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Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010 03:28 am

The basics of Bologna

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“Have you ever been to Bologna? Oh, I take you there someday. You will love this place. Bologna is sad, a little. The city is old… but the food! They make there a dish called Lasagna Bolognese. You can’t believe how good this is. When my uncle, at his restaurant, makes this, you eat and then you go, ‘Oooh!’ And you kill yourself; you have to kill yourself because after you eat this [it’s so delicious] you can’t live!” — from the movie Big Night.

Lasagna is hard to really screw up. Even if it’s not that great, it’s still pretty good. I mean, how can you lose? We’re talking pasta, sauce and cheese. The noodles may be overcooked and the cheese might be cottage, but it’s almost always edible.

When I first made lasagna, I used a recipe that called for a tomato sauce to which was added previously cooked and crumbled meatballs and sausage. Four cheeses — Parmesan, mozzarella, ricotta and something called “white American” — were included, as well as a cup and a half of butter. It was a marathon; something I made only a few times, and the best lasagna I’d ever had. But I didn’t know that that lasagna was Italian-American, something that would never be made in Italy.

Italian-American lasagna is inarguably delicious. But the hearty, rustic preparation most Americans know is a far cry from classic Lasagna Bolognese. It’s simpler, even elegant — though still a special occasion indulgence. Its basis is the meat sauce that the city of Bologna claims as its own. It’s truly a meat sauce rather than a tomato sauce with meat. Combinations of various chopped and ground meats are simmered slowly, absorbing gradual additions of wine and milk. Just a bit of tomato is added at the end; the sauce is typically pale pink and incredibly unctuous.  

It doesn’t include multiple cheeses either, especially ricotta. Instead it calls for besciamella, a sauce of milk thickened with flour and butter that’s known in France as béchamel and in English as white sauce.  

There are many different and delicious kinds of lasagna. But the original lasagna, Lasagna Bolognese, is in a class of its own: a revelation of flavor and simplicity. 

Lasagna Bolognese

When I want to pull out all the stops, I make my own pasta, rolling it into sheets and parboiling them. For less momentous occasions, I’m more than happy to use no-boil lasagna noodles. They work exceptionally well — far better, in fact, than the traditional Italian-American ridged lasagna noodles with curly edges that require advance cooking. I particularly like the Barilla brand; the thin sheets come closest to my homemade noodles. It’s available in some local grocery stores (including Schnucks) and Italian specialty shops.

  • 2 9-oz. boxes no-boil lasagna noodles (preferably Barilla), or substitute homemade, parboiled lasagna noodles
  • 6 c. Ragu Bolognese
  • 6 c. Besciamella Sauce (Béchamel Sauce)
  • 1 1/2 c. grated Parmegiano Reggiano or other grating cheese, such as Asiago
  • Chopped Italian parsley, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 350. Grease a large rectangular baking dish, approximately 9” x 13”. Evenly spread about a cup of the besciamella over the bottom of the dish. Place enough lasagna noodles to cover the sauce. They should overlap slightly. Spread about 1 c. of the Ragu Bolognese over the pasta, then top with another cup of the besciamella. Sprinkle with some of the grated cheese. Continue making layers in the same manner until the sauces and/or pasta have been used up. End with a layer of besciamella sprinkled with the cheese. Cover with a sheet of lightly oiled foil, and bake for about 45 minutes or until bubbling and thoroughly heated through. Let stand for 15 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley. Serves 8 – 12.

Ragu Bolognese

This is one of those classics that has as many variations as there are cooks who make it. After much experimentation, I settled on the following. It’s not difficult, but it does take some time, so I almost always make double or triple batches to freeze. It’s not just good to use in lasagna, but as a sauce for other pasta such as fettuccine or pappardelle.

  • 1 1/2 lb. ground chuck
  • 1 lb. Italian (preferred) or ground pork
  • 1 c. chopped onion, NOT super-sweet
  • 4-8 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 c. dry white wine or vermouth
  • 2 c. whole milk
  • 2 c. basic tomato sauce (see below) OR canned tomatoes OR tomato sauce, plus more if desired
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a large heavy-bottomed pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and stir to coat thoroughly. Cover the pan and allow the vegetables to “sweat” until they are softened and translucent, but not browned, about 5 – 10 minutes. Add the meats and stir well to combine with the onion and garlic. Continue to cook, chopping with a wooden spoon to break up any large lumps, until the meat has lost any pink color. Add the wine, and continue to cook until the wine has virtually completely evaporated, stirring frequently.

Add 1 c. of the milk and continue to cook, still stirring frequently. When the milk has almost evaporated, add the last cup of milk and continue as before. When the milk has been almost completely absorbed, add the tomato sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper. You may want to add more tomato sauce, depending on what the sauce will be used for.

Basic Tomato Sauce

This simple tomato sauce is adapted from Iron Chef Mario Batali’s version. Batali is one of the (sadly few) Food Network stars who really know their stuff. I’ve had some of the best meals of my life at his NYC restaurants.

  • 1/4 c. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, NOT super-sweet, diced
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced or thinly sliced, or more or less to taste
  • 3 T. fresh thyme or 1 T. dried thyme leaves, or other herbs such as rosemary or marjoram
  • 2 28-oz. cans whole tomatoes, preferably San Marzanos
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Sauté the onion and garlic in the olive oil over medium heat in a heavy Dutch oven until the vegetables are softened and lightly browned. Add the thyme or other herbs and cook another couple of minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juices, crushing them with your hands. Simmer until thickened, 30 minutes or more. Season with salt and pepper. Makes approximately 4 cups.


Besciamella

By any name, this sauce is a classic. In some ways, it’s fallen out of favor – in the U.S., not least because it’s been often replaced by condensed soups. But a properly seasoned white sauce still has many uses, and should be in every home cook’s repertoire. The onions, bay and nutmeg in this version make it especially delicious. 

  • 12 T. unsalted butter
  • 1 c. chopped onion
  • 12 T. all purpose flour
  • 6 c. whole milk
  • 2 bay leaves
  • kosher or sea salt and freshly grated nutmeg and pepper to taste
Melt the butter in a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Stir in the onion, cover the casserole, and “sweat” until the onion is softened but not browned, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the milk with the bay leaves in a separate pan. Don’t bring to a simmer, but keep warm.

Add the flour to the pan and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring frequently. Slowly whisk in the hot milk, stirring constantly, until it’s all combined and smooth. Reduce the heat to medium low, and let come to a bare simmer. Stirring frequently, simmer the sauce for about 5 minutes or until thickened and smooth. Remove from the heat and season to taste with the salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Makes about 7 cups.


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