Monday, September 10, 2007

Italian Cooking

I was recently in a discussion with someone and the subject of cooking came up. Lasagna was mentioned, and she mentioned how simple and easy it was to make. I just looked at her. Then I commented that she obviously didn't make it from scratch. She insisted that she did....using store bought noodles, jarred sauce, a container of ricotta cheese, Kraft shredded mozzarella cheese and ground beef.


That is NOT how you make lasagna. It's a 2 day affair to make it the right way, and I even cheat a little.

I was the first grandchild for my italian grandparents, so I was also the first one to graduate from high school. My mom went to my grandparents' house a couple of weeks before graduation to help my grandma make lasagna for my "big event". Grandma, naturally, had done a lot of stuff the day before, so that day it was basically just grating and putting it all together. Mom also helped Grandma when my brother graduated, and by then everyone just expected there to be homemade lasagna at his party. When my oldest cousin was ready to graduate, I decided to go up to Grandma's and help make it. It was the least I could do. WHAT A CHORE! I just hope Davene (my cousin) appreciated it!

Anyway...on the first day you make homemade sauce. After the sauce is going, you make meatballs and let them cook in the sauce. While that is going on, you hard boil some eggs. Yes, you read that right...hard boiled eggs. That's the "secret ingredient" in my Grandma's lasagna.
To make things a little easier on yourself, you can do a little more on the first day, like take the big hunk of mozzarella cheese that you got at the deli and shred it, using a grater. You can also take the hunk of parmesan and do the same thing. At the end of the day, you take the meatballs out of the sauce and refrigerate them, along with the hard boiled eggs, and the sauce. Of course the cheese needs to be in the fridge too.

On the second day you get the meatballs out of the refrigerator and grate them with the grater. If you use a food processor, they can come out too fine, but if that's how you like it, then go for it.

While you have the grater out, peel and grate the hard boiled eggs. I use about six for one tray of lasagna.

After that you either make the noodles or boil the store bought ones. I use store bought because I don't have enough confidence in myself to make my own yet, although I do have a pasta machine and may give it a try someday. Grandma made her own, but that's a post for another day.

Once the noodles are cooked, you drain them, then dry them thoroughly with paper towels. They can't be wet at all.

Then you set up your assembly line.

I used to do this at my dining room table in our old house, but now I can do it in my kitchen because I have more counter space.

You start with sauce on the bottom of the pan. Then put down a layer of noodles. Add a little more sauce, spreading it with the back of the ladle. The meat goes on next, spreading it around, but not too thick. You should still be able to see the noodles. After that, sprinkle just a little bit of the hard boiled egg. (Believe me, you can't detect the taste of egg in this lasagna. I have no idea why you can't taste it, but you can't....and one time I made it without the egg and it just didn't taste the same.) The next step is to add mozzarella, then parmesan. On top of that, you put a little more sauce.

Then you start over.


And repeat.

(There's NO ricotta cheese in the lasagna I learned to make.)

Do as many layers as your pan will hold, finishing up with a layer of noodles and sauce. When it's all finished, I add a little extra sauce to the corners (per Grandma's orders) so that they don't dry out.

When I make lasagna, I usually prepare enough "stuff" to make at least three trays. I'm NOT going to go through all that for just one.

When I freeze it, and it freezes well, I wrap it all up in plastic wrap, then put foil on top of that, and then wrap it with the white freezer wrap. It'll stay for ages that way in the freezer. I've kept one tray as long as a year in the freezer and it came out just fine.

It's time consuming and really messy, but it's so worth it in the end. The first year that I hosted Christmas I was pregnant with Joey (almost 21 years ago!) and I made lasagna. My mom came and helped me. We did it about a week before and then froze it. Of course on December 23 I went into a panic and worried that I didn't have enough, so I made more sauce, more meatballs, and another tray of lasagna. On Christmas Day when we all sat down to eat, I announced that I was fixing a steak for myself. I was NOT in the mood to even LOOK at anything italian by that point! (As a little side note, I had MORE than enough and we had lasagna coming out of our ears for the next month! Also...and this is a biggie....GRANDMA APPROVED OF THE LASAGNA! I was so freaking proud of myself!)
This is my Grandma when she was in the nursing home. We would go up and visit her as often as we could and she just loved seeing Joey and Alex. This picture was taken around December of 1993, two years before she passed away. Fortunately both boys remember her, and they brought her so much joy.

So if you have nothing to do and have a real craving for lasagna, go for it! It will make you appreciate italian food even more than you already do!