February 14, 2009

From The Italian Country Table: Home Cooking from Italy's Farmhouse Kitchens by Lynne Rossetto Kasper (Scribner, 1999). Copyright 1999 by Lynne Rossetto Kasper.

Serves 6 to 8 as a main dish; 10 as a first course.

Mention lasagne to most southerners and their eyes glaze over with memories of Nonna, Madonna-like in her goodness, working under a shining halo, stretching golden sheets of pasta sheer enough to read a newspaper through. Only her hands could fashion the perfect lasagne. Nearly as many versions of lasagne exist as there are nonnas. Each signaled an occasion.

Lasagne was not everyday food. In Emilia-Romagna it marked the birth of a girl. In Puglia's city of Bari, lasagne rounded out Christmas reveling, appearing on December 26, the feast of San Stefano. Special company and weddings brought lasagne to the table in Marche. An old saying is, "swimming in lasagne" is to be in the money.

Cook to Cook: Find sweet, creamy ricotta in Italian groceries, cheese shops, specialty foods stores, and some supermarkets. Tomato sauce holds well in the refrigerator up to three days.

Wine Suggestion: A southern Italian red like Corvo, Montepulciano Cerasuolo or Cannonau

Tomato Sauce:

    • 3 tightly-packed tablespoons each fresh basil and parsley leaves
    • 1 teaspoon fresh oregano leaves
    • 2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
    • 2 tablespoons fruity extra-virgin olive oil
    • 2 large cloves garlic, minced
    • 1 pint basket (3/4 pound) flavorful cherry tomatoes, halved
    • 1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes
    • 1/2 cup water
    • Pinch of sugar
    • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
    • 1/8 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
  • 1 cup (4 ounces) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Cheese and Pasta:

  • 1-3/4 to 2 pounds high-quality creamy ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 pound fresh mozzarella cheese, shredded
  • 8 scallions, trimmed of root ends
  • 2 tightly-packed tablespoons fresh basil leaves
  • 1 tightly-packed tablespoon fresh Italian parsley leaves
  • 1 teaspoon fresh oregano leaves
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 medium to large onion, cut into vertical strips about 1/4 inch wide
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 pound dried lasagne pasta
  • 6 quarts boiling salted water

1. Prepare the tomato sauce by mincing together the herbs and chopped onions. Heat the oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté the onions and herbs to golden brown. Add the garlic and cook a few seconds, then stir in the cherry tomatoes and the canned ones with their juices, crushing them with your hands as they go into the pan. Boil, uncovered, over high heat until thick, stirring often. Add the water and cook a few moments more. Stir in the sugar and season with salt and black pepper to taste and the red pepper flakes. Cool briefly, then pass the sauce through a food mill or puree in a processor or blender. Cover and set aside.

2. Holding back 2 tablespoons of the Parmigiano, blend the cheeses in a bowl. Mince together the scallions, basil, parsley, oregano, and garlic. Stir into the cheeses, seasoning to taste with salt and pepper.

3. Toss the onion strips with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. Heat a sauté pan over high and sauté the onion until brown but still crisp. Turn out of the pan.

4. Cook the pasta in fiercely boiling water, stirring often, until barely al dente (it should be underdone); drain in a colander. Hold in a bold of cold water.

5. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Oil a shallow 2-1/2-quart baking dish. Drain the pasta and pat dry. Moisten the bottom of the dish with sauce. Cover with a single layer of pasta. Daub with one quarter of the cheese mixture and one quarter of the browned onions. Moisten with one sixth of the remainng sauce. Top with a layer of pasta and continue layering, topping the fifth layer of pasta with the remaining sauce. Cover lightly with foil.

6. Bake 40 minutes, or until heated through. Sprinkle with the reserved 2 tablespoons cheese. Let rest 10 minutes in the turned-off oven with its door open, then serve.