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Lasagna, liberated

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

My old hand-cranked fresh-pasta machine came out of the cabinet the other day. And that meant it was time to make lasagna.

After all these years, it still seems like magic to me: the way a few turns of a handle can turn a lumpy dough into pure silk. And how easily something so simple can turn into a dish so profound.

The pasta, cut into squares and boiled briefly, gets brushed lightly with pesto and layered with some intensely flavored roasted tomatoes, a dollop of moist cheese, a few more roasted tomatoes. After a quick trip into a hot oven right on individual plates, out come these gorgeous dishes, the epitome of rustic elegance.

But wait, you're saying, that's not lasagna. Well, in my house it is. And this free-form style shows off the luxurious silkiness of fresh pasta better than any dish I've ever had.

Because the sheets are left wide and not sliced into little ribbons, you get the full impact of the pasta's wonderful texture. That's why, even if I've gone a year without making fresh noodles, this lasagna -- whether it's made with tomatoes, wild mushrooms, zucchini, or even poached shellfish -- is always the very first thing I make.

In a traditional Italian American lasagna -- with all of that long-cooked ragù, ricotta and mozzarella, maybe even some white sauce, or besciamella -- the delicacy of fresh pasta just gets lost in the midst of all that delicious gush.

But strip away some of the lushness, pare the dish down to its essentials, and something new appears: Lasagna that actually seems elegant. Paradoxically, getting rid of some of the richness actually makes the dish seem more luxurious rather than less.

These lasagnas are so flexible they'll adapt to almost any kind of filling. Having just been to the farmers market and indulged in a feeding frenzy of late summer/early fall vegetables, it seemed obvious to me how I should proceed.

First, I roasted tomatoes to concentrate their flavor. I made a slightly thicker version of pesto and brushed the pasta sheets with that. A little minced garlic and parsley mixed into fresh ricotta and I was ready to go. Moistened pasta sheet, a dollop of ricotta, some roasted tomatoes, another moistened pasta sheet, and then a few more tomatoes scattered on top for garnish. Into the oven for 10 minutes and it was done.

That's the basic template; the variations are endless.

For a different version, I sliced zucchini lengthwise to mimic the thickness of the pasta sheets, grilled it briefly and added it to the pan with some deglazed wine and onions. The sauce in this case was lightly reduced cream, delicately flavored with lemon zest, fresh thyme and a little Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Autumn savors

This early in the fall, butternut squash is still really moist and cooks quickly. So I cut it into cubes and sautéed it just until it was lightly browned and tender -- it didn't take more than 10 minutes. To point up the sweet flavor of the squash, I seasoned the ricotta with sharp minced shallots, nutmeg and plenty of black pepper. The sauce was nothing more than butter melted with shallots, fresh rosemary and a little white wine. You'll want to use a generous grating of Parmigiano on this one -- it marries perfectly with the squash.

Those are just a few of the options. What about substituting roasted and peeled red peppers for the tomatoes and flavoring the ricotta with some sharp pecorino? Use the same pesto for the sauce.

Or use wild mushrooms as the featured ingredient in place of the winter squash. Sauté them in butter first and cut back on the black pepper and nutmeg. Cook them over high heat and for long enough to evaporate the liquid they express in order to get the most concentrated flavor. The rosemary butter will be perfect.

Of course, there's no need to restrict yourself to vegetable fillings. One of the first times I saw one of these free-form lasagnas was in a little seafood restaurant outside of Pisa. The main ingredient was lightly poached shellfish and the sauce tasted like reduced cream and shrimp stock. It was heavenly.

Or cook some crumbled Italian sausage and make a capery fresh tomato sauce. Slivered green olives would be good in the ricotta mix for this one.

You can even use the same long-simmered meat ragù you love with traditional lasagnas. Shred or chop the meat into small pieces and just brush or spoon the sauce over the pasta. You'll find that this lighter touch lets each ingredient shine through more.

In theory, you could make these dishes with dried pasta. But, honestly, using anything but fresh would be beside the point. That's not prejudice -- dried and fresh are just different materials, like wool and silk. The pleasure of a good dried pasta is in its hearty, chewy texture. The fresh slip of fresh pasta is what makes these lasagnas special.

Easy as . . . pasta?

For a long time there was so much prestige attached to fresh pasta that a lot of people automatically assumed it must be hard to make.

Really, it couldn't be easier. Mix the dough in the food processor: pulse one egg and a little olive oil for every three-quarters cup of flour just until the mixture forms a ball that rolls around on the top of the blade. Remove the ball from the machine and knead it by hand until it is silky and smooth -- this will take only about a dozen turns (if the dough seems too wet and sticky at first, dust it very lightly with flour). Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for one hour.

When you're ready to make the noodles, cut off a piece of dough and pass it through the pasta machine using progressively thinner settings until you have a very thin sheet.

As the sheet gets thinner, more moisture will be expressed, so keep dusting it lightly with flour. Also, keep cutting it to a manageable size. I've seen Giuliano Bugialli work a pasta sheet long enough to serve as a Palio banner, but that's not for us mortals.

That's all there is to it. When the sheet is thin enough, dust it lightly with flour one more time to discourage sticking and set it aside while you prepare the rest of the dough.

Let it rest

Back in my young and crazy days as a cook, I used to take making fresh pasta as a challenge -- I could get it on the table as quickly as I could dried. Technically, that was true; you can do all of that pretty easily in the 20 minutes it takes for a pot of water to come to a boil.

But in retrospect, maturity tells me that my dough would have benefited from a little more leisurely preparation. Most important, you ought to give it a rest of at least half an hour between the kneading and the rolling. Skip it, as I did, and the tight glutens will tend to make the pasta twist and curl and the incomplete hydration of the flour will turn the sheet raggedy on the thinner settings.

Once you've cut the sheets into the appropriately sized squares, you can go ahead and cook them as much as two hours before you're going to serve them. Cook them in a big pot of boiling water, but only four or five at a time to keep them from sticking together. They're done as soon as they float to the surface.

Transfer them to a bowl of cold water and flatten them slightly to make sure they don't wrinkle and stick. You'll only need to pat them dry with a tea towel before brushing with sauce and assembling.

What's more, these free-form lasagnas are nowhere near as delicate or time-consuming to fix as they might appear to be. The components can be prepared hours -- even as much as a day -- in advance. Assemble them an hour before serving and all that's necessary is a 10-minute heating in the oven to be ready to eat.

It all comes together so easily and tastes so good that I think that old pasta maker might never go back into a cabinet again.

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