Wednesday, February 09, 2011

My Mama's Lasagna

In no way was my mother Italian, nor my father. Mom's side was pure Irish and Dad's side, I have always referred to "Heinz 57", as in 57 varieties of ethnicity. Yes, that would be all American, and yes that would include my Dad's grandmother being 1/2 Cherokee indian, so I guess that nails the all American thing.  I am, however, Italian by marriage and spirit, and live in the heart of Piedmont Italy, so if you think this recipe isn't the real Italian deal, then think again. I've mentioned before in other posts that we grew up on my mom's delicious country farm food, like fried chicken, mashed potatoes and milk gravy, my father's absolute all time favorite meal, but I still remember distinctly the day we had spaghetti for the first time in our family. It was a revelation.  When this  lasagna recipe came into my mother's repertoire, suffice to say, it was much loved and oft requested for those special occasions, like birthday meals, graduations, etc. when Mom asked what we wanted her to make. 
Thanks to my dear sister in law Beverly, I now have the recipe to share with you. 
We visited with my brother Gerry and Bev, a couple of years ago and Beverly jumped up after a long working day and whipped this up in nothing flat. So many memories came flooding back from the days spent round the dinner table of my parents. Food does that doesn't it? It can transport you back to very specific places in time.  I have always aspired to making memorable meals and memorable times, thanks to my mother's tireless efforts. She had that pretty much covered. We always had a table set for our family of six, but there was always room for more and we always seemed to have someone either staying with us or coming over for a meal most of the time. I have often referred to my mother as running a boarding house with out the benefit of help or compensation. She did have a lot of admirers as she was a wonderful cook. We spent a lot of time around the dining room table discussing a vast array of subjects  with a vast array of people, lingering over pie and coffee with a bottomless cup. 
I have also, always admired Beverly since she came into our family. She is such an amazing woman, so accomplished at many things, her career, style, marriage and children, while being a gracious and elegant hostess as well. I stayed with Bev and my brother when they were first married and I was a teenager. I traveled, by myself, up from southern Illinois to Chicago on a cross country brother visit, while my parents were in the holy lands. It was quite a revelation in my transition from kid to adulthood in the dawning of the era through the teenaged wonder years of struggling to grow up and figure it all out. Not that you ever figure it all out, ever.  Anyway, Beverly, arrived home from work or school to pull out a cook book and whip together what seemed to me, a very sophisticated adults meal. I think it featured pineapple and chicken, with a touch of Galliano, if I remember correctly. It was such a far cry from my mothers simple and delicious style and just seemed so "ooo, la, la", that I felt inspired and thrilled to be entering the world of the adults on my own two feet. Over the years, I have always enjoyed and admired Beverly's personal style, her academic accomplishments and her fearless approach to cooking, trying something new and serving it up with casual elegance. That is pretty much how I view Beverly as well, a casually elegant, soft spoken southern belle that can deliver the goods on so many different levels.  She has and always will be, an inspiration to me and I am eternally grateful to have this recipe from my mother. Thanks Beverly and Happy Birthday too! 
I have also mentioned before when sharing my sister in law, Nancy, grandmother's ravioli recipe, that it rang true to authentic Piemontese.  Nancy's grandmother, Victoria Parola Denzio came from Turin, originally, before landing in southern Illinois. My Piemontese husband and in laws heartily approve of this lasagna when I make it. This recipe comes from the same era in time, from my childhood, if not from the same town of Herrin, Illinois, which looking back on now, I realize the large Italian community in our small town (roughly 10,000 people) were mostly northern Italians. Ooooh the salameats sausages!  I still hanker after their garlicky wonderfulness. My brother Gerry, reminded me of the Roncaglia's that lived in town and that he went to school with, but I had never made the connection, as Fabrizio's surname is the same, but the pronunciation is so different, that I never quite worked out that it was indeed the same. Ron-cag-lee-a, versus, Ron-call-ya. The evolution of names and traditional dishes due to immigration. This recipe is very typical of this area, although you would never find someone use a whole can of tomato paste, because, for one, they have a lighter hand with "conserva" or tomato paste and two, there are no cans of tomato paste. It comes in a handy tube like tooth paste and works really well for using a touch here and there when needed. They might go with a tablespoon of tomato paste and some passata, which is tomatoes that have been run through a food mill and not much else done to it. 
Do try this lasagna and make your own memorable meal. I think you will find it will be requested again and again. Try it for your own special Valentine's day celebration, especially if you're celebrating with friends. This makes a generous pan to share or savor over a few days. I think you'll find it disappears much quicker than you would think! 

Dora Ada's Lasagna
Yields 1- 9x13 pan / 8-12 servings

Ingredients

Meat sauce
1# (450g) ground beef
1 (150g) lg onion, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
6 sprigs parsley, chopped
1/4c oil
3 1/2c tomatoes, chopped, fresh or canned
1 small can tomato paste
1/2 c water
2 bay leaves
1tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper

Cheese sauce
4T butter
1 small onion, chopped fine
3T flour, plain
3/4c parmesan, grated
2c milk, skim or lower fat
2 egg yolks

1# (500g) lasagne noodles

Method 
Meat sauce
Saute the ground beef in a heavy sauce pan and drain off grease.  Remove the meat and set aside.  Add the oil to the pan and when it is hot, add the onion, and begin to saute the onion till it softens. Add the garlic and parsley saute until the onion is onion is translucent. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, bay leaves, salt and pepper, meat and water.
Simmer for 30 -45 minutes stirring occasionally.
Cheese sauce
Melt the butter and add the finely chopped onion till the onion softens and becomes translucent.
Add the flour and mix thoroughly.
Add the parmesan.
Gradually add the milk, whisking as you add the milk.
Continue cooking until the sauce thickens and is as thick as cream.
Beat the egg yolks lightly in a small bowl.
Add a small amount of hot sauce to warm, but not curdle the yolks.
Add the yolk and sauce back to the larger amount of sauce and cook over very low heat another ten minutes. If you have pans that hold the heat, you may not need to cook it that much longer. Seems like I remember my mom putting the sauce in a double bolier to insure that it didn't curdle. You just need to pay close attention to the sauce.

Cook the lasagne noodles 1/2 way in lightly salted water with a table spoon or 2 of oil to keep the noodles from sticking together.
Plunge the noodles into cold water as soon as you remove them. Remove them as you need them.
Heat your oven to 350*F
Grease your pan and add a small amount of red sauce to keep the first layer of noodle from sticking.
Layer noodles, meat sauce, cheese sauce for at least 3 layers of noodles, finishing with the cheese sauce.
Bake till bubbly and heated through, about 20 minutes.
Let rest for a few minutes before cutting into wedges and serve to an adoring crowd.
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