Monday, November 8, 2010

ingredient: PARMESAN

Of all the foods in my kitchen, I believe that Parmesan cheese represents just how far the home cook has come. You can, like my mother, pretend that you’ve never used any Parmesan but the kind which comes from the rich plains of Emilia-Romagna; that you’ve only ever hand-grated the rough surfaced, golden blocks which bear Parmigiano-Reggiano stamped across their rind, the LV logo of cheeses. Or you can fess up, as I will do for you now, and admit that growing up I only knew of the Parmesan cheese which comes from the green shaker.

Say hello to your childhood.

But don’t despair or deny. We should be proud of how American cooks have embraced quality ingredients, even ones which we use primarily as a garnish for pasta (though I encourage you to eat small chunks of Parmigiano tossed with pears and walnuts and drizzled with a good balsamic.)

True Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese comes from, and is named after, the town of Parma in northern Italy. To be classified as true Parmesan, and receive that status symbol stamp on the rind, the cheese must be made in one of five small provinces in Emilia-Romagna. Cheese makers collect milk from cows who have fed only on those grassy plains and then treat the milk with rennet. The milk is then heated, curdled, and poured into large wheel molds which each hold around one hundred pounds of cheese. The wheels are left in a brine bath for twenty to twenty-five days, so that the final cheese will have that deliciously salty, perfect to perk up pasta flavor which we all love so much.

We all love Italians for their obsession with food; it allows us to indulge our own food desires, and it produces top quality products. True to form, Italians are meticulously careful about maintaining the standards of good Parm. After the wheels of cheese have aged for one year, they are inspected by the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano. In other words, each and every wheel is tapped by an Italian man with a hammer, who has trained his ear to detect cracks in the cheese. That’s right. They have cheese whisperers. These types of jobs may explain why no one is picking up the trash in Naples.

Once a wheel of cheese has passed the test, it can be enjoyed by its legions of fans around the world. Parmigiano has a wonderful nutty flavor. It’s salty and a bit buttery. Most importantly, it’s got a strong enough flavor to make it the ideal topping for soups, pastas, and salads. I truly enjoy the texture, which is slightly grainy and prone to crumbling into perfect party sized bites. However I also appreciate that when you grate a hunk of parmesan, it can turn into a pile of fluffy, salty snow. Excuse me, I think I hear some cheese calling.

Lasagna Bolognese
Adapted from Molto Italiano

It’s important that you read the title of this recipe carefully. Ready? Lasagna Bolognese. The key word is Bolognese. This is probably not the lasagna of your childhood (the one made from a green can of parm and a tub of Polly-O ricotta) because it is not Lasagna Napoletana. Traditionally, Italian food in the United States has been southern Italian food, and southern Italian lasagna is quite a different beast than its name-sharing cousin in the North. The truth is that lasagna varies widely from town to town across the entire Italian peninsula, and if someone hasn’t already made a cookbook about this phenomenon, well, you heard the idea here first. Lasagna from the area around Naples, Italy (and also Naples, Florida) contains a good deal of tomato sauce, ricotta cheese, and mozzarella. It’s an amazing, gooey dish that deserves a post in its own right. But that’s not what we’re cooking today.

Today we’re making Lasagna Bolognese which contains just one cheese, the iconic cheese of the region; Parmigiano-Reggiano. I was intrigued by the complete absence of both ricotta and mozzarella. To me, Parmigiano was a garnish cheese, or even a party tray cheese, but never a carry a lasagna on its own type of cheese. Well. I was wrong.

The Parmesan deeply flavors the lasagna without adding much heft or body. Your guests will wonder, where is that delicious salty flavor coming from? It's like magic. And thanks to the béchamel, the lasagna looses no creaminess that it would have otherwise recieved from the ricotta. There is just tomato paste, no chunks or dice, in the ragù, yet the sauce has a rich, layered flavor. Inconvenience noted, I believe that fresh pasta is a must here; the resulting lasagna is so dense and rich that a hard noodle would have been an intrusion on the otherwise elegant dish. Yes, this is an impressive lasagna, an impress your friends, impress your parents (and of course, impress yourself that you pulled it off) type of dish. I say serve this at a fancy dinner when you have a substantial amount of time to prepare it, or on a lazy Sunday when you want a project with delicious results.

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped
2 carrot, finely chopped
4 stalks celery, finely chopped
5 cloves garlic, sliced
1 pound veal, ground
1 pound pork, ground
4 ounces pancetta, ground
10 ounces tomato paste
1 cup milk
1/2 cup white wine
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup flour
3 cups milk
2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

4 sheets of fresh pasta (about 1/2 to 3/4 pound) or dried lasagne noodles blanched for 6 minutes and refreshed
1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Oil for brushing


To make the ragù:

Heat the olive oil in a heavy bottom pan. Add the carrot, celery, onion, and garlic. Cook the veggies for about five minutes, or until the onion is becoming translucent.

Add the veal, pork, and pancetta to the pot. You want to brown the meat over high heat by stirring it around, which might take as much as fifteen minutes. Making sure that you brown the meat is important because it imparts a meaty flavor to the sauce instead of having just boiled meat.

Add the tomato paste, wine, milk, one cup of water and thyme to the pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for one to one and a half hours. Season with salt and pepper and take off the heat. NB: Because meat will always contain different amounts of fat, you might have to skim some fat off the top of the ragu at the end. You want it to be saucy but a little on the drier side because it's going in the lasagna. This ragu also makes a knock-out sauce to put over a shape like fusilli.

To make the béchamel:

Melt the butter in a sauce pan over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk until the mixture is smooth. Continue to whisk occasionally until the mixture has turned golden brown, about six minutes.

As the flour mixture browns, heat the milk until it is close to a boil. Add it to the flour mixture in one cup increments, whisking constantly. Continue to add the milk and whisk until smooth. Bring the mixture to a boil and then let it cook for just 30 seconds. Remove the mixture from the heat and add the salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

To put together the lasagna:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Boil a large pot of salted water. Set up an ice bath next to the pot. Cook each sheet of fresh pasta for a minute in the boiling water then immediately cool in the ice bath and drain. If using dried noodles, cook for six minutes.

Brush the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with melted butter or oil. Start by spreading a layer of ragù in the baking dish. Add a layer of pasta, then béchamel, then Parmesan. Add another layer of ragu and repeat in the same order (ragu, pasta, béchamel, cheese) until the filling is used up (or you’ve reached near to the top of your pan.) Remember you want to end with a layer of béchamel and a topping of Parmesan. You’ll probably get three to four layers of pasta.

Bake the lasagna in the oven for 45 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Take the dish out of the oven and let the lasagna stand for twenty minutes, then serve.

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