The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.
Anyway. The lasagna. Yeah... Lasagna is okay. And sometimes I'll get a craving for it.. but honestly... it's not that great of a meal. To me at least. Even when I get a craving. I'll make it. I'll eat it. And then I'm like.. "Why did I want that?" It's neat and all. Just not really worth all the effort to me. I'd much rather have stuffed shells. Continuing on.
This lasagna called for spinach pasta (I happened to have a package of frozen chopped spinach on hand... which I had gotten for a different lasagna and forgot to put in..), a ragú, a bechamel, and parmesan cheese.
I'd heard of true ragus before. I'd kind of skimmed over recipes, noting that they called for very little tomatoes and something I'd never put in a pasta sauce before: carrots and celery. I don't have a problem with carrots and celery. I have just never had that before. It's not what I grew up with. The sauce I grew up with consisted of my gram going out and finding whatever ground beef was the cheapest. Then she'd throw it into a pot and cook it. Drain the fat. Pour cans of tomato sauce and diced tomatoes. Then she'd season it up with onion powder, garlic powder, dried basil, oregano, and a bay leaf or two. And she'd add some salt and pepper. She'd also usually have a small jar of mushrooms which were just for her and I. Nobody else in the family likes mushrooms. There was no fresh garlic and onions. I've since graduated to fresh garlic and onions and mushrooms and occasionally fresh herbs. But at that time? Psht. There were eleven of us in one house at one point. Meals consisted of things that could be stretched over a large amount of people. And the ingredients had to be what could last a long time. Seriously. I've reviewed a lot of the "recipes" grew up with. Potato soup? Potatoes, a can of tomato sauce, a couple cans of chicken broth (if we had it.. if we didn't, just water), onion powder, garlic powder, salt, pepper, and monterey jack cheese. Zucchini in tomato sauce? Zucchini, tomato sauce, dried basil and oregano, salt, pepper, monterey jack cheese. Rice? Rice fried up in some vegetable oil, then chicken broth, tomato sauce, onion powder, garlic powder, salt and pepper were added. See the pattern? That's not to say we never had fresh foods in the house. We did. Bananas, oranges. We ate salads with dinners. Or we'd have a pot of beans. But I'm running away from the point. Carrots and celery were for soups. Not pasta sauces. But I figured I could try for this recipe. As for the other ingredients? Pancetta? Veal? Prosciutto? Erm... I can't even find veal in my grocery store. And if I could, I'd be making pan-fried veal cutlets. Because my mom has been going on about them for years. Only she's had them. But she wants them. So I've made it a mission to make them if I can ever find veal here. Pancetta is okay. Prosciutto I have a problem with. I don't like ham. What does prosciutto taste like? Ham. I explained the recipe to my mom. She gave me a look of disgust. So I used our basic "recipe" for the pasta sauce. I'll give it to you. But I don't have measurements. Even when I started to make it.. I asked, "How much do I put in?" I was told, "Until it tastes good." "Yes, but how much is that?" I didn't understand -not- measuring things at the time. I had to have precise measurements or it was doomed to fail. At least in my mind.
Then came the pasta. I'd been looking for a spinach pasta recipe, so I figured I'd try it. It was fine.. I just... something is off with the measurements. Now.. I know I didn't use jumbo eggs. I used extra-large. But still. It called for eggs that were two ounces each. An extra-large egg is about two ounces per egg. It varies. But it's usually two ounces or more. Two eggs did not cut it, though. So I started adding some of the water I squeezed from the spinach. But a few spoonfuls of that wasn't doing the trick. So I added another egg. And then I poured in some olive oil. How much? I don't know. I just poured little bits in until it looked good enough to me. Oh. I had a lot of leftover dough. I think half the recipe could have worked for me for the full lasagna. But maybe I just made my dough incredibly thin. I went to number 6 on my roller attachment to my KitchenAid.
Then there was the bechamel. I've made that before. I'd actually made one just the week before I did the lasagna. That was another one of our normal meals. Stuffed bell peppers. We top it with a jack cheese sauce. Which is just a bechamel with jack cheese mixed in. It's mouthgasmic. But yeah. I wound up needing more sauce toward the end. I had more room in my pan. More pasta. More tomato sauce. More cheese. But no more bechamel. So I made more.
Onto the cheese. I added in half a pound of mozzarella. Because we like cheese. And I wanted more than just parmesan.
So here's the recipes we were given. As for the measurements of parmesan? I just grated cheese as I needed it. The same with the mozzarella. I used a whole eight-ounce package of mozzarella. The parmesan I used from the left of one wedge and the beginnings of a new one, so I don't know how much of that I used.
With the leftover pasta dough, I cut fettuccine, dried it, and made my own garlic alfredo with more of the bechamel. Except I first cooked some minced garlic, then proceeded with the recipe for the bechamel, and mixed in parmesan cheese until it was as cheesy as I wanted it.
My Pasta Sauce. Woo.
1 lb ground beef. I don't know the fat content. Whatever you fancy. I use whatever we happen to have. That day, we had some 90/10. We've also made it with 80/20. Right now, we have about seven pounds of 85/15 in the freezer. This new grocery store opened up in Austin about a month ago. I went last week for the first time. They had 85/15 on sale for $1.77 a pound. So we got a bunch.
1/2 of a large onion. Or a whole large onion. Diced. I have to limit the onion to appease my family. So I use half.
8 cloves of garlic. More or less. Whatever you like. Minced. I like a lot and everyone else doesn't complain about garlic like they do onion. So I put as much as I want. Usually about eight cloves.
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce. I prefer the crushed here.
1 14-ounce can crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce. Whatever I happen to have.
Dried thyme. If I have it.
A bay leaf or two. If I have it.
Crushed red peppers.
Olive oil. Or vegetable oil.
So first, I heat a little oil in my pot. Then I throw in the diced onion and cook it until it's soft. I do the onion first, because sometimes when you mix raw onion with raw meat, once it's cooked, the meat will have the flavour of raw onion. To the rest of my family, that's repulsive. I don't mind it. But to get them to eat what I cook, I cook the onion a bit first. Then I throw in the ground beef and let it cook up. When it's almost done, I add in the garlic. Once the meat and the garlic is done cooking, I drain the fat and go at the meat with a potato masher if I want the meat in smaller pieces.
Then I turn the heat back on (oh.. usually about medium or so) and add in some crushed red pepper. Not too much. Because they'd also complain if it's too spicy. Yeah. My family is picky. Add more if you want spicy. I do. Do it for me? That wasn't a question. :]
Then I pour in the crushed tomatoes and/or tomato sauce. Then I add in dried herbs. For the proportions. I don't like the flavour of basil. At all. I like the flavour of thyme and oregano, though. (My favourite herb is rosemary. And then thyme.) So if I'm using thyme, I add equal portions of all three herbs. I don't measure. I just pour some into my hand. Crush it up with my hands and throw it in. If it looks like enough, I leave it. If I need more, I add more of each. If I'm not using thyme, I use two parts oregano to one part basil. But if you're on of the numerous people that likes basil you can add more. I'm just telling you what I do. And I don't like basil. Oh. You can also use fresh herbs. I'm making some spaghetti later this week with fresh herbs. It's my sister's favourite food. I'm sick of tomato-based sauces. And I don't like spaghetti.. the pasta shape. So I'm making it with fresh herbs to entice me.
Anyway. Then I add in black pepper. Lots of pepper. And some sea salt. Then I taste it. If I need more onion and garlic, then I add in some onion and garlic powder. And then I lower the heat.. to low.. and simmer for about half an hour or so. The "or so" is because I'll sometimes (a lot of the time) forget about it. So yeah. Eh. Then I taste it again. And I add more of whatever needs more. Then to brighten up the flavours, I pour in a touch of caper juice. I guess lemon juice or pickle juice could work. Maybe? I've never tried it. I just have a jar of capers. And I'll add the juice. It's not to make it taste like capers. But it adds some salt and brightens things. Nobody else likes capers. Oh. You can also cook up some sliced mushrooms with the meat. I would. If they'd eat mushrooms.
Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna (Lasagne Verdi al Forno)
(Serves 8 to 10 as a first course, 6 to 8 as a main dish)
Preparation Time: 15 minutes to assemble and 40 minutes cooking time
10 quarts (9 litres) salted water
1 recipe Spinach Pasta cut for lasagna (recipe follows)#1
1 recipe Bechamel Sauce (recipe follows)#2
1 recipe Country Style Ragu (recipe follows)#3
1 cup (4 ounces/125g) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
The ragu and the béchamel sauce can be made up to three days ahead. The ragu can also be frozen for up to one month. The pasta can be rolled out, cut and dried up to 24 hours before cooking. The assembled lasagne can wait at room temperature (20 degrees Celsius/68 degrees Fahrenheit) about 1 hour before baking. Do not refrigerate it before baking, as the topping of béchamel and cheese will overcook by the time the center is hot.
Assembling the Ingredients:
Have all the sauces, rewarmed gently over a medium heat, and the pasta at hand. Have a large perforated skimmer and a large bowl of cold water next to the stove. Spread a double thickness of paper towels over a large counter space. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Oil or butter a 3 quart (approx 3 litre) shallow baking dish.
Cooking the Pasta:
Bring the salted water to a boil. Drop about four pieces of pasta in the water at a time. Cook about 2 minutes. If you are using dried pasta, cook about 4 minutes, taste, and cook longer if necessary. The pasta will continue cooking during baking, so make sure it is only barely tender. Lift the lasagne from the water with a skimmer, drain, and then slip into the bowl of cold water to stop cooking. When cool, lift out and dry on the paper towels. Repeat until all the pasta is cooked.
Assembling the Lasagne:
Spread a thin layer of béchamel over the bottom of the baking dish. Arrange a layer of about four overlapping sheets of pasta over the béchamel. Spread a thin layer of béchamel (about 3 or 4 spoonfuls) over the pasta, and then an equally thin layer of the ragu. Sprinkle with about 1&1/2 tablespoons of the béchamel and about 1/3 cup of the cheese. Repeat the layers until all ingredients are used, finishing with béchamel sauce and topping with a generous dusting of cheese.
Baking and Serving the Lasagne:
Cover the baking dish lightly with foil, taking care not to let it touch the top of the lasagne. Bake 40 minutes, or until almost heated through. Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes, or until hot in the center (test by inserting a knife – if it comes out very warm, the dish is ready). Take care not to brown the cheese topping. It should be melted, creamy looking and barely tinged with a little gold. Turn off the oven, leave the door ajar and let the lasagne rest for about 10 minutes. Then serve. This is not a solid lasagne, but a moist one that slips a bit when it is cut and served.
#1 Spinach Egg Pasta (Pasta Verde)
Preparation: 45 minutes
Makes enough for 6 to 8 first course servings or 4 to 6 main course servings, equivalent to 1 pound (450g) dried boxed pasta.
2 jumbo eggs (2 ounces/60g or more)
10 ounces (300g) fresh spinach, rinsed dry, and finely chopped; or 6 ounces (170g) frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
3&1/2 cups (14 ounces/400g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour (organic stone ground preferred)
Working by Hand:
A roomy work surface, 24 to 30 inches deep by 30 to 36 inches (60cm to 77cm deep by 60cm to 92cm). Any smooth surface will do, but marble cools dough slightly, making it less flexible than desired.
A pastry scraper and a small wooden spoon for blending the dough.
A wooden dowel-style rolling pin. In Italy, pasta makers use one about 35 inches long and 2 inches thick (89cm long and 5cm thick). The shorter American-style pin with handles at either end can be used, but the longer it is, the easier it is to roll the pasta.
Note: although it is not traditional, Enza has successfully made pasta with a marble rolling pin, and this can be substituted for the wooden pin, if you have one.
Plastic wrap to wrap the resting dough and to cover rolled-out pasta waiting to be filled. It protects the pasta from drying out too quickly.
A sharp chef’s knife for cutting pasta sheets.
Cloth-covered chair backs, broom handles, or specially designed pasta racks found in cookware shops for draping the pasta.
Mixing the dough:
Mound the flour in the center of your work surface and make a well in the middle. Add the eggs and spinach. Use a wooden spoon to beat together the eggs and spinach. Then gradually start incorporating shallow scrapings of flour from the sides of the well into the liquid. As you work more and more flour into the liquid, the well’s sides may collapse. Use a pastry scraper to keep the liquids from running off and to incorporate the last bits of flour into the dough. Don’t worry if it looks like a hopelessly rough and messy lump.
With the aid of the scraper to scoop up unruly pieces, start kneading the dough. Once it becomes a cohesive mass, use the scraper to remove any bits of hard flour on the work surface – these will make the dough lumpy. Knead the dough for about 3 minutes. Its consistency should be elastic and a little sticky. If it is too sticky to move easily, knead in a few more tablespoons of flour. Continue kneading about 10 minutes, or until the dough has become satiny, smooth, and very elastic. It will feel alive under your hands. Do not shortcut this step. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and let it relax at room temperature 30 minutes to 3 hours.
Stretching and Thinning:
If using an extra-long rolling pin work with half the dough at a time. With a regular-length rolling pin, roll out a quarter of the dough at a time and keep the rest of the dough wrapped. Lightly sprinkle a large work surface with flour. The idea is to stretch the dough rather than press down and push it. Shape it into a ball and begin rolling out to form a circle, frequently turning the disc of dough a quarter turn. As it thins outs, start rolling the disc back on the pin a quarter of the way toward the center and stretching it gently sideways by running the palms of your hands over the rolled-up dough from the center of the pin outward. Unroll, turn the disc a quarter turn, and repeat. Do twice more.
Stretch and even out the center of the disc by rolling the dough a quarter of the way back on the pin. Then gently push the rolling pin away from you with one hand while holding the sheet in place on the work surface with the other hand. Repeat three more times, turning the dough a quarter turn each time.
Repeat the two processes as the disc becomes larger and thinner. The goal is a sheet of even thickness. For lasagne, the sheet should be so thin that you can clearly see your hand through it and see colours. Cut into rectangles about 4 by 8 inches (10 x 20 cm). Note: Enza says that transparency is a crucial element of lasagne pasta and the dough should be rolled as thinly as possible. She says this is why her housekeeper has such strong arms!
Dry the pasta at room temperature and store in a sealed container or bag.
Preparation Time: 15 minutes
4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) unsalted butter
4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour, organic stone ground preferred
2&2/3 cups (approx 570ml) milk
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste
Using a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter over low to medium heat. Sift over the flour, whisk until smooth, and then stir (without stopping) for about 3 minutes. Whisk in the milk a little at a time and keep the mixture smooth. Bring to a slow simmer, and stir 3 to 4 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the sauce thickens. Season with salt, pepper, and a hint of nutmeg.
#3 Country Style Ragu’ (Ragu alla Contadina)
Preparation Time: Ingredient Preparation Time 30 minutes and Cooking time 2 hours
Makes enough sauce for 1 recipe fresh pasta or 1 pound/450g dried pasta)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (45 mL)
2 ounces/60g pancetta, finely chopped
1 medium onion, minced
1 medium stalk celery with leaves, minced
1 small carrot, minced
4 ounces/125g boneless veal shoulder or round
4 ounces/125g pork loin, trimmed of fat, or 4 ounces/125g mild Italian sausage (made without fennel)
8 ounces/250g beef skirt steak, hanging tender, or boneless chuck blade or chuck center cut (in order of preference)
1 ounce/30g thinly sliced Prosciutto di Parma
2/3 cup (5 ounces/160ml) dry red wine
1 &1/2 cups (12 ounces/375ml) chicken or beef stock (homemade if possible)
2 cups (16 ounces/500ml) milk
3 canned plum tomatoes, drained
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
The ragu can be made 3 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate. It also freezes well for up to 1 month. Skim the fat from the ragu’ before using it.
Browning the Ragu Base:
Heat the olive oil in a 12 inch (30cm) skillet (frying pan) over medium-high heat. Have a large saucepan handy to use once browning is complete. Add the pancetta and minced vegetables and sauté, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, 10 minutes, or until the onions barely begin to color. Coarsely grind all the meats together, including the prosciutto, in a food processor or meat grinder. Stir into the pan and slowly brown over medium heat. First the meats will give off a liquid and turn dull grey but, as the liquid evaporates, browning will begin. Stir often, scooping under the meats with the wooden spatula. Protect the brown glaze forming on the bottom of the pan by turning the heat down. Cook 15 minutes, or until the meats are a deep brown. Turn the contents of the skillet into a strainer and shake out the fat. Turn them into the saucepan and set over medium heat.
Reducing and Simmering: Add the wine to the skillet, lowering the heat so the sauce bubbles quietly. Stir occasionally until the wine has reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Scrape up the brown glaze as the wine bubbles. Then pour the reduced wine into the saucepan and set the skillet aside.
Stir ½ cup stock into the saucepan and let it bubble slowly, 10 minutes, or until totally evaporated. Repeat with another ½ cup stock. Stir in the last 1/2 cup stock along with the milk. Adjust heat so the liquid bubbles very slowly. Partially cover the pot, and cook 1 hour. Stir frequently to check for sticking.
Add the tomatoes, crushing them as they go into the pot. Cook uncovered, at a very slow bubble for another 45 minutes, or until the sauce resembles a thick, meaty stew. Season with salt and pepper.