Thursday, June 14, 2007

Recipe: Lasagne

I have this distinct memory of lasagna- I am 8 and we are sitting around the kids table in a grassy garden in Penang. The aunts, one aunt in particular, has made two big lasagna for the children and it's carried to the table in oven tins.

To this day, I still remember the smell, the crusty cheese, the succulent layers of meat and that childish first taste of Parmesan (for that's what I think she used), intermixed with the sunshine and slightly stuffy air of the colonial house. For the rest of my life, I will probably be ordering and eating lasagna, trying to find that one same taste sensation.

I believe that's what make lasagna challenging. Everyone has had an experience of it and unlike other Italian pastas (like risotto and fusilli and tagliatelle), lasagna is a clearly identifiable dish. To me, that means it must be done well, or not at all. It's an easy dish...but there are some extremely important steps.

I didn't take a picture of the lasagna that I made for dinner last week but it was gorgeous in its red earthenware deep dish. I figure what I can do is tell you exactly how I make it and the 12 steps to a dang-good lasagna that you must, must remember.

There are three components, the Bolognaise, the Bechamel and the pasta layers. Lasagna is this great party dish because you can do all these steps the day before. In fact you can assemble the whole thing in the deep dish and put it in the fridge and just refrigerate it until 40 min before the guests arrive.

First, the Bolognaise.

1. Always DRY your meat
To feed 10 people, I bought 600g of minced beef and 300g of minced pork. Traditionally, the mix is 1/3 beef, 1/3 veal and 1/3 pork. The meat should be removed from packaging and stored, pressed between kitchen paper, in the fridge. This will soak up all the blood, ensuring that the meat is Dry when you start to fry. If your meat is wet, your meat will not fry, but broil. This would be the first step to your wrong lasagna.

Grate 3 carrots and chop 2 onions finely. You can also add celery. Traditionally, the holy trinity of vegetables in Tuscan cooking are the celery, onion and carrot. These are known as the 'odori', the 'flavourers' which are chopped finely with a clove of garlic, some parsley, then simmered together in good olive oil until soft.

2. Do NOT burn your garlic
Add a bit of butter, olive oil and garlic to a wide pan- the more surface area the better. Throw in your meat and stir till colour changes. Throw in the vegetables and continue to stir fry, without burning the mixture. It's important that you don't burn any of your ingredients, once you have got that bitter burnt taste, you need to re-do your cooking as it will persist through the cooking and into the food.

3. Always use FRESH herbs
4. Use QUALITY, WHOLE plum tomatoes
5. Use a GOOD red wine
6. Use a good SEA SALT

When the meat is fully cooked, pour over some red wine. You want to use a smooth, fairly good quality red wine, not one that is really tannic and acidic. Sprinkle over fresh herbs. The usual ones are basil and parsley but I used a bunch of sage, rosemary, thyme, parsley and basil all chopped up together. Dump in two tins of good quality whole plum tomatoes.

As this mixture cooks, you will add in more red wine to prevent it from drying out. Some people use white wine but I really prefer a more full-body taste. You will also add stock- some people use veal stock but I actually like a lighter chicken stock. I also stick in fresh bunches of parsley and basil and season with fresh herbs as the cooking process goes on, because the flavours tend to leach out.

You want to season with pepper and a good sea salt, please not Morton's regular salt. It does make a difference, especially because a harsh salt will salt out the moisture from your meat. Some people add milk as their meat is cooking, I think that step can actually be skipped as long as you keep your meat moist with wine. If you use more wine, you can use less olive oil, which sounds like a good trade-off to me.

7. Let Bolognaise stew for at least 2 Hours
8. Use tomato paste

Boil and Bubble for 2.5 hours. The mixture will keep soaking up the new liquid. Eventually, the mixture will start to dry, which is when you can add in two small tins of tomato paste. This will help your bolognaise achieve a thicker consistency and I like the more solid tomato base that it lends. Cool your bolognaise. It can be stored in the fridge or frozen till use.

Secondly, the Bechamel sauce

Bechamel is a white sauce. Basically you heat 500ml full cream (not half cream, please don't be gross, the fat will separate from the grayish whey and it will just be disastrous) with bay leaf and leave it with the fire off, to infuse. Then you blend 50g butter with 50g flour, your butter either has to be totally soft or actually melted, so that this forms a dough.

Mix that dough into the milk. Basically, as you've figured out by now, bechamel is a thickened milk sauce. The dough will melt into the milk and the whole mixture becomes a big gooey. When do you stop? When the liquid becomes a thicker liquid, the consistency of flowing cream. NOT when the liquid becomes solid and won't flow. You can also store the bechamel sauce.

Third, the pasta.

9. Always use a thin lasane pasta.
10. DRY your pasta sheets between kitchen towels

I like this brand that I buy in the Italian wholesale grocery market in South Horizons Plaza in Yi Nam Road in Ap Lei Chau in Hong Kong. That place is the bomb. If you can't though, you can always use De Cecco or Barilla. You want to swirl them around lightly in hot water, so that they are under-cooked, but not still cardboard like. You want them sort of blanched and raw but already pliable. This is because they will cook again in the oven.

You should dry your pasta with a tea towel. You can refrigerate them if not ready to assemble. To assemble, put a layer of meat, layer of bechamel, grate some cheese like pecorino or Parmesan and layer fresh basil leaves on the cheese. Then put down a layer of pasta. Repeat.

11. Layer with FRESH plucked basil leaves and fresh cheese
12. THIN layer of bechamel, THICK layer of meat

In too many restaurants, you will get a thick layer of white creamy stuff, scant meat and thick pasta. This is a bad lasagna. You want to put down a thick layer of meat, thin thin layer of bechamel, layer of cheese and pluck some fresh basil leaves. Keep making layers and finish with a layer of meat etc then cheese on top. (Not pasta layer on top, very yucky).

Now, I prefer a hard cheese, like pecorino or Parmesan in between the layers (although you can be creative and use other hard cheeses) and a soft cheese, mozzarella on top. I also like to cover the whole top, so that you don't see the meat and after baking in the oven at 220C for 30 min, grill it for the last 10 mine, so that the cheese will toast and turn a lovely dark yellow with brown.

You can see two examples of a step-by-step presentation of a lasagna, one at this hilarious spunky site The bolognaise should look somewhat like hers (except.. I see you, McCormick!) but I do draw the line at topping the lasagna with dried Parmesan powder. Your surface is then not homogeneous, spongy and cheesy goodness but a dry and rather powdery grittiness. Also, her layers have collapsed, so the lasagna is not neat (a must for me) but has disintegrated into a heap.

The second is this Cooking For Engineers site . His is neat because he uses Italian sausages with their skins removed as ground chuck (ew, eyeballs). However, look at the amount of bechamel heaped onto the pasta and the ugly top of the baked lasagna. You can definitely use ricotta, although personally I feel it's too soft, curdy and lumpy a cheese to use for this but I still think you should not give your guest a mouthful of cooked cheese and you should cover up the top of your lasagna.

Before baking, your lasagna should look like the headline picture, except of course, with a covered surface of cheese and a more meaty looking ragu!

I wanted to put up this picture though, of the accompaniment of lamb rack that I made for the same dinner, especially for P. in HK whose wife told me he loves lamb. I usually sear the lamb (heat pan, no oil, quickly brown the surface, don't cook through the meat) then cover it with mustard and then cover that with a mixture of breadcrumbs and chopped mixed fresh herbs (mainly rosemary, parsley and thyme).

While my brother likes Dijon mustard, I like to use Australian whole seed mustard, tomato mustard, or chardonnay mustard. This time, I had these great bottles of white truffle paste (Crema di pura tartufo)that I bought at a Tuscan street market at 16 Euro for the pair, so I made a mix of the truffle paste and regular Dijon mustard, slathered over the lamb, then encased and baked for 30 min at 180C.

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