First, let’s dispense with the obligatory statement:
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.
This month’s challenge was lasagna -- and not just any lasagna, lasagna with home-made noodles. And not just any noodles – spinach noodles! I was very excited by this challenge. Normally, when I make lasagna, I use the no-bake noodles, which I know purists cringe at, but actually taste perfectly fine. Plus, I am always on a tight schedule, so the time-saving aspect is indispensible. But, despite this, deep down in the recesses of my mind, I have always wanted to try home-made pasta. The closest I have ever come was some nice gorgonzola and walnut tortellini from the refrigerated section at Shop Rite.
For this challenge, our hosts provided 3 different recipes: Spinach Pasta, Ragu, and Bechamel. The spinach pasta was the true challenge, and we were told that we could use our favorite sauces in lieu of the provided recipes if we so wished. I chose to do this, because I was planning on making this lasagna for dinner with my parents, and my mom refuses to touch anything that contains a cream sauce. So, since the béchamel sauce was out, I decided to just go ahead and make my normal lasagna meat sauce, which is really my friend Lauren’s meat sauce, she was good enough to share her techniques with me years ago.
I am going to run down how I actually made my lasagna, but at the bottom of the post, I will provide the recipes for the ragu and béchamel that were given by our hosts, because the people who actually used them said that they were delicious too, and someday (when I am not having dinner with my parents) I plan on making this recipe the way it was originally intended to be made. And now, that lasagna (in the order that I chose to make things)… I made the sauce about a week prior to the lasagna, divvied it up into portions to make 3 different dishes, and popped them all into the freezer.
10 ounces (300g) fresh spinach, rinsed dry, and finely chopped; or 6 ounces (170g) frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry (I used frozen)
3&1/2 cups (14 ounces/400g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour (organic stone ground preferred) (I used bleached because I was not about to buy something extra and use it once, until I knew the recipe was worth it)
1 block mozzarella cheese
1 bag shredded mozzarella cheese
Parm, romano, or some combo thereof
The whole thing sounds like an involved process, but it isn’t really, especially if you make the sauce in advance (on the weekend when there is more time, which is what I always do). If you have sauce waiting for you in the fridge (because you’ve defrosted it overnight to use it!), it is very little effort to assemble the lasagna.
So, for my review of this recipe…I am so happy that I can now add fresh pasta to my repertoire…but…I don’t think I will be using that skill to make lasagna again. It isn’t that the lasagna wasn’t good – it was great! Really great. But, it tasted the same as every other lasagna I have ever made. Granted, I made this with the same sauce and in the same way as the others, but I was expecting there to be more of a difference with the noodles. I was expecting them to stand out more, I guess. Even with the extra spinach I added, which was nearly twice the amount, I could still barely taste it. I am glad in retrospect that I used my own sauce, because this allowed me to make a comparison solely based on the noodles. I know that the original sauces provided with this recipe are very good, based on other people’s reviews, and if I had used them, I might have thought that the noodles really contributed a lot to the overall flavor of the lasagna, but now I know that is not the case. If I couldn’t detect a difference between the no-cook (no effort!) noodles and the ones that took nearly 3 hours to make, then there is little point in making them, especially if time is short. It is just not worth it to tack on 3 hours to a prep time, when the resulting contribution to the overall outcome is negligible at best. But, having said that, the pasta recipe is extremely tasty, with or without spinach, and I can definitely see using it for something that I can find no other substitute for. Something like homemade raviolis with my own filling. I would love to try that. Maybe instead of spinach, adding some nice sundried tomatoes or roasted red peppers…fill them with cheese…mmmm…yeah, that’ll do nicely…
I definitely plan on trying the original sauces provided (below), but I will be doing it with my usual noodles, and save homemade pasta for something truly unique, where I feel the effort would make more of a difference to the outcome.
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.
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.