Blather

Lasagna: more of an art than a science

This isn’t quite a recipe, just some directions, for putting together lasagna. Basically, you have sauce, into which you might add ground beef or sausage. I always use sausage if I put any in at all. And you have your creamy cheese and your other cheese, and your noodles. But you need to know what to use, so those parts are in bold color. Options are italicized.

I hope this doesn't just seem too hard to understand. I wanted to go through the process as though you're here. And I think if you read it over, then go back to what you need, it will be easy to do.

SAUCE AND SAUCE ACCESSORIES:

Obviously you can use a good jar sauce, or you can make a full-on simmering sauce from top to bottom. Usually I take a middle path. For meat sauce, I use a pound of sausage without the casing/casing removed, cook it on medium in a little olive oil with some onions and peppers if I have those, then I add three or four garlic cloves (depending on size,) which I like to thinly slice, but you can mince, and 2 ounces of tomato paste,* stir it around for a minute, splash in a half cup of wine if I have that, or chicken or beef broth or water if I don’t, and then two large cans of tomatoes, squished by hand. This is enough to do a 9x13 pan. Obviously, you can just do half. Try to get tomatoes grown in Italy if you can. There is a difference.

In these photos, note that I first softened the onions and peppers in olive oil , then let them cook more while browning and attacking the sausage. When the sausage was nearly done, I stirred it together, then made room for the tomato paste. Choppedstuff
Choppedcups
Drygoods
Oliveoil
Sausagewithsoftstuff
Incorporated
Tomatopaste
Addedwine
Squishing
Tomatosauceif you are adding 1/2 cup water instead of wine or broth, put it in the can, swish around, then add.

*The tomato paste makes it all richer. Toasting it before adding liquid makes it nicer.

After you squish in the tomatoes, add a little oregano; crumble a couple of teaspoons with your fingers, or a couple of teaspoons of mixed Italian seasonings, and salt and pepper as you like. You could put in mushrooms once that’s all accomplished; 1/2-1 cup chopped, but not too finely. This makes a plain sauce good for baked pasta. Add a couple of pinches of dried red pepper if you like.

If you are using ground beef instead of sausage, you need to cook it first, seasoning it well with two teaspoons dried seasonings and s and p, drain and remove it, then cook the peppers, onions and garlic (add that after the other two have cooked til softening,) in the same pan with just a little olive oil, then add the meat back in and proceed.

If you are using jar sauce and you don’t want extra peppers and onions, cook your meat, season if it’s ground beef rather than sausage, add in your mushrooms if you wish, splash in a little wine, then add the sauce and simmer it while you do the rest. If you do want extra peppers and onions, follow the first set of instructions, and add the sauce when you’d add the canned tomatoes.

If you want directions for longer-cooking sauce, okay, but otherwise, I will address that on meatballs day.


I think you need three-four cups of sauce for an 8x8 pan, about six-eight for a 9x13. If you included meat, you’ll want more, if not, you’ll want less. We like it to be pretty darned saucy here at our house.


FILLING:

While that is simmering on low (you might need to put on a lid,) cook your lasagna noodles if they are the cooking kind, for two minutes less than done. Make sure the water is pretty salty. And while that is happening, mix your ricotta. Now, no one asks for as much of this as I like, unless they are correct. So for an 8x8 pan, use a 15 ounce container, to which you add an egg, or for 9x13, 30-32 ounces to which you add two eggs, and then add 3/4 or 1.5 cup of parmesan or romano cheese or both if you want.* Sprinkle in a little salt and pepper. Some people also add a tiny bit of nutmeg, like 1/4 teaspoon. It’s nice to do, but don’t add more than that. Add a half cup of fresh chopped parsley, or a couple of tablespoons of dried parsley. You can also do a combination of basil and parsley. Add half as much for 8x8 pan. I'll be honest here; I mix this by hand. I just like to. You can use a spatula, though, and then divide the mixture in the bowl into two or three equal parts, depending on your layers. See below.

If you are going to be using spinach, there are two ways to add it. First, loosely chop a pound (or half) as you like, cook it for a couple minutes in salted boiling water, drain it really well, squeezing out the moisture, then add some pepper and a dash of nutmeg (instead of putting that in the ricotta.) Then you’ll either layer it with the other ingredients, or you can mix it into the ricotta, but I wouldn’t. Just layer it.

Then you want shredded mozzarella, and many Italian-American ladies will use provolone, either instead of or in addition to the mozzarella. I made it yesterday with one pound shredded mozzarella**, and a half pound sliced provolone. For the top you want another half cup of the parmesan or romano. I think it’s four ounces per cup. Cheeses
*I like romano (pecorino) for this better. Somehow I usually end up using some combination. I buy wedges and grate it myself, but for this trial, I bought it pre-shredded. It was on sale.

**If I see whole milk mozzarella at the store, I will buy that instead of shredded, and shred it myself. Sadly, that’s not easy to get around here. If you are not using provolone, use 1.5 lbs of mozzarella for a 9x13 pan.


ASSEMBLY:

How many layers of noodles do we want? Three is easiest. You have a little sauce in the bottom, noodles, stuff, noodles, stuff, noodles, topping. If you are using spinach, stick with that, I think. But you can do four otherwise, which I like to do.

Don’t, for the love of Raphael, rinse your noodles, even though they’ll stick a little.

Put a little sauce on the bottom of the pan, just enough to cover it. Fit a layer of noodles in, overlapping them a little. Spread, if making three layers, 1/2 of ricotta mixture, then 1/3 of the mozzarella with 1/2 of the provolone, then 1/3 of the remaining sauce. If you are adding spinach, put 1/2 of it between the cheese layers. Repeat the process. Put a final layer of noodles on top, the remaining sauce, the remaining mozzarella, a little more parmesan, and then you can add a little crushed oregano over it to look nice. Put it on a flat cookie sheet or pizza pan, or put one beneath it in the oven to catch drippings. Stations
Globsofcheese
Spreadcheese

Mozzarella
Provolone

Sauce
Readytobake
If you are doing four layers of noodles, you’ll divide the ricotta and provolone in thirds, and the mozzarella and sauce in fourths. In the above picture, you can see I used three noodles on my bottom layer, but my pan can handle four. You can decide that for yourself. Setup
In my oven, it cooks for 40 minutes at 375º, covered in foil. Then it takes another 15 minutes to brown. That’s for the 9x13. For an 8x8 pan, figure more like 35 minutes and 10 minutes. Then it must rest for at least half an hour; an hour is better, before cutting.

You’ll have some noodles left if you cooked the whole box. I always do because they can be eaten a day or two later with other food; you can roll things in them or chop them and cook them with leftover food and put eggs on top. Baked


Cooking DNA

I started Italian-American Sunday last week on a whim. You can see my Google Plus collection about that; read the post at the bottom first. I am missing that part of my background so hard as I grow older, and don't know how to get any of it back except by cooking.

[I want to apologize for all this text before the cooking part; I don't like that very much as a rule. But I had a thought process going.]

This past week, as you know, Central Italy was upended by an earthquake. Amatrice was hit very hard. And so I thought I would make spaghetti all’amatriciana on Sunday in honor of the people there. I went to Jungle Jim’s on Thursday for Smoking Goose guanciale and a couple of other ingredients. I learned Jungle Jim's had the guanciale by asking them at Twitter. And here it is:

Goosepack
Porkjowl
You’ve probably seen this dish with bucatini; the hollow spaghetti. I read this is because that’s how it evolved in Rome, but in Amatrice, they still use spaghetti. Hopefully, they can rebuild and continue to do so in the future.

I pretty much always use linguine. If a dish wants angel hair or something, generally it doesn’t appeal to me anyway.

So I Googled some recipes, found several that claim to be the most authenticest at all (try amatriciana ricetta tradizionale in the search window,) and decided to use two as influence for my dish today. I added the Serious Eats suggestion of white wine for deglazing the pan to this recipe I found which is charming in its English translation. I did not remove the guanciale before warming the tomatoes, as some other sites suggested.

Apparently, one important aspect in the original version is using a different pecorino than Romano. Romano is strong and salty, and according to the self-appointed authority, the sauce wants a milder one.

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 11.43.54 AM
However, I couldn’t find the right pecorino at Jungle Jim’s, not because they don't have a jillion cheeses, but because it's made in small amounts and isn't widely available.

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 11.43.20 AM
So I stood there and sniffed all the cheeses made with sheep’s milk to guess what might work, then ended up choosing something I decided would just be right because it’s what I’d have to use.

That’s how it works, you know.

The other aspect is whether to use fresh or boxed tomatoes or tomato sauce. I speak with someone on Google Plus occasionally who tells me that where she lives in Italy, the tomatoes and tomato sauce come in boxes instead of cans. So, I bought boxes at Jungle Jim’s when I shopped for the cheese and the very important guanciale. I do have fresh tomatoes, but all the ones coming in now are yellow, which we don’t want for this sauce.

Finally, I read today that people are encouraging restaurants to serve Bucatini All’Amatriciana and send the proceeds to the Italian Red Cross. You might see if a restaurant in your city is participating, or donate directly if you are able.

Ingredients for last night's Linguini All'Amatriciana:

8+ ounces (225-250 g) guanciale cut into small strips
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium heat chili pepper (you could use a few flakes)
1/3 cup (80 ml) dry sherry (when it calls for white wine, what I have for it is dry sherry or dry vermouth)
750 ml box Italian tomatoes (I used strained, but I think chunks would be better, or a large can of San Marzano tomatoes, squished with your hands like Lidia does.)
1 lb dry linguini
1/2 cup grated (microplaned) Pecorino Romano mixed with 1/2 cup Trugole
(I think that's 50 grams each, maybe don't quote me.)

And here's what to do with it:

Heat olive oil in wide pan large enough to hold all of the above. Add the guanciale and the chili pepper, and stir around until the guanciale is starting to become translucent. Serious Eats recommended medium high. I heated to medium high, then turned it down a little when I added the meat. This took about five minutes, but you could turn it down more after the oil is heated, and go more slowly. Guanciale
Sizzlingmeat
Turn it back up to medium high and add the sherry or white wine, and scrape the pan with a nice flat wooden spatula. Or what you have. After a minute or two, add the tomatoes and a pinch of salt. When it bubbles, turn it down to simmer. If you put in a whole pepper, take it out now. Pomi
Cook the linguini about two minutes short of done. Be sure to add plenty of salt to the water. Then take the pasta right out of the water and add it to the simmering tomato sauce. It's better to do that than draining it, but if you have one of those cool pasta pot inserts, yay, just be careful adding it all at once. Then add a half cup or so of the pasta water, stir it in, and add the cheese, stirring some more. Let it cook for a few minutes to thicken the sauce and finish the pasta. Cheesepan
Spaghettipan
You might be used to sauce just put over pasta at the very end, and this will have a different texture. You will love it, but it will thicken more as it cools, and be less nice later on. So eat it right away, and if you aren't going to eat this much at once, cut the whole recipe in half.

Serve with more cheese for the top. You will just love the guanciale, and it will have been worth seeking it out. Other recipes will tell you it's okay to substitute pancetta or something, and I'm sure you can make something nice with it, but it won't be the same food at all.
Spaghetti


Six Months Later...The Kitchen is Open

Wow. Got all involved in moving, then overwhelmed by the new school routine, and so much else to keep up on! But we've been here for four months now, it's time to get back to my true love. Tonight I'm making a sort of shrimp creole and I'm going to share it here. First, some grainy pictures of my new kitchen. 

No, wait. First, you should read about the changes. I've made seven categories, and I folded the funny "Glory of Garnish" page into this one. Those posts are marked "Vintage Advertising" and "Vintage Cookbooks." There will be more. 

Okay now, grainy kitchen photos. :-)

KitchenlightoffI know, it's dark. I just liked the picture. My new kitchen is smaller, but I like it much better. The floor is wood instead of vinyl, much cooler and easier to clean, and everything is new and nicely at hand. There is no question of any of it ever having to not work quite right, of worrying about water damage from a badly installed dishwasher and leaky sink, or of racks falling out of the refrigerator, or the microwave starting to loosen from the wall, or a landlord who isn't exactly who or what he says he is. 

I also don't have young ladies floating through, wanting to cook at all hours of the night. I deeply miss those young ladies, but not their chaotic energy. 

KitchensinkYou know about the Fly Lady? She helps people with home organization. She is manic about two things; scrubbing your sink every morning, and wearing shoes in the house. I am also manic about two things (well, at least two;) scrubbing the sink every morning and NOT wearing shoes in the house. I have nothing to do with her because of that. I loathe seeing people wear shoes in the house. But these sinks are nice to scrub. Even though you can tell in the photo that they needed some scrubbing at that moment.

CookingcornerHere is the area to the right of the sink. 

SinkviewHere's the view from there to the left. There's actually a tremendous amount of light in this area of the house, but the kitchen can be dark. My only real complaint about it is the terrible lighting. I gotta get to that. 

MW3This is the view from the long countertop where I do most of the food preparation. They brought the PS3 upstairs yesterday to play Modern Warfare 3, but usually I can watch (listen to) an old movie while I cook.

BakingareaAnd here is my baking/mixing area. The cabinets above my mixer have all my baking ingredients, and the bowls and pans are beneath it. :-)

I'll be back later with shrimp creole-esque deliciousness. If you have never seen my homage to old food photography and advertising, click on the vintage categories for some fun.