First, she had to decided whether she wanted me to cook or if she wanted takeout. She chose the former. Second, she had to choose from a list of possibilities on my Pinterest wall of such things. She chose the lasagna. Intriguing.
When I think of lasagna, I don’t think of how awesome aunt Janice’s lasagna is/was. I don’t think about the time it takes to make. I don’t even think about the greatest restaurant lasagna in the world (Chef’s on Seneca and Michigan in Buffalo). No. I think about the single worst lasagna I have ever encountered. And I did it in the name of friendship.
(It’s okay to tell this story now since I haven’t talked to this person in 10 years. I think the statute of limitations has passed.)
I was a junior in college and a friend of The Wife (who at the time was The Girlfriend) and mine was having a rough go of it. She wanted to do something couple-like with her boyfriend in town, so she was going to cook dinner. Lasagna. Her mother’s recipe.
I’ve always been a food snob, but I have a secret. I’m also a food racist. I don’t believe that non-Italians can do a good job with Italian food. I don’t trust pasty mayonnaise faces like me making Mexican food. And I certainly wouldn’t trust an Irish person cooking soul food. Now, I’ve been surprised and, like any racist, proven absolutely wrong. But, like any good stereotype, there are some people who perpetuate it without even knowing what they are doing.
What I didn’t know about this recipe, prepared by the female of Anglo-German descent, was that the ingredients included:
- Jarred Ragu sauce (okay, we’re in college and I’m certain I was the only person at St. Bonaventure making his own sauce at the time)
- American cheese (excuse me, I need to gargle the vomit flavor away)
- Birdshot (she said it was ground beef but the pieces were so small and burned that it looked like hunting ammo).
It was…I don’t even know how to describe how bad it was. I was if a part of me died. I felt like I betrayed my upbringing. It was so bad I went to confession the next day because I felt as if I had sinned. It was like an overcooked grilled cheese and ketchup sandwich. Chef Boyardee would have turned up his nose. FOR FUCK’S SAKE EVEN THE OLIVE GARDEN WASN’T THIS BAD. And, what it did to me physically…I could have had her charged with assault.
But I ate it. Because I’m a good friend. Lesson learned: friends are useless.
The warning with this recipe is the sheer amount of time it takes to make. Ideally, you would do this over two days. Make the sauce on day one and let it set; prep the dish on day two. Since I never plan that far in advance, you really ought to give yourself about six hours to make this work. The bulk of the time is spent on the bolognese, which needs quite a bit of time to reduce and form a rich, thick sauce. There is also a fair amount of mise en place, which is French for “get all of your shit ready so you aren’t rushing to do it later.”
The recipe is based on one by Emeril Lagasse, but I take some liberties due to ability and flavor. First, I can’t chop anything finely (I have enormous fingers) so instead I let the food processor do the work. His recipe calls for two basil leaves. Two. Yeah, I’m not buying a bunch of basil for two leaves and I can’t see myself using anymore between now and the time it dies (Tuesday, if I’m lucky). I also planned to incorporate a bechamel sauce, but apparently I’m an idiot. I bought a dozen eggs today while at Wegmans. It says so on the receipt and everything. The problem is I cannot find them. They are not in the back of the Pilot and never made it inside. Best guess: still sitting behind the cashier who likely set them aside for special handling.
By Jared Paventi
Complete ingredient list:
- 16 oz. ricotta (I used part-skim)
- 16 oz. mozzarella, shredded (again, I went part-skim here) and separated
- 5 oz. each of grated or shredded asiago and grated Pecorino Romano
- 1 egg
- 1/4 cup milk
- 3 garlic cloves
- 1 pkg lasagna noodles (fresh is best; Barilla’s no-bake is very good)
- 2 tbsp. olive oil
- 1/3 lb. ground beef (90 percent lean is good for this)
- 1/3 lb. ground veal
- 1/3 lb. ground pork
- 1 medium onion, chopped finely
- 1/2 cup celery, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup carrots, chopped finely
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 28-ounce cans of chopped tomatoes
- 1 small can of tomato paste
- 1/2 cup dry red wine
- 32 oz. beef stock
- Italian seasoning
- Crushed red pepper
- 1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
- 5 tbsp. unsalted butter
- 4 tbsp. all-purpose flour
- 1 egg
- 4 cups milk
- 2 tsp. salt
- 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
Start with the bolognese sauce: Heat olive oil in a stockpot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Combine the meat by hand in a bowl, season with salt and pepper. When the oil shimmers, add the meat to the pan and brown 4-6 minutes. Break down with a wooden spoon into smaller pieces to cook through. Add the onions, celery, garlic and carrots. Cook 4-5 minutes until the veggies are soft. Add the tomatoes, season with salt and pepper and cook 2-3 minutes.
In a separate bowl, whisk together beef broth, tomato paste and red wine, and add to the pan. Stir to combine. Add a liberal amount of dried Italian seasoning and mix thoroughly. Bring the sauce to a boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer three hours. Before removing from heat, add the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Stir to combine.
Create a cheese paste: Add ricotta, asiago, 8 oz. of mozzarella, Pecorino Romano, egg, milk, salt, pepper and a liberal amount of Italian seasoning to a mixing bowl. Mix well by hand. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until you are ready to use.
Make a Bechamel: Heat the butter over medium-low heat in a medium saucepan. Add the flour and stir with a wooden spoon to make a roux. Stir continuously 6-7 minutes to brown. In a small saucepan, heat the milk over low heat until it is ready to boil. Crack an egg and add it to the roux and stir. Add hot milk one ladleful at a time, stirring in each serving until smooth. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cook 10 minutes. Stir constantly to prevent burning. Remove from heat, add salt and nutmeg, and blend. Set aside.
Assemble the lasagna: Preheat your oven to 350. Prep your pan (I used a disposable; the expense of a foil pan is worth not cleaning a lasagna pan) by adding one ladle of bechamel sauce to the bottom. Spread to evenly coat. Press in enough noodles to cover the sauce. Ladle the bolognese over the noodles to form a decent layer of meat. Top with noodles. Add a layer of the cheese mixture (I formed thin “patties” of cheese and set them on the noodles to create a layer) and top with noodles. Be sure to press the noodles lightly to flatten each layer. Repeat bechamel, noodles, bolognese, noodles, cheese and noodles a second time. Top with sauce then the remaining mozzarella cheese. Bake 60 minutes. Remove from the oven and let stand at least 15 minutes.