Monday, April 14, 2014

Culinary History: Lasagne

I know everyone has their own favorite comfort foods, but lasagne is one of those for me.  There is just something about the gooey cheese, savory meat sauce, and wet noodles with crispy edges that is sublime when done well.  Though there are many existing variations on lasagne that usually involve changing the type of meat or sauce, they are all basically the same and all feel Italian or Italian-American.  So what really defines lasagne? Were there any other cultures that did lasagne? And how far could we stray from the original and still feel like we have a lasagne at it’s gooey core?

I mentioned in a previous post that gnocchi is probably a progenitor of pasta.  Well, Lasagna noodles are probably the first type of rolled pasta as it does not require any cutting.  The origin of the name is unclear.  What is generally agreed upon is that in originates from the Greeks, though the name might come from the name of the cooking dish used or the pasta itself.  It is unclear what originally would have been in it, but the concept of it being a layers of filling separated by pasta date back to at least 1300’s, though almost certainly much earlier.  In its original form, it would not have included tomatoes as they were not used in European cooking until the 1600’s.  

The most important characteristic is it’s distinctive layering.  If you took all the same ingredients, used penne, and tossed it all together it would taste the same, but it just wouldn’t be lasagne.  This stratification is best achieved by a using a long and thin ingredient, usually lasagna noodles, but as you will see, there are alternatives.  It should have at least three ingredients before repeating and one of those ingredients should be cheese.  Beyond that, it’s pretty up in the air.  Everyone has a favorite classic lasagne recipe and this one is mine:

Classic Lasagne with Italian Sausage
- 1 medium onion, minced
- 6 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 lb of Italian sausage
- ¼ cup heavy cream
- 28 oz. tomato puree
- 28 oz. diced tomatoes, drained
- 30 oz. ricotta cheese
- 5 oz. grated parmesan cheese
- ½ minced basil
- 2 eggs
- 16 cooked lasagna noodles
- 1 lb. mozzarella cheese, shredded
- salt and pepper to taste

1. Saute the onion in olive oil over medium heat until softened.  Add the garlic and cook until fragrant.  Increase the heat to medium high, add the sausage, and cook until browned.  Add cream and simmer until the liquid is evaporated.  Add the pureed and diced tomatoes and simmer over medium low heat for 5 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
2. Mix ricotta, parmesan, basil, eggs, and salt and pepper to taste until thoroughly combined.
3. Put a little bit of the tomato sauce on the bottom of a 9x13 pan.  Layer noodles, ricotta mixture, meat sauce, and mozzarella cheese 4 times, making sure to leave plenty of mozzarella for the top layer.  Cover in aluminum foil.
4. Bake 15 minutes at 375 degrees.  Remove aluminum foil and bake another 25 minutes or until cheese is spotty brown and sauce is bubbling.  Cool at least 10 minutes before serving.

It doesn’t really matter if you get the exact same amount of ingredients in each layer.  Don’t stress over it, no one will notice when they eat it. If you prefer, you can substitute any combination of ground beef, ground pork, ground veal, or ground sausage.

What is interesting about lasagne is that though there are other similar dishes in other cultures like Puerto Rico, and the Balkans, it does not share the name and overall does not seem to have spread as much as one would expect for such an ancient dish.  The Puerto Rican variation, which I adapted from this recipe, shares almost all the same ingredients except for a for the fact that it uses sauteed sweet plantains instead of lasagne noodles.  This makes for a dish that is both familiar and completely unique.

Puerto Rican Pastelon
- 1 onion, minced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 green bell pepper, minced
- ½ cup chopped cilantro
- 2 tsp. adobo seasoning
- 2 tsp. oregano
- 2 Tbsp. white vinegar
- 1 envelope sazon
- 1 lb. ground beef
- 2 bay leaves
- 8 green stuffed olives, pureed in a food processor
- ½ cup raisins, pureed in a food processor with a little oil
- ¼ cup tomato sauce
- 5 ripe plantains (mostly black), each peeled and cut into 4 long thin strips
- 3 eggs
- 2 Tbsp. milk
- 1 lb shredded monterey jack cheese

1. Heat a little oil a large skillet over medium high heat.  Add the onion, garlic, bell pepper, cilantro, adobo, oregano, vinegar, and sazon and cook until softened.  Add the ground beef and cook until no longer pink. Add the bay leaves, olive and raisin puree, and tomato sauce and gently simmer for 10 minutes.
2. Heat a little oil a large skillet over medium high heat.  Fry plantain strips for 2-3 minutes per side until golden brown.
3. Grease a 9 x 9 pan and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Layer plantains, beef, cheese three times.  Whisk the eggs and milk together and pour over the lasagne.  Bake for 20 minutes.

This dish is one of the best examples of a sweet and salty entree I’ve encountered.  The starchy plantains are a surprisingly good substitute for pasta, though a bit less chewy.  You should be able to find both adobo seasoning and sazon in the international aisle of most grocery stores, and it’s worth it because they provide most of the authentic seasonings.  

So I thought I’d take a moment to say that my wife is pregnant and has been very sensitive to food lately.  She has been wanting mild food and particularly craves breakfast food.  But, since the blog must go on, I decided to figure out how we could both get what we want.  My recipes are sometimes a retooling of a recipe I’ve gotten out of a cookbook or they are completely original ideas.  This idea, though is a slightly modified version of this recipe from chef Eric Greenspan, and the credit goes to him.  This dish is mind-blowingly good and should be made and eaten as soon as possible.  It is, in my mind among the top three recipes I’ve put on the blog so far.

Pancake Lasagna
- 2 cups buttermilk
- ⅓ cup milk
- ½ cup melted butter
- 2 ¼  cups flour
- 3 Tbsp. sugar
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- ¼ cup flour
- 4 ⅓ cups heavy cream
- 2 cups maple syrup
- 20 eggs, scrambled and cooked
- 1 lb bacon, cooked until crisp, bacon fat reserved
- 1 lb bulk sage breakfast sausage, cooked
- 1 lb cheddar cheese, shredded

1. Mix the buttermilk, milk, sugar, and ¼ cup butter in a bowl.  In a larger bowl, whisk the 2 cups flour, baking powder, and baking soda.  Gently mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Cook the pancakes as large as you are comfortable making them over medium heat until golden brown on each side.
2. Mix ¼ cup butter, ¼ cup of flour, and reserved bacon fat over medium heat and cook for 1 minute.  Whisk in 4 cups of heavy cream and maple syrup and cook over low heat until thickened, about 30 minutes.  
3. Puree the cooked scrambled eggs and ⅓ cup of heavy cream in a food processor. Cut the pancakes into rectangular strips, saving the scraps to fill in the gaps.
4. Layer the lasagna like this: Butter a 9 x 13 casserole dish, ½ the pancake strips and any needed scraps, ¼ of the bechamel, all the sausage, ½ of the eggs, ¼ of the bechamel, ½ of the cheese, ½ the pancake strips and any needed scraps, ¼ of the bechamel, all the bacon, ¼ of the bechamel, ½ of the eggs, ½ of the cheese.  Cook at 375 degrees for 10 minutes or until cheese is well melted.  

This dish is best eaten the day it is made.

For my last dish I decided to stay in Europe, and play off of my one of my favorite non-Italian pasta dishes, pierogi.  It’s like a ravioli filled with potatoes, cheese, caramelized onions, or sometimes mushrooms or meat, and then topped with sour cream.  It seemed like a clear winner for a lasagna, and you know what, it absolutely was.  Along with the preceding week’s pancake lasagna, this dish was amazing.

Pierogi Lasagna
- 3 lbs sweet onions, sliced thin
- 1 stick butter
- 3.5 lbs russet potatoes, peeled, cut into chunks, and boiled until cooked through
- 1 ½ cups sour cream
- milk
- 1 lb. white mushrooms, sliced
- 10 cloves of garlic, minced
- fresh or dried thyme leaves
- 12 lasagna noodles, cooked al dente, drained, and rinsed
- 15 oz. ricotta cheese
- 1 lb cheddar cheese, shredded.

1. Saute the onions in ½ stick of butter over medium heat until deep golden brown, about 30 minutes. Salt to taste
2. Mash the cooked potatoes, sour cream, ½ stick butter, salt to taste, and enough milk to make them into a loose mashed potato.
3. Saute the mushrooms in a little oil, over medium heat until all the liquid has evaporated and they turn golden brown.  Add the garlic and thyme and cook until fragrant.  Add salt to taste.
4. Grease a 9x13 casserole dish then do this sequence three times: ⅓ noodles, ⅓ mashed potatoes, ⅓ ricotta, ⅓ mushrooms, ⅓ cheddar (make sure there is plenty of cheddar for the top layer).
5. Bake at 350 degrees until the cheese is fully melted and the filling is bubbly.

What about you.  What's your favorite lasagne? Mushroom? Vegetable? Chicken?  Tell me some of your good ideas in the comments.

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