Lasagne Verdi

27 Jan

Lasagne Verdi is a dish that I remember my mother making, perhaps once a year, or once every two years… sometimes for Easter or Christmas, but I recall it as a New Year’s day celebration. New Year’s day lunch was always a fancy affair, with family and friends of the family. Of course, as I entered my late teens and university years, it was a little hard to drag myself out of bed for a New Year’s Day lunch, but the food was always worth it.

This dish is something that, in my family, we called “Tagliatelle Verde”, though technically it should have been “Lasagne Verdi.”  Technically tagliatelle are fettuccine (the reason there are so many different names for pasta is not that there are so many different kinds – though there are – it’s because each region has its own names for the various standard paste).

At any rate, this version of lasagne (and note that in most parts of Italy it’s lasagne, the plural, not the singular lasagna) comes from the Emilia-Romagna and Marche regions on and near the Adriatic coast of central Italy. My family hails from the border of those regions, part way between the modern city of Pesaro and the medieval/Renaissance city of Urbino.

For those of you used to the “Lasagna and chips” you get at the local greasy spoon, this bears very little resemblance. Apart from the fact that the pasta is green (because it’s made with spinach or other greens), the greasy spoon “lasagna”  usually consists of large amounts of mince between a few thick layers of pasta. This recipe features more layers of pasta, each layer being much thinner, with a thin spread of red (meat) sauce, white sauce, ricotta and parmesan between each layer. The key to the layering is that less is more, and the pasta itself should shine through. The more and thinner the layers of pasta the better, which is why this recipe is sometimes also called millefoglie (‘a thousand sheets/leaves’), which is the same etymology as the French pastry dish Mille-feuille  (aka ‘Napoleon’) – though that of course is a dessert.

To make this recipe you will need a pasta maker, though if you’re very skilled with a rolling pin you can do it I guess – the sheets of pasta will need to be less than 1mm thick. Imperia or Atlas are the best brands of pasta machine, in my opinion.

At first glance, this recipe may seem daunting, but if you take it easy, step by step, and drink plenty of wine as you go, it’s not so hard. The result is delicious, and probably unlike any pasta dish you’ve ever had.

For a vegetarian version of the recipe, omit the bacon in the first step, replace beef stock with vegetable stock, and in place of the ground meats in the red sauce, freeze a 300g block of tofu and grate it (while frozen), then squeeze the excess liquid out when it thaws.

You will find fancy names ‘in the literature’ (as we eggheads say) for what I call red sauce (ragu) and white sauce (béchamel), but I prefer the peasant names I was brought up with. The traditional red sauce also involves adding chicken livers at the very end of the cooking, but I don’t really like them so I’ve left them out.

The recipe as I have written it has you doing a few things at once, but if you want less stress and can afford to take longer, the red sauce can be prepped a day or two in advance, and the white sauce up to six hours in advance. The only thing you can’t really do in advance is the pasta itself.


For the PASTA

* 150g spinach – rinsed, stemmed, and dried (you can use silverbeet, as my mum did, then just cook it a little longer, and make sure you only use the green leafy parts)

* 2 eggs

* 5/8 cup semolina flour

* 1/2 teaspoon salt

* 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

(I think you can use durum wheat flour in place of both the semolina and all-purpose flour but I’ve never tried it. Do not use only all-purpose flour, without semolina the all-purpose flour will create a dough that is not sufficiently strong, and will also be too gluggy)

for the RED SAUCE

* 2 tablespoons (30g) butter

* 2 slices bacon, diced

* 1 medium carrot, diced

* 1 stalk celery, diced

* 1 medium-large onion, diced

* 150g lean ground pork

* 150g lean ground beef

* 2 tablespoons tomato paste

* 1 teaspoon dried oregano (or a bit more if you really like oregano)

* 1 cup beef stock

* salt and pepper to taste


* 2 tablespoons butter

* 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

* 2 cups warm milk

* 1 pinch salt

* 1 pinch ground nutmeg (or a bit more if you really like nutmeg)


* 250g grated Parmesan cheese

* 500g ricotta cheese

•  a little more butter for finishing the dish (1 tablespoon/ 15g ought to do)


1. For the pasta dough: Steam the spinach in a steamer or over boiling water until bright green, about 2 minutes (more like 5 minutes if using silverbeet). Let it cool. Squeeze to remove excess moisture. Chop very very finely (a mezzaluna does a great job) to make a paste. In a large bowl, combine spinach with eggs, semolina, and salt and mix until smooth. Stir in the flour to make a smooth dough. Knead briefly, cover and set aside. If the dough feels too sticky, add a little more flour – however it’s very easy to over-flour the dough and make it tough, it should be slightly sticky.

The pasta prior to rolling

The pasta prior to rolling

2. For the red sauce: In a large skillet, melt butter over medium-high heat. Saute bacon, carrot, celery and onion until onion is translucent. Stir in ground pork and ground beef, and cook until browned. Stir in tomato paste, oregano and beef stock. Season with salt and pepper, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

the red sauce

the red sauce

3. For the white sauce: While the red sauce is simmering, combine 2 tablespoons butter and 2 tablespoons flour in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat (the heavier the base, the better). Whisk to make a roux. The idea is to gently cook the flour in the butter without burning it, so keep whisking. This typically takes 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat, let rest one minute, then whisk in warm milk. Return to heat, bring to a gentle simmer and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring constantly with a wire whisk, until thickened. Season with salt and nutmeg. Remove from heat.

the white sauce

the white sauce

4. To make pasta: Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. On a floured surface, divide pasta dough into three portions. Roll each portion into a long thin shape with a rolling pin. Now pass each portion through the pasta machine repeatedly, gradually narrowing the gap to create thinner and thinner sheets. I usually give them one pass on the #1 setting, then jump straight to #3, then #4, then #5, then finally #6 (my machine goes up to #7). I have found that #7 is too thin for the purpose, and the pasta does not hold up well when it contains spinach at this thin-ness. While it may be tempting to skip a number along the way, I don’t recommend it. As my  parents explained to me, each subsequent pass through the machine actually strengthens the dough. At various points in this process, you will want to cut your sheets (lengthwise) into shorter sheets for each of management. Eventually you’ll learn to judge the right length for your baking dish – ideally your final sheet lengths will be the length of your baking dish (or slightly longer).

pasta rolled out, ready for the machine

pasta rolled out, ready for the machine

rolling out the pasta sheets, gradually making them longer and thinner

rolling out the pasta sheets, gradually making them longer and thinner

5. To cook pasta: Have ready an ice water bath. Cook each sheet 3 minutes in the boiling water. I do them in batches of 3, but don’t let them cook any longer than 3 minutes. Remove from the boiling water and dip in the ice water. This is actually the hardes part of the whole recipe,  I find, because the sheets are a bit fragile when cooked, so you want to be able to scoop them up and dump them in the ice water with a minimum of handling. Once they’re cooled, though, the sheet are very resilient and easy to handle. As soon as I’ve put one lot in the ice water, I pop the next lot in the boiling water and start my 3 minute times. You can take the pasta sheets out of the ice water by hand (they’ll be both cool and sturdy enough) and lay them out on a clean, dry cloth (teatowels are fine). Having done this, you’ll want to proceed through the rest of the stages fairly quickly, as the pasta sheets can dry out fairly quickly and you  don’t want to be working with dried pasta if you can help it.

cooking the pasta sheets

cooking the pasta sheets

cooked pasta sheets go in the ice bath

cooked pasta sheets go in the ice bath

pasta sheets in the ice bath

pasta sheets in the ice bath

pasta sheets, cooked (left) and raw (right)

pasta sheets, cooked (left) and raw (right)

6. Making the lasagne: Preheat oven to 200 degrees C (400F, or 180C for a fan-forced oven). Lightly grease a rectangular (9”x13“ or so) baking dish.  Place one layer of pasta in the bottom of the baking dish – I find that this is the width of two sheets, slightly overlapping. I like my bottom layer to come up the sides of the dish, but this is not necessary (though it results in a more aesthetically pleasing final product). I’ve gotten to the point where I can judge the length that each sheet needs to be while I’m making it, but when I first started doing this, I was cutting and overlapping sheets all over the place –  I assure you nobody will notice. Spread about one fifth of the red sauce, one sixth of the white sauce, one fifth of the ricotta, and sixth of the parmesan over the pasta. No need to get too pedantic about these quantities. The aim is to have a small amount of each of the fillings distributed over the pasta. Don’t over-work or over-spread, you don’t want these ingredients all mixing together (see photo). Now you just keep repeating the process over and over. You should have enough to do this whole process five times, plus a final (sixth) layer of pasta. On top of that go the last of the white sauce and parmesan. Now you can dot the top of the lasagne with butter (just a tablespoon or so total).

bottom layer of pasta

bottom layer of pasta

add red and white sauce

add red and white sauce

add ricotta and parmesan

add ricotta and parmesan

the lasagne, ready to go into the oven

the lasagne, ready to go into the oven

7. Bake (uncovered) in preheated oven 30-40 minutes, until top is golden brown.

the cooked lasagne

the cooked lasagne

You can prepare the entire dish up to step 6 a day ahead, in which case I’d recommend letting it come to room temperature prior to baking it.


2 Responses to “Lasagne Verdi”

  1. MCB February 17, 2013 at 8:06 pm #

    Yes, looks daunting…did the fam ever do melanzane parmigiana? I’m hanging for a good original family recipe.

    • robpensalfini February 17, 2013 at 8:47 pm #

      Thanks Melissa! We did grow eggplants, but I don’t remember Mum ever preparing them alla Parmigiana. We mostly ate them stuffed or in something like a ratatouille, with zucchini, onions, and a bit of tomato.

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