Creamy Comforting Lasagne
Heh. It's not called "The Comfort Zone" for nothing, you know!
Coming from a northern Italian family (on dad's side) means that I've grown up eating very good lasagne, or pasta al forno, as we know it. My nonna's version, with homemade pasta and a thick meat ragu, is my brother's desert-island dish (along with her puffy, light gnocchi). My aunt, who married a southerner, makes a great southern-influenced version with lots of tomatoes and not too much cheese, which we grew up eating as our entree at the family Christmas dinner. So, I've never been too tempted to try my own, as I know whatever I make will never live up to the high family standards.
But, a few weeks ago I was eyeing the many half-finished jars and tubs of sundried and semidried tomatoes in the fridge and wondering what to do with them. I'm the only tomato eater in our household (unbelievable, isn't it?), and though I adore semidried tomatoes, I was starting to find it a bit tedious having them pop up in every salad, sandwich or meat I ate.
I remembered an episode of Jamie Oliver I saw where he made a bolognese sauce, with a jar of sundried tomatoes, which he then baked in the oven. It took quite a bit of Googling to find, but was available on the internet, and I had all the ingredients needed. It was very easy to make, and the smells wafting through through as it was in the oven made the house smell like an Italian restaurant. The flavours in this are very strong; bacon, wine, dried tomatoes and lots of fresh herbs. Make sure you use fresh rosemary, not that nasty dried stuff, as it really contributes to the flavour and aroma.
So, I had this flavour-bomb sauce and, for some reason, I didn't want to just bung it over some boring spaghetti. I wanted to do something a bit more interesting, and anyway, wasn't it time that I started to learn the Italian mama domestic arts??
Because the sauce was so flavoursome, I thought an injection of thick, creamy bechamel would work well; it'd both complement and modify the strong flavours and provide a moistness that I appreciate in lasagne. I can't stand those solid slabs of the stuff you get in cafes, that are whacked into the microwave and come out resembling house bricks. I hate the feeling of dry food in my mouth. No, I like my food wet, and my lasagne sloppy. I also wanted to include some fresh spinach through the layers, just to get a vegetable injection into this meat&carb fest...
My nonna, interested, and quite possibly amused, by this quest offered me her own supply of the lasagne sheets she buys when not making her own - La Triestina (and evidently we're not the only fans) - and advised me to cook them for double the length of time specified on the packet. In the end, I followed the recipe in Stephanie Alexander's "The Cook's Companion" for the lasagne, apart from the bolognese sauce. And the home-made pasta sheets. If you're looking for a good, basic bechamel sauce, I recommend it. It was actually my first time making bechamel (can you believe it?), but it was as easy as everyone says, and with about a cup of mozarella and a few ends of jarlsberg and blue cheese grated in, it made a gorgeous cheese sauce I could have eaten from the spoon. It'd be fabulous over boiled potatoes.
Stephanie says to cook it for 45 minutes, so it went into the oven, and a glass of red wine went into my mouth.
Naturally, with such a creamy creation we had trouble cutting portions, despite letting it sit for about 15 minutes. It was pretty sloppy, but that was an advantage on a relaxed, stay-at-home Saturday night. All the components worked well together; I thought there was a bit too much bechamel, but others didn't agree. In fact, if you've ever had the lasagne at Pellegrinis in Bourke St, or Ti'amo in Lygon St, this tastes just the same! Kinda Spaghetti Bolognaise
But the real verdict came from my brother who generally isn't a big fan of what I make, claiming it's too 'weird' and 'gourmet'. I know he didn't have very high hopes for his sister's take on a family classic, but when I came home on Monday night and found the huge slab of leftovers all gone, I was pleased I had secretly cut myself a wodge and hidden it in the freezer beforehand. He even said he enjoyed the layers of spinach! Transpires he's not such a critic of his sister's food....
I haven't included all components of this dish, but if you'd like the great bolognese sauce recipe, read on:
Jamie Oliver: Happy Days with the Naked Chef
"As far as I know, no decent Italian cook has any real recollection of what we know as Spaghetti Bolognaise. However, every region in Italy makes its own Ragu Sauce which very often features leftover stewed meats and game. For a great bolognaise it is worth whizzing up some chopped chuck steak to make your own minced meat. Here's my version." Serves 4.
10 slices Pancetta or smoked streaky bacon rashers, sliced
1 handful of rosemary, leaves picked and roughly chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
455gr/1 lb chuck steak, minced, or best minced beef
1 wineglass of red wine
1 level teaspoon dried oregano
1x 400gr/14oz tin of tomatoes
1 x 200gr/7oz tube tomato puree, or 1 small jar of sun-dried tomatoes, finely chopped
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
455gr/1 lb dried spaghetti
1 handful of fresh basil
2 handfuls of grated Parmesan or strong Cheddar cheese
Pre-heat oven to 180C/350F/gas4.
In a large hot pan that can go in the oven, fry the pancetta and rosemary in a little olive oil until lightly golden. Then add the onion and garlic and fry for a further 3 minutes until softened before adding the minced beef. Stir and continue frying for 2 or 3 minutes before adding the wine. Reduce slightly, then add the oregano, all the tomatoes and the tomato puree. Season well to taste, bring to the boil, cover with greaseproof paper or a lid and place in the pre-heated oven for an hour and a half. Towards the end of the cooking time put your spaghetti into a large pot of fast boiling salted water until al dente (check the packet for cooking time. When it's ready, drain it in a colander.
Just before serving, add some ripped-up basil to the sauce. Serve with your spaghetti and some grated Parmesan or strong Cheddar. A green salad is also nice with this.
Kinda Spaghetti Bolognaise