“As you get older, you find out that true happiness is not in how much you make or how many degrees you have or how big your house is or how fancy your car is. It’s finding peace, and joy, and a calmness in your life that will soon become the most important thing to you. Your family is what really matters to you, love is what matters to you. Things that are of quality, not quantity.” ~ Life Lessons Learned
I have been away from writing since before Christmas, and for some unknown reason or maybe one that I am not willing to admit out loud, recovery from the holidays took a little longer, this year. I also allowed the grayness of the long, cold winter take away my creativity, along with being preoccupied with the harsh realities of my life, I, unfortunately, somewhat deviated away from my life passion. With Spring approaching, and with a few days of feeling it in the air, there is this sense of renewal that comes with the season, and I’m back!
Lately, I have been thinking about my all-time favorite Italian dish, Lasagna. A favorite, for as far back as I can remember, and in my research of this rich, and flavorful Italian classic, believe it or not, it comes with a history lesson. There are a few theories, but here’s the Italian one…Lasagna originated in Italy, in the region of Emilia-Romagna. Traditional lasagna is made by layering pasta with layers of sauce, made with a ragù or a béchamel, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. In other regions, it is common to find lasagna made with ricotta or mozzarella cheese, tomato sauce, various meats (ground beef, pork or chicken), a variation of vegetables (spinach, zucchini, and mushrooms), and typically flavored with wine, garlic, onion, and oregano. In all cases the lasagna is baked in the oven.
Lasagne calde, calde le lasagne, caldeee! History states that forty years ago, you could hear vendors bellow those words from the busy platform of the Bologna railway station. Though lasagna vendors don’t exist today, Lasagna alla Bolognese remains the most famous recipe in Italy, and throughout Europe. In Italy, there are countless regional variations of lasagna. Ingredients differ according to place, and local custom but the distinctive character of lasagna remains the same…layers of flat or curly noodles, separated by layers of rich gravy or sauces, a focus ingredient like meat, fish or vegetables, all baked up into one glorious masterpiece of flavor. While lasagna was born in Italy, a familiar hot slice of this cheesy, rich comfort food makes it one of the most commonly craved Italian dishes in homes, and restaurants all around the world.
As a child, I was totally addicted to lasagna, and it was a regular dish served on Easter, Christmas Day, and as a special birthday dinner. In between those special occasions, as an adult, it was always my main entrée selection at specific Italian restaurants, who I knew made an outstanding version of this Italian classic, and in my opinion, there were very few restaurants who could accomplish this feat. My first introduction to learning how to prepare, and master an outstanding lasagna was by watching my Aunt Fanny, who besides my father, was one of the first great influences in my life with perfecting my cooking skills. Staying true to our Napolitano decent, her Lasagna Napoletana included layers of curly lasagna noodles, gravy (again, not sauce, gravy!), ricotta cheese, mozzarella, grated cheese, and these tiny meatballs, which were the size of a marble. As tedious as it was to make those tiny meatballs, Aunt Fanny never faltered from putting every ounce of love, and perfection into her lasagna. And as a child, to a teenager to a young adult to a grown up, you couldn’t wait to cut into Aunt Fanny’s lasagna to find those delicious tiny meatballs. A Sunday morning lesson at Aunt Fanny’s always included her masterpiece of a Sunday gravy. Her gravy, more often than not, always included meatballs, Italian sausage, pork, braciole pelle di maiale (pig skin braciole), and beef braciole, which is pretty much what mine is today, with a bit of a variation, and absolutely, no braciole pelle di maiale…only because my children, and grandchildren won’t eat it, and it’s not at the top of the health conscious favorite food list.
Another great cooking influence in my life is Nanny Angie. Honestly, she is, by far, the most talented cook I know. I have watched this woman for over 40 years, turn out food from the smallest to the largest of kitchens that made your mouth salivate just watching it being placed on the table to your mouth humming with absolute pleasure while you ate her food. You walk away from her table completely intoxicated from the experience, and with a belly so satisfied. If I learned anything from Nanny, cooking was about pleasing people. A lot of love is a must, and it will always come through in your food. Presentation was crucial, and sitting back, watching people eat your food with complete, and utter enjoyment would be your reward. She taught me cooking was a labor of love, which took planning, creativity, patience, and precision. Amongst her many masterpiece dishes, her lasagna was right at the top of my all-time favorites. For Nanny, lasagna wasn’t a regular everyday dish, it was saved for holidays, and special occasions. Her lasagna wasn’t much different than Aunt Fanny’s, with the exception that hers did not include any meat. Exact and pure precision went into the amount of ricotta cheese, mozzarella, and grated cheese that was used in her lasagna. You can easily overdo it with the cheese, which would create a runny, cheesy mess on your plate but not Nanny’s…perfection every time. Her lasagna took time, patience, and precision with each layer. It’s hard to describe what it was like watching her make this masterpiece, and the only words that come to mind…it was an artistic creation being prepared right before your eyes. There was a rhythm, a glow, and a sense of pride surrounding her with everything she cooked. Cooking is truly an art, and you have to love it, and have a complete passion for cooking to turn out mouthwatering, and tasteful delicacies, such as Nanny Angie’s lasagna.
Passing on family traditions is so important to me, and I must admit, with great pride, over the years, my daughter must have been paying attention to the preparation, and skills that went into making a lasagna because she too has mastered the art of making a perfect dish of lasagna. My only hope is that she continues to pay attention, and for as long as I am able, I will continue to teach my granddaughters, too. Cooking together in the kitchen, as a family, and sharing family recipes, along with secrets passed from one generation to the next. may be a lost art for some but not in this Nana’s kitchen.
One of the positive side effects from the labor of making the meatballs, frying the gravy meat, stirring the gravy, and layering the intoxicating goodness of the lasagna noodles, the cheeses, and the gravy on top of each other is the guaranteed knowledge of knowing…there will always be leftovers!
As I have stated many times, it’s extremely hard for me to recite or write my recipes down on paper. I learned from the best of them, and exact measurements were rarely used. I can do all of the recipes below by osmosis but in the spirit of giving back, I have done my best to capture all of the steps, and I hope you enjoy all of them.
Lastly, when in the kitchen, always remember Julia Childs words, “Cooking is one failure after another, and that’s how you finally learn…no one is born a great cook, one learns by doing.”
- 5 cups gravy (Nana’s Sunday Pot of Love, recipe below)
- 1 (32 oz.) container whole milk Polly~O Ricotta Cheese
- 1 cup grated Locatelli Pecorino Romano cheese (my preference but if you prefer, you can use Parmigiano-Reggiano)
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley
- 2 eggs
- 1 box lasagna (15 sheets, cooked al dente) *see note below
- 4 1/2 cups shredded Polly~O Mozzarella Cheese
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine ricotta, 3/4 cup Pecorino Romano cheese, and parsley in a bowl. Season, to taste, with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Add the eggs and mix all together.
Spread 1/2 cup gravy over bottom of 13 by 9 inch baking dish. Place 5 lasagna sheets over gravy, overlapping to fit. Spread half of ricotta mixture evenly over the sheets. Sprinkle 2 cups of mozzarella cheese evenly over ricotta mixture. Then, spoon 1 1/2 cups of gravy over cheese, spreading with spatula to cover. Repeat layering with remaining lasagna sheets, ricotta mixture, 2 cups mozzarella and 1 1/2 cups gravy. Once you have arranged remaining 5 sheets, top with remaining gravy, 1/2 cup of mozzarella, and 1/4 cup Pecorino Romano cheese.
Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil, and bake for about 40 minutes. Uncover, then bake until hot, and bubbly, about 20 minutes. Let the lasagna stand 15 minutes before serving.
Note: A trick to keep the lasagna sheets from sticking to each other, add a little olive oil to the boiling pot of salted water, and once drained, run them under cold water, and carefully hang over the side of a colander or a pot, without touching each other completely. Another quick option is to use the No Boil lasagna sheets, which also produces a perfect lasagna, and saves a lot of time. Barilla puts out a good quality No Boil lasagna.
Nana’s Sunday Pot of Love (Gravy)
- 1 1/2 lbs. Italian sausage (sweet or hot or combination of both)
- 10 – 12 pork spare ribs (small but meaty)
- Bunch of fresh basil (stems removed)
- 1 onion (peeled and cut in half)
- 2 -3 (35 oz. can) Scalfani Italian Whole Peeled Tomatoes (This is my preference. I find them to be the most consistent canned tomatoes but feel free to use your favorite.)
- 3 (28 oz. can) Scalfani Crushed Tomatoes
- 1 (6 oz. can) Scalfani Tomato Paste
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
- Olive oil (enough for frying)
- Sugar (handful)
Season both sides of pork spare ribs with kosher salt, and freshly ground pepper. Heat oil, over medium heat, in an 8 quart Dutch oven or heavy pot. Add pork spare ribs, and fry until there is a nice sear on all sides. Remove from pot, and set aside. In same pan, brown Italian sausage until they are just cooked through (approx. 15 min). Remove from pot, and set aside. Add additional oil, if needed. Prepare meatballs (recipe below), and fry meatballs, in batches (do not overcrowd) until cooked all the way through. Add onion, and brown. Drain off excess oil. Do not wash pot. Reduce heat to low, and add all meat (pork, sausage, and meatballs) back into the pot.
Pulse whole peeled tomatoes in blender for a 5 second count, and add to the pot. Add crushed tomatoes, and tomato paste. Take one empty can of crushed tomatoes, fill it to the top with water, and transfer back, and forth between all cans of tomatoes, including tomato paste. Add water to the pot of gravy, and stir.
Add a bunch of basil leaves (handful, not chopped). Add a handful of sugar, and season with kosher salt, to taste. Stir and simmer on low heat for 3 hours.
Note: Keep in mind, you will need extra gravy for the lasagna. A thought to take into consideration when thinking about how many cans of tomatoes you will need or use.
Pork Spare Ribs
Scalfani Whole Peeled Tomatoes
- 1 1/2 lbs. ground meat (combination of pork, veal and beef)
- 1 egg
- 3 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 6 – 8 large slices of Terranova bread, crust removed and cubed (2 day old bread)
- Milk (enough to coat bread)
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
- 1/4 cup chopped Italian flat leaf parsley
- 2 large handfuls of Pecorino Romano grated cheese
Place cubed terranova bread in a large bowl, and cover with milk (don’t overdo the milk). Let bread soak for approx. 15 min. Squeeze out bread, and drain off excess milk. Add ground meat, egg, finely minced garlic, parsley, cheese, kosher salt (approx. 1 tsp.), and freshly ground pepper. Mix altogether until well incorporated. To form consistent sized meatballs, I use an ice cream scooper. Roll each scoop into a ball, and fry, as noted above.
Note: The meatball mixture should be a tight consistency, otherwise, the meatballs will fall apart in the gravy, and that’s an Italian cook’s worst nightmare!
Nana’s Sunday Pot of Love