Forget the Ham and Turkey. Go Italian!
If you're like me, you probably cook and consume a lot of turkey and ham over the course of the holiday season. Most years I prepare several of each, depending on how many friends, relatives, and others tap us to cook. So by Christmas Day, I'm often ready to forget the ham and turkey and go Italian.
Now, I'm not talking about Christmas Eve and the “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” or “La Vigilia” as it's called in Italian. For that occasion, Italian-Americans load up on fish and seafood – at least seven courses of it, although some families do ten or twelve or more. Our family is not that much into fish. My sister once celebrated Christmas Eve with an Italian-American branch of the family and didn't know what to do with all that seafood. Besides, the whole “Seven Fishes” thing is an Italian-American tradition with loose Southern Italian roots. We are Italian-Canadian and our family roots are in the north, so...... Anyway, I'm talking about the menu for Natale, or Christmas Day.
Just as there is really no such thing as “Italian cuisine,” there really isn't a “traditional” Italian Christmas Day menu. That's because different regions have different traditions and you can either go straight regional in your choices or you can hop around all over Italy, picking and choosing your favorites. That said, one of my favorites at Christmas is lasagne.
I usually start my Italian Christmas dinner with an antipasto of some kind: crostini, bruschetta, some variety of salumi, etc. A nice red, white, and green Caprese salad looks appropriately festive on the Christmas table. If I'm really going all out, I'll serve the lasagne as a primo course and follow it with a secondo of some sort of meat dish, then top it off with a dolce, or dessert. But most of the time, the lasagne serves as the main course. And since I know almost nothing of moderation, I usually prepare more than one kind of lasagne. For non-meat-eaters I'll make either a four cheese lasagne or a vegetable lasagne that I picked up while assisting with cooking demos for one of those big national food magazines. But the star of the show is a traditional Northern Italian Lasagne alla Bolognese.
A few things before we begin: first, the most traditional form of this dish is actually Lasagne Verdi alla Bolognese. However, a lot of people aren't so much into adding boiled spinach to pasta dough to make it green, so I usually leave the “verdi” part out. Second, you don't have to go all purist and make the pasta for the lasagne from scratch. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. If you choose not to, there's nothing wrong with packaged dry pasta. But at least do yourself the favor of using a quality dried pasta like De Cecco or Barilla. And third, we are still talking about a Bolognese sauce here, not just the common American “meat sauce.” There's a big difference that you'll see as we develop the recipe. (BTW, I am all purist when it comes to pronunciation: “Bolognese” does not rhyme with “mayonnaise.” It's “boh-loh-NYAY-seh.” Even “boh-loh-NAY-suh” is close enough. But anything resembling “BOHL-uh-naze” is just wrong.)
Lasagne – any lasagne – is not all that complicated. It's mostly about the assembly. In this case, the dish is a little ingredient heavy. In addition to preparing the pasta, you're going to have to make two sauces; a besciamella, or béchamel if you want to be all French about it, and the Bolognese. But bear with me; it will be worth the extra effort.
I'm going to start with the assumption that you're not going to make fresh pasta. That's okay. Here's what you'll need:
1 (1 lb) box of lasagne noodles
For the besciamella:
3 ½ tbsp flour
3 ½ tbsp butter
2 cups milk
salt and pepper, to taste
freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
For the Bolognese:
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
2 ribs celery, finely chopped
2 or 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 oz coarsely ground beef
4 oz coarsely ground pork
3 oz pancetta, finely chopped
½ cup dry red wine
2 ½ oz tomato paste
8 oz tomato sauce (optional)
1 cup milk
salt and pepper to taste
1 to 1 1/2 cups reserved pasta cooking water
For the final assembly:
olive oil, for greasing the pan
¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 tbsp butter
And here's what you do:
Start by cooking the pasta according to package directions. You can hold the cooked pasta on the side while you prepare everything else. And this is the only time it is okay to add a little olive oil to the cooked pasta to keep it from sticking together. Or you can prepare the sauces first and the pasta last. Whatever is easier for you.
For the Bolognese: In a large skillet or saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium-low heat and add all the finely minced vegetables. Cook until very soft, about 15 or 20 minutes. Don't allow them to brown; you can add in a tablespoon of the reserved pasta cooking water from time to time to prevent that.
Add the chopped pancetta and cook until soft. When the pancetta is very soft, add the ground pork and the ground beef to the pan. Cook over medium heat to render the fat and evaporate the water but avoid over browning the meat. You don't want it crumbling.
Pour in the wine and cook to allow the alcohol to evaporate. Then add the milk. Add in the tomato paste to give just a little color to the sauce. Real Bolognese is never, ever a "red sauce." That said, you can add a little tomato sauce to the mixture if you want it a little more "saucy." Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.
Transfer the sauce from the skillet to a deep, heavy bottomed pot. Pour in about a half a cup of pasta water and allow the sauce to simmer for about 2 hours, stirring regularly. You can skim the fat from the sauce as it cooks or, if you are making it ahead, wait until it cools and remove the fat after it solidifies.
For the besciamella: Begin by warming the milk over low heat. It should be hot but not boiling.
In a separate 2-qt. saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the flour and cook, whisking constantly for 2 to 3 minutes. Do not let the mixture brown. Slowly whisk in the hot milk and bring it just to a simmer, whisking frequently. Reduce the heat to low and cook, whisking often, until the sauce has thickened to a creamy, gravy-like consistency, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in the salt, pepper, and nutmeg, if using.
If you're not using the besciamella right away, transfer it to a bowl and press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the sauce to keep a skin from forming. Plan to use the sauce within 30 minutes because it thickens if it's left to sit for too long. If that should happen, add a little warm milk and whisk well to thin it.
Okay. Now you're ready for the assembly process. Everybody's got their own ideas about assembling lasagne; there's no real “right” way, I suppose. Just the way that's “right” for you. Here's the way we do it: Use a little olive oil to lightly grease the bottom of an ovenproof baking dish, usually a 9 x 13-inch that's at least 2.5 inches deep. I use a commercial-grade stainless steel half-hotel pan, but you can use glass, metal, or even those cheapy aluminum disposables. Just watch out for the disposables; it's really easy to poke or cut holes in the bottom.
I like to lay down a thin layer of the Bolognese sauce first to keep the pasta soft and to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Some people lay the pasta down first. Up to you. But you have to be consistent. If you do it my way, start with that thin layer of ragù, then lay down a layer of pasta. Put another layer of ragù on top of that and spread it around with the back of a spoon. Dab a little besciamella on top of the ragù, then add another layer of pasta. Repeat this layering process until you get the desired number of layers, at least 4 or 5. You should end with a layer of pasta. On top of this top layer of pasta, you want to swirl together some of the ragù and the besciamella. Top that with a generous amount of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and dot with butter.
Bake covered with foil in a preheated oven at 325° for about 20 minutes. Remove the cover and continue to bake for an additional 10 minutes, or until the top begins to bubble and brown.
For best results, allow the dish to rest for 10 or 15 minutes before attempting to cut.
A couple more quick notes: 1) I generally grind my own meat, but some supermarket meat departments will grind a custom blend of beef and pork for you. Some even carry it prepackaged that way. 2) Please, please, please stay away from the grated crap in a can that masquerades as “Parmesan” cheese. If you can't find or afford real Parmigiano-Reggiano, at least buy a block of domestic Parmesan cheese (BelGioioso and Sargento both make decent ones) and grate it yourself. 3) Lasagne is almost always better the next day. The flavors meld and blend beautifully over time. Make it the night before and let it sit in the refrigerator overnight. Or make it a few days in advance and freeze it.
There you have it. An Italian Christmas dinner. It's just the thing if you feel like you're about to sprout feathers or a curly tail.