Sunday, December 19, 2010

Lasagna The Labor of Love

Hungry? You will be by the time you're done cooking.
Did I mention this recipe takes about 4 hours?
It does. It's worth it.

If you're going to make lasagna from scratch it better be for a damn good cause, because lasagna is terribly time consuming. I make lasagna to say, "All snark aside, I kinda like you." Which is why, every so often, I make it for the boy. I like to remind him that my whole purpose in his life is not just to amaze him with the destruction I can wreak on the kitchen or to frustrate him with my life philosophy of "Fuck it. I'm just going to wing it." No, some time I feed him and sometimes that food is lasagna.

To make this, you're going to need about 4 hours. A lot of that time you'll be able to spend doing something else (for instance, I use it to drink wine and read- all while pretending to be slaving away in a hot kitchen- I find that the apparent amount of suffering I put into a meal seems to really up everyone's enjoyment of it). Bolonase sauce needs time, but not a whole lot of attention.

Some thoughts on lasagna noodles: Lasagna noodles come in three kinds: dried that you have to boil, no cook dried and fresh. The no cook dried are tempting, but avoid them like you would avoid Paris Hilton's vagina. No cook noodles taste like shit and they just ruined the 4 hours of love and devotion that you just spent making a lasagna. You're about to spend 4 fucking hours making something you could by frozen, throw in the over and forget about- don't suddenly act like boiling noodles is over the inconvenience line for you. I prefer to use the fresh- if you live near a Whole Foods they almost always carry fresh lasagna sheets. Fresh noodles are usually large rectangles (about 2 to a layer in a 9x13 pan) and need about 1 min of boiling time. If you can't find fresh, go with the traditional long rectangular noodles and cook them 1-2 minutes less than the recommended al dente time on the package. The noodles will continue to cook once the whole thing goes in the over. Having your noodles a little underdone ensures that they don't get soggy and the whole infrastructure of your lasagna is not compromised.

For the Bolonase sauce:

1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 leek, thinly sliced
1 carrot, diced
1 celery stalk, diced
1/4 lb bacon
6 oz ground pork
6 oz ground veal
6 oz ground lean beef (often these three can be found together in a "meatball" mixture in the ground meats section)
1 cup white wine
1 cup beef stock (not broth)
1 28 oz can San Marzano diced tomatoes (the purple label) + 1 12 oz can of the same
1 cup heavy cream
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

For the ricotta:

3 15 oz tubs of ricotta cheese (2 full-fat and 1 part-skim)
1/2 cup of the Bolonase sauce taken at the 1 hour mark
2 tbs of a dried Mediterranean herb blend (cheating? Kind of . . . )

To assemble:

Cooked and drained lasagna noodles
16 oz shredded mozzarella
8 oz shredded Parmesan, Romano, or asiago cheese

To make the Bolonase sauce:

Put a large pot (and I mean really big, probably the biggest pot you own would not be too large for this) over medium heat. Add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil to the bottom and let it heat. Once the oil is hot add the onion, leek, carrot and celery. Stir until the onion starts to soften (about 3-5 minutes). Then add the bacon. You want the raw bacon cut into small pieces. Raw bacon is a terribly inconvenient bitch of a food to slice, so I recommend using scissors to snip it into little pieces.  The bacon is not going to get crispy. Its there to add a velvety pork-ness to the veggies.  Continue to stir until the bacon is pink and the carrots have started to soften.  Now add the ground meat. Crumble a little bit in a time and then mix well with the vegetables.  Continue until all the meat has been added.  Stir regularly to ensure that all the meat clumps are broken up. Once the pink is gone from the meat add 1/2 of a cup of the white wine and the smaller can of diced tomatoes. Raise the heat and cook for an additional 5 minutes- the liquid should start to reduce a bit. Turn the heat down to low- just enough so that your mixture is simmering. Add the stock and the large can of tomatoes and simmer for an hour, occasionally stirring. After the first hour is up remove around 1/2 of the liquid from the sauce and set aside for the ricotta mixture. Now add the send 1/2 of the wine and salt and pepper to taste. Allow to simmer for another hour, stirring occasionally. At the end of the second hour of simmering add the heavy cream and cook for another 15-30 minutes depending on the thickness of the sauce. You want something in the neighborhood of chili in terms of consistency.

For the ricotta:

Start the ricotta mixture about the time you add the cream to the Bolonase sauce. This is also a good time to start boiling a pot of salted water for the noodles (your pasta water should be about as salty as the ocean- without salt your noodles will be bland). Add a little olive oil to the pasta water to keep it from boiling over.

In a large mixing bowl, add the three packages of ricotta and mix well. Then add the BolonaseBolonase sauce to thin it out.

More notes on the noodles:

Lasagna noodles are large and a pain in the ass to cook. Only cook a few at a time (3-4 at max). Have a tray with a damp paper towel beside your pasta water. As soon as a noodle is done, fish it out and place it on the paper towel, If the tray becomes full, lay down another damp paper towel on top of the cooked pasta and repeat. If you're using fresh pasta, each noodle only needs about 45-60 seconds of cooking time and I usually cook them while I'm assembling the lasagna. If you're using dried, start cooking your noodles during the final 30 minutes of your sauce.


Pre-heat your oven to 350.

Take a 9x13 in pan and spray the bottom with cooking spray. Put down a layer of noodles. Put down a layer of the ricotta mixture (about 1/3 of the mixture). Spread the ricotta evenly over the noodles (kind of frustrating to do, actually). Put down a layer of the meat sauce (about a cup to a cup and a half ). Top the meat sauce with about a cup of mozzarella cheese. Top that with 1/2 cup of Parmesan cheese. Add another layer of noodles. Repeat. On the final layer (and how many layers you can make depends on how deep you pan in and how much filling you have left- usually 2-3 complete layers is what this recipe will make), omit the ricotta and top the noodles directly with meat sauce. Top the meat sauce with the mozzarella and Parmesan. Bake uncovered for 20-30 minutes, until the whole thing is bubbly. Allow to cool at least 15 minutes. If you don't let it cool long enough, you will have total structural breakdown. It will still be delicious, but it'll look like seven kinds of hell (and its tricky to plate like that).