As much as I love it, and as often as I’ve made it, I am inconsistent when I make a traditional lasagna. It’s either too runny and wet, or the top layer of noodles is too browned, or it’s too slippery and slidey, and it falls apart when pulled out of the pan, and all the insides squish out when touched by a fork. I was actually kind of surprised to see that I’ve only blogged this dish once before, my Luscious Lobster Lasagna (which I’d forgotten entirely about: hence – why I keep this digital diary of my digestibles), a lovely white lasagna crafted almost exclusively outdoors on Little Red, our faithful electric Meco grill. But its success is misleading; I’ve made dozens of lasagnas and have more often than not been dissatisfied with the results. So today I determined to try again, using the sublime image of Stefan’s Lasagne alla Bolognese as my inspiration. Although I altered the recipe somewhat, his basic principles were very practical, and the top picture — the one that caught my attention — gave me some ideas. I’d always brought all my fillings straight out to the edge of the pan – what if I didn’t? I’d never used bechamel – why not? And what if I made my sauce as “dry” as possible? The result: a rich tomato meat filling studded with both creamy and stretchy cheese, layered with tender spinach pasta, covered with a fluffy baked pillow topping. Wow.
Spinach Lasagne alla Bolognese
1/2 lb ground beef
1/2 lb ground pork
2 thick slices of bacon, roughly chopped
1 can crushed San Marzano tomatoes
1 tbs tomato puree
1/4 cup marsala wine
1 celery stalk
1/2 cup minced onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 sprig rosemary
fresh sheets of spinach pasta
10 oz ricotta cheese
6oz fresh mozzarella cheese
3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 tbs butter
2 tbs flour
2 cups milk
fresh ground nutmeg, sea salt, crushed black pepper, granulated garlic, EVOO
A bolognese sauce is basically a meat sauce, traditionally made with carrot, onion, veal, pancetta, and broth, to which was later added tomato and cream. Today’s versions are as myriad as pasta shapes, but the ragu’s basic component is still meat. Starting with chopped bacon, fried to barely crisp on the edges, I add my mirepoix and minced garlic, along with my sprig of rosemary to scent the dish. I sauté everything over medium-high heat until just sweated but not yet browned.
I’ve seasoned my ground meats with salt and pepper, and have very roughly pulled them apart, handling it as loosely and little as possible. I want large bites of meat in my sauce – not a grainy, uniform sludge – and little meat-wads are just the trick. I let the meat sear completely on one side before I turn it over to sear on the other side. This released the least amount of liquid, allowing the meat to brown and not steam. Thanks, Stefan – this was a simple but good trick.
I already see far less liquid in this pan than I usually do at this point, which is perfect. When the meat is nicely browned on both sides, I add my splash of marsala (I had no other red wine in the house — THE HORROR!! — but this substitution prevented me from having to add any sugar to the sauce, so it worked very well), which I let evaporate into the meat before…
Finally, I add my crushed tomatoes, removing my stem of rosemary (which has done its job flavoring the sauce already), and I set this over low heat to simmer for the next 30-45 minutes, or until I’m ready to assemble the lasagna. During this time, the sauce thickens beautifully, so much so that dragging a spoon through parts its seas for several moments before it oozes back together again. In fact, when the husbandman came by to taste, I had to admonish him to redistribute the sauce to cover the whole base of the pan, so it wouldn’t burn anyway by virtue of too thin a coating. I’m thinking this “drier” sauce will prevent my lasagna’s innards from leaching out when pressed by a fork.
Living in Boston means shopping in the North End, our Little Italy. I’ve enjoyed DePasquale’s fresh pasta before, as we did again in this dish. This time I had a little trouble teasing the sheets apart, but that’s because the package defrosted in a plastic bag on my way home on the train, so it got a little – er – sweaty. Still, it was worth the effort.
I line an 8×8″ pan with this special foil-on-one-side/parchment-paper-on-the-other, which I must say worked like a charm. I assemble my cheeses, and cut my pasta sheets to shape so they’ll fit the pan just so.
To make the lasagna, I start with some sauce, a few dollops of ricotta cheese, a few pieces of fresh mozzarella, and some shredded parmesan. Note how I’m not bringing the ingredients all the way out to the edge of the pan – which I usually do. My thought is that the casserole will hold together more effectively if I give the ingredients some room to spread out on their own. (Spoiler alert: I was right!) I lay a sheet of pasta on top, then repeat the process 4 times, ending with a top layer of pasta. This is the point to which this picture of Stefan’s was taken – which is why it looks so clean (and so damn delicious!)
The final “ingredient” is a bechamel sauce, which is essentially milk, flour and butter. Stefan’s recipe did not call for ricotta or mozzarella, but instead for bechamel on each layer; I had the cheeses, and very little milk in the house, so I split the difference by cheesing up the inner layers and making just enough bechamel to cover the top of my dish.
Finish by whisking in the milk gradually, allowing it to thicken with the roux. I also add some salt, pepper, garlic powder, and some of my parmesan cheese (which, technically, transforms this bechamel into a mornay sauce, just FYI). When the sauce is uniformly thick and fluffy…
… I pour it over the top layer of pasta on my lasagna, covering it completely. The final joy is adding the last of my grated parm over the top, before throwing the dish into a 350 degree oven for 35-45 minutes, or until bubbling at the edges and nicely browned on top…
I don’t usually take pictures with my mouth full, but I had to show off how the structure of this deliciousness held together. Leaving a wee margin of unadorned pasta along each side of the dish, using a very thick, non-runny sauce, and adding the adhesive properties of the bechamel were the right tricks to make this lasagna a true delight! Each bite was meaty and cheese in equal measure; the pasta was perfectly al dente and redolent of spinach, and the snappiness of a few sprigs of green onion for garnish added just the right brightness to the meal. Lolita has finally conquered lasanga! Yay for me!