Totally Fresh Tomato Lasagna

West of Sienna, sunflowers paint the softly rolling hills as far as the eye can see. The road dips and sways through the Tuscan landscape, with shoulder high banks that rise to either side. Swallows glide on late afternoon thermals in the clear blue sky. At an opening to one field a man holds up cars to let out a tractor pulling some leviathan farm implement. As traffic slows to a crawl behind it, I roll down the windows to let in the hot herb-infused air and crank up the tunes on the local radio station.

Sunflowers west of Sienna

Bambino Nel Tempo was the favorite Italian song that summer, played every hour without fail. Although Eros Ramazzotti’s words came too fast for me to capture their full meaning, I delighted in picking out highlights. Felicity, fantasy, the stages of life: the intoxicating Latin words washed over me and swirled through my senses. I could just about sing the refrain, usually to the horror of my children. Now here I was out on my own, with a million sunflowers as my only audience, and so I sang with the gusto of an operatic tenor. In that moment, I was about as Italian as I’ll ever hope to be.

At the Coop in Sovicille, I popped in my coin to release a shopping cart. There in the cool recesses of the market were masses of tomatoes, piled high in their boxes. Four or five types of tomato, every one picked at the peak of flavor and all from farms within 20 miles, with provenance clearly labeled on yellow signs. I donned plastic gloves and rubbed shoulders with the Italians, who inspected and selected and carried their treasures to the weigh station with pride.

Back at our little rented villa, the kids splashed in the pool while I unpacked my goodies: fresh local cheese, fresh pasta, and eggs so fresh they might have been squeezed from a chicken only that morning. Oh, and about 5 pounds of lovely tomatoes. When she saw my haul of tomatoes, the Salad Queen’s eyes got wide with anticipation. That night we made lasagna that just couldn’t be beat. Fresh tomatoes sprinkled with olive oil and then layered with noodles, buffalo mozzarella and béchamel sauce. A meal fit for a king.

While the lasagna baked I fiddled with the radio, and there across the airwaves came again the unmistakable sound of Eros Ramazzotti. In my fantastic Italian mood, I was moved to join in. “Come un bambino nel tempo che non perde mai,” I crooned along with Eros. “La sua curiosita.”

As the harmonica kicked in, my daughter wandered in with a towel on her head, fresh from showering. “Daaad,” she said and gave me one of her looks. “Take it from me – you need to stick to cooking.”

I gave one last Italian gesture, only a little deflated, and headed back to the kitchen.

 Totally Fresh Tomato Lasagna 

 

Makes 4 servings

 

2 pounds fresh ripe tomatoes (see note)

8 ounces fresh mozzarella, preferably buffalo

8 Barilla no-boil lasagna noodles

5 cups water at 150º

2 Tablespoons good olive oil

1 teaspoon dried oregano

¾ teaspoon salt

1 ounce grated parmesan or grana padano

 

For the béchamel sauce:

2 Tablespoons butter

3 Tablespoons + 1 teaspoon flour

1 cup milk

¾ teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon finely ground pepper

1 large egg

 

1. Preheat the oven to 375º.

2. Start the béchamel sauce (below) and do the next steps at the same time you’re working on it. Ideally, by the time you’ve finished the béchamel all the components of the lasagna will be ready.

3. Slice 8 ounces of Buffalo mozzarella (or other fresh mozzarella) into ¼ inch pieces and sprinkle lightly with salt.

4. Slice the tops and bottoms off of the tomatoes and discard or reserve for another use. Cut the rest of each tomato into ¼ inch rounds.

5. Put 5 cups of hot water (not boiling) into a loaf pan or casserole and slip the no-boil noodles in one at a time. Let noodles soak for 15 minutes.

6. In either an 8” square casserole (2 noodles wide, 4 high) or glass loaf pan (1 noodle wide, 8 high) build the lasagna in this order:

Totally Fresh Tomato Lasagna ready for baking

  • A layer of uncooked tomato slices. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and oregano.
  • 1 noodle (or 2 wide if building in an 8” square pan)
  • ¼ of the mozzarella distributed on top of each noodle
  • ¼ cup of béchamel distributed on top of each noodle
  • Sprinkle with parmesan
  • 1 noodle (or 2 wide if building in an 8” square pan)
  • A layer of uncooked tomato slices. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and oregano.
  • Continue the sequence with remaining noodles and filling, finishing with a layer of tomato slices drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt and oregano.

 

7. Bake at 375º for 40-45 minutes, until béchamel has puffed up and the edges are bubbling.

8. Let cool for 15 minutes before serving.

To make the béchamel sauce: Melt butter in a quart-sized saucepan over medium heat. Once the butter is barely melted add flour and whisk with a wooden spoon. Add a few tablespoons of milk, mix it in, and then add a few more. Now add small amounts of milk, an ounce or two at a time, and let the milk get hot before you work it into the roux. Be sure the previous batch is fully incorporated and the sauce is smooth before you add more milk. Once you have successfully added all the milk and the sauce is hot and smooth, add the salt and pepper. Cover tightly with a lid and set aside until ready to use.

Just before building the lasagna, beat an egg in a small bowl. Add a small amount of sauce, whisk the sauce and egg together, and then add a bit more sauce and whisk again. Now add a quarter cup of sauce and whisk it in. Add the egg mixture back to the pan and whisk thoroughly.

Tomato note: Use the freshest, peak-of-season tomatoes you can find to make this lasagna; it will make all the difference. Good heirloom tomatoes will work, and if a farm nearby you sells tomatoes, they’ll more than likely be worlds apart from storebought. If you have homegrown tomatoes, even better!

The tomatoes on my vines here in Seattle are only beginning to ripen, so I used some decent tomatoes from a farm in Wenatchee. I let them sit for 2 days in order to fully ripen.

Music note: The song I refer to is track 3 on Eros Ramazzotti’s Calme Apparente (©2005 Sony BGM Norte). This album, which has some very strong songs including the superhit ‘La Nostra Vita,’ is in my CD player more often than not. Except for track 11, I’d recommend it to anyone. Track 8 – Nomadi D’Amore (literally, ‘Nomads of Love’) – has become one of my favorite songs.

Let’s sing it, Eros! “Noi che siamo nomadi d’amore, persi nei deserti di città…”

 

Il Granaio, near Sovicille west of Sienna

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At Woodfiredkitchen.com, Sortachef takes you on adventures in the kitchen and beyond, with tales to suit. Many of his offerings are woodfired - a flaming good recipe for pizza, bread, or something different. All recipes are original and tasty. Enjoy!
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