Remember the end of The Goonies, when the Goonies reunite with their parents and they’re rattling off all of the things that happened to them on their adventure? And Data says, “The octopus was very scary,” even though there wasn’t an octopus, though technically there was an octopus, it was just cut from the movie?
That’s how it feels to tackle an epic recipe. And when it comes to epic recipes, the reigning queen on my bookshelf is Nancy Silverton. Her Frito Pie — which was a three day process — is still one of my proudest culinary moments. That recipe, like the one I’m about to tell you about, comes from her Mozza at Home, a cookbook that doesn’t get enough praise, possibly because it’s affiliated with a restaurant, even though it’s one of the best cookbooks on my shelf. (Put it on your list.)
What makes this cookbook so invaluable (why can’t I just say valuable?) is Silverton’s perfectionism. For this eggplant lasagna, which is probably the best lasagna I’ve ever made next to this one, it’s not enough to just brown the eggplant in your oven, you have to brown it on the oven floor to expose it to the maximum amount of heat.
It’s not enough to put garlic in the tomato sauce, you have to put twenty cloves, preferably sliced 1/16th of an inch thin on a mandoline (I sliced by hand and didn’t measure, don’t tell Nancy).
It’s not enough to flavor the tomato sauce with salt and pepper, you’ve got to add three tablespoons of Za’atar (okay, that step’s not hard, but it is unusual).
If you think you’re done here, you’re dead wrong. This is the Chester Copperpot stage of the journey; there’s still lots of Fratellis to overcome in the rest of the recipe.
Take the cheese sauce. It’s not enough to just make a béchamel with butter and flour; you flavor it with onions, bay leaves, and a chili de Arbol.
And once you make the béchamel, it becomes a cheese sauce with the addition of not one, not two, but three cheeses: shredded mozzarella, fresh ricotta, and grated Parmesan.
At this stage, with your eggplant tomato sauce and your cheese sauce ready to go, you might think you could take a shortcut and just soak the lasagna noodles in hot water, Ina Garten style. But I figured, since I’d gone to all this trouble to follow Nancy’s directions, I should boil the noodles in a big pot of salted water, shock them in ice water, and then dry them on kitchen towels, as she instructs. So that’s what I did.
At last, it’s time to assemble the lasagna.
In goes a layer of reserved tomato sauce, on goes the lasagna sheets, then half the eggplant mixture, then half the cheese sauce. I mean…
You repeat, top with lasagna sheets, then spread on some reserved béchamel and sprinkle on lots of Parmesan. Into the oven it goes for 35 to 45 minutes and then, of course, you broil it for that perfect golden top.
At last, you have achieved the “rich stuff,” a vegetarian lasagna good enough for your holiday table.
Was it worth the hours it took to make? To quote a great man: “Down here, it’s our time. It’s our time down here. That’s all over the second we ride up Troy’s bucket.”
Which is all to say, make this and enjoy the adventure for the adventure’s sake. Even One-Eyed Willy would approve.
Nancy Silverton’s Epic Eggplant Lasagna
For the eggplants:
- 2 large eggplants (2 to 2 1/2 pounds)
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1/2 cup large garlic cloves (about 20), peeled and sliced thinly Nancy says sliced 1/16th inch thick lengthwise, but if you can measure your garlic slice to that degree, I commend you.
- 1 28-ounce can crushed San Marzano tomatoes
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
- 1/2 cup pitted small black olives
- 3 tablespoons za’atar
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon red chile flakes
For the cheese sauce:
- 1/2 large Spanish onion, halved and thinly sliced
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 arbol chile pod
- 2 bay leaves (preferably fresh)
- 1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 quart whole milk
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 12 ounces shredded low-moisture mozzarella (about 3 cups)
- 8 ounces fresh ricotta (about 1 cup)
- 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan
- 2 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
For the pasta and assembling the lasagna:
- 6 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 16-ounce package dried lasagna noodles
- Olive oil (if needed)
- 1 cup finely grated Parmesan
Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.
Prep the eggplants by discarding the tip and stem ends; then cut the eggplants into 1-inch cubes. Divide between two baking sheets. Drizzle each portion with 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Toss and gently massage the cubes to coat the eggplants. Spread into a single layer. One batch at a time, place the baking sheet on the oven floor or lowest rack and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, until the cubes are dark brown all over, tossing occasionally with a metal spatula. NOTE: this’ll produce a lot of steam, so be careful when you open the oven door. Also: this might set off your smoke detector. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and season cubes with 1 teaspoon of the salt.
Combine the garlic and remaining 1/4 cup olive oil in a large Dutch oven. Cook until the garlic is soft and very light golden brown, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t burn, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, sugar, and the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, stir to combine, and cook the tomatoes for 5 to 6 minutes, until they thicken slightly. Spoon out and reserve 1/2 cup of the tomato sauce. Add the roasted eggplants, olives, za’atar, pepper, and red chile flakes. Stir to combine and cook until the eggplants have taken on the color of the sauce, about 5 minutes more. Add a splash of water (up to 3/4 cup) if the sauce is too dry and sticky. Taste and adjust for seasoning; then set aside.
Now it’s time to make the cheese sauce! Combine the butter, onion, chile pod, and bay leaves in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring often, until the butter is melted and the onion is soft but not brown, about 10 minutes, stirring often to prevent the onion from browning. Add the flour, whisking constantly, and cook for 2 minutes. Gradually add 1 cup of milk, whisking constantly. Increase heat to high and cook the sauce, whisking constantly, until it thickens. Add another cup of milk, continue to whisk constantly. Return the sauce to a boil and add the remaining 2 cups milk, whisking constantly. Return the sauce to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, whisking, until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon — 3 to 4 minutes.
Turn off the heat and stir in the salt. Pour the sauce through a fine-mesh strainer into a medium bowl and discard the contents of the strainer. Ladle out 1 cup of the white sauce (this’ll go on top of the lasagna later) and set it aside. Add the mozzarella, ricotta, Parmesan, and eggs to the bowl with the remaining white sauce and gently whisk to integrate the additions into the sauce.
Time to make the lasagna. Exhausted yet? Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Combine 6 quarts water and 6 tablespoons salt in a large soup or pasta pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Prepare an ice bath in large bowl and create a bed of clean dish towels.
Drop the lasagna into the boiling water, stir, and boil the pasta one minute less than it says to on the package. Drain the pasta (or use tongs to lift it out) then add directly to the bowl of ice water. When cool, lay on the dry kitchen towels to dry. (If you’re laying them on top of one another, use olive oil so they don’t stick.)
To assemble your lasagna: spread 1/2 cup reserved tomato sauce over the bottom of a 13 X 9-inch baking dish. Lay 3 sheets of lasagna on the bottom of the pan to cover it. Add half of the tomato eggplant mixture (about 2 1/2 cups), and spread it evenly over the pasta. Spoon half of the cheese sauce over the sauce and use another clean spoon or spatula to push it to the edges. Lay 3 sheets lasagna on top. Press gently down. Spoon the remaining tomato and eggplant sauce on top of the pasta. Spoon the remaining cheese sauce over the tomato and eggplant sauce. Lay a final layer of pasta on top of the cheese sauce.
Using a rubber spatula, gently spread the reserved bechamel (white sauce) evenly over the top of the lasagna and sprinkle the Parmesan over the bechamel. Using a long sharp knife, cut the lasagna into 9 or 12 equal-size servings (this makes it much easier to serve later).
Place the lasagna on a baking sheet and bake in the oven for 35 to 45 minutes, until the edges are golden and puffed up.
Turn on the broiler and carefully broil the top of the lasagna until the top is golden brown all over. Keep an eye on it, so it doesn’t burn.
Remove the lasagna from the oven and let it cool for at least 1 hour before serving (!!!). (That’s Nancy’s hardest step. See if you can pull it off. I think it helps the lasagna set.) Enjoy!