My favourite inauthentic pasta: My re-interpretation of a tomato lasagna.
With summer slowly approaching, my culinary heart starts beating a tiny bit faster. While spring is the time of fresh sprouting, of shy greens and light and subtle aromas, summer is much less modest. With bold flavours and the luscious sweetness of fresh produce, it is the time for living life to the fullest and enjoying every second of it, without much modesty. My re-interpretation of a tomato lasagna might look a bit decadent or complicated, but it really is one of the most simple dishes you can make. It uses only few ingredients and no shenanigans and its greatness comes from the subtle balance of strong flavours. The ripe sweetness of luscious tomatoes is accentuated by the caramel smokiness that grilling them adds, a bit of basil will make these red jewels shine and the balsamico reduction, infused with subtle notes of garlic is countered beautifully by the milky creaminess of the ricotta. And entangled in it all is pasta the way I like it, soft, with a bit of a chew, providing enough texture to make my re-interpretation of a tomato lasagna a dish worth trying.
What kind of dish is in this picture? I know what the title suggests: It’s a pasta dish and not just any pasta dish, it’s a fairly inauthentic lasagna. But really, come to think of it. Is it? Would it have made sense to you, had I called this a sneaky salad? Would it have changed anything?
I think that it is worthwhile to, every now and then, spend some time to think about the way we eat and conceptualize food. I admit that meditating about the steamed carrot in your mouth or about your own concept of a burger, might not be a worthwhile activity to most people. But I also believe that doing so can have quite transformative effects in your life.
It seems that much of our daily activity is guided by automatic behaviour. Riding your bike or driving your car, your shower-routine or the way you always place your keys in this little bowl on your shelf, whenever you get home. Automatic actions can have large advantages: Our mental resources are believed to be limited, we can only stretch our attention so far and by automating certain actions, we have free capacities to do other things: holding conversations while driving a car or watching television while eating, for example. However, there are rather obvious disadvantages: not knowing where you keys are, because you did not pay attention when you came home or crashing into a street-sign, because you had not noticed that there was a construction site where you usually take a turn left. Because you were too busy talking. Or because you were looking for a pack of chewing-gum under your seat. Next to these examples of human error, automatism might arguably lower your life quality by masking your human experience, if you will.
Much like automatism are guiding many of our actions, mental concepts, called schemas, guide much of the perception of our sensory experience. As it so happens, we often know what a dish ought to taste like, before we even put the first bite in our mouth. The idealized schema for a certain dish will be used to make judgements about the version of the dish we are eating right now. We are able to say if the thing we are eating is a burger and if so, if it is done well or not. However, whether or not we like a dish can often be influenced by how well it fits our idealized concept.
Imagine your mother were to make your favourite dish, you know the one she has been making the same way ever since you can remember. And imagine, that, just this one time, she ran out of black pepper and used cayenne instead. You might be utterly displeased, because this is not how your favourite dish is supposed to taste like.
I think it is worthwhile to challenge our concepts and automatism from time to time for two reasons: 1) doing so can allow us to re-experience our world through food. To critically review the concepts we hold true and to widen our horizon and 2) this dish for example might not be the ideal lasagna, but it very well is a bloody good dish.
One way of challenging our conceptions of food, is by reinterpreting dishes that we know well and like. I am a huge fan of a good lasagna and my re-interpretation of a tomato lasagna has got everything that I love about lasagna: The grilled sweetness of luscious tomatoes, the milky creaminess of fresh ricotta, hints of aromatic basil and subtle notes of garlic, mixed with the aromatic sweetness of reduced balsamico, entangled with a sheet of chewy pasta for extra texture. This dish is incredibly simple to make, but it is an adventure eating it, providing a surprise with every bite.
My take on lasagna
Semolina flour (if you want to make your own pasta - if not, just a few sheets of lasagna plates)
The pasta for this dish is made best in advance, so that it can rest for at least half an hour before using it. If you don’t want to go through the – very small – hassle of making your own pasta, get them from your supermarket or local delicatessen. I make most of my pasta from semolina flour only, you will need to work the dough a bit harder than you would with a flour-based dough, but I like the chewiness of this pasta. It’s got a bite to it that I certainly enjoy. As a rule of thumb I usually go for a 4:1 ratio from semolina flour to water. If you are serving this dish as an appetizer, you won’t need more than a small tea-cup of flour (and will still have plenty of left-over dough).
Add one cup of flour to a bowl (This way you won’t get your kitchen counter soggy and messy) and add a quarter cup of luke warm water. Add about a teaspoon of salt. With a wooden spoon, quickly mix flour and water until the content of your bowl is lumping. With your hands press the lumps together. They should come together with only a bit of pressure, if they are too soft, add a bit of flour or semolina flour and if they don’t quite want to come together, add a bit of water. On a clean kitchen counter, work the dough with your hands for about 5 to 10 minutes, wrap it in clingfoil and allow to rest for at least 15 minutes (though I prefer an hour).
Once the dough has rested, work it again quickly. Dust the kitchen counter or work-surface with all-purpose flour and, using either a rolling pin or a pasta-machine, roll the dough out thinly. The resulting sheets of pasta should be smooth but slightly firm. Imagine the texture of slightly stiff leather dusted with flour – that’s what you are aiming for. Allow the dough to dry out a bit for about 15 minutes, this will add a bit of an extra bite. To cook the pasta, salt your boiling water generously and cook the pasta for about 5 minutes or until you have the right consistency. Drain the pasta and let cool down, so that you can handle it well.
Wash your tomatoes carefully. I prefer plumtomatoes for this dish as they have a nice shape and will look better on a picture. But since that’s nothing you should concern yourself with, go for what you like and have available. The tomatoes should be ripe but have remained a sense of firmness.
Half the tomatoes length-ways. Heat up your grill-pan, bbq or regular pan. We are talking smoking hot here. Add salt and olive oil to a plate and rub the cut-sides of the tomatoes on it. Place the tomatoes, cut side down, into your grill-pan – there should be quite some sizzling, or else your pan isn’t hot enough. Let the tomatoes grill on high heat for about 2 minutes, so that grill-marks can form, then turn the heat down to medium. Allow the tomatoes to cook through for an additional 5-8 minutes and turn off the heat.
The dressing for this dish is very straightforward. Add a good glug of olive oil ( a good glug could be anything, ideally it should be enough to cover the bottom of your sauce-pan easily). Set said sauce-pan on low heat and add a crushed clove of fresh garlic. Allow the garlic to infuse the oil, then add a few cups (I’d say 1.5 per two people…but if you make too much, this will keep nicely in the fridge) of red balsamic vinegar and add salt. Turn up the heat and allow the liquid to reduce. About 10 minutes on medium heat should do – you are aiming for a slightly runny syrup. Strain through a fine sieve, to get rid of the garlic and transfer back to the pan, to further reduce if necessary. If you like a bit more punch, add a small teaspoon of good balsamic vinegar just before serving.
On a nice plate arrange a bit of tomato, ricotta, balsamic reduction and some basil, with a few layers of pasta. Remember, this is your interpretation of a lasagna, do whatever you like.
But most importantly, enjoy.