After a brief pause I am back to share some of the new flavors that I discovered in my tour of Italy.
I have never been what you would call a huge fan of Italian food. I like it well enough but it has never been something that I crave and want to make a special trip out for. A lot of it you tend to get in the US is either too bland or just overpowered in tomato sauce. It seems to me like a lot of restaurants have fallen into the trend of making an interpretation of what Italian food has evolved into over the years, instead of researching and doing it right.
Like most foods there are different tastes depending on the region you are in and the styles and flavors can even change from town to town. On our trip we tried food from several different places in Tuscany and then ventured down into Rome. The food was overall pretty amazing. I even managed to find a little Italian burger and BBQ joint in Cortona that I really enjoyed. It was great to get their take on a burger. If you are ever in the area try and stop by BeerBone Art Burger. You wont be disappointed.
Tuscany tends to be more rustic and country food. You get great hand made pasta and different types of sauces as well as great beef and pork dishes. Most meals tend to be simple but full of flavor.
One of the best meals that I had was in a local restaurant on our way to Perugia called Al Battibecco Ristorante. There I had the pleasure of trying some of the local beef (Chianina). I had a great Gorgonzola steak with a side of roasted potatoes. The steaks are always cooked on the rare side. The server will usually only give you two options when ordering beef and that is rare or medium. I would recommend going for the medium since it comes out about the same as a rare steak in the US. You could taste a slight bit of smoke in the steak from the wood grill and it was covered in Gorgonzola cheese, mushrooms and olive oil. The potatoes were roasted with fresh oregano, sea salt and olive oil and were tender and delicious. This wasn’t the most complex meal I have ever eaten but it was without a doubt one of the most flavorful. I wish I had been able to get a picture of the plate and setting but we were just a few days into our trip and still overwhelmed with everything and living in the moment.
However, I would have to say the best meal I had for the entire trip came from a little restaurant in Cortona called the Cortona Bistrot. This eclectic little restaurant was right up the road from our hotel and was the surprise hidden gem. The decor was a mish-mash of different sizes and styles of chairs and tables. It has a dark comfy atmosphere and an outside seating area overlooking Cortona with a view of the sunset. We went in for dinner and my wife ordered pesto lasagna. This surprised me because when I think of lasagna I think of ricotta and know for a fact that she doesn’t care for that flavor at all. When the server brought it out it didn’t look like most lasagnas but more like a bowl of creamy pasta. I could tell by the look on her face when she took that first bite that I would have to try it. Wow! That was a great dish. It was so good in fact that we decided to go back a second night before we left and we both had it again. The flavor was out of this world and I knew that when we got back home I would be trying to recreate it for both of us.
I cant say that I have completely captured this recipe 100% and have a feeling it will be something I am working on for years to come but what I did come up with reminded me enough of the taste of that wonderful pesto lasagna that I had to share it. I am sure this is something that you will love and taste like nothing you have tried before.
Before I start I will tell you that this is a recipe has a lot of steps and will take you some time to prepare. It’s not something that you are going to quickly whip up at the last minute so plan some time before attempting this one. Trust me, it is well worth the time and effort.
Lets get started.
What you need before starting. Sharp knife and cutting board, food processor, medium sauce pan, large casserole dish (2 qt), non stick spray, Non stick pan, wooden spoon, small whisk.
(NOTE: You can purchase jarred pesto if you have a favorite and do not feel like making it yourself. If that is the case then skip the pesto instructions part).
For the Pesto
1 1/2 cups fresh basil
1/2 cup pine nuts (toasted)
2 garlic cloves
1 cup olive oil
4 oz Pecorino Romano (or Parmegian Reggiano)
For the Bechamel (sauce)
4 tbsp Italian ricotta
2 chicken bullion cubes (I used Knorr)
4 cups low fat milk
1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 stick of salted butter
For the Lasagna
1 lb Italian sausage (I used hot)
1 package oven ready lasagna noodles (you need 9 pieces) (I used Barilla)
Shredded mozzarella ( 2 cups)
6 oz grated Parmesan
1 teaspoon dried oregano
First thing is to toast the pine nuts for the pesto. Heat a non stick pan over medium heat and them add the pine nuts. Stir them frequently until they start to brown and become fragrant. You will see them start to release their oils when they are just about done. Remove from heat and set aside.
Chop up the basil and garlic cloves and break up the cheese into smaller portions
Measure out all ingredients for the Bechamel and have ready.
Make the Pesto:
Put the cheese in the food processor and (with the lid on) run it on chop to break it all up into small pieces. Now add the pine nuts and do the same thing. Once that is done, add the basil and garlic and then add about a third of the olive oil. Pulse and mix that all together. You may need to use the spoon to scrape the sides back down to the middle (always make sure the processor is off first). Add another third of the olive oil and repeat the step above. Now add the rest of the oil and go all in with the processor and mix it all together. You should now have a nice green pasty pesto. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
Cook the Sausage:
Wipe out the non stick pan you used to cook the pine nuts and heat it back up to medium high heat. Cook the sausage until it is good and brown with some slightly crispy edges. Set aside to cool a bit.
Make the Bechamel (sauce):
(depending on the size of your sauce pan you may need to do this in two batches, just split the ingredients in half and do the steps below twice).
This is the fun part. In case you didn’t know, bechamel is a rich white sauce. This is an important part to making this particular type of lasagna.
Heat your sauce pan to medium heat and melt the butter. It is important to keep stirring throughout the making of this sauce so that it does not burn. When the butter is melted start whisking in the flour and stir it around for about a minute to minute and a half until it is cooked. You will see it start to bubble a bit as it heats up. Now add the bullion cubes and stir them around until the have disintegrated. Start whisking in the milk a quarter at a time. When the first quarter is nice and smooth add more milk and repeat. about half way through adding the milk you will want to add the seasonings and stir in well. (aren’t you glad I had you measure everything out and get it ready ahead of time)? Once all of the milk has been added stir in the ricotta cheese and keep stirring on low heat for another minute and a half and then transfer to a bowl and set to the side to cool a bit (about two minutes should be fine).
Assemble and Bake:
It is now time to assemble this dish and get it in the oven to cook. Go ahead and preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
Spray the inside of your casserole dish with the non stick spray. Add a quarter of the sauce to the bottom and then lay in three of the oven ready lasagna noodles side by side. Spread more of the sauce on top of those noodles and then add a heaping tablespoon of pesto to the middle of each noodle. With your spoon just mix the pesto around into the sauce until the noodles are covered. Now add about half of the Parmesan cheese and half of the sausage in a nice even flat layer. Top that with three more noodles and repeat the steps above. Now add the top layer of noodles and then cover with the rest of the bechamel and then add the mozzarella to the top of that. Sprinkle the oregano all of the top and then tightly cover it with aluminum foil. Place this in the center oven rack for an hour, then remove the foil and cook for another 15 minutes to get the top nice and golden.
Now remove it from the oven, let it cool for a few minutes and and cut it up to serve. You have just made a very tasty pesto lasagna that was inspired by my trip to Italy. I plan to make this recipe quite a bit and tweak it as time goes on and hopefully recreate the exact meal I had in Cortona but…I may just need to go back one day and have it again. You know… Just to make sure I got it right.
I hope that you all enjoy. Check back soon for more recipes.
Thanks for reading,