Summer Lovin’ and Pasta Memories

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

Hello sunshine! Flowers are blooming, business are reopening and travel seems very ‘In” this season. I got a bit of a travel reboot myself this spring with a visit back to Michigan, where some of my dearest friends and family reside. With some trepidation and a bit more anxiety, I made a solo venture into the world of close proximity to others. For many this appears to be no big deal and nothing new, as some seem to have never stopped traveling, or to have never really taken the whole pandemic as a serious danger to their health or that of others. Well, I did and I still do. Baby steps. There is no right or wrong way to come out of this and it is all about your comfort level, but for now I will continue to wear that mask when in close proximity to those I don’t know and of course on public transportation, planes, trains, movie theaters (although not there yet either), stores, and shopping malls (ugh, never go there anyway!). And still only outdoor dining for now, which we have been doing all along here in San Francisco.

During my visit, I surprised my Mom on Mother’s Day, as well as my sister and her family, it was their home that I popped into – surprise! After a fun visit and catch up there I was eager to connect with friends who I hadn’t seen in a few years, most with their own challenges, hardships, health issues, loss and grief. Not all COVID related but most certainly exacerbated by the past year’s fear, trials, anxiety, and isolation. There was a lot of laughter through tears (mine and Dolly Parton’s favorite emotion), and some struggles and missteps while trying to find our way back to being close to (vaccinated) others. Hugs were welcomed and fully reciprocated. Faces, uncovered, revealing maskless smiles and tear-stained cheeks, were a grateful sight. Unfiltered laughter, touching an arm or a loved ones back as full-bellied chortles erupting, forcing a year of stale air out of open windows and filling hearts with something much needed and very sorely missed.

Of course, whenever visiting my peeps, it’s a given that food and delicious drink will be involved. The first such gathering, and the one I will expand on in this blog entry, was with my cher amis, Kathleen, Laenne, and Oksana. We were all brought together almost 30 years (mon dieu!) ago while working at a distinctive, quirky, and fun shop/restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan, called Pastabilities. Ironically, my visit and this gathering were preceded a few months by the surprising release of a lovely book containing the recipes from and stories about Pastabilities and its pioneering and spirited owner, the lovely Marguerite Bertoni Oliver. Written by her daughter, Susan, the other three of us were gifted the charming book by Laenne – thanks, Laenne! We swapped stories, sipped wine, laughed and reminisced while flipping through the pages and photos, revisiting favorite recipes, rediscovering some we’d forgotten and delighting in new recipes added by Susan along with so much lore and rich history. We shared favorite moments, not-so-favorite moments and gratitude for that long-gone special place and time in our lives and the extraordinary woman who brought us all together.

Marguerite was born in Ann Arbor, her parents natives of Italy’s north-western Liguria region, The Italian Riviera. Over many years she’d visit and live in various regions of Italy, forging her pasta journey from an early age, learning from her mother and Nona along the way. After raising her family, and at 50 years young, the civic-minded community leader, gutsy Italian and painter launched her first professional culinary venture: Pastabilities in The Kerrytown Shops, next to the Ann Arbor Farmers Market and a block from Zingerman’s Deli. As the company’s success grew, in 1991 Marguerite was invited to represent Michigan at a business conference in Moscow, that same year Pastabilities earned the title “Best Pasta in America” by CNN. Brava!

The few years that I worked for her, hired by my friend Linda who was the retail manager at that time, I began as a retail employee and quickly became Pastabilities catering manager. Marguerite allowed me to form and expand the catering business as well as help out in the kitchen. Soon, Kathleen became the retail manager, and fresh from a year in Italy, Laenne took up a kitchen position (and assisted in many catering antics!) and Oksana was hired as counter staff, along with an array of other eager, interesting, quirky, and fun folks that came and went over the years.

It wasn’t all laughter and bottomless pasta salads, there were tears, fights, exhaustion, underappreciation and a #metoo moment that troubles us still. But we wiped each other’s tears away, laughed when the fighting was done, held each other up and regarded one another and these newfound friendships, the kind you only can form in such situations, and when you’re young. Thirty years later, I’m happy to say that we still do, like no time has passed and with a lot less fighting.

We learned a lot working for Marguerite. I can put together a lasagna in my sleep, and NEVER ricotta in those lasagnas! With her roots in Northern Italy, Marguerite had us perfecting a béchamel sauce (heady with fresh grated nutmeg and white pepper) and the fresh pasta sheets were layered with it, plenty of Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses, and such deliciously simple filling as asparagus and prosciutto, or chicken and pesto, or artichoke and creations of our own, like apple-cheddar - I can’t remember if we liked that one or not...

I was young and little green, but cutting my teeth as catering manager, I learned a lot in those few years, much by trial and error. A smile while serving up delicious food and never letting them see you sweat got us through a lot of those moments. Years later and through many other food businesses: restaurants, catering, gourmet retail, and many positions: cook, cheesemonger, server, bartender, manager, dishwasher, through Michelin Stars, Mom & Pop’s, culinary school, salt-selling and cheesemaking, I look back and cherish the work, knowledge, friendships (family), lessons learned, and hardships overcome. Each a piece of the complex, layered, rich and varied puzzle(lasagna?) of the person I’ve become. Chef, cook, caterer, food stylist, teacher, recipe developer, Pasta brat, friend, husband, brother. Life lessons.

Marguerite sold Pastabilities after about 20 years, and she passed away in 2012 at 82. A life well lived! We all still make recipes or variations from those days, many by memory and have grown to become our own, but it’s great to have Susan’s beautiful cookbook/memoir/homage to remind, inspire and entertain with the effortless, heartleft verve that Marguerite did.

This lasagna recipe is my adaptation from over the years and yet not unlike so many of the other delicious lasagna and more recipes in “The Pastabilities”, by Susan Marguerite Oliver. Maybe it was all the pasta over the years that have caused my gluten sensitivity. I now use gluten-free, oven ready lasagna noodles with beautiful results, that is when I don't have time to make a batch of gluten free fresh pasta - that will be another post. Buon apppetito!

Artichoke and Greens Lasagna a la Pastabilities

Serves 8 to 10

2 cups milk

4 Tbsp unsalted butter

¼ cup AP or rice flour (I use superfine brown rice flour)

¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg

Pinch of cayenne

Salt and freshly ground white pepper

1 Tbsp EVOO

2 6oz jars marinated artichoke heart quarters, reserve marinade

2 spring onions, sliced thin

3/4 pound fresh asparagus, sliced diagonally leaving 1 to 2-inch tips whole

5 oz (@ 3 cups) packed fresh baby spinach, chopped 1/4 pound grated Parmesan cheese 1/4 pound shredded mozzarella cheese 1 pound fresh lasagna sheets or 1 10oz box oven-ready lasagna noodles

Make béchamel – Warm milk in saucepan or microwave, set aside.

Melt butter in a small, heavy saucepan over medium heat, do not let it brown. Add flour to butter, stirring quickly with wooden spoon. Cook, stirring mixture about 5 to 8 minutes, until raw flour smell turns into slight nutty aroma. Don’t let it brown.

Add just enough warm milk to moisten flour/butter mixture. Stir thoroughly to loosen up. Use a whisk to gradually add rest of milk while whisking constantly. Whisk vigorously until smooth!

Cook, stirring constantly, until starting to bubble and thicken. Season with nutmeg, cayenne, and salt and white pepper to taste.

Preheat oven to 375°F.

In a large skillet, heat olive oil and artichoke marinade over medium heat. Sauté spring onions and asparagus until soft, 6 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and add spinach, stir until wilted. Remove from heat and add artichoke hearts. Remove and reserve 8 to 12 of the asparagus tips.

To build lasagna, spread a small amount of béchamel sauce in bottom of 13x9x2 baking pan. Then add a layer of lasagna sheets. Stir the sautéed vegetables into the reaming béchamel sauce add 1/3 of the sauce over lasagna and top with a about 1/3 of each cheese, until you have three layers, ending with sauce and cheese. Arrange the asparagus tips on the top.

Cover tightly with foil that has been sprayed with cooking spray so cheese doesn’t stick!

Bake about 45 minutes, remove foil and cook 1o to 15 minutes more, until golden and bubbly. Let rest 20 minutes before cutting and serving.

Note - This lasagna freezes beautifully and you can add a cup or two of diced or shredded rotisserie chicken to the sauce, or a cup of diced ham or sliced prosciutto. Or not.

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