Lasagna has been featured at so many potluck dinners in so many awful variations that it's lost respect. But when properly prepared, it is a taste delight.
Here is a proper lasagna as found in northern Italy. It's not the cheesy variation found in the south but a highly sophisticated pasta dish. (If you want a cheesier version, add sliced fontina or mozzarella in between the layers.)
It's an easy recipe, but there are a lot of steps. You can make much faster versions using bottled sauces and ricotta, but this one is light-years ahead. (I'm ashamed to say that four of us ate the whole lasagna, which actually feeds 8 to 10.)
The sauce recipes can also be used separately. The meat sauce, which freezes well, is great with spaghetti, and the béchamel makes a great side dish when mixed with cooked vegetables and topped with cheese and breadcrumbs.
For the meat sauce, I like a mixture of veal and pork, but you can use all veal. My picks for tomatoes are either San Marzano Italian tomatoes or organic ones. Remember, this is a meat sauce not a tomato sauce with meat.
The first step in putting the dish together is deciding what noodles to use.
My preference is dried noodles, either the instant kind or the regular. (Even the instant kind should be boiled for about 1 minute before using.)
If you use fresh, buy the thinnest you can find. Since lasagna noodles come in many different sizes, the amount you will need will vary.
Servings: 8 to 10
2 796-millilitre cans of tomatoes
¼ cup olive oil
2 ounces pancetta, chopped
2 cups chopped onion
½ cup finely chopped carrots
½ cup chopped celery
2 teaspoons chopped fresh garlic
¼ cup chopped Italian parsley
1 pound ground veal
1 pound ground pork
Salt and freshly ground pepper
½ cup white wine
2 cups beef stock
2 tablespoons tomato paste
½ cup butter
½ cup flour
6 cups milk
1 bay leaf
Salt and freshly ground pepper
14 lasagna noodles (approximately)
1 recipe béchamel sauce
1 recipe meat sauce
2 cups grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
Chop tomatoes and reserve. (Juices can be saved for another recipe.)
Heat oil in a large sauté pan over medium-low heat. Add pancetta and sauté for 1 minute.
Add onions, carrots and celery and cook gently for 10 minutes or until vegetables are very soft and begin to brown. Stir in garlic and parsley and cook for 3 minutes more.
Increase heat to medium. Add veal and pork, stirring to break up clumps of ground meat. Sauté until meat loses its pinkness, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Add wine and boil until wine is mostly evaporated and mixture is saucy, about 4 minutes. Stir in stock, tomato paste and reserved tomatoes.
Bring to boil, reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer for 1½ hours, then remove the lid and turn heat up to medium-low. Sauce should be thick and very tasty.
Simmer gently for a few minutes if it is too thin. Reseason if needed. Makes about 9 cups of sauce.
Heat butter over medium heat in a heavy pot. When butter has melted whisk in flour and cook for 1 minute or until flour is cooked, being careful not to brown the flour.
Remove from heat and slowly whisk in milk.
Add bay leaf, return to heat and bring to boil, stirring. Season well with salt and pepper and a pinch of nutmeg. Makes about 6 cups.
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.
Slip in noodles and bring back to boil. Boil according to package directions, usually about 10 minutes. Drain noodles and, using tongs, place them in a single layer on a tea towel or parchment paper.
Butter or oil a 9-by-13-inch ovenproof gratin dish.
Spread a thin layer of béchamel sauce on the base.
Divide remaining béchamel sauce and meat sauce into 3 portions.
Cover the layer of béchamel with noodles. Top noodles with one third of béchamel sauce and one third of meat sauce. Sprinkle with ½ cup Parmesan cheese.
Repeat layering twice, finishing with meat sauce. Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan and dot with butter.
Preheat oven to 400 F. Bake pasta in upper third of oven for 45 minutes or until a crust forms on top and the filling is bubbling. Cover loosely with foil for the last 10 minutes if lasagna is getting too dark.