My mother is in the process of moving and while we were visiting this summer, I went through some of her old books and picked a few to take home. I chose one in particular that I had seen in her bookshelves for years but had never given a second glance, not realizing what it was about. Its English title - I have the Italian translation - is Great Cooks and Their Recipes: From Taillevent to Escoffier and was written by Anne Willan, founder of the prestigious cooking school Ecole de Cuisine de La Varenne, back in 1977.
Now, anybody who knows me knows that I am mildly obsessed with history. Not really dates and wars and rulers, more like everyday life in all periods, but particularly the Middle Ages. I have always been intrigued by people's domestic life through time. I love visiting museums that illustrate the lives in cities, towns and homes of the past and have read many books on this subject. In law school, I have to admit to being more interested in the case studies of Ancient Rome than in most other subjects because it gave me an insight on how people actually lived on a day to day basis at the time. My friends tease me because whenever we drive down roads in the middle of nowhere or at night I say things like "I wonder what it would have been like to live here in the Middle Ages, without seeing a soul for months"; or I wonder what life would have been like in one of the many Medieval towns scattered throughout Italy.
It turns out this book, with its yellowed pages, is filled with information and illustrations about food, eating habits and cooking from the Middle Ages on. Some of these facts were known to me, others weren't, but they are all fascinating. Did you know, for example, that in the Middle Ages people were not served large chunks of meat or whole roasted animals as we like to imagine? Meat in those days was incredibly tough (especially from larger animals), it was often salted, dried, smoked or pickled to preserve it in the winter and most of the time it was way past its prime so it was common to break it down as small as possible, often puréeing it, and to smother it in sauces and spices to cover the unpleasant taste. A meat dish was considered excellent when you couldn't tell what part of the animal it came from and even more so if you didn't even know what animal you were eating. And did you know that sugar was commonly used on savory dishes? Or that banquets were public and subjects were allowed to watch their sovereigns, the rich and the powerful feast as a means of entertainment?
It was also interesting to read that one of the most ancient forms of pasta in Italy were lasagne, already present in Roman times and prepared in one form or the other throughout history. I think all this reading of the Middle Ages unconsciously inspired the dish I made for my guests over the weekend, a lasagna with no trace of meat or tomatoes but rich with the warm color and flavor of saffron.
This lasagna was a first for us and it turned out to be a success, besides being extremely practical.
First of all, you can prepare it ahead of time so you won't have to cook while your guests are in the other room having fun and drinking all that good wine. Second of all, it is the perfect way to use up the various left over vegetables in your fridge. Last and not least, it is a great vegetarian meal.
There are no exact amounts, ingedients or techniques for this recipe. You can use pretty much any vegetable you like and fill the lasagna however you think appropriate. These are just general guidelines.
For the lasagna
1 basket cremini mushrooms
1 basket small red onions (I used Tropea onions)
grated Parmesan cheese
fresh lasagna (good-quality store bought or homemade)
For the bechamel sauce
saffron to taste
Clean and chop the vegetables in similar sized pieces, drizzle with olive oil and salt and roast in the oven at 220° C until they start caramelizing. In the meantime start making your bechamel sauce, adding in the saffron powder at the end (or if you are using threads, you could soak them in the warm milk you will be using to make the bechamel). Start layering the pasta and the bechamel sauce, vegetables and grated Parmesan cheese. Make as many layers as you like. The last layer of lasagne should just be drizzled with a little bechamel and grated cheese and perhaps a few vegetables, if you like, for decoration. Bake in a preheated oven at 180°C for about 30-40 minutes, until you see the top and edges browning and the sauce bubbling.