Spinach Lasagne alla Bolognese

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 carrot
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…

… I add my tomato puree, which I blend well with everything and let simmer for a moment.

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.

Start by melting the butter, then adding the flour and whisking/cooking until it thickens and turns a golden tan color — about 3 minutes.

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…

Like so.  As hard as it is to do, I wait 15 minutes before cutting into this beauty, which allows everything to coalesce.  I kill the time by whipping up a quick garlic bread.

Sheer perfection! My lasagna cuts easily, holding its shape, showing off its perfect, tender layers of pasta sandwiching a hearty, rich meat sauce and gooey, creamy cheese.

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!

Luscious Lobster Lasagna

Lolita loves herself a three-day weekend, and this July 4th provided just that – with perfect weather, no less!  Our little roof deck in the sky proved to be the prime place for this year’s fireworks.  In the past, the 18 story apartment complex a block away from us used to eclipse practically the whole light-show, and all we’d see was an intermittently glowing building with a few stray sparks escaping from the sides from time to time.  But the fire-barge must have moved up the Charles a bit – or the building moved down, which is highly improbable – because last night we could see almost all of the fireworks, and they were *beautiful*!  With the sounds of the Boston Pops and Martina McBride piping through my speakers from the TV indoors, Claytonious husbandius and I had excellent seats – with wine and cigars a’ smokin’ – for our town’s legendary Independence Day celebration.

And what goes best with independence?  Why, lobster, of course!   Historically speaking, before lobster became all haute couture as they is today, they used to be so abundant on the shores of the Northeast colonies that the crustaceans would wash in with the tides, leaving creepy crawly banks of the critters all along the coast.  Back then, it was considered “poverty” food, good enough only for servants and slaves — so the irony of linking lobster with independence isn’t lost on Lolita.  Still, today it rings in at $8.99/lb (for hard-shell 1 1/2lbers at Yankee Lobster off of Fan Pier), and we have it seldom enough that it’s still super-special to me and mine.

Er, except the lobsters we bought for Sunday’s dinner were HUGE, and after eating claws, knuckles, and legs with truffled melted butter and all the side fixin’s, we were so stuffed that we saved our tails for Monday’s dinner.  “Lobster two nights in a row?” said Clayton, “Who do you think we are, the Rockefellers?”  No, thought I, not the Rockefellers — just their well fed neighbors from across the tracks.  That’s where a light but luscious lobster lasagna can be found, served with a quick salad and a glass of crisp white wine, for a delicious dinner al fresco on our nation’s day of Independence.  Yankee Doodle Yummy!

Luscious Lobster Lasagna

8oz cooked lobster meat (I used two tails)
1/2 package lasagna noodles
2 tbs butter
1 cup half n’ half
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup finely diced carrots
1/2 cup finely diced celery
2 cups fresh baby spinach
1 cup ricotta cheese
6oz fresh mozzarella cheese
6oz ParmigianoReggiano
1 egg
iceberg lettuce, wedged
ranch dressing

Every time I make lasagna, it’s too big.  We have a craptastic freezer, and no microwave anyway, so making stuff to hold and eat days later isn’t feasible for us.  I also had a limited amount of lobster meat, so I decided to make a small loaf-pan’s worth of lasagna — which was just the right amount!  My noodles being the normal size, though, I had to break them up a bit to make them fit into the pyrex dish.  To make it easier to serve, I broke each noodle roughly in half before fitting them into the dish — I thought this would prevent the unfortunate squishing out of all the innards that sometimes happens with a gooey center.  In the long run, it was a good idea.

90° outside means it’s almost 100° in our pad, so cooking indoors is out of the question if we ever want to, er, wear clothing in the house during summer nights.  We’ve always been creative with Little Red, but we’d never boiled water on him before; I’m happy to say that he stepped up the challenge!  Since all I’m doing is cooking off my lasagna noodles so they’ll be easy to handle, I dump about 8 cups of salted water into my pasta boiler and set it, covered, over the preheated coils under Little Red’s grill.

He doesn’t close all the way, but this is close enough for government work.  It takes a while, but after about 30 minutes my water is boiling.  Boo-ya!  That’s one less preparation technique I need to suffer through indoors during the summer.

A glug of EVOO keeps my pasta sheets from sticking together.  I cook them to slightly less than al dente, since they’ll continue to cook when I bake off the casserole later, then I set them aside to hold in cold water until I need them.

These are the ingredients for my filling and sauce – more or less.  (There should be an egg in there, and some spinach – but I forgot to include them in this set-up shot.  Whoops.)

Here are my eggs.  These are so fresh from the farm they still have chicken funk stuck to them, so I have to wash the outsides, then my hands, before I can handle any more food.  Still – they were in a chicken yesterday, and will be in my belly tonight; that’s pretty darn fresh.

Not all my prep can be done outside, at least not while the sun’s setting and the bugs are flying madly about.  So I have to make my bechamel and filling inside – but all’s good, since it doesn’t take too long, and requires only a little heat.  I start by mincing my celery, carrots, and garlic.

I also chiffonade my spinach.  All these veggies will give my lasagna some crunch and texture, as well as simple garden flavors.

In my large skillet, I melt my butter and soften my garlic, before adding about a tablespoon of flour, which I whisk in well to make a roux.  I let this cook for a few moments over medium heat, allowing the roux to darken ever-so slightly.

I next whisk in my half n’ half, continuing to cook over medium heat until the bechamel has begun to thicken.

Some salt, pepper, and freshly grated nutmeg gets added for flavor…

… before the addition of my veggies, which I stir in very well.

This could almost be eaten as a soup – a primavera cream soup.  I allow this to simmer, encouraging the spinach to soften and release its color by continuing to mix well, and I add about 1/4 cup of freshly grated parmagiano reggiano to the mix before removing the pan from the heat.

In a separate bowl, I’ve mixed my ricotta, my fresh mozz (which I’ve torn from little balls into littler balls), my beaten egg, more parm, and some salt and pepper together.

It’s time to layer the lasagna.  I’ve greased up my loaf pan, and I start with a slather of my spinachy bechamel.

Then I lay two noodle halves over the base, stud them with some of my chopped lobster meat, and then I drop two or three healthy dollops of my cheese blend on top, before spooning another slather of spinach sauce over everything.  I repeat this process for about 5 layers.

After topping the lasagna with the last of the bechamel and some more grated parm, I place the whole pan onto Little Red’s grill before closing the lid and walking away for about 30 minutes.

The fireworks may fall in the east, but the western sky right now is a study in light and shadow that easily rivals what we’ll be watching shortly, after the moon is high and the sun has completely sunk past the horizon.

As a complement to the lobster lasagna, I’ve thrown together a super quick salad: wedges of iceberg lettuce and tiny ripe salted tomatoes, topped with capers, ranch dressing and EVOO.  Sometimes it’s the easiest things to make that are the most satisfying.

After 20 minutes or so, I check to see that my lasagna is bubbling hot, and nicely crispy brown on top.  I remove it from the grill and set it to rest, loosely covered, for about 15 minutes before cutting into it (which will help it set).

This white light lobster lasagna has an almost ethereal quality: it’s hot and filling, to be sure, but the tender shellfish chunks and fluffy puffy baked cheese are bright, fresh, buttery and garlicky flavors, offset by wee bits of carrots and celery.  The crunchy salad with the sharp briny capers brings balance to the palate, and each bite is better than the last.  As the night closes in and the Pops warm up for the 1812 Overture, Clayton and I celebrate our freedom by devouring our dinners with gusto.  Happy Independence Day, America!  Here’s hoping that some day soon, we’ll be able to celebrate the freedom and happiness of every man, woman, and child on the planet – regardless of what they look like, where they come from, who they love or what they worship.  World Peace, people – it’s not just for beauty queens.

Macaroni alla Telefono

Clayton’s been working hard on the farm, poor boy; he’s coming home all spattered with mud, smelling like livestock, with a big fat tired grin on his face. Today he got bit in the ass by a goat, he carried around fluffy baby lamb, played with the freshly hatched baby chicks, moved a whole chicken coop, sloped hogs, etc.  Tonight I needed to whip together a hearty something something to make my man’s man all fortified for his supreme acts of labor, and I thank Mario Batali for introducing me to this super simple super satisfying dinner on the fly.  I, of course, did my own thing to it, but the concept is based on something I saw him make on one of his old shows on the FoodNetwork over a decade ago.  The macaroni is obvious: noodles, and squiggly ones to boot!  The “alla telefono” refers to the stretchy stringy cords of fresh mozzarella cheese melted into this delicious pasta and sausage baked dish.    With my quick-made basil marinara sauce, dinner is red and good and gooey and rich and fresh and hot and yummy and awesome.  ‘Nuff said.

Macaroni alla Telefono

1 lb sweet Italian sausage
1 carrot
1 stalk celery
1 small onion
4 cloves garlic
a handful of fresh basil
2 tbs tomato paste
1 large can crushed San Marzano tomatoes
burrata cheese
2 cups noodles (your choice, but something squiggly works best)
salt and pepper
fennel seeds (optional)
caraway seeds (optional)

I was cheeky today, I admit it.  I noticed that Savenor’s afternoonFacebook posting was a link to a blog – an excellent blog, to be sure – but it got me thinking: I gots me a blog, and I shop at Savenor’s, too.  Methinks perhaps I just need to say “Here’s what I do with your meats, yo'” (to mix my vernaculars) and maybe they’ll dig my blog, too.  So I slid the stud behind the counter my cool biz card, and I’m sure any day now they’ll offer me half their profits to compensate for all you rich browsers discovering them through my portal into the world of FOOD.  That’s right.  Lolita’s a trendsetter, she is.  Today I bought my cheese (they were out of fresh mozzarella, but burrata served the purpose of both ricotta and mozz at the same time), my sausage (which was heavenly), my tomato paste, and a loaf of french bread at their Cambridge joint.  After slipping the dude my card.  In shameless self-promotion. ‘Cuz that’s how I roll.

I start with a simple mirepoix and minced garlic and stir it around in a hot oiled pan.

I add a few dashes of sea salt, some cracked black pepper, and a teaspoon each of fennel seeds and caraway seeds.  I toss this around for a few moments to toast and soften.

I’d left the camera on; Clayton walked by at a random moment, and saw this image in the viewfinder.  I agreed it was… compelling.  So I snapped.  And so I share.  My stemless wine glass dripping with cava, our scratched kitchen table surface, and one of Clayton’s paintings coloring the background.

To my pan I add two tablespoons of tomato paste. I blend it well with my sauteed veggies.

I add my can of crushed tomatoes, blend well, and let this mixture simmer, covered, for the next 20-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, I’ve heated a glug or glugs of EVOO in a pan, and now I’ve laid  my fresh sausage over the sizzle.  I’m going to rotate them regularly, so that they cook evenly through without splitting with too much heat drying out and fracturing the membrane.  Using tongs…

… I roll my sausages…

… every minute or so, just as the surfaces start to brown…

…and I finish off with some wrist-flip rolling, until my sausages are perfectly golden all over their little cylindrical bodies, all plump and toasty, all heated fully through, still bursting with savory pork juices.  Oh mama.

See?  As I slice my sausages, they ooze with juices and are perfectly cooked throughout, without being too browned and blistered on the outside.  And as I sneak a mouthful, and one for Clayton, we revel in the peppery, garlicky, flavorful, distinctive deliciousness before I…

… dump them disks into my thick rich tomato sauce.

I stir this all up, then add a handful of ripped fresh basil leaves to the blend, and I turn off the heat.

I’ve boiled off my pasta to just slightly underdone (I always think of Joyce’s  “Underdone’s”), since they’re going to bake for a while, which will bring them to just the right al dente.

I mix this all up real good like.  *Real* good like.

This plump ball of mozzarella (a wee wee bit rubbery at just the apex of the curve) stuffed with ricotta ended up being the *perfect* diary for dinner.  It comes from “The Mozzarella House” in Everett, MA — but they’ve got no website!  Technological deficiencies aside, their cheese is damn good (even if a little pricey, at $7.99 in comparison to Trader Joe’s more consistently produced, just as tasty, $2.99 8oz portion).  Anyway, the mozz will melt and stretch, and the ricotta will melt and cream.  I slice it, then roughly chop it, then scoop it up with the flat of my blade and…

… dump it into my hot saucesausagepasta.  I mix this up real good like…

… and I scoop it into an oiled baking dish, and throw it into a 350° oven for 15 minutes or so.

Meanwhile, I slice my beautiful baguette down the middle and cut it into planks.  I douse each slice’s surface with melted butter, sprinkle them with garlic powder, and grate some fresh parmigiano reggiano on top, then stick this on a sheet pan over parchment paper into the oven (which is already baking off my pasta) to toast.

I pull my pastabake out when I see the bubbling heat crawling up the sides of my glass baking dish.  This is about 15 minutes later.  This is about 10 minutes away from being devoured.

As I spoon the warm deliciousness into my bowl, I can show you why this is called “alla telefono” — see how the mozzarella stretches into supple cords, like telephone wires, as I serve up my dish?  It’s almost a struggle; I have to use another spoon to cut the wires, or they’d stretch, it seems, until eternity.

Spoonfuls of macaroni and mozzarella and tomato goodness are perfectly gloopy, with firm springy noodles laced with rich sauce, dotted with savory sausage, and threaded with creamy chewy cheese. Served with buttery baked cheesy garlic bread, served with love, served with hard working man man in mind. Clayton husband needed something from the heart to fill his stomach, and judging by the love-looks he’s been shooting my way since we walked away from the dinner table, he’s happy as can be.  Mission accomplished!

Macaroni alla Telefono

Shrimp, Crab, and Scallop Cannelloni

It’s been a stormy weekend: new fridge (the old one died unexpectedly); thunderstorms; moments of intense malaise.  But we now have freshly chilled, freshly purchased cold staples, and our fridge is clean as a whistle with no half empty jars of anything (all was thrown away; all was grody-to-the-max).  I’ve been in the mood for some shellfish lasagna, or cannelloni, or something like that.  There was this nice Italian place, on Newbury Street, on the haute couture block closest to the Boston Public Garden, a few years back, and they had this delightful tri-sauced seafood lasagna; I’ve been dreaming about it lately.  And I can’t find anything like it on any other menus in town (at least, those available online).  So I decided to make some myself.  Sweet shellfish and ricotta stuffing wrapped in pasta sheets and baked with bechamel, alfredo, pesto, and tomato sauces.

I only need a few tablespoons of pesto, so I start with about 1 cup of basil leaves, three or so cloves of garlic, and about 1/4 cup of pine nuts.

I blend all those beautiful flavors with some EVOO, sea salt, cracked black pepper, and lemon juice, until it’s a nice, thick paste.  Cover, and chill in the new fridge.

I want some toothsome texture in my dish to complement the sweet soft sinews of my shellfish, so I finely dice some carrot and celery (about 1 cup each), and toss them into a bowl.

To which I add: 1 cup chopped parsley, 1 cup ricotta cheese, 1 egg, 1 cup freshly grated ParmigianoReggiano, some sea salt, cracked black pepper, and fresh grated nutmeg.

Blend all ingredients together well.

My scallops.  I slice each crosswise into three dics.

My shrimp.  These were called “sweet royal”, and they were royally sweet.

And, just for good measure, a can of crab meat.  I add each of these shellfish to my ricotta mixture, and blend well.

Meanwhile, whip up a quick ParmigianoReggiano bechamel: two tablespoons butter, a tablespoon flour, 1/2 cup cheese, 1 cup heavy cream, salt and pepper.

Melt the butter, and add the flour.

Blend well, until frothy.

Add your cheese and your cream, some salt, pepper, garlic, and nutmeg, and blend well until melted and thickened.

I’ve boiled off four sheets of no-boil lasagna noodles to soften them, and then I’ve filled them – lengthwise – with my shellfish filling, and wrapped them like burritos into some monkey-dishes already coated with my fresh bechamel: two per dish.

I’ve then spooned the remainder of my filling mixture over the top (most of my scallop slices ended up dotting the surface), and wrapped each dish in foil.  I set them inside a 350° oven for 30 minutes. In another small saucepan, I make a quick alfredo sauce (butter, cream, and ParmigianoReggiano cheese, sea salt, pepper, and more nutmeg).  I also have some fresh tomato sauce nearby.  I remove the foil from my dishes, then one third of each in tomato sauce, the opposing third of each in 1/2 of my alfredo sauce, and then I add my few tablespoons of pesto to the remaining alfredo – return to the heat and stir for a moment to incorporate – before covering the middle third of each dish with its green goodness.  I return to the oven for an additional ten minutes, uncovered.

My Italian-flag colored shellfish cannelloni is served with a quick salad and some garlic toast, and is searingly hot, garlicky, and full-flavored.  Clayton chooses to eat white to red; I eat one cannelloni at a time, mixing all the sauces together, blending the cream with the green with the red.  The diced carrots and celery are crunchy bits of vegetable joy amid the curds and crab and cream and stuff.  A warm, light, rich dinner: perfect for capping off the weekend!

Baked Cannelloni on FoodistaBaked Cannelloni