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Apr 12, 2011
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Wine With . . . Chicken Lasagna

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas

We suspect that most home cooks have a handful of favorite old recipes that they return to again and again.  We certainly do. And if you’re like us, you may occasionally get the urge to tweak even your most dependable standby, substituting a particular ingredient here, adding something a little more exotic there.  The aim is to update the original without sacrificing its fundamental spirit. 

We followed this impulse recently, giving an old recipe for Chicken Lasagna a slightly new twist.  The original comes from Marguerite’s book, The Elegant Peasant: Light and Simple Variations on Traditional Country Fare (now out of print).  Created in the days before imported cheeses were widely available, it calls for generic Fontina.  For our newer version, we replaced the Fontina with Taleggio, a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese from Italy, which we chose for its mild, buttery flavor, and extra-creamy texture when melted.  We also substituted Asian egg roll wraps for the traditional but thicker lasagna noodles. One of the many things we like about this recipe is the relatively low ratio of pasta to other ingredients.  Egg roll wraps are convenient to use (since they do not need par-boiling), and never threaten to dominate the dish. 

We were so pleased with the end results that the next time we make Chicken Lasagna we might incorporate other changes, perhaps adding sliced mushrooms, spinach, or eggplant.  Particularly in its updated form, we like to think of it as “grown-up” pasta.  With a white rather than red sauce, and morsel of chicken instead of ground beef, it makes for an elegant, as opposed to rustic, one-dish party meal.

Chicken Lasagna   

(serves 6)

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 2 pounds total)

4 cups chicken broth

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes or Aleppo pepper

3 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

1 clove garlic, peeled

2 tablespoons butter (divided use)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, diced

4 tablespoons flour

15 ounces ricotta cheese

1/2 cup sherry

1 one-pound package Asian egg roll wraps

1/2 pound Taleggio cheese

2/3 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

Place the chicken breasts in a large pot with the chicken broth, bay leaf, red pepper flakes, and thyme.  Simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes, or until chicken is tender and cooked clear through.  When the chicken is cool enough to handle, cut it into bite-size pieces, reserving the broth.  Meanwhile, place one tablespoon of the butter and the olive oil in a large casserole over medium heat.  Add the onion and cook until it is tender; then add the garlic and cook a few minutes longer.  Add the flour and cook for several minutes, stirring constantly, until a thick paste has formed.  Whisk in the cool broth* and simmer over low heat, whisking frequently, until the sauce has thickened.  Remove from heat and cool slightly.  Stir in the ricotta and the chicken pieces.

To assemble the lasagna, butter a large baking dish with the remaining tablespoon of butter.  Spread about 1/4 cup of the sauce in a thin layer in the bottom of the baking dish.  Arrange enough egg roll wraps, in a single layer, to cover the bottom of the dish (it’s ok for the wraps to overlap a little).  Cover them with the entire chicken mixture.  Then cover the chicken with another layer of egg roll wraps.  Cut the Taleggio into one-inch chunks (don’t worry if they are uneven) and distribute them over the pasta.  Add one more layer of pasta (you will have several of the wraps leftover for another use). Drizzle the cream over the top, and sprinkle the Parmesan over it.  The lasagna may be held in the refrigerator at this point for several hours.  To bake, preheat the oven to 350°.  Bake the lasagna for about 40 minutes, or until it is hot and bubbly.  If it is browning too much, lay a piece of foil loosely over the top.

*The sauce may not thicken if hot liquid is added to the butter and flour roux.

* * *

Though we are recommending five California wines with this dish, we don’t think that you need to restrict yourself to the Golden State when choosing what to pair with it.  That our favorites all hailed from there says more about what happens to be in our tasting room these days than about anything else.  Yet you probably should confine yourself to wines that feel soft and lush when you drink them.  No matter red or white, that textural profile characterized the ones that showed best in our tasting.  Leaner, more nuanced wines, whether from New or Old World countries, just did not fare as well, the richness of the dish detracting from their subtleties. 

Selection

 

Approx. Price

Comments

 

Kenwood, Sonoma Valley (California) Merlot Jack London Vineyard 2008

 

 

$22

 

Rich and ripe, with definite structure but no tannic astringency, this concentrated red in no sense overpowered the dish (as we feared it might)  Instead, the dark cherry fruit flavor and hints of sweet chocolate enhanced it

 

 

Frank Family Vineyards, Carneros, Napa Valley (California) Pinot Noir 2009

 

 

$35

 

A definite winner with this creamy dish, this youthful Pinot Noir fairly burst open with bright cherry and plum fruit, enlivened by echoes of sweet spice.  It has almost the same weight on the palate as the Lasagna.

 

 

Freemark Abbey, Napa Valley (California) Viognier 2009

 

$27

 

A sumptuous white, with a tropical fruit bouquet enlivened by floral notes, and an almost honeyed finish, this Viognier made the dish itself taste ever so slightly sweet, and so seductive.

 

 

Sebastiani, Sonoma County (California) Zinfandel 2008

 

 

$15

 

Far less showy and so significantly less heavy than many contemporary Zinfandels, this red felt invitingly smooth and soft.  If a red wine can fairly be described as creamy, this one fit the bill.

 

 

William Hill, Napa Valley (California) Chardonnay 2008

 

$25

 

Tasting of golden delicious apples with a zesty citrus edge and more than a hint of sweet vanilla-scented oak, this wine did what so many people want Chardonnays to do—feel lush and taste richly balanced.  It helped make the dish shine.