I have recounted before that my family loves food...there's a lot of Italian in the blood. We all cook pretty well. We grew up when my parents had a gourmet dinner group, and we were the taste testers...my mom did dress rehearsals on us before she would commit to a menu (I still remember her not wanting to make something for company because we hadn't tried it before...perhaps that's when my how-hard-could-it-be approach started, because my company often gets new recipes..).
So a couple of weeks ago we had our family reunion...as many as 19 of us gather in any number of places (five years ago we were lucky enough to gather in Tuscany) for a week. We hang out, we do stuff and we cook. Oh, boy, do we cook.
It just so happens my sister in law--German-born, but lived in Italy for years before she became part of our family--made a classic Italian lasagne. No ricotta. No mozzarella. Perfect Bolognese sauce mixed with bechamel and layered layered layered...she used a touch of tallegio we had on hand. Her daughter, my niece, claimed to have eaten five, count 'em, FIVE pieces once. Now Isa is just a slip of a thing and I couldn't believe her.
Until I had the lasagne. I had 1 1/2 pieces. The kids must all have had three pieces...It was light, so nice after all the heavily-laden lasagne we all know and, admittedly, at times enjoy. It's just that nothing compares to this.
Bryn has been begging for that since we returned. Eva sent me the recipe--it is that basic: make a good Bolognese, make a good bechamel, layer with parmesan and a bit of other cheese if you have it (second cheese purely optional).
Okay. So. I decided to make it. I pulled out Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. That woman is good. Really good. (Read a NYT 2008 piece with Marcella and her husband, Victor. And say what?! She lives in Longboat Key! And I left Florida without meeting her...what was I thinking?)
I love her Bolognese: saute onion, carrots and celery in oil and butter. Add 3/4 # meat (I used ground beef and pork, both leaner that she recommends, but that's just me), salt and pepper. Cook til all pink is gone. Top with 1 cup milk (just enough to cover, if you're guessing) and a grating of nutmeg, let simmer to evaporate. Top with 1 c. white wine...simmer to evaporate. Add 1 1/2 cups canned chopped tomato ( I used Fire Roasted from Muir Glen...would have loved to have used San Marzano...)
Then let it simmer. And simmer (very very very slowly...) In the end, mine cooked more than four hours (add 1/2 c. water from time to time if it looks like it's drying out)...
Make a 3-cup batch of bechamel--again, I can't recommend Marcella's method enough. She has the technique down perfectly, and the resulting sauce was silky smooth and thick. Put a bit of bechamel in the bottom of the pan then combine the rest with the Bolognese. Now layer pasta with sauce and Parmesan (and tallegio if you have it--that's Eva's addition, btw).
But wait, there's more.
Marcella (oh, trust me, as we proceeded through the day, I got to addressing her on a first name basis) used spinach pasta. Fresh spinach pasta, because as she says:
It might take a little more time to run pasta dough through a machine ...than to buy a box of the ready-made kind, but there is nothing packed in a box that can lead to the flavor of the lasagne you can produce in your kitchen. Using clunky, store-bought lasagne may save a little time, but you will be sadly shortchanged by the results.
Well, no way I was going to shortchange myself with clunky store-bought lasagne. No sir, not me. And (say it with me now): HOW HARD CAN IT BE?
Truth be told making the noodles is not at all difficult. I chose not to make spinach noodles, because I didn't want to deviate too much from Eva's. I knew Bryn would be comparing. So I wasn't even adding spinach. Making dough, rolling it out in the machine--really, I am telling the truth when I say that is the fast part. I got lovely, paper thin noodles to use.
Then I got to Marcella's instructions to parboil the noodles, then RINSE THEM UNDER COLD RUNNING WATER, one at a time and "rub delicately, as though you were doing fine hand laundry. Squeeze each strip very gently in your hands (Me: you know, as if you were wringing it) then spread it flat on the towel to dry."
Um. Say WHAT, Marcella?!?
Sigh. But me? I go big or go home. I wasn't going to go through all this effort only to skip this important Hazan step. Marcella refers to it as a "nuisance but necessary." She says it will become mushy if you don't parboil it and if you don't rinse it, the starch will make it stick to the towels.
Sigh. Did I say that? Because up until this point, I was all: hey, homemade sauce, homemade lasagne, NOT A PROBLEM.
This step got me a little flustered...but I did persevere.
|Parboiled noodles. All. Over. The. Counters.
I invited Michelle Marie over, because she had treated Bryn to dinner one night when I was out of town and G was at poker. Bryn was home for dinner...and G? Well, not only was he at poker last night, but he picked yesterday to start Atkins.
His loss, my gain by at least two pieces of lasagne. I'll see your no-carb silliness and raise you by two squares of lasagne, in fact. I am going ALL IN ON LASAGNE.
We ate and ate and ate some more. Michelle Marie brought some garden tomatoes from a friend, we had nothing but a simple salad and some good wine with this and it was one of the best meals I'd had in eons. Company helped.
For the record, Bryn MISSED the boxed noodles...she didn't like not having that thick pasta layer...but to me, all those layers (I made at least 8 layers) added up to more than the sum of its parts...I didn't miss a thick noodle at all. And ever the palate, Bryn noticed that I used leaner meat than Eva. That girl doesn't miss a trick...If she doesn't become a famous actress or a famous singer/musician, her fallback career is chef. I think she'll go far in any of those.
Next time, I will try the spinach noodles, and I might skip that "nuisance" step of the parboil. Maybe my palate is too pedestrian to notice the not-washed noodles? I know the parboil/rinse method produces one incredible dish...Two other lasagne recipes in the book say to follow the parboil/rinse method and one, the lasagne with ricotta pesto, let's you off the hook with just a quick boil.
Hm. Marcella? Are you out there? Can I skip that step???