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February 11, 2012

A Complicated Bolognese and a Stunning Lasagna

Back when I lived in civilization I used to make a lasagna which took about six hours to create - this included making the sauce, the pasta, and baking it. At the time the only thing I didn't make was the sausage...and even at the time I thought I could, given the chance.

It all started with bacon that I grew, butchered, and smoked. in my yard. 

Now that I have the chance, not only did I make the sausage - I even grew the pork and butchered it in my yard! I gotta say I'm pretty excited about that. I'll make this again in the spring, when the goats are in milk, and the only thing that won't come from my yard is the wine, a few of the spices, and the wheat for the pasta. But give me time, friends, give me time.

Most of the recipes I post are trying to show how easy it is to make your own food. But if you have a couple of cold days, and the inclination, you can make a complicated bolognese sauce for a stunning lasagna made entirely from scratch.
The battuto gaining flavor.

The bolognese ragu (meat sauce) recipe I have came from someone's old Italian nonna.The instructions are inexact (use "some" of this or "enough" of that) and cover an entire typed page - its more art than science.  But here is a good starting point.  Although I don't support Sunset magazine anymore I do refer to this recipe.  For the pasta, as with all things Italian I start with Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.  I also use her method for cooking the béchamel sauce and assembling the lasagna. Technically you can make this in several hours.

But if you really want to immerse yourself in slow food... do it like this...I stumbled across this site while I was searching for links for this post - can't you just fall into these pictures? See how he says that it takes 3 or 4 hours (at least) of simmering to make the sauce?  That's how to get 'er done. However, I cringed when he used canned tomatoes. Heaven forbid! Can your own, friend.

Marcella and I diverged from these instructions on one just one point - she and I add the milk to the meat and aromatics first...then the wine, tomatoes and such.  What's the difference? In "our" method you cook down the milk until its mostly evaporated and then add the wine so there is less of a milk base. I've done it both ways and for whatever reason I like this way better. But everyone's nonna has an opinion, I'm sure.

I actually made the sauce the day before and let it chill in the fridge overnight.  It must have cooked for about 5 hours until it was rich and hearty.  When I was ready to start working on the pasta I just put the sauce over gentle heat until it simmered.

I don't need no pasta maker (you know who you are).

One of the things I like best about Marcella's book is her stubborn (and correct!) adherence to doing things the old school way. She says in no uncertain terms that using the new whizbang gadgets will not produce the same results as just using your hands and the simplest of tools. Although she begrudgingly provides the instructions for using a pasta machine, there is only one way to make pasta for her and I. We go at homemade pasta mano y mano.. with a rolling pin and a knife.

Lasagna noodles waiting for the pot.

Buying a box of pasta is easy and cheap - but making your own lasagna noodles is a snap and I think my cost of goods was about $0.10. The eggs from the hens were on my counter and I didn't need much flour. There were no real measurements for Marcella's pasta - she says that how much flour and eggs you use depends on things like humidity and the size of the eggs. I used about a cup and a half of flour and 2 good sized eggs and one small pullet egg. The dough was smooth and yellow and beautiful. Did I use semolina? Nope just regular old all purpose flour.

The odds and ends became fettuccine for a quick snack.

Once the pasta was cut, cooked, rinsed, and ready I started assembling the lasagna. Unlike some instructions, Marcella says to butter the bottom of the pan and start with a layer of béchamel sauce, not tomato or meat sauce. And then you just build up the layers. I finished with the béchamel over the top of the noodles and then dotted with some basil I had in the freezer. Then heavily dusted with some of my grated goat cheese and into a hot (400*) oven. About 20 minutes later it was bubbling, browned, and stunning.

Is it worth it to spend two days making one meal? Couldn't I have just grabbed a Stouffer's frozen lasagna? Or just purchased all the ingredients at the store and thrown it together in about 15 minutes? Sure I would have saved time. But what is it worth to taste and enjoy a tradition? What about the value of experiencing what our grandmothers did for us? Wouldn't you love to connect with past generations even if its over one meal?

Most folks are so far removed from their food and their traditions that sometimes you just have to stop and smell the bolognese. Make food with your hands. Remember the effort and work it took to get that food. Breath in the heady smells of summer from that jar of tomatoes and that basil. Retrace all of your steps and all of the effort for making that pork sausage, starting with the day you went and got those feeder piglets. Enjoy being part of the process to make food.

Or you could just go to Olive Garden. But then after a mediocre meal you'd wonder what all the fuss is about and ask yourself, "Who on earth would waste all that time making something from scratch?"

Friends, sometimes you just have to live the traditions to fully appreciate life.