I dream of traveling at near the speed of light in a spaceship made of aluminum, titanium and grit. My mission is to visit every galaxy in the pasta universe. The ship is also built for time travel and can move through various points over 12,000 years; it meets the evolution of all 1,300 pasta shapes identified by Oretta Zanini De Vita in her 2009 Encyclopedia of Pasta; forms that have not yet been invented. I eat them all while wearing a yolk colored space suit.
Oretta’s sentence “Journey into the noodle universe” was part of the introduction outlining her research (interview with very ancient people on noodle-making traditions) was one sentence I had to read about pasta in the early days of writing my book. It summed up the sheer scale of the subject, the historical, geographic and cultural matter, the beauty and the black holes. Then it lit up and reminded me that I was on a fabulous voyage and was wearing a yolk-colored spacesuit (or my yellow jumpsuit).
Out of the pasta universe came a puzzle. What I initially envisioned as a universe of 1,300 pieces, 300 more than a dragon puzzle that I never completed. It was a useful and stunning image. It was my partner Vincenzo who reminded me that I wasn’t trying to write the book that Oretta had already written and that you don’t have to say everything to tell a story. He suggested I write about 50 pasta shapes – 50 pieces that fit and didn’t fit together that puzzle, but a Puzzle of the pasta universe.
Choosing the 50 was a bit like creating a jigsaw puzzle yourself. I heard Grandma Roddy’s voice and started on the corners – lasagna, triad, maccheroni and gnocchi – then the edges – penne, vermicelli, ravioli, tortellini. After that I worked my way in and looked for strong characteristics and patterns – capelli d’angelo and fettuccine, vermicelli and spaghetti, cavatelli and orecchiette, employed and bucatini; Lasagne.
Lasagna: There are few things as beautiful or complete, or that I would rather see arrive in the center of the table with a large salad and a liter of red wine. Each region has a version, each century has a story; It is a galaxy of this universe to explore. The word probably comes from Latin lasanumfrom Greek lasanonewhat both mean kitchen pot, what gives us lasanea, or something cooked in a pot. Not that anyone is sure of the exact shape of the thing cooked in the pot. This uncertainty continued into the Middle Ages. Then the 14th-century cookbook Liber de Coquina describes dough that is formed into fingers, cooked, and coated with cheese—familiar and wonderful.
From this description evolved various forms – some documented, many not – of varying dimensions of noodles made from every type of flour and filling, with local ingenuity prevailing. By the 19th century, lasagne had taken shape across Italy. What was available locally was layered into a celebration; the majestic meat sauce and bechamel lasagna all Bolognese; Neapolitan Lasagna you carnival with meatballs and mozzarella; eel lasagne from Apulia; Poppy seed lasagne from Friuli Venezia Giulia. And nothing has changed: the lasagna galaxy is expanding, its matter and proportions are determined by the dish and its maker.
However, one thing is certain: the moment of chaos. No matter how organized you are, there will be one — a moment when you wonder if the clutter and number of pans is really worth it. You might even say “never again”. But then, when you’ve cleaned up, it’s just you and a proper lasagna. You bake it and bring it to the table. And it’s nice.
It’s important to let this six-layered feast rest between assembly and cooking, and again after baking, to allow the flavors to develop and the lasagna to set up for cutting.
preparation 10 mins
Rest 2 hrs+
Cook 45 mins
1 bunch of spring onionscleaned and finely chopped
300 grams of peas
2 zucchinicleaned and cut into thin slices
300 g baby spinach
200 grams of ricotta
100 g Parmesanfreshly grated
salt and black pepper
500ml whole milk
40g butter, plus extra for greasing and dotting on top
40 grams of regular flour
12 x 17.5cm x 12.5cm lasagne sheetsfresh or dried
In a large skillet, soak the spring onions in olive oil, then add the peas, zucchini and some water and sauté/stew the vegetables until tender and all the water has evaporated.
In a separate large skillet, wilt the spinach. Remove from heat and when cool, roll into a ball and squeeze out the water before finely chopping. Mix in the ricotta, three tablespoons of parmesan, salt and pepper.
For the béchamel milk, heat the milk in a saucepan. In another pan (I use a 1 quart saucepan) melt the butter over low heat and add the flour. Cook, stirring, for a few minutes until smelling of cookies. Remove both pans from the heat and slowly whisk the milk into the butter and flour pan. Return to heat and stir until thick as heavy cream.
Bring a pot of water to a boil and add three pasta sheets at a time. Cook fresh pasta in just a minute or dry ones according to package directions. To dry, quickly lift the noodles onto a clean tea towel — you’ll need some space for this, so have two or three towels handy.
Butter a suitable mold – 30cm wide × 40cm long × 6cm deep is ideal. Start with a layer of pasta, top with some ricotta and spinach, then sprinkle over some stewed veggies. Zig-zag with bechamel, sprinkle with parmesan and finally cover with pasta. Repeat for the next four layers, ending with pasta, then bechamel, then parmesan. Let them Let the lasagne rest for at least two hours and up to 12 hours (in this case, keep covered in the refrigerator and bring back to room temperature before baking).
Preheat the oven to 200°C (180°C fan oven)/390°F/Gas 6. Butter the top of the lasagna and bake for about 20 minutes or until a lightly golden crust forms on top. If you like it very golden, pop it under a hot grill for another minute (rather than risk drying it out in the oven). Rest at least 15 minutes before serving.
Spring salad with herbs
preparation 10 mins
A selection of leaves and herbs (soft lettuce, gem, radicchio, arugula, watercress, basil, dill, parsley, tarragon, mint)
1 small bulb of fennelvery finely sliced
For the dressing
6 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tsp honey
salt and black pepper
Wash and dry the leaves and herbs, then tear into equal pieces and place in a large bowl with the sliced fennel.
Shake all the ingredients for the dressing together in a glass. Just before serving, cover the salad with the dressing and toss well.
Asparagus with melted butter and toasted hazelnuts
A beautiful trio. If you cook the asparagus ahead of time, keep them warm and only pour the melted butter over them just before serving.
preparation 5 minutes
Cook 5 minutes
2 bunches of asparagus (approx. 700g)
100g unsalted butter
100 grams of hazelnutsRoasted and very roughly chopped
Use a vegetable peeler to shave or trim off the tough ends of the asparagus. In a saucepan, bring water to a rapid boil, salt, stir, then add the asparagus and cook until tender (this usually takes about 5 minutes for finger-thick asparagus, but will vary depending on size). Lift onto a warm plate with a slotted spoon.
Melt the butter and pour over the asparagus, then top with hazelnuts. To serve.