After such a long and dreary winter, spring seems like even more of a treat this year than usual. Spending time outdoors is nearly impossible to resist. And if you enjoy cooking and place great importance on making healthy and nourishing meals for yourself and your family, then the beginnings of locally harvested produce will stimulate your imagination and palate as will the future fruits of the upcoming seasons.
One of the earliest crops here in southern Ontario is local asparagus. The season is rather too short for my liking as I adore this unique and rather robust vegetable. It is true that you can pretty much purchase asparagus anytime of year where I live, but local produce has a freshness that simply cannot be matched. Each year I come up with new ways to serve this treasured veggie and typically tend to go with simple pairings of classic flavors and dress it up with butter, olive oil, lemon and seasonings so the asparagus can shine in all its glory while it lasts.
In this instance, I wanted to experiment with a bolder combination and came up with an asparagus lasagna that features a sun-dried tomato and basil pesto that stars right alongside the asparagus. Mushrooms add some meaty texture and understated earthiness, and the cheese mellows the dish out resulting in a complex yet harmonious layering of sensations that you won’t soon forget.
Asparagus Pesto Lasagna with Mushrooms
- 9 – 10 sheets of lasagna, fresh or dried
- 2 cups sun-dried tomatoes, soaked in hot water for 20 minutes
- 2 cups fresh basil, trimmed
- 1 jalapeno or 2 hot chilies, seeded and chopped
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- 1/4 cup pine nuts
- 1 small roma tomato, partially seeded and diced
- 3/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated olive oil
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 2 leeks, well washed, trimmed, and sliced into small rounds
- 1 pound asparagus, ends of stems snapped off and cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces (reserve some of the tips for garnish)
- 8 ounces button mushrooms, sliced
- 2 cups ricotta cheese
- 1 1/2 cups fontina or mozzarella, grated
- sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste
To prepare the pesto, drain the soaked tomatoes, reserving the soaking water. In a food processor, pulse together the sun-dried tomatoes, basil, chilies, garlic and a few teaspoons of olive oil. Add some of the tomato soaking liquid or water as necessary to achieve a smooth but fairly thick spreadable paste. Transfer to a medium bowl and stir in about half of the Parmesan, the chopped fresh tomato and set aside.
Heat about 1 1/2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat in a large non-stick skillet. When hot, add the onion and leeks to the pan, and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until softened. Now add the asparagus to the pan and stir and fry for a few minutes. Turn up the heat slightly, add the mushrooms and stir and fry for another few minutes, until the mushrooms just begin to soften. Transfer this mixture to a medium bowl and toss with ricotta and salt and pepper to taste.
Butter a 13 X 9 inch baking dish and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
To assemble, spread a thin layer of pesto over the bottom of the baking dish. Cover with pasta sheets and then half of the asparagus mixture, spreading it evenly over the pasta. Sprinkle about 1/2 cup of the fontina on top, along with a few sprinkles of Parmesan. Repeat, beginning by spreading about half of the remaining pesto over the asparagus cheese layer, cover again with pasta and then add the rest of the asparagus mixture, another 1/2 cup fontina and a bit more Parmesan. End with pasta sheets, spread the rest of the pesto overtop, the remaining fontina, a bit more Parmesan, the reserved
asparagus tips and a sprinkle or two of dried dill.
Bake, covered with foil, for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 15 – 20 minutes, until the cheese is golden brown. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving.
Serves 6 – 8
Notes: To save time, the pesto can be made ahead of time and stored in the fridge overnight. Using fresh pasta also cuts down on the cooking time and adds to the fresh flavor of this lasagna. If you are using dried pasta, cook until al dente in a large pot of salted water. Drain and rinse under cold water and set aside.
Jarred sun-dried tomatoes may be used instead of the dried ones if you drain well before adding to the pesto. Keep in mind that both dried and marinated sun-dried tomatoes often include salt, so take care when adding your seasoning so you don’t get an unpleasant sodium kick. You want all of the flavors to shine and compliment each other.