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A couple of weeks ago, I went to a concert with a friend after which we went for dinner. The restaurant was one where I had eaten before, and where the food is generally quite good. We both ordered lasagna but to my disappointment, it was awful. When I related this to Fidz later, he said “You should know better than to order lasagna in Rome, they don’t know how to make it properly here”. Fidz is from Emilia-Romagna where lasagna originally comes from. The meat sauce or ragu’, as it is called, hails from Bologna. Hence the description ‘ragu’ al Bolognese’ and the derivation of the Italian-American Spaghetti Bolognese, though in Emilia, this ragu’ would not be served with spaghetti but with fettucine or pappardelle.
Anyhow, I wanted to invite one of the women in my choir over for lunch. She’s very kind and insists on dropping me home after practice even though she lives around the corner from where we meet and has to cross the city to bring me home. I couldn’t think of what to make. My friend is a Roman nonna (grandmother) and likely a very good cook and I wanted to ‘fare una bella figura’ (make a good impression). I decided to make lasagna as I make the traditional Emilian one using a recipe by Marcella Hazan who came from there, and even Fidz agrees that it’s good. It turned out well and everyone enjoyed it so I was quite pleased with myself! And what have the flowers above got to do with anything? My friend brought them over as a present (she wanted to fare una bella figura as well!) and even though my lasagna tasted good, the flowers looked a lot better so I couldn’t resist showing them.
Simple to make but needs to simmer for 3 hours so I make three or four times the amount and freeze it
3/4 lb (300g) minced beef
2 tabspns olive oil and 2 tabspn butter
1 small onion, 1 small carrot, 1 stick of celery all very finely chopped to give about 2 tabspns of each
1/2 cup milk (110 mL), whole milk is best,
1 cup white wine (225 mL)
2 cups canned whole tomatoes
1 tsp salt, 1/8 tsp nutmeg
Melt the butter and oil on a low heat. Add the finely chopped onion, saute for a couple of minutes and then add the carrot and celery. Saute gently for a few minutes until the vegetables soften. Add the beef and salt and saute until the meat browns. Add the wine, increase heat to medium and cook until the wine evaporates. Add the milk and nutmeg, reduce the heat and cook until the milk is evaporated. Add the chopped tomatoes and simmer for 3 hours or more if you have the time.
The quantity depends on the size of your pan. I use a 12″x 9″ (30cm x 22cm) pan.
4 cups milk
4 tabspns butter
4 tabspns flour
1/2 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp nutmeg
Heat the milk to just under boiling point and set aside. Melt the butter on a low heat, add the flour and cook until golden. Add a little milk and mix to a smooth paste (I find it easier to get a smooth sauce if I remove the pan from the heat). Continue adding the milk and mixing well until all the milk has been added. Return to the heat, add salt and stir continuously until the sauce thickens and just starts to bubble. Remove from the heat, add the nutmeg and cover with a lid to prevent a skin from forming. Best to use it immediately.
I buy readymade fresh pasta but if you can’t find this, I’ve also used the dried variety which does not require boiling before assembling the lasagne and it works fine. You will need enough for 4 layers.
Freshly grated parmesan is best. If you do a lot of Italian cooking, it’s well worth investing in a micrograter as nothing else gives you fluffy, light parmesan. You will need enough to sprinkle lightly over each layer.
The grater is also great for lemon or orange zest!
Assembling the lasagne
Spread a thin layer of bechamel on the bottom of the pan and cover with pasta.
Then add a layer of meat, a layer of bechamel, followed by a sprinkling of parmesan. Make 2 more layers in this way. Marcella mixes the bechamel with the meat sauce but I haven’t tried it that way yet.
Finish with a layer of pasta, a layer of bechamel and a sprinkling of parmesan. Bake at 180C for 30 minutes. Raise the temperature to 200C and bake for another 10 minutes until the top is bubbling and golden. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 10 – 15′ before serving.