For years I’ve been saying that I was supposed to be Italian. And I really, really mean it. I was totally born on the wrong continent.
That’s one of the villages in Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera. I wish I lived there. And here’s another village in that same region:
Of course there’s always the countryside of Tuscany – really, who wouldn’t want to run away to this place? It seems the sunshine there is always golden like that. Gorgeous.
If I ever just “disappear,” chances are good that I’ve found myself a little hideaway somewhere in all this beauty. Oh, and I can’t forget Florence.
Florence and Kiev have always been neck-and-neck at the top of my most-captivating-cities-I’ve-ever-visited list. Florence overwhelms me. In a good way.
I’m about to pack my bags right now…and I haven’t even started thinking about the food! The food!
I’m working on another food blog project right now – just doing the behind-the-scenes prep work at the moment for something I hope to launch this year (isn’t that a tease?) Anyway, some of the books I’m reading through as research claim to have lists of the “best dishes in the world” or “a global culinary canon” and on these lists there are 80 – 100 different dishes presented. Guess where most of them come from? In fact, on one list nearly one quarter of the entire list was from two places…Italy and France. The French, of course. (Not that I have anything against France…as long-time readers will remember from my French phase…and it’s probably safe to assume that my “French phase” is more of a culinary stand-by than a phase anyway.) Those French – they’ve got the whole kitchen thing down.
Anyway…back to Italy.
Well, no, not exactly. I’m not in Italy. That’s the problem. I’m never in Italy. (insert sad-pouty face here)
So, that leaves me the food. And in our house, we’re more than happy to oblige.
Let’s talk about it.
It can be an all-day event. Or not. It can be tomato or Béchamel. With meat or not. With spinach or not. The variations are many.
I could live on lasagna. It’s one of the very few things I have in common with Garfield. Breakfast, lunch, dinner – it seems appropriate. I think I’ve made approximately 213 different versions of lasagna. Don’t worry, I’m only going to talk about two of them right now. One that will take you most of a day. And one that will not.
Let’s start with the longer version.
Second only maybe to Hollandaise, I would say this sauce is my husband’s favorite. He gets a little gleam in his eye when I say I’m going to make it. Bolognese…this is the beginning of the all-day lasagna.
Commonly known as “aromatics” and the base to many, many stocks, soups, stews and sauces, the combination of onions, celery and carrots make up what the French call “mirepoix” (pronounced meer-PWAH.) Creole cooking calls it the “holy trinity” and in Italian it is “soffritto.”
The vegetables are cooked down for a few minutes in a combination of butter and olive oil. The the meats are added and cooked. Then the happy begins.
This sauce gets reduced three times. Yes. You read that correctly. Three. Which means three times the yumminess. And it also means it takes a good part of the afternoon. And makes your house smell scrumptious.
First a quart of milk. Reduce gently for nearly an hour. Then you do the same with red wine and the third time is beef stock.
After the three or so hours of reducing, it will look something like this:
A nice rich color and you can see the reduction on the side of the pot. At this point you should feel free to grab a spoon and just eat it right off the stove top. No one would judge you.
Or you can let it cool and use it to make lasagna. Or drench some pasta with it. And I usually divide it up and freeze some for another time. It freezes beautifully. But whatever you do with it, when you serve it you should immediately feel like that tiny little Italian grandmother who is perpetually in an apron and always seems to make the most wonderful things appear from her kitchen.
Now let’s talk about a lasagna that doesn’t require you to channel “Nonna” or stand near the stove for half the day.
I didn’t follow a recipe for this lasagna, so I’ll just show you what I did. The meat sauce is about a pound and a half of ground beef or turkey, browned, and then mixed with one of those packets of spaghetti sauce. You know, the kind you mix with a small can of tomato paste and some oil and water? And I also added some sliced mushrooms. The noodles are the pre-semi-cooked kind.
The cheese mixture is ricotta, parmesan and mozzerella. Then I added in some basil and some Italian seasoning. I have also used that herb-seasoned cheese spread mixture in place of the ricotta before – also yummy. You can see it here all mixed:
Then the parts all get layered into the crock pot.
A little sauce in the bottom, then noodles, then cheese mixture. Repeat. Repeat. You know how lasagna works.
After the last layer of sauce, cover with mozzarella. Cover and cook on low for 4-6 hours. (You will have to experiment with the time in your own crockpot…depending on its size and how many layers you put in…it could take more or less time.)
It’s very easy to have the sauce and the cheese mixture in your fridge and it only takes about 10 minutes to assemble it. The last time I made it, I threw it together when I was cleaning up the kitchen from lunch. The boys and I headed out for the park and to run some errands…we got home about the same time as their dad got home from work…I put a quick salad together and dinner was ready.
It’s not Italy. I know.
But it kind of smells like it. Or at least a kitchen in Italy.
And, if you close your eyes while eating that Bolognese sauce, you just might be able to transport yourself to this place:
It’s worth a try.
adapted from Martha Stewart, 2003
3 TB unsalted butter
3 TB extra-virgin olive oil
2 onions, ¼ inch dice
3 stalks celery, ¼ inch dice
3 carrots, ¼ inch dice
2 pounds ground sirloin
2 pounds ground pork
1 quart whole milk
2 1/2 cups dry red wine
1 quart beef stock (2 14.5 oz cans)
1 cup tomato paste
1 ½ teaspoons coarse salt
¾ teaspoon fresh ground pepper
In a large cast-iron or enamel pot, heat butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add onions, cook until they soften (5 minutes.) Add celery and carrots, cook until vegetables are tender (8-10 minutes.) Add ground sirloin and pork and cook, stirring occasionally, until the meat is no longer pink. Add milk, cook at a gentle simmer, skimming fat from surface until liquid has reduced by half (about an hour.) Add wine, simmer until liquid is reduced by half again (about 45 minutes.) Add beef stock, tomato paste, salt, pepper and simmer gently until sauce thickens (about an hour.) Makes about 3 quarts.