Saturday, May 19, 2007

Lasagna - An Elegant One Dish Meal

However you choose to spell lasagna, ending it with an e or an a, this layered noodle dish is a popular Italian specialty. The big debate arises over what is nestled between the layers of tender sheets of pasta and whether the provenance of those structural noodles is fresh from an Atlas roller or slipped from a blue box. I've gone both routes, and if all the other elements are done to perfection, the choice of pasta is almost irrelevant. In my opinion, fresh pasta should be showcased with minimal adornment, lasagna has too much going for it to highlight the pasta.

Then there is the faction that stubbornly adheres to the dish's old world origins with the meat layers separated from the pasta layers with a rich, creamy béchamel sauce. Given that Louis de Béchamel, attributed with originating the white sauce, was French, the debate rages on as to what constitutes an authentic lasagne(a). I choose to go all the way with red sauce and save white sauce for other applications. Though there's nothing wrong with the way my Italian friend, Melina, makes a lasagna, believe me! Despite the prevalence of white sauce.

My personal choice is simple layers of pasta with fresh ricotta cheese that has been mixed with beaten egg, freshly grated Parmesan cheese, minced fresh parsley and salt and pepper. Each layer separated from its brother with a light coating of red sauce and thin slices of whole milk mozzarella cheese. The entire dish laced on the bottom, between layers and over the top with a perky fresh tomato marinara sauce. I love vegetables, but keep them out of my lasagna and I prefer a meatless rendition, if I'm having my druthers.

I have friends who are partial to a rich ragù that I've adapted from The Frugal Gourmet. They've indicated that the combination of layers of ricotta alternating with layers of ragù is a winner in their book and to please everyone, about once a year, I put one of these meat and cheese combos together.

This was the week. My friends, Paul and Betty, were celebrating their first wedding anniversary and I wanted to offer a toast to them for many more happy years ahead.

We started the meal with shrimp cocktail. The large, sweet, fresh shrimp recently off the boat from Key West. Followed by an adventurous little salad of torn green leaf lettuce, thinly sliced Vidalia onions, diced vine- ripened tomatoes, crumbled Gorgonzola cheese and spicy hot, toasted walnuts. The pan-roasted walnuts dusted in sugar and ground chipotlé were a bold companion to the piquant cheese and the two somewhat brash components lent just the right character to the sweet mild greens that had been lightly dressed with a mellow Asiago dressing.

Foccacia, warm from the oven, with rosemary and kosher salt, was good for mopping the zingy cocktail sauce (fresh horseradish is a must) with the shrimp, the dressing on the salad and any traces of red sauce from the lasagna. The dense, cake-like crumb, sweetened by a heavy dose of olive oil within and served with herbed olive oil for dipping, could have been dessert by itself.

But we ended the meal with a simple presentation designed by a clever chef in Treviso. Freshly churned lemon ice drizzled with vodka. The light fresh tart taste of the lemons was a fitting end to a rich meal. And the unexpected appearance of the ice cold vodka, straight from the freezer, lent just the right air of decadence to the finale.

The meal was complemented with a feisty young red Zinfandel and a pleasantly mellow Cabernet. Rich French Roast coffee added the final touch to an extremely enjoyable, casual meal with good friends.

Get-togethers like these are rich rewards for spending a day in the kitchen. As you might have guessed, this was not a 30 minute meal!

1/2 cup olive oil
3 cloves garlic
1 rib celery, finely chopped
1 med carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1 med yellow onion, finely chopped
1/4 lb pancetta, finely chopped
1 pound ground sirloin
1 pound ground pork
1/8 cup chopped parsley
1 1/4 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup dry white wine (I use dry vermouth)
1/2 sm can tomato paste
3 TBS butter
1/4 cup heavy cream (I use half & half)
1 tsp chopped fresh sage of 1/2 tsp dried ground sage
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Salt & Pepper to taste
Heat a large, heavy bottom stainless steel dutch oven or kettle. Add the oil, garlic, celery, carrot and onion. Sauté until the onion is transparent, about 10 - 15 minutes. Add the pancetta and sauté 5 minutes. Add the chopped meats and brown until crumbly. Add the parsley, chicken stock, white wine and tomato paste. Bring to a boil, then turn down heat and simmer gently partly covered for about 2 hours. When all is well homogenized, add the butter, cream, sage and cheese and simmer carefully for another 5 minutes or so. Skim any accumulated fat from the top of the sauce then season to taste with salt and pepper.
Ricotta Layer
one pound ricotta(approx 2 cups)
one egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
dash of 1/2 & 1/2
Salt & Pepper
In a medium bowl mix all ingredients to spreadable consistency (add cream or 1/2 & 1/2 to thin as needed).
Assembling the Lasagna
In addition to the fillings (meat and cheese or just meat or just cheese) and the pasta sauce you will need a generous 4 - 6 oz hunk of whole milk mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced. Or you can grate it, if you prefer, and an additional half cup of grated mozzarella and a 1/2 cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese for the top.
You will need 5 - 6 cups home-made marinara sauce or pasta sauce of choice. Spread about a cup of sauce evenly over the bottom of a 9 x 13 glass baking dish. Cover bottom of dish with lasagna noodles (I like to soften hard ones by placing them in simmering water until they are slightly pliable - no need to pre-cook). You will need 9 lasagna noodles for a 9 x 13 dish (3 layers of 3 noodles). If using fresh pasta sheets, cut the sheets to fit the dish, allowing for 3 layers of noodles.
Whether the first layer is meat or cheese is a personal preference. It doesn't make any difference in the finished product.
Gently spread the ricotta over the layer of noodles. Then layer on thin slices of mozzarella, then add a thin layer of sauce before adding the next layer of noodles. Place a layer of the ragù over the second layer of noodles, add a layer of thin slices of mozzarella, then a thin layer of sauce and top with the final 3 noodles. Carefully cover the top three noodles with sauce. The dish can be prepared up to this point, covered with foil and refrigerated until ready to bake. If refrigerated, let stand at room temperature for at least 45 min before baking in a 350° oven for 55 - 60 minutes. Bake covered with foil for the first 45 minutes. Carefully remove the foil and evenly spread a mixture of 1/2 cup of grated mozzarella and 1/2 cup of grated Parmesan over the top. Return to oven and finish cooking uncovered. Dish should be bubbly with the cheese taking on a little color - don't overcook as it will be dry. Let stand at least 15 minutes before cutting. Serve with additional sauce if desired. A sprinkling of freshly minced Italian parsley makes a lovely finishing touch.
This is a special occasion item. The more often you prepare one, the easier it becomes. Be sure to allow enough time to enjoy the process. Being rushed and/or stressed not only puts undue pressure on the cook but inevitably ruins the final dish. The best food is simple food prepared with joy and love.
Till next time . . . keep on cooking.


Kelly-Jane said...

Oh lasagne :) Everything looks yummy, your bread is so pretty too.

Kate said...

That looks fantastic! There is just nothing like a good lasagna.

Freya and Paul said...

As you read a while back, I'm the Bechemel fan, Paul the ricotta. However, I like the balance you've struck here with your 'white' layer and am feeling up for further experimentation!