3 3/4 cups whole milk
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup dry Marsala or Sherry
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan-Reggiano
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tablespoon very good extra-virgin olive oil
Place the frozen spinach in a colander in the sink, and allow it to defrost. If it's taking forever to defrost, run some water over it and stir it all around occasionally.

Make the homemade pasta up to the point where it is wrapped in plastic wrap and allowed to rest. Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle.

Cook shallots in butter in a heavy large saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 4 minutes. Add flour and cook over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, 3 minutes. Add nutmeg, then slowly whisk in milk and stock.

Bring to a boil, whisking, then simmer, stirring occasionally, just until sauce lightly coats back of spoon, about 1 minute. Do this very slowly, as impatience can lead to a curdled and/or burnt sauce. Remove from heat and cool to warm, stirring occasionally. Stir in Marsala or Sherry, sea salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and 1/2 cup cheese. Be sure to taste the sauce at this point, and add more salt and pepper to taste.

While the sauce cools, squeeze as much water as possible out of the spinach. Place it in a large bowl and drizzle with the tablespoon olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste and toss until combined.

Divide the dough into about 6 pieces, and re-wrap the 5 that you will not be using immediately. With your plain roller set to the largest setting (lower number), pass the dough through once. Fold like a book (one flat piece in the back, and two pieces folded over on the sides so that they almost meet in the middle) and pass through again. Fold like a book and repeat 2 more times.

At this point, you want the pasta sheet to be almost as wide as the rollers, so that as the pasta is stretched further, it becomes as wide as the rollers. After the last time, send the pasta through as is. Then, put the roller on the next smallest setting and pass the dough through. Continue to do this on smaller and smaller settings until the pasta is the desired thickness. For this recipe, I used the smallest setting. You can also use the second-smallest setting if you want the noodles to be a little bit noticeable, as opposed to totally melted into the other parts of the lasagne. You'll have a very long sheet that you will cut to the length of your baking dish.

Spread about 1 1/4 cups sauce over bottom of an 11- by 8-inch baking dish. Sprinkle about a quarter of the spinach and a quarter of the ham over the sauce-it will be a rather sparse covering. Cut your pasta sheet to the appropriate length, and cover the sauce with as many sheets as necessary (you'll probably need 2).
Repeat layering 3 more times, then top with remaining sauce and remaining 1/2 cup cheese. (You might not need all of the pasta dough. If not, it can be rolled out, cut into noodles, and dried.) Bake, uncovered, until browned, 45 to 55 minutes.
Cooks' note: Sauce can be made 1 day ahead and chilled, covered (once cool).

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