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Friday, March 27, 2009

Lasagna with Homemade Spinach Pasta

First, let’s dispense with the obligatory statement:

The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

This month’s challenge was lasagna -- and not just any lasagna, lasagna with home-made noodles. And not just any noodles – spinach noodles! I was very excited by this challenge. Normally, when I make lasagna, I use the no-bake noodles, which I know purists cringe at, but actually taste perfectly fine. Plus, I am always on a tight schedule, so the time-saving aspect is indispensible. But, despite this, deep down in the recesses of my mind, I have always wanted to try home-made pasta. The closest I have ever come was some nice gorgonzola and walnut tortellini from the refrigerated section at Shop Rite.

For this challenge, our hosts provided 3 different recipes: Spinach Pasta, Ragu, and Bechamel. The spinach pasta was the true challenge, and we were told that we could use our favorite sauces in lieu of the provided recipes if we so wished. I chose to do this, because I was planning on making this lasagna for dinner with my parents, and my mom refuses to touch anything that contains a cream sauce. So, since the béchamel sauce was out, I decided to just go ahead and make my normal lasagna meat sauce, which is really my friend Lauren’s meat sauce, she was good enough to share her techniques with me years ago.

I am going to run down how I actually made my lasagna, but at the bottom of the post, I will provide the recipes for the ragu and béchamel that were given by our hosts, because the people who actually used them said that they were delicious too, and someday (when I am not having dinner with my parents) I plan on making this recipe the way it was originally intended to be made. And now, that lasagna (in the order that I chose to make things)… I made the sauce about a week prior to the lasagna, divvied it up into portions to make 3 different dishes, and popped them all into the freezer.

The sauce:
3 lbs lean beef (I use 85%)
1 medium onion
5-6 cloves of garlic (more or less to taste), minced
1 can tomato sauce (8 oz?)
2-14 oz cans of crushed tomatoes (I used ones crushed in basil for a little added flavor)
Parsley (small palmful), oregano (3-4 shakes), basil (6-7 shakes), salt and pepper (to taste)
I also add a tiny pinch of red pepper flakes (read: tiny pinch) to give it a little oomph like an arrabiata sauce. I like my sauces a little angry. If I was cooking for just Charlie and me, I would probably put a little more in.

1. I sauté the onions and then brown the meat in succession.

2. Right at the end, before everything is done sautéing, I add the garlic. If you add it too early and it cooks too much, it will get bitter. Once it is in the pan for a minute or so, I add the meat back in.

3. Then I add the sauce and tomatoes. Typically I fill up an empty tomato can at least once with a mixture (1:1) of water and red wine, sometimes I add more. It depends on the consistency of the sauce. I’d rather err on the side of too much liquid, because I can always cook it down.

4. I add the spices at this time, mixing them around, then I set the whole thing to simmer uncovered for at least an hour, or more depending on how much liquid needs to be cooked off.

5. When I am storing sauce to be used at a later date, I let it cool, put it in the fridge overnight (I have heard this helps it flavor up before you freeze it, and I firmly believe it), and then freeze it the next day. When I make lasagna, it takes about 4 ½ cups of sauce (1 cup per layer and top, and a little on the bottom), so I freeze and date my sauce in 4 ½ cup portions to be defrosted later.

The pasta:
2 jumbo eggs (2 ounces/60g or more) (I ended up using almost 4, my eggs aren’t very jumbo!)

10 ounces (300g) fresh spinach, rinsed dry, and finely chopped; or 6 ounces (170g) frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry (I used frozen)

3&1/2 cups (14 ounces/400g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour (organic stone ground preferred) (I used bleached because I was not about to buy something extra and use it once, until I knew the recipe was worth it)

Make sure you have lots of counter space before you begin. You have to knead the dough. A lot. You have to roll out the dough. A lot. So make sure you have your pin at the ready too. And, I found that a firm plastic knife (like the clear plastic ones) works great for cutting the sheets, and you don’t have to worry about damage to your counter top.
1. The first thing I did was combine my spinach and 3 eggs in a bowl. I screwed this up a little, because I was on autopilot and defrosted 2 packages, which is my norm. I didn’t realize this until I had added almost all the spinach to the dough, but honestly it turned out none-the-worse for wear, so these spinach amounts are obviously ballpark figures. I would suggest adding to taste.

2. The recipe calls for you to mix everything on your countertop, putting the eggs and spinach into a well in the center of the flour. Me being me, I used my Kitchen Aid with dough hook, and it worked fine.

3. When I felt it had incorporated as far as it could with a hook, which granted is very subjective, I turned it out onto the counter (lightly floured) for some kneading. You are supposed to knead until the dough is satiny, smooth and very elastic. All of the spinach I added made it hard to tell whether the dough was truly smooth, but I kneaded for about 8-10 minutes and it was certainly elastic.

4. I wrapped up the dough in saran wrap and left it on the countertop to rest. The recipe recommended anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours, so I compromised and left it alone for about an hour.

5. I cut the ball of dough into 4 pieces, and worked with a quarter at a time. I rolled out the quarter to a nice large circle, as big and uniformly thin as I could.
6. Then, I used the pin to stretch the dough as per the instructions: “As it thins outs, start rolling the disc back on the pin a quarter of the way toward the center and stretching it gently sideways by running the palms of your hands over the rolled-up dough from the center of the pin outward. Unroll, turn the disc a quarter turn, and repeat. Do twice more. Stretch and even out the center of the disc by rolling the dough a quarter of the way back on the pin. Then gently push the rolling pin away from you with one hand while holding the sheet in place on the work surface with the other hand. Repeat three more times, turning the dough a quarter turn each time. Repeat the two processes as the disc becomes larger and thinner. The goal is a sheet of even thickness. For lasagne, the sheet should be so thin that you can clearly see your hand through it and see colours. Cut into rectangles about 4 by 8 inches.”

(I have to be honest here, my dough was not see-through. I had so much spinach in there, that this would have been impossible. I found, however, that when I cut the quarter into strips (4 strips), it was easier to roll them even thinner after I separated the strips from each other. I’m still not sure they were quite thin enough, but I am fairly sure they were pretty close.)
7. From here there are several options: using immediately, freezing, and drying. I put wax paper between my sheets, popped them into freezer bags, and stored them overnight, and froze any unused sheets as undried the next day. I heard from several people on the forum who did the same thing.
Now, again you have 2 options. You can cook the pasta and then assemble the lasagna, or just assemble the lasagna and have the pasta (hopefully) cook as it bakes (for fresh sheets only). I was going to cook them first, but then I read from several people that they just assembled the pasta and baked it with the fresh noodles and it worked fine. So, naturally, that is what I opted to do. If you want to cook the pasta first, it is 2 minutes in boiling water for fresh, 4 minutes for dried.

Additional ingredients:
15 oz ricotta
1 egg
1 block mozzarella cheese
1 bag shredded mozzarella cheese
Parm, romano, or some combo thereof

1. Mix the egg and ricotta in a small bowl, add in a bit of parsley for some nice color if you like
2. Put a little sauce on the bottom of a casserole dish, and layer 4 noodle strips (or however many it takes to cover the dish)
3. Spread 1/3 of ricotta mixture over the noodles, layer 1/3 of block cheese slicked (supplement with some shredded cheese on the edges and in between slices)
4. Spread 1 C sauce over the cheese
5. Repeat twice more, and end with a fourth layer of noodles on the top. Spread the remaining sauce (you should have about 1 C remaining) on top, and sprinkle with cheese. I like to use some mozzarella, along with parm and romano, depending on what I have, but that is up to your tastebuds.
6. Bake at 350F for about 40 minutes, and turn the oven off, crack the door and let it sit for about another 10 minutes

The whole thing sounds like an involved process, but it isn’t really, especially if you make the sauce in advance (on the weekend when there is more time, which is what I always do). If you have sauce waiting for you in the fridge (because you’ve defrosted it overnight to use it!), it is very little effort to assemble the lasagna.

So, for my review of this recipe…I am so happy that I can now add fresh pasta to my repertoire…but…I don’t think I will be using that skill to make lasagna again. It isn’t that the lasagna wasn’t good – it was great! Really great. But, it tasted the same as every other lasagna I have ever made. Granted, I made this with the same sauce and in the same way as the others, but I was expecting there to be more of a difference with the noodles. I was expecting them to stand out more, I guess. Even with the extra spinach I added, which was nearly twice the amount, I could still barely taste it. I am glad in retrospect that I used my own sauce, because this allowed me to make a comparison solely based on the noodles. I know that the original sauces provided with this recipe are very good, based on other people’s reviews, and if I had used them, I might have thought that the noodles really contributed a lot to the overall flavor of the lasagna, but now I know that is not the case. If I couldn’t detect a difference between the no-cook (no effort!) noodles and the ones that took nearly 3 hours to make, then there is little point in making them, especially if time is short. It is just not worth it to tack on 3 hours to a prep time, when the resulting contribution to the overall outcome is negligible at best. But, having said that, the pasta recipe is extremely tasty, with or without spinach, and I can definitely see using it for something that I can find no other substitute for. Something like homemade raviolis with my own filling. I would love to try that. Maybe instead of spinach, adding some nice sundried tomatoes or roasted red peppers…fill them with cheese…mmmm…yeah, that’ll do nicely…

I definitely plan on trying the original sauces provided (below), but I will be doing it with my usual noodles, and save homemade pasta for something truly unique, where I feel the effort would make more of a difference to the outcome.

And, for those of you who are interested, I give you…Ragu and Bechamel!
Preparation Time: 15 minutes
4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) unsalted butter
4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour, organic stone ground preferred
2&2/3 cups (approx 570ml) milk
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste
Using a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter over low to medium heat. Sift over the flour, whisk until smooth, and then stir (without stopping) for about 3 minutes. Whisk in the milk a little at a time and keep the mixture smooth. Bring to a slow simmer, and stir 3 to 4 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the sauce thickens. Season with salt, pepper, and a hint of nutmeg.
Country Style Ragu’ (Ragu alla Contadina)
Preparation Time: Ingredient Preparation Time 30 minutes and Cooking time 2 hours
Makes enough sauce for 1 recipe fresh pasta or 1 pound/450g dried pasta)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (45 mL)
2 ounces/60g pancetta, finely chopped
1 medium onion, minced
1 medium stalk celery with leaves, minced
1 small carrot, minced
4 ounces/125g boneless veal shoulder or round
4 ounces/125g pork loin, trimmed of fat, or 4 ounces/125g mild Italian sausage (made without fennel)
8 ounces/250g beef skirt steak, hanging tender, or boneless chuck blade or chuck center cut (in order of preference)
1 ounce/30g thinly sliced Prosciutto di Parma
2/3 cup (5 ounces/160ml) dry red wine
1 &1/2 cups (12 ounces/375ml) chicken or beef stock (homemade if possible)
2 cups (16 ounces/500ml) milk
3 canned plum tomatoes, drained
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Working Ahead:
The ragu can be made 3 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate. It also freezes well for up to 1 month. Skim the fat from the ragu’ before using it.
Browning the Ragu Base:
Heat the olive oil in a 12 inch (30cm) skillet (frying pan) over medium-high heat. Have a large saucepan handy to use once browning is complete. Add the pancetta and minced vegetables and sauté, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, 10 minutes, or until the onions barely begin to color. Coarsely grind all the meats together, including the prosciutto, in a food processor or meat grinder. Stir into the pan and slowly brown over medium heat. First the meats will give off a liquid and turn dull grey but, as the liquid evaporates, browning will begin. Stir often, scooping under the meats with the wooden spatula. Protect the brown glaze forming on the bottom of the pan by turning the heat down. Cook 15 minutes, or until the meats are a deep brown. Turn the contents of the skillet into a strainer and shake out the fat. Turn them into the saucepan and set over medium heat.
Reducing and Simmering: Add the wine to the skillet, lowering the heat so the sauce bubbles quietly. Stir occasionally until the wine has reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Scrape up the brown glaze as the wine bubbles. Then pour the reduced wine into the saucepan and set the skillet aside.
Stir ½ cup stock into the saucepan and let it bubble slowly, 10 minutes, or until totally evaporated. Repeat with another ½ cup stock. Stir in the last 1/2 cup stock along with the milk. Adjust heat so the liquid bubbles very slowly. Partially cover the pot, and cook 1 hour. Stir frequently to check for sticking.
Add the tomatoes, crushing them as they go into the pot. Cook uncovered, at a very slow bubble for another 45 minutes, or until the sauce resembles a thick, meaty stew. Season with salt and pepper.


JMom said...

I noticed a marked difference between this homemade pasta and the dried stuff I've used in the past. My whole family loved this version.

Did the pasta freeze well for you? I may have to try freezing a batch next time.

Lisa Michelle said...

Nicely done, your lasagna came out lovely. However, some code is showing in your entry. Maybe it's just my 'puter, but check it out when you get a chance! :)

Lauren said...

Mmm, your lasagne looks amazing!! Awesome job =D!

Meredith said...

Thanks for your comments, guys, I really appreciate them.

JMom -- Pity my fiance, because he is a super-taster and I am not, so that is probably why I can't tell the difference in the noodles.

Lisa -- Thanks for the heads up. I had some problems posting it originally. I can't see the code showing on my own computer though, so I'm not sure where it is or how to fix it. This is probably lucky, however, because I'm not especially technology-savvy, I'd probably just mess it up more if I could see it...

Becca and Peter said...

Mmm, this looks great! I'm with you in that I didn't notice a huge difference in taste using the homemade noodles in place of store-bought ones, but I did notice a difference in texture. Great job!

Baking Becca