Okra Lasagne...Just Kidding!

Well, kidding about the okra in any case. We did, in fact, make a lasagne this weekend. I wouldn't have minded okra in it, but then, I am American and Freya says we don't know how to make lasagne.

Okay, I'll admit that what generally passes for Italian food in the US would probably go down the waste disposal in Italy, but cottage cheese and spinach are good in lasagne regardless. Besides, Freya isn't allowed a high horse as she grew up in a country obsessed with Spaghetti Bolognese. Actually, with what Brits try to pass off as Italian she doesn't even deserve to ride a pony. This isn't a criticism. I enjoy food of any kind, authentic or not.

The first lasagne Freya made for me was in Wisconsin at my parent's farm. It was her first visit to Door County and while she loved the idea of a pool table at the grocery store, she wasn't too keen on the absence of vegetarian mince. She was reduced to cooking with actual meat. This was difficult for her at the time as she was still flirting with vegetarianism. After letting her win at air hockey, we went back to the house to start cooking. When she started making a Béchamel sauce I was noticeably disgruntled. When I realised there wasn't any ricotta or cottage cheese involved I was suitably disconcerted. After observing that no Italian sausage had gone into the sauce I had to leave the kitchen.

The finished product was good, but not what I was used to. Not lasagna like mom used to make. I was used to the 1970's lasagna that every mother made. The kind that contained either more meat than most slaughterhouses can produce in a day or was completely vegetarian and contained more vegetables than a typical farmer's market. Which type you had was determined entirely by the cultural leanings of the month. Dad's jogging: veggie. It's gonna be a cold winter: meaty. Whichever form it took, it always had cottage cheese and was generally watery. But as a kid living in that decade, an era where we were told we'd be living in space by the year 2000 and when having a sunroof in your car meant your parents were "going places", this was the best meal ever!

So, I tried to make my American version for Freya eventually (In England). When I realised I couldn't get Italian sausage at Tesco I was noticeably disgruntled. When I realised I couldn't buy fluted lasagna pasta here I was suitably disconcerted. After Freya observed that no Béchamel sauce was being made, she had to leave the kitchen. The in-laws enjoyed my version, but they were clearly out of their element. I was officially banned from serving it at family functions after that.

After the first year or so of she and I playing duelling lasagna (lasagne), Freya made us a lasagne following the Anna Del Conte via Tamasin Day-Lewis recipe. What an enlightenment this was! The flavours were bold and complex, but in a way that seemed rustic and steeped in tradition. The rich meat sauce was sweet and savoury owing to the inclusion of carrots, celery, and milk in the early stages. Each layer was distinctive with a creaminess that we had previously found unobtainable.

I think a good lasagne should cut like a martial artists stack of boards. You know, you feel your fork (or knife if you're not American) go through the pasta and then move freely before hitting the next layer of pasta (If you made the crepe cake for the Daring Bakers last month, you know that feeling well.). The best way to achieve this is to make your own pasta. A good lasagne should also stay intact when you cut it, but not be dry or cloying. Very easy to get wrong, but great if done correctly, this is one the most sophisticated down home meals you can make. Once you've followed this recipe, you'll find it comforting in a very familiar way. You only get this feeling from wholesome food..........or ducky slippers.

Lasagne (Serves 1 of me or 6 of you)
Taken from Tamasin's Kitchen Bible
2-3 tbsp olive oil
1 knob butter
2 large onions, finely chopped
3 sticks celery, chopped
3 carrots, finely diced
3 or 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1kg/2lb ground beef chuck or similar, with plenty of fat. Substitute 1/3 quantity ground pork if you wish.
salt and fresh black pepper
2 bay leaves
240ml/8fl oz milk
1/4tsp nutmeg
240ml/8fl oz white wine
2 x 400g/14 oz tin plum tomatoes
1.2 litre/2 pints bechamel, made with bay leaf and nutmeg
2 boxes dried lasagne (not the kind that needs precooking) or preferably fresh home made pasta
freshly ground Parmesan cheese

Warm the oil and butter in a heavy cast-iron pot, add the onion, and saute gently until softened and translucent. Add the celery, carrots and garlic, cook for another couple of minutes, stirring to coat well. Add the ground beef and a large pinch of salt, and grind over some pepper. Stir until the beef has lost its raw pink look. Add the bay leaves and milk, and simmer gently for about 10 minutes, until the meat has absorbed most of the milk. Add the nutmeg, then the wine and let it simmer until it has nearly evaporated. Add the cut-up tomatoes with their juice and stir thoroughly. Cook at a lazy simmer,
mijoter, for 3 hours or more. Stir from time to time. The fat will eventually spearate from the sauce, but the sauce will not be dry. Taste and check the seasoning.
Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F. Pour just enough béchamel to cover the base of your greased baking dish. Add a layer of lasagne, followed by a layer of the ragu, a layer of
béchamel and a good handful of Parmesan. Continue with two or three more layers, until your sauces are both used up, add a final sprinkling of Parmesan, and bake in the oven for about 30 minutes. The dish should be bubbling all over, and the knife should slip easily through the layers.

And you might throw in some cottage cheese for old times sake.


Deborah said...

This looks fantastic!! I have an American-ized recipe that adds a bit of brown sugar - definitely not authentic Italian, but yummy nonetheless! I haven't made lasagne in such a long time -I may have to put this recipe on next week's menu.

vonsachsen said...

I´ll just echo Deborah, this really looks fantastic! And cottage cheese and spinach with tomato sauce is my favourite filling in a vegetarian lasagna. I enjoyed the introductory story US contra UK :)

T.W. Barritt said...

My mom had four boys -- she needed all the time she could get and we grew up on a time-saving frozen lasagna, which we thought was absolute gourmet dining! Later, she started to make it "from scratch" and I'm sure had comments from us like, "can't we have the frozen lasagna instead?" Fortunately, our palates have matured!

Callipygia said...

I was surprised to hear that Italians used ricotta not cottage cheese in lasagna- and floored to learn that bechamel sauce in certain regions replaced the ricotta. That is until I tried it- this recipe sounds great and I loved hearing about the dual-duel lasagna story.

Homesick Texan said...

Gorgeous! That sure isn't my mother's lasagna! I love the addition of the bechamel. I think I'll pass on the cottage cheese--what were we Americans thinking?

Nora B. said...

Thanks for sharing the story - I enjoy reading personal histories behind certain foods.

Shaun said...

Paul, mate - It is so great to see you in the kitchen, too! I have no recollection of what my mother served when she made lasagne in my childhood, but Eric and I have faithfully followed a Mario Batali recipe that never lets us down. I am keen to try a regional variation and use ricotta instead of bechamel. Your result is scrummy...mind serving up a plate for me, too?

Baking Soda said...

Great write-up, I'm on the bechamel side of the divide.. Cottage cheese? Hmm.

Paula said...

My house also has a bechamel/cottage cheese split. I was taught to make it with bechamel but was a late convert to the cottage cheese version a friend makes. Unfortunatly my boyfriend considers it sacrilage, but then he is of the yorkshire view that lasagne is a homage to meat, bechamel and cheese.
I'd never realised the cottage cheese idea was an american standard.

Kirsten said...

This had me laughing out loud!! Thanks for sharing your funny stories with us all. :)

I think lasagna of any kind is great.

MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

I can be there shortly for my serving if you can keep it warm for just a bit.
Beautiful and great writing!

Elle said...

Love the writing...dueling lasagna/lasagne. The recipe shown must make a fantastic dish. I'd add the cottage cheese, but then I grew up with the Americanized version.

Kathryn said...

I don't think I've had the American version, but I do love different kinds of lasagne. That one is making me want lasagne for dinner, which isn't going to happen as we're being cooked for! I usually make lasagne in the cold months only, but it feels tempting all of a sudden...

Little Foodie said...

Never had the American Version so wouldn't be right to take sides.
Is fluted lasagna bumpy, like waves? If so, Waitrose have started doing it like that. Now before you think I'm completely mad I'll leave it at that.
Thank you for the link too.

Passionate Eater said...

Haha, I like your header! I was gonna say, you've really been learning how to make okra lately!

Also, that is so interesting that you add celery to your lasagna. I'd love to try this recipe sometime. It looks delicious!

Kate said...

Wait a minute.....ONE of you?? That dish would feed ONE of you!? Tell me you jest.

A good lasagna is a thing of beauty, and well worth the effort to make. I haven't done one recently to even think of bragging on. Shame on me.

Michele said...

You do understand that this is a recipe for lasagne bolognese...?

Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

Nice blog! Those lasagna look wonderful and tasty...

joey said...

My mom didn't put bechamel or cottage cheese! I missed out! This recipe sounds fantastic..."comforting in a very familiar way" --> I felt that way just reading through it :)

Susan said...

Ragu's a wonderfully easy way to enrich flavor in a sauce. I just love it. My husband and I haven't made our respective lasagnas for each other yet. After four years, what are we waiting for? I suspect a domestic debate akin to yours.

BTW, after seeing your greyhound link, I realize I probably owe your dear Coney an apology. Despite her particularly delicate and diminutive features, I suspect she's a greyhound rather than a whippet.

Freya and Paul said...

I've never seen a recipe with brown sugar, but Freya always adds a lot of sugar to any tomato sauce she makes. Not enough for her is always too much for me. I blame the absence of a sugar bowl on the childhood dining table for that!
I love that combination as well, but the only way I can make it fly nowadays is to serve it rolled up like canneloni or inside a crepe. I also throw in some toasted pine nuts and cover it with Freya's tomato sauce with malt vinegar.
T.W. Barritt,
Was that the Prego frozen Lasagna? I had that once and sadly admit it was pretty good. It was a Sam's Club deal I couldn't pass up. Unfortunately, they don't add the love like mom does.
I used to add ricotta instead of cottage cheese, but found it very hard to work with. I started using a piping bag and that helped, but the best was always draining and rinsing small curd cottage cheese and sprinkling it between the layers.
The first year Freya and I were together, we had a full scale cultural war on our hands. Lasagna was only the first battle.
Homesick Texan,
The bechamel does make it creamy, but before you pass judgement on cottage cheese, remember, the French have been passing the croissant off as their own since stealing it from the Austrians centuries ago. Corrupting food isn't merely an American passtime.
Nora B.,
Food that doesn't conjure up memories is hardly worth eating. That's why I have peanut butter on toast for breakfast every day. AND it's the only food I HATE sharing with the dogs.
Thanks for commenting and for the E-mail. I'll respond to that as well.
I used to watch Molto Mario when I lived in the US, but he's only had one show on over here and that was very short-lived. I think he's great, but Freya calls him "smarmy". I think she had to rethink her stance though after he appeared on Bourdain as an endorcement from him is like a cannonisation!
Anytime you want a meal we'll be happy to serve the two of you. Phone first though, the house is a tip!
Baking Soda,
I like either, but I'd eat gum from under a bus stop bench. I think I have Pica!
I agree with him on the meat and cheese. I don't really enjoy vegetarian lasagna and I'm not a huge carnivore. Okay, I am, but I really enjoy vegetarian food if it's done well. Curiously, this is usually food that isn't intentionally vegetarian. But yes, I challenge you to find many Americans who don't think cottage cheese is fundamental.
I am a funny guy. The stories are the only thing that keep Freya around. That and my salsa.
It's all gone! It lasted about ten minutes. The in-laws are big eaters you see.
Hooray for the cottage cheese! Just for the record, the writing I do isn't at the kitchen table. I write in a small corner of the basement surrounded by my collection of Resident Evil action figures (becoming rare by the way).
It can still be a summer dish if, like us, you eat it outside with a nice salad. Oh, and since you haven't discovered it yet, I have a secret about Nero. That's all I'm saying about that.
Little Foodie,
I know the pasta you refer to as I've bought it at Waitrose before myself, but that is not at all like American lasagna noodles. You would have to look up a picture of them online to know because I can't describe the shape, but anyone who has seen them will know exactly what I mean.
Passionate Eater,
I enjoy a good running joke and okra seemed to fit the bill. There is a large contingency of Brits who don't like celery. I can't figure it out. They complain about the stringiness, but I think that's part of the charm.
Yes, I'm going to have to curtail my cravings or invest in some bigger clothes. Are men allowed muffin tops?
Yeah, I don't know. I have never seen a definitive recipe for bolognese. Is there one?
Rosa's Yummy Yums,
That isn't very easy to type, but fun to say. Maybe I'll ctrl+c and ctrl+v next time.
Glad you're enjoying your visit.
The last one! Finally. Not that I don't enjoy responding, but you know, a guy can't be witty continuously. I do try though.
I love food that evokes memories of simple times. Of course, the times themselves weren't actually simpler, but the memories aren't tainted by adult pursuits. Well, maybe these days they are. I saw a kid walking down the street this morning with a phone stuck to his ear. He couldn't have been more than 7 years old. Bring back Toughskins and mom making your clothes is what I say. I feel so old, but feeling old is second best to being very young.

How many comments was that?
I'm going to have to go back to my angry style of posting so that I can alienate some readers.
I know I said I wasn't going to respond to comments in my usual fashion until after the court case was settled, but at the rate that's going you'd all be waiting a long time.
The bank hasn't been playing by the rules, but that's to be expected. They are now overtly trying to intimidate us into dropping our case against them. I know they will never show up in a courtroom, but I sincerely wish they would. I have a growing list of complaints against them and will spend this weekend writing to my MP, the Office of Fair Trading, the Financial Ombudsman, and Watchdog. If I end up living on the street with nothing but the clothes on my back it will be worth it to end the tyranny of an evil financial institution over the defenceless consumer.

tigerfish said...

I do not mind being Garfield for a day!, though I'm more of a doggie-lover ;p

Patricia Scarpin said...

Lasagna is so big here in São Paulo (a city packed with Italian descendants, I might add). I love it, Freya - I just hope you left a bit for me. :)

Culinary Cowgirl said...

Okay Paul, I am completely on your side. I miss American-style lasagne. While I agree that a lot of American Italian food is not "authentic Italian", it certainly is good. But hey, a lot of British Indian food is not "authentic Indian".

Thanks for the laugh. And your recipe looks great...will have to try.

Chubbypanda said...

Perfect. Particularly since Cat grew up with the same type of lasagne you did. This recipe might actually satisfy both of us.

valentinA said...

You made your own pasta sheets? Wow, I really admire you! I'd never have the courage to make my own.
Your lasagna looks so good!!

Kelly-Jane said...

I love lasagne, I've tried a lot, but never found the ultimate one. Will have to try Tamasin's one, looks yummy :)

Cheryl said...

Oh I haven't had lasagna in so long. Your version looks so good. I've never been very good at making it.

Joyce said...

Don't want you to think I'm being a copy cat. Just invited a gang in for the last 'italian' dinner before the heat and humidity takes over in Florida.
Lasagna is on the menu. Layered with both ricotta(I'm making my own) and a pork/beef ragu...hadn't planned to post about it, but now I feel I'm certainly tempted.
Your tale is fabulous. Have to admit, I've never had lasagna with cottage cheese - that seems so American. But bechamel is so authentically Italian...you go Freya!

eliza said...

what a journey to make good, wholesome lasagna! i'm thinking of buying pasta maker just so i could make better lasagna :D

Cynthia said...

I can't remember the last time I had lasagne and your looks sinfully delicious. I love the idea of putting okras in it (especially since it's one of my favourite vegetables).

Thanks again for stopping by my blog.

MeltingWok said...

Guys, what is the ETA for my cookies, puddings, cakes, and pies..wait, throw in some Paul's chinese dumplings too *waving !* :)
Have a great weekend, you two, don't over eat 'k ? hehe.

evan said...

lovely lasagne, its my favorite =)

Vani said...

Loved reading your lasagna story(ies). I thought it was funny :) I love food that tastes good, whether authentic or not!

Love the pic of your beautiful dog with his/her duck toy. Adorable!

Anonymous said...

WHAT!! Yum! its bad to look at food when its dinner time


Chris said...

Okay - so behind in my blog reading! This looks yummy....I just made some last week, but i doesn't look nearly as tasty.

JennDZ said...

The thing I love about Lasagne is that it is so versatile and you can pretty much put whatever you want into it. The best lasagne I ever tasted was so good because the Parmesean and Mozzarella Cheeses were of VERY GOOD quality...and it was made by my fiancee, which is always nice.
I think the simpler the better - and I grew up on Ricotta lasagne - I can't say I ever had cottage cheese in any I ever tried - but I don't see why it wouldn't work!

Great story telling as well! ;)

Katie said...

I've made with bechamel and without, with ricotta, with cottage cheese, with yogurt, with beef, turkey, sausage and smoked salmon (not all at once)....I'm so confused I couldn't even give you a recipe. We always eat it all, though!

TsaChu said...

You can fill lasagna with whatever you like but then, please do not call it lasagna anymore but "pastiche" or whatever.
If you have the pretention to prepare the lasagna then you should stick to the real ingredients: RICOTTA (south of Italy) or BESCIAMELLA (north of Italy, RAGU') which is very long and slowly cooked beef meet with tomatoes, and parmigiano.
Cottage cheese is a foreigner in our kitchen, that just appeared on our tables in the last decade and never with pasta!

I had ping and needles on my skin reading about salmon, yoghurt etc...
Congratulation for the nice blog.

Italian Woman