Individual Spinach Lasagna Gratins with Leeks and Pancetta

serves 4

for spinach pasta dough:*

1 handful fresh spinach, about 1 cup packed
1 cup all purpose flour (I used a combination of 3/4 cup Italian 00 flour and 1/4 cup semolina flour)
2 eggs, room temperature
additional flour for dusting

*if you don't want to make your own pasta, you can use regular lasagna noodles. Do not use the "no-boil" noodles - they do not boil up correctly in a pot of water  - they kind of disintegrate and will not work for this method.  Use regular lasagna noodles that are meant to be boiled.

for filling:

4 leeks
6 ounces pancetta (or bacon), diced into small cubes
large pinch of coarse salt
freshly ground peppper
2 garlic cloves, minced or grated
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley

for the bechamel:

4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
1 chicken bouillon cube (if using Knorr cubes, cut in half)
2 cups milk (you can use lowfat milk if you like - I used 1%)
pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon white pepper

Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese for grating
some dried oregano for the topping
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Make the pasta dough:

Steam the spinach til just wilted.  Cool and squeeze out excess water by wrapping in paper towels.  Chop finely and set aside.

In a bowl or on the counter, mound the flour and make a well in the center.  Crack the eggs into the well and, using a fork, blend the eggs.  Add the chopped spinach to the eggs and beat with the fork.  Slowly begin to incorporate the flour.  If you are using part semolina flour, you may want to add a couple of teaspoons of water to make the dough easier to work with. Transfer the dough to the counter and knead, adding more flour if needed.  Incorporate enough flour to make a nice soft dough that doesn't stick to your hands, but is still moist. This may take more flour than one cup (it depends on the quality of your eggs, how moist your spinach is, etc.) I used more than one cup of flour.  Wrap dough in floured plastic and let rest on counter for about 30 minutes.

Make the filling:

Trim root ends off of leeks and trim off dark green leaves.  Leave some of the lighter green part of the leeks. Slice leeks in half, vertically.  Wash if there is dirt inside.  Slice leeks one more time, vertically, to make quarters. Slice thinly horizontally.

In a large saute pan, cook pancetta until slightly crisp.  Add leeks, salt and pepper and saute gently for about 5 minutes, until leeks are soft but not brown.  Add garlic and saute for one minute.  Remove from heat and add chopped parsley. Transfer to a bowl and let cool.

Make the bechamel sauce:

In a medium heavy pot, melt the butter.  Add the flour and with a whisk, stir the mixture for a couple of minutes, letting the flour cook but not burn.  Add the chicken bouillon cube and whisk.  Slowly add the milk and stir with the whisk. Keep adding some milk, whisk, and add more milk until all the milk has been used. Add the salt and pepper and ground nutmeg and cook for a few minutes, gently, until bechamel is thick. Transfer to a heat proof bowl and allow to cool, stirring every once in a while.

Make the pasta sheets:

Bring a large pot of well salted water to a simmer.

Divide dough into 4 pieces. ( You want to end up with three foot-long pasta sheets for each gratin dish.) With pasta rollers, roll out dough starting at widest setting, #1.  Dust dough with flour to prevent sticking, fold in half and insert into widest setting again.  Repeat a few times.  The dough will be very soft now.  Adjust rollers to #2 and insert dough again.  Do not fold this time.  Dust with dough if pasta is sticky and keep adjusting rollers until you get to setting #5.  After dough goes through setting #5, measure pasta sheet.  It should measure at least 30 inches.  If it doesn't, insert into #5 again and hold pasta a little taught, letting it stretch as it goes through rollers.  You should have a 30 inch sheet of pasta.  Cut into three 10-inch pieces. (When pasta sheets cook, they will end up being about a foot long). Set on clean counter.  Repeat with remaining pieces of dough.

Place a colander or strainer into a medium size heat proof bowl.  Place next to stove.  Have a handled strainer or spider ready.  Lay a clean towel on counter. Have 3 more clean towels ready.

Bring the pot of water up to a boil.  Lower three sheets of pasta slowly into the water.  Boil gently for 60 seconds.  With the strainer, gently lift all three sheets and place into the colander.  Take bowl to sink and add cold water, gently swishing the pasta sheets with your hand.  Let pasta sit in cold water for a few seconds and then lift the colander out and dump out the water.  Pasta sheets should be cool enough to handle now.  Lay them gently, spreading them out, onto the clean towel.

Repeat this process three more times, with remaining pasta noodles.  Lay another clean towel right on top of the first layer of pasta noodles and and lay the next set of pasta noodles right on top.  Repeat until all the pasta is cooked.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Assemble lasagnas:

Spray 4 small gratin dishes with nonstick cooking spray.  Lay one pasta sheet in each dish, allowing half to drape over.  Place a spoonful of bechamel sauce on each pasta sheet and spread with a spatula. Sprinkle a small amount of the pancetta leek topping over bechamel.  Grate some cheese on top.  Fold pasta sheet over the filling to create another layer of pasta.  You may have to fold the sheet again - this is okay.  Repeat with remaining pasta sheets and filling until you have made three layers of filling in each gratin dish.  Fold remaining pasta sheet over the top of each dish and spread the remainder of the bechamel sauce on top. Grate some cheese on top of each gratin and sprinkle with some oregano.  Place dishes on a baking sheet and cover the whole thing tightly with foil (I use Reynold's Nonstick Foil - it works perfectly for lasagna, so the cheese doesn't stick). 

Bake lasagnas for 45 minutes at 350.  Remove foil, raise oven temp to 400 degrees and bake for an additional 10 minutes until tops are just golden brown. 


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