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Let It Be Lasagna

Rural Intelligence Food It all started with the last tomato from my garden.  A few weeks before Thanksgiving, right before that spell of bitter cold, I was (belatedly) cleaning up the so-called potager behind my back porch.  This was my only stab at a garden this year, and though it mostly looked like hell, it provided us with some fine herbs, a bit of salad, a pepper or three, and eventually, some succulent tomatoes (grown from plants purchased at the Farm at Miller’s Crossing plant sale—watch for it next summer.)  I cut the last of the rosemary, oregano and mint to bring indoors to dry.  As I was cutting out vines, pretending not to see the weeds I’d let take over, bemoaning the few rotting green tomatoes scattered on the ground, I turned over a vine and found one pristine, golden, tomato. Tantalized, I brought it inside to ripen. 

I looked at it for days (it was really hard) as it slowly approached edibility. It made me hungry for the single bag of homemade frozen tomato sauce in my freezer. (Like I said, I’m a pathetic gardener.  I grew exactly enough tomatoes for a few salads and two good-sized batches of homemade sauce.  One we ate right away, and the other I froze for winter.)  I had a sort of Puritan inclination to make make us all wait for the joy of that sauce—shouldn’t we delay that pleasure until we’d really hit the depths of the snowy gray cold?  But I’m not so good at delayed gratification.  I brought the bag of sauce out of the freezer to defrost,  and decided to stretch it by making lasagna.

I rediscovered lasagne last year when, desperate to keep my kids busy while I cooked dinner, I pulled out my trusty Atlas pasta machine.  Making lasagna noodles is easy—you just roll out the dough, and then cut into two inch wide strips.  Precision isn’t necessary; the noodles don’t have to be uniform.  Even without a pasta machine, the noodles are easy to produce. Yes, you read that sentence correctly: you don’t need a pasta machine to make homemade pasta.  Working with a rolling pin on a floured counter, you will produce slightly thicker noodles, which don’t work well for fettucini or other narrow pastas, but are completely acceptable—maybe even preferable—for lasagna.

Food historians suggest that modern lasagne derives from ancient Greek laganon, a flat wheat cake, beloved of everyone from peasants to the Roman poet Horace.  Though laganon was not prepared like modern pasta, it may have evolved into the original incarnation of pasta (so much for the story of noodles coming home to Italy with Marco Polo—that tale, like so many others, is culinary mythology.)  Tomatoes didn’t make it to Europe from the Americas until sometime in the sixteenth century, and the baked pasta we now think of as lasagne was a food reserved for the wealthy in Italy for many years—lower class Italians didn’t have ovens in which to prepare it.

The lasagna I devised last winter was so popular that I’ve kept returning to it when I need dinner for a crowd, or a dish to last a few days for our family.  Unless you’re Italian-American, you probably didn’t eat it at Thanksgiving, so you’re not tired of it, in all likelihood. (If you are Italian-American, you probably ate the lasagne and ignored the turkey, and I say, lucky you.)  In any case, this is a recipe with options, and permutations. You can make a vegetarian version.  Meat sauce could incorporate beef, pork, veal, all three, or even ground turkey.  I often use sweet Italian sausage.  You can include ricotta cheese, or the slightly-more-elegant béchamel. (The latter is a bit more time consuming, but not much.)  You can make a highly-flavored sauce, or one that is more a subtle foil to the other flavors. Go ahead and experiment. No matter what you do with lasagna, as long as you start with good ingredients, the results are invariably wonderful. —Paige Orloff

Homemade Lasagne

Feeds 8-10

This looks like a lot of work. It is a lot of steps. But they are easy, and can either be done in sequence or piecemeal over a couple of days.  You could prepare the tomato sauce ahead, prep the cheese and sauté the spinach.  The béchamel or ricotta layer and the fresh pasta are best prepared just before assembling the whole lasagne, but it comes together very fast.  Even béchamel takes only minutes and a bit of focus to prepare. 

If you want to make this in one day, I find the best plan of action is to begin with the tomato sauce. While it’s cooking, start the fresh pasta. While the pasta dough is resting, cook the spinach and while it drains, make the béchamel.  After you roll out the dough, you can finish the spinach filling, and prep the cheese, while the tomato sauce cools a bit.

Tomato Sauce

If you, like so many folks in our region, freeze tomato sauce from your homegrown or CSA tomatoes, use that, either as is—about 4-5 cups will do it—or as a base for the recipe below.  If not, you can make a delicious quick sauce from canned tomatoes.  If you eat meat, include it—if not, add some extra vegetables for flavor and body.  If you like, you can add a bit—1/2 cup or so—of red wine to the sauce, or a pinch of sugar if you prefer a sweeter taste, but the recipe below is the one I follow.

1 yellow onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

For vegetarian:
1 red bell pepper, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced

For meat:
1 pound of ground beef, veal, pork or a combination; or 1 pound mild or spicy Italian sausage
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

For both versions:
1 28 ounce can peeled plum tomatoes, drained
1 28 ounce can crushed plum tomatoes
2 teaspoons dried oregano
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

If you’re making meat sauce, heat the 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven until shimmering but not smoking, and add the meat.  Brown thoroughly, breaking up with a wooden spoon.  When all is cooked through, remove the meat from the pan with a slotted spoon and reserve. Proceed with the recipe below.

Heat the 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven until shimmering but no smoking, and add the garlic and onions. Sauté until the onions soften, and then add the additional vegetables, if using them.  Sauté the vegetables until beginning to soften. 

If using meat, add it to the pan now. Add both cans of tomatoes and the oregano and bring to a simmer. Use a wooden spoon to break up the whole plum tomatoes into smaller pieces.  Simmer for approximately thirty minutes, or until the thickness is to your likely.  (If you find the sauce is still too watery, you can keep cooking it down.  You can also add a tablespoon of tomato paste for a richer flavor and a bit of thickening.) Taste for salt and pepper.

Pasta (makes enough for one 9 x 13 pan of lasagne)

3 cups semolina flour (I use the Bob’s Red Mill brand, available at Guido’s) plus a bit more for rolling out the pasta
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
4 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup water
4 T extra virgin olive oil

Stir flour and salt together in large bowl.  Stir eggs, water and oil together in a second smaller bowl.  Make a well in the middle of the dry mixture with your fist, and stir in the egg mixture. 

Once the dough has begun to cohere, start kneading (I usually just do it in the bowl). Knead as you would bread:  folding the dough over on itself, then pushing down and out with the heel of your hand, turning 90 degrees and repeating. Do this for five to ten minutes, until the dough feels springy and elastic, and has formed a nice, smooth ball.  Cover the dough in the bowl with a dish towel and let it rest for 20 minutes. 

Divide the dough into four even pieces (a dough scraper works well for this, or you can just use a chef’s knife) and roll out one at a time (leave the others covered in the bowl) on a lightly floured board.  (Unless you have a pasta machine, which will do this task a bit faster.) 

The goal is to roll the dough as thin as you can.  The best method is to roll in one direction at a time, not back and forth.  Start in the middle, roll away from you, then turn the dough 180 degrees, and roll in the other direction.  Now turn the dough 90 degrees, and roll again away from you; turn 180 degrees, and roll again.  Keep turning and rolling until you can start to see through the dough—it should be 1/8 inch thick or slightly less. (The pasta will absorb moisture while it cooks, and get a bit thicker.)  Cut the dough into wide strips—two inches or so in width—and hang to dry wherever you can.  I use the handles of my ovens, or suspend wooden spoons between cabinet doors.  The noodles don’t need to be completely dry before cooking—20 minutes of drying time is enough; more is fine.  If they get too dry, they may break, so take care.  You can just leave them hanging until you’re ready to assemble the lasagne.  Repeat the process with the other three balls of dough. 

Spinach filling

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic
10 ounces fresh baby spinach
1 teaspoon coarse salt
2 cups whole milk ricotta cheese or béchamel sauce (recipe follows)
2 eggs, beaten (only if using ricotta)
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Heat the olive oil in a skillet until shimmering but not smoking.  Add the garlic and sauté gently; do not brown.  Add the spinach leaves (you may have to do this in two batches, allowing the first batch to soften before adding the second—don’t remove the first batch, just stir both together as the second wilts) and stir gently with a wooden spoons or tongs so they release their liquid and wilt.  Sprinkle with the salt and continue cooking. When much of the liquid has reduced but the spinach is still a bright green color, turn it into a colander or strainer set over the sink. Allow to cool, and press out the remaining liquid as best you can.  Stir together with the ricotta and beaten eggs, or the béchamel, and season to taste with the nutmeg, salt and pepper.

Béchamel sauce

5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup all purpose flour
3 cups milk
1 teaspoon coarse salt

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter. Meanwhile, in separate pan, heat the milk to a simmer—don’t let it boil. When the butter foams, add the flour, whisking constantly. Cook over medium heat until light golden brown. Add the hot milk, a cup at a time, whisking constantly to blend it with the butter-flour mixture. You want the sauce to be very smooth, and blend well after each milk addition.  After all the milk is added, bring it to a boil.  Reduce the heat to a simmer and allow it to cook for five to ten more minutes, until smooth and thick.  Remove from heat and season to taste with salt.  Keep warm (but not hot, or it will get too thick.)

Additional ingredients:

1 8 ounce ball of fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

Assembling the lasagne

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In an oval or 9 x 13 glass pan, place about 1 cup of the tomato sauce mixture (avoiding chunks of meat, if you’ve used them—you want the bottom layer of noodles to be smooth) in the bottom of the pan, and spread to coat the bottom.  Add a layer of noodles to cover.  The noodles don’t have to form an impenetrable seal atop each layer, nor do they have to align perfectly—it’s fine to piece the layer together haphazardly.  You won’t notice this when it’s done or when you cut it.

Top the noodles with 1/3 of the spinach mixture, and another layer of noodles. 

Follow with about a cup of sauce, 1/3 of the mozzarella, and another layer of noodles.  Next, another 1/3 of the spinach mixture, then another layer of noodles, and so on, ending with tomato sauce and mozzarella.  Sprinkle the parmesan cheese over the top, and bake for 35 minutes or until bubbling and golden brown on top.

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Posted by Dan Shaw on 12/04/08 at 07:09 AM • Permalink