Lasagna — an Italian Christmas tradition

Published 12:38 am Saturday, December 6, 2008

I have been looking for interesting recipes to help feed large numbers of people through the holidays and came upon a wonderful one in the December issue of Food and Wine. The recipe comes from Fabio Trabocchi, now a New York chef who grew up in Marche, a remote region of Italy between the Umbrian Appenine mountains and the Adriatic coast. He notes that in Marche they only make lasagna for special occasions such as Christmas. This is his version of luxe lasagna in bianco (white lasagna). It is a lasagna recipe using celery root or celeriac. We do not use celeriac as much as Europeans do and it is not something one can find in some grocery stores, but worth looking for.

Food historians claim that both celery and celery root were developed by the gardeners of the king of Persia around 2000 B.C. Cyrus the First was a vegetarian and a finicky eater. To vary his dull diet, he ordered the royal gardeners to come up with something different for him to eat. Celery was the result.

With the collapse of the Roman Empire, celery was no longer cultivated and only the wild variety was used sparingly in the Middle Ages. It was reintroduced in 1641 in Paris when it was grown in the royal gardens. In France, celery was used as a seasoning. The rest of Europe acquired celery from Italy. The English took to celery not only as a vegetable, but munched it raw with salt at teatime. The Italians cooked celery in a tomato sauce.

As mentioned before, celery root enjoys enormous popularity in Europe. Although it has a distinctive flavor, its gnarled appearance leaves a lot to be desired. It is also said to be difficult to peel and slice. This variety is cultivated for its roots, not its stalks.

This recipe is worth seeking out the celery root. Just use a sharp knife and cut off the outer skin and slice. I do not find it that difficult.

The recipe also calls for dried porcini mushrooms. I could not find them even at Whole Foods so I just added more white button mushrooms. The lasagna will serve 12 people and can be reheated in the microwave and still tastes great. If you want to do something delicious and different over the holidays I would highly recommend trying this recipe.

Celery Root and Mushroom Lasagna

1 cup dried porcini mushrooms (use extra white mushrooms if you cannot find the porcini or use another variety of dried mushrooms)

2 cups boiling water

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

¾ lb. white mushrooms, thinly sliced (4 cups)

Salt and freshly ground white pepper

¼ lb. thickly sliced prosciutto di Parma, cut into ¼ -inch dice

2 medium shallots, finely chopped

1 fresh bay leaf

2 rosemary sprigs

2 sage sprigs

2 thyme sprigs

1 pound celery root, peeled and finely chopped (1 ½ cups). You could use a different root vegetable for a different flavor, I suspect.

3 medium leeks, white and tender green parts only, finely chopped (3 cups)

½ cup dry Marsala

4 cups chicken stock or low-sodium broth

2 ½ cups heavy cream

1 ¾ cups freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

2 large eggs

1 ½ lbs. lasagna noodles (I used no boil)

1 ½ lbs. fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced

1 cup basil leaves

In a small heatproof bowl, soak the porcini in the boiling hot water until softened, about 15 minutes. Drain and coarsely chop the porcini.

In a large saucepan, melt two tablespoons of the butter and two tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the white mushrooms and the porcini, season with salt and white pepper and cook over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 10 minutes. Transfer the mushrooms to a bowl.

Add the remaining two tablespoons each of butter and olive oil to the saucepan. Add the prosciutto and shallots and cook over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about six minutes. Using kitchen string, tie the bay leaf, rosemary, sage, and thyme sprigs into a bundle. Add the herb bundle and the celery root to the saucepan and cook, stirring occasionally, until the celery root is crisp-tender, about six minutes. Add the leeks and cook until the celery root is tender, five minutes longer.

Return the mushrooms to the saucepan; and stir over moderate heat until hot, two minutes. Add the Marsala and cook until evaporated, five minutes. Pour in two cups of the chicken stock and simmer over moderate heat for 10 minutes. Add ½ cup of the cream; simmer for three minutes longer, until the mixture has reduced to five cups. Season the ragu with salt and white pepper.

In another saucepan combine the remaining two cups each of cream and chicken stock and bring to a boil. Simmer over moderate heat until reduced to three cups, about 10 minutes. Off the heat, whisk 1 ½ cups of the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Whisk in the eggs. Transfer the sauce to a blender and puree until smooth. Season with salt and white pepper. Set ½ cup of the sauce aside.

Bring a very large pot of salted water to a boil and fill a large bowl with ice water. Cook the lasagna noodles until just barely al dente; drain and transfer to the ice water to cool. Drain the noodles and pat dry.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Line the bottom with a single layer of noodles, overlapping them slightly; reserve the best noodles for the top layer. Spread one-fifth of the vegetable ragu on top, followed by one-fifth of the sauce, mozzarella and basil. Repeat to make four more layers, ending with a layer of noodles (you will not use all the noodles). Top with the reserved ½ cup of sauce and sprinkle with the remaining ¼ cup of parmigiano-reggiano cheese.

Bake the lasagna until bubbling and golden, about an hour. Let the lasagna rest for 20 minutes before cutting into squares and serving.

Make-Ahead: The assembled lasagna can be assembled and refrigerated overnight. Bring to room temperature before baking.

My husband says this is the best lasagna he has ever eaten. It is worth a try for those of you who like Italian food.