Luxe Lasagna: New flavors and fillings rev up this comfort food classicSometimes you should mess with a good thing. Take classic, red sauce lasagna – it’s such a satisfying, familiar dish that we tend to forget it’s just a recipe. But these days it doesn’t seem fair to limit lasagna to meat, sauce, pasta and cheese when there are so many other flavorful ingredients just waiting to get together in that casserole dish.
Eddie Fitzgerald Bohn, executive chef at La Gra Italian Tapas and Wine Bar in Dogtown, makes grilled vegetable lasagna that pairs feta cheese, capers and olives with traditional pasta, red sauce and ricotta cheese. “[There are] a thousand ways to make lasagna,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s just our spin on it.”
Even chefs who specialize in Italian cooking recommend pairing nontraditional ingredients. “It doesn’t have to be Italian,” said Adam Gnau, executive chef at Acero in Maplewood. Acero’s winter Italian bistro menu doesn’t include traditional lasagna, but it features a “baked dish of the day” that layers earthy ingredients like polenta, mushroom ragù, wilted arugula and pecorino cheese in a single-serving casserole dish. Another version pairs celery root purée with braised oxtail and Parmesan. “Anywhere that you look, there’s ingredients,” Gnau said.
When chef Greg Tournillon went looking, he found potatoes. Tournillon, who owns Foodies Marketplace and Deli in Chesterfield, uses the tubers in place of noodles for his seasonal wild mushroom-potato lasagna. To prepare the potatoes, Tournillon boils whole potatoes (skin on) for an hour and a half over low heat. After they’ve had time to chill, he peels and then slices them using a mandoline. Next, Tournillon pan-fries the potatoes in a little clarified butter to make them “sturdier for layering.” After each layer, he adds a filling of caramelized mushrooms and a mixture of Grana Padano, Asiago, Parmesan, smoked mozzarella and ricotta cheeses. “On … top, we put the cheese mixture and top it with crispy leeks, fried in peanut oil and drained,” said Tournillon, who also offers a pasta-based lasagna made with grilled vegetables and smoked Gouda, a three-mushroom and spinach lasagna with Swiss cheese, and a traditional Bolognese lasagna.
Root vegetables also form the foundation for the winter squash, root vegetable and forest mushroom lasagna found on the seasonal spa menu at Harvest Seasonal Market Cuisine in Richmond Heights. Executive chef Nicholas Miller layers spinach, almond milk mozzarella, three kinds of squash, four kinds of mushrooms and a rich butternut squash purée among thin slices of celery root, rutabaga, turnips and parsnips.
During the last 10 minutes of cooking time, Miller adds another layer of almond milk mozzarella on top. When the dish is done, he plates it with a roasted chestnut sauce and a touch of balsamic syrup. “It’s fun to experiment,” he said. “You get to throw in all [these] different flavors together. It’s what chefs like to do.”
Andy Ayers of Riddle’s Penultimate Cafe & Wine Bar also is known to have a penchant for local flavors. In fact, his classic lasagna features Italian sausage made in-house from Missouri-raised pork and beef. The Loop restaurant’s menu includes a béchamel-based, creamed spinach lasagna, too, but Ayers said there’s no reason to limit protein fillings to cheese or meat. He once offered a seafood lasagna on his menu. “My favorite [fish filling] is halibut,” Ayers said. “[It has] a beautiful consistency.”
But perhaps the ultimate “luxury” lasagna ingredient is fresh pasta. Stellina Pasta Cafe in south St. Louis offers a rotating selection of fresh pasta lasagnas. During the winter months, chef and owner Jamey Tochtrop pairs handmade, whole-wheat lasagna noodles with roasted butternut squash. Other choices have included roasted vegetable lasagna, Italian sausage and artichoke lasagna, and roasted zucchini with prosciutto lasagna. “If you’re doing a meat type of thing, don’t rule out [meats] like prosciutto … or pancetta,” Tochtrop said.
Chef Chris Kramer, who owns Two Nice Guys Family Restaurant and Trattoria in Kirkwood and Oakville, also makes his own pasta. Doing so gives him the freedom to adjust the flavors of the noodles to the lasagna he’s preparing. “Sometimes for a vegetarian lasagna, we purée spinach and add it to the dough,” he said. But if tackling fresh pasta at home sounds too hard or intimidating, Kramer assured us it’s not. All you need are eggs, flour, olive oil, salt and an inexpensive pasta machine or rolling pin. (See his recipe for fresh lasagna noodles at www.saucemagazine.com.) After all, even the most luxurious lasagna dish is rooted in simple, rustic tradition. “Making homemade noodles didn’t start in the greatest gourmet kitchen,” Kramer said. “It started in home cooking.”