Monday, September 19, 2011

Roasted vegetable lasagna with saffron bechamel sauce

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
3 zucchini
1 basket small red onions (I used Tropea onions)
bechamel sauce
grated Parmesan cheese
fresh lasagna (good-quality store bought or homemade)

For the bechamel sauce
1l milk
100gr butter
100gr flour
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.


  1. I studied history at University so totally understand your obsession with people's lives in days gone by - the domestic stuff is just as fascinating as dates and wars etc! Love the idea of using saffron in the bechamel - I always use nutmeg which I learnt from my mum, but will be experimenting with saffron next time I whip up a batch.

  2. I was thinking about a similar lasagne, with roasted butternut squash instead the mushrooms (allergies). I also just bought some saffron which is terribly expensive here.

  3. LL - Nutmeg is a lovely idea too. I had never used saffron before in bechamel and it turned out to be a great combination.
    Kirsten - mmmh, I love butternut squash, I wish I could get it here.

  4. Interesting, this Medieval-inspired lasagna. Saffron is one of my favourite spices but my partner does not like it very much (he claims it tastes stale - eh?!) so I use it rarely.

  5. I am going to try this soon, as I love making lasagne myself and have always associated saffron with seafood; this is an interesting change.

  6. I love history too (although I didn't study it at school). This lasagna looks delightful! And have you seen Deana's site lostpastremembered? She melds history and food together so well! :)

  7. I just made a quinoa lasagne on the weekend, i love the addition of saffron to the bechemel…beautiful!

  8. Nicely done! I love make ahead recipes!! Your lasagna looks so tempting.
    I share your curiosity about different times and places in history. It's so much fun to imagine life before any of the modern conveniences, what a different planet it must have been. Sometimes I wish we had a bit more simplicity.

  9. I love, love, love lasagne! Now if only I didn't feel compelled to eat the whole dish whenever I make some, I would probably make it more often...

  10. By the way, BF loves saffron, so I will have to try this!

  11. LaCR - that is really funny because despite loving saffron I somehow get what your partner means...hehe
    ToB - I love saffron and seafood...that is another great idea for a lasagna by the way!
    NQN - I do read Deana's post, it is quite fascinating.
    Tenina - hi! Quinoa lasagna? Very interesting. Must check it out if you posted it.
    Nicole - I could get lost in that thought. And I love make ahead recipes.
    Pola - glad this might be a good idea for BF. I personally am a real fan of the classic lasagna and also have to stop myself.

  12. This was perfect! I was googling to get ideas about spices for recreating a roasted veggie lasagna like I'd had in Italy a couple of weeks ago, and not only do I love the saffron idea but I am really excited about that book. Your semi-obsession with the history everyday life--including the food--describes me to a T. I've already ordered that book. THANKS!!

  13. Your lasagna looks yummy! I will prefer this kind of lasagna over the ones made with meat. This one seems more healthy.


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