Right up front, I’ll be honest about this dish: When we ran it through the Los Angeles Times test kitchen, no one liked it.
It’s not that they hated it; it’s just that they weren’t crazy about it.
So why should you waste your time trying it? Because I’m digging in my heels on this one. I’m right and they’re wrong. It’s good. That settles it.
It’s not that I don’t understand what everyone else was talking about. I can see how tasting this dish, eating in a rush, standing by the sink, waiting for the next thing to come out, you might not appreciate its full worth. In this setting, the food that wins is the kind that jumps up and down and waves its arms at you, not the one that quietly charms you.
I’m firmly convinced that some dishes, like some buildings, are sitespecific. Within their proper context they are absolutely wonderful. Take them out of that situation, though, and you think what-the-heck? Or worse. There is something monumental about pueblo-style architecture, the sinuous way the building’s curves fit the stark, sere surrounding mountains. But one of the silliest buildings I ever saw was an adobe structure in Malibu.
So let’s talk about where this dish comes from. I served it one night after a good strong spring rain. It was the turn of the season, those days when Southern California changes from roasted golden brown to a rich and shimmering shade of green. Sometimes there seems to be so much chlorophyll in the air you can taste it.
But, of course, you can’t. So I figure, if you can’t eat green, you can eat greens. I am a big fan of greens. Mustard, chard, kale or collard - I like them sauteed with olive oil; I like them boiled with fatback. I like greens stirred in risotto and cooked in vegetable soup. Serve them with cornbread or crostini and I’m happy.
When I finally came in out of the rain after spending the morning working in the yard, I was thinking green thoughts. Which led, inevitably, to dinner. What I settled on was this lasagna.
Lasagna has a reputation for being a bruiser of a dish with heavy layers of noodles, thick tomato sauce, browned meat and lots of melted cheese. But this version is a kind of springtime compromise. It has some of my favorite things about heavy lasagna - the warm goosh of ricotta and the molten pull of mozzarella - but it’s different.
In this case, the mozzarella and ricotta are shot through with garlicky greens and earthy mushrooms instead of beef. And to keep it even lighter (or maybe just because I’d just been out trimming the tree and had plenty of fruit available), I flavored the ricotta fairly strongly with lemon. The lemon, garlic and greens worked very well together, in a quiet kind of way.
Because this is not a big brass band of a lasagna, the fresh pasta is essential here. Normally, I’m a driednoodle kind of guy - after a couple of years of making all my pasta fresh, I long ago came to embrace the convenience (and taste) of goodquality dried.
By the same token, in the case of an understated filling like this one, nothing but fresh will do. In the end, this lasagna is about textures and shadings of flavors. The soft architecture of fresh pasta seems the only thing that is appropriate to support this filling.
So go ahead and try it - all the better if you can make it on some cool spring night when it has just rained and green is the only color you taste.
Lasagna Of Greens And Lemon
1 bunch Swiss chard, rinsed, trimmed and chopped
1 bunch mustard greens, rinsed, thick stems trimmed and chopped
1 bunch kale, rinsed, trimmed and chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
Juice 1 lemon
Freshly ground pepper
1/2 pound brown mushrooms, rinsed, trimmed and quartered
1 pound ricotta cheese
1/2 cup fresh goat cheese
Zest 1 lemon
1 1/2 cups tomato puree
1/2 pound mozzarella, shredded
In large saute pan or wok, stir-fry chard, mustard greens and kale just with water clinging to leaves after rinsing. After greens have cooked 3 to 5 minutes, add garlic and cook until all greens are tender, about 10 minutes, stirring frequently to keep from scorching. Add of lemon juice and stir until all moisture is reabsorbed. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Heat non-stick saute pan over high heat. When very hot, add mushrooms and cook, tossing and stirring constantly, until browned. Add to greens and allow to cool completely. Mixture should be completely dry.
In large mixing bowl, combine ricotta, goat cheese and lemon zest. Add remaining of lemon juice and stir to combine. When greens are completely cool, add to cheese mixture and stir well. Season to taste with salt.
After Fresh Pasta has been made, assemble lasagna. Spread bottom and sides of glass baking pan with cup of tomato puree. Cook pasta in pot of boiling water. Drain. Then lay 1 sheet of pasta in bottom of pan. It should cover bottom completely. Spread of cheese mixture over pasta sheet. Sprinkle of mozzarella over top.
Repeat layering once more, finishing with third sheet of pasta. Spread remaining tomato puree over top and sprinkle with remaining mozzarella. Bake at 300 degrees 30 to 45 minutes, until heated through.
Yield: makes 6 servings.
Nutrition information per serving:364 calories, 294 milligrams sodium, 110 milligrams cholesterol, 15 grams fat, 41 grams carbohydrates, 21 grams protein, 2 grams fiber.
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Place flour in work bowl of food processor fitted with steel blade. Add eggs and process until dough comes together and forms ball that rides around on top of blade. If mixture is too dry and fails to form ball, slowly add just enough water to bring ball together, no more than 1 tablespoon.
Dough ball should be slightly sticky. If too sticky and soft, add flour 1 teaspoon at time until texture is correct.
Knead dough by running processor. Ball will ride around on top of blade, becoming more and more smooth. When smooth enough, remove from processor. Wrap in plastic wrap. Let stand at least 45 minutes.
Roll dough out in pasta machine. Divide in quarters and work with 1 portion at time, keeping remainder wrapped in plastic wrap. Flatten dough, then run through machine on widest setting. Fold double and run through again, folded edge first. Repeat 2 or 3 times. Fold double again, and run through sideways. Repeat 2 or 3 more times. Dough will change from fairly sticky and possibly slightly dimpled on 1 side to satiny and smooth. Sheet should be as wide as baking dish (if not, layer dish with 2 sheets rather than 1).
Change pasta machine to next narrower setting. Run dough through machine once. Repeat until next-tolast setting. Before rolling out at next-to-last setting, cut pasta sheet in half. After rolling out at next-to-last setting, lay pasta sheet on lightly floured dish towel and cover with another dish towel.
Repeat until all dough has been rolled out.