December 02, 2020
Venice, once the queen of the Adriatic Sea, was the gateway of spices from India and the undisputed ruler of Europe’s spice trade.
Pepper, ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg were widespread in Italian Renaissance cooking, and generations of well-off Italians would grow up with the taste of Malabar pepper on their tongues. It’s what inspired Marco Polo, a Venetian merchant, to make the treacherous journey to learn more about the East during the 12th century. The medieval ruling classes had a particular penchant for strongly seasoned dishes — the higher the ranking of a household, the greater its use of spices. The fortune Venice reaped with the spice trade helped turn the city into the beautiful vision it is today.
These days, though the use of pepper is still prevalent, there’s barely a trace of the other seasonings in Venetian cuisine — the ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves that once filled the city’s great galleys and suffused its suppers with Eastern scents is mostly gone. When Venice lost its overseas empire, its cuisine became more dependent on local Italian ingredients.
I have been to Italy only once but reminisce about that trip often, with memories growing fonder with time. It was in the month of November and my kids were in their young teens. We walked through Rome for days on end, devouring pasta, pizza and incredible antipasti. Despite being a committed chai drinker, I would have endless espresso breaks, and my kids missed no opportunity to try new gelato flavors.
After a few days, we took a train to Venice, a city I was eager to visit. We arrived on a cold, dreary, rainy day, and as our gondola dropped us at our hotel, I noticed a small cafe nearby with barely a sign in the front. We walked over, and it was serving what looked like very ordinary lasagna.
But when I tasted it, I was surprised and delighted at the complex notes of cinnamon and black pepper in the tomato sauce that went with the fresh layers of pasta, eggplant and radicchio. Maybe the Venetians had not lost touch with spices after all? Fresh herbs and sharp cheeses added brightness and depth to the humble-looking dish.
Here, I have tried to re-create it using local fall vegetables, and more spices, of course, throwing in ginger for old times’ sake. It’s rich, decadent — and vegetarian.
Serves 6 to 8
1 large fresh sheet of pasta (roughly 3 by 3-feet), cooked and drained, or 9 pieces of dried lasagna pasta
12 ounces fresh mozzarella, sliced
1/2 cup olive oil
2 cups minced white onions
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons ground fennel seeds
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon chile powder
6 cups canned crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons grated unpeeled ginger
1 tablespoon sea salt
2 cups white wine
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of ground clove
Pinch of ground nutmeg
1 cup loosely chopped basil
MUSHROOM LAYER (bottom)
4 tablespoons olive oil
8 cups chopped mixed mushrooms
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 1/2 cups grated pecorino romano cheese
BUTTERNUT SQUASH LAYER (middle)
1 large or 2 small butternut squash
Generous pinch of saffron
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
3 to 4 tablespoons melted butter
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 teaspoon sea salt
SPINACH LAYER (top)
3 to 4 tablespoons butter
10 cups loosely chopped spinach
1 bunch fresh dill, chopped
1 bunch parsley, chopped
1 serrano chile, finely minced
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
1 cup ricotta cheese
1/2 small head of radicchio
Few sprigs of oregano
In a large stockpot, heat the olive oil and add the minced white onions. Cook on high heat for 3 to 4 minutes until they sweat and turn translucent. Turn the heat down and continue to cook the onions at low heat until light brown.
Add the minced garlic, fennel, and black pepper — stir for a few seconds then add the chile powder, followed rapidly with the crushed tomatoes, ginger, and salt. When the tomatoes have come to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for another 10 to 12 minutes.
Next add white wine with cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg. Then bring the mixture to a boil, lower the heat, and continue to simmer for another 15 to 20 minutes. The sauce should be thick with a thin layer of oil on top.
Turn off the heat and stir in the chopped basil.
Mushroom-layer instructions: Sauté the mushrooms with the olive oil, garlic, black pepper, and salt and cook until done. Cool and combine with grated pecorino.
Butternut-squash-layer instructions: Preheat the oven to 300°F .
Cut the butternut squash in half lengthwise and roast in the oven for 1 1/2 hours or until the squash is cooked through. Cool for a few minutes.
Discard the seeds and remove the pulp from the squash (should end up with 3 to 4 cups) then fold in saffron, cardamom, butter, ricotta, and salt. Set the mixture aside.
Spinach-layer instructions: Melt the butter in a pan and sauté the spinach for 2 to 3 minutes until wilted. Let it cool.
Once the spinach has cooled sufficiently, squeeze all the water out and chop it finely.
Combine with minced dill, parsley, serrano, salt, and ricotta. Set aside.
To build the lasagna: Preheat the oven to 325°F.
In a large 10 by 12 by 4-inch baking pan, pour 1 cup of the tomato sauce on the bottom. Cut the cooked lasagna sheets into a size that would fit inside the baking pan. Place one sheet above the tomato sauce.
Next place a few thin slices of mozzarella, then evenly spread the mushroom mixture over the cheese.
Place another sheet of pasta, then evenly spread the butternut-squash mixture. Add more slices of mozzarella and place another piece of pasta sheet over it.
Spread 1/2 to 1 cup of tomato sauce, then the spinach mixture. Top with more sliced mozzarella and any leftover cheese.
At this point, you can refrigerate the lasagna if desired. Otherwise, place it in the oven for an hour or until cooked through and the edges are bubbly. Remove from heat, place the radicchio leaves and oregano on top and allow it to cool slightly before serving.
Mutti is an imported Italian brand of tomatoes — try the finely chopped variety in a can.
Use a combination of cultivated mushrooms such as crimini, portobella, shitake and wild such as morels or maitake.
To cut clean slices of the lasagna, bake it and refrigerate it overnight. Then cut the lasagna into large squares and reheat them individually in the oven. Leftover pieces of lasagna can freeze up to 3 to 4 months.
You will have some tomato sauce left over; save it and use for other dishes.
Instead of mushrooms or butternut, try using smoked eggplant.
December 02, 2022