Slow food: Making the perfect lasagna

In these dark days of Danish winter, there are two things I thoroughly enjoy: spending entire days cooking slow food and spending time in the company of friends.

I don’t find nearly as much time for either of those two things as I would love, but every now and then I do pull an entire day out of my busy schedule and devote it to one of my favorite activities: finding some comfort food recipe that we all know and love, tearing it completely apart, separating it into small, simple components and giving every single one of those components the attention, time and love they need in order to finally come back together and form the perfect version of the original dish. Such projects make me happy. If I can do said projects for friends, possibly in the company of like-minded food geeks, I’m an even happier camper indeed.

When my friend Tina demanded asked if I’d let her join in on one of those “thoroughly overcomplicating a comfort food classic”-projects, I more than happily obliged. When she subsequently demanded asked that said comfort food classic be lasagna, I grew even more excited.

So, a few weeks ago, Tina and I devoted an entire Saturday afternoon to cooking up a batch of lasagna, sourcing the best ingredients we could for the job and giving each single ingredient the attention it deserved. While we were at it, I took a couple of photos and some notes to share on the blog.

In case you wanted to read more than you ever thought you would about lasagna, do come along for the ride. We’ll take you from start to finish, starting with the right kind of meat for the job:

 

This little piggy wants in

Think a lasagna is only made from beef? Well, think again! The first thing you need to know about lasagna is that it’s made of a mix of different meats, usually pork and beef and/or veal. The ratios and cuts used vary widely from ground beef/pork to a mix of ground meat and pre-seasoned Italian sausage. Some have special formulas for the composition of their ground meats, others use what the supermarket have to offer. There are many different schools here and you’ll have to find one that suits you.

I personally use about 50% ground beef (10% fat), 40% ground pork (10% fat) and 10% fatty, cured pork product and I try to get them from a trusted source.  As far as cured pork product goes, bacon would do – but if you want to go really fancy, then do what I did: Get some Pancetta.

Pancetta is cured, salty, seasoned and quite fatty, usually unsmoked pork belly. It’s basically just like bacon, only better! Pancetta is an Italian specialty and is available thinly sliced at many butchers or specialty stores, and even at many deli counters of larger supermarkets these days. It may take a bit of effort to seek out, but it’s entirely worth it. Coming up short-handed? Don’t worry, use quality bacon instead.

Whatever you do, get some kind of quality, fatty, cured pork. It allows you to pull one of my all-time favorite tricks for starting a lasagna (or a Bolognese or any meat sauce for that matter): The fat rendering trick:

  1. Grab your favorite non-stick skillet
  2. Put it over medium heat
  3. While pan heats, dice sliced Pancetta or bacon
  4. Dump Pancetta in pan and cook, stirring every now and then till Pancetta is crispy brown and fat is rendered out.

Pancetta for lasagnaCrispy Pancetta and rendered fat. Pure culinary gold

The rendered fat and the crispy pork bits are a perfect cooking medium for what comes next, so reduce the heat to low and bring on the…

 

Mirepoix

The Mire-what? The Mirepoix! Alright, let’s not get confused here. A mirepoix is merely a fancy French term for a mixture of chopped aromatic vegetables, more specifically celery, carrots and onion. The ratio is usually two parts onions to one part carrots and one part celery. This mixture, usually roasted in butter or oil is used as a base for many slow food favorites in categories ranging from stocks over soups to sauces and stews.

A mirepoix by any other name… Mirepoix, as stated, is the French term for a mix of aromatic vegetables. This mix comes in a variety of shape and flavors around the world. The Spanish, for example, have their Sofrito of onions, garlic and pepper, the Cajun and Creole kitchens have the Holy Trinity of onions, celery and bell peppers and the Dutch have Soepegroente which, aside from just sounding funny, adds a bit of leek to the party.

MirepoixA mirepoix joins the party!

In our case, roasted in Pancetta drippings, the mirepoix forms the base of a kick-ass lasagna, too! So grab your sharpest chef knife, go crazy on an onion, a few carrots and some stalks of celery, throw them into the pan of Pancetta drippings and…

 

Sweat, baby, sweat!

No, I don’t mean that you should turn up the heat and start perspirating. By sweating I refer to the technique of cooking a subject, in this case our mirepoix, low and slow over very low heat to allow the flavors to slowly develop and melt together in happy harmony.

What about garlic? Garlic, depending on who you ask is either optional or compulsory. As far as I know, it’s not a particularly traditional ingredient and may be frowned upon by purists. In this case, I laugh in the face of purists and add a bit of garlic to my lasagna.

 

Sweating differs from our other favorite cooktop cooking method, sautéing, as we don’t want the subject of our cooking to start browning or caramelize. In this case, we just want our aromatics to melt together while the water slowly evaporates. This helps greatly boost the flavor and aromatic profile of our vegetables and it takes a lot of time. An hour or so over very low heat with very limited stirring. In other words, if you hear sizzling, you’re doing it wrong!

The good news about low and slow cooking, though, is that once you’ve waited around to make sure no sizzling occurs, you may find something else to do for an hour or so like a bit of TV or a brisk walk. Don’t worry if whatever you get up to takes a bit longer than expected. You can’t really mess this step up. More time = more flavor.

Anyway, once you get back to your pan after about an hour, and after the entire house has started smelling of aromatics, your patience with the whole low and slow cooking method will be rewarded with the opportunity to put some high heat to some red meat.

 

Paging Dr. Maillard

Having slowly rendered the fat out of a healthy dose of Pancetta and sweated some aromatics for next to forever, the following step involves a bit more action.

First, get out a heavy duty cast iron pan or a stainless steel sauté pan and put it over high heat to get it heated up and ready to go. Then, break out your ground beef and your ground pork and season both liberally with salt. If your meat came packed tightly, now might be a good time to break everything up a bit, because the next step is to fry the meat in small batches over high heat and unlike before, the name of the game here is not to be gentle.

Dump some oil in the hot pan, add a bit of ground meat, spread it out… And don’t touch it! Leave it there, let it really brown and develop a crisp, beautiful crust. This takes a couple of minutes. Once a crust has formed on one side, stir things through and allow meat to brown evenly. The object of this game is to not overcrowd  the pan and not move things around too much. If you do, the temperature of the pan will drop and the meat will stew rather than brown.

We want browning, because browning equals flavor. This happens thanks to a beautiful little thing known as the Maillard-reaction (named after the famous chemist Louis-Camille Maillard, see what I did with the heading there?) which in very complicated, science-y terms explains how under the presence of high heat, chemical reactions between amino acids, sugars and proteins on the surface of the meat occur, creating hundreds of flavor compounds which, in turn, break down into even more flavor compounds.

Science alert! Want a more scientific throwdown on the Maillard reaction? Start here!

In short: High heat and browning equals flavor, so work in small batches and thoroughly brown your meat. Once your individual batches finish, you can move them into a pot large enough to fit all the meat as well as your aromatic vegetables while still leaving quite a bit of room at the top.

Speaking of aromatic vegetables, once all your meat has been thoroughly browned, dump the vegetables into the big pot as well and get ready to move on.

Flavor boosting tip no. 1: Deglaze your pan! Done browning your meat? See those brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan? Those are a mess of caramelized sugars, proteins, rendered fat and/or carbonhydrates. In other words: flavors left over from the Maillard recation that are now trying to get away! We want those flavors! And we can extract those flavors by loosening them up with a bit of liquid. So keep the pan on the heat, add a bit of liquid (water works, stock is better, alcohol very nice, but beware of flare-ups) to the pan and scrape along the bottom with a spoon or spatula to get all the brown bits unstuck. When the bottom of the pan is nice and clean-ish, dump the entire contents into the pot with the meat and veggies. This is a great trick for adding extra flavor to any stew or sauce.

 

Bringing it all-together

Alright, our meat, our vegetables and our Pancetta is in the pan. Time to give everything a mix and add a bit of extra flavor. Now is a really good time to add a generous dose of ground black pepper as well as some dried herbs. My lasagna herbs of choice are basil, oregano and thyme, a bit of marjoram, too, I believe would be nice. Measurements are a bit to taste here, but careful with the oregano, it’s pungent stuff and a little goes a long way. Drizzle in your herbs, add a heaping tablespoon or so of tomato paste along with a can or two of crushed organic tomatoes and stir again. At this point, I also add a star anise and a few bay leafs that I leave to simmer along with everything else and always have a ton of fun trying to locate and fish back out at the end of the cooking process.

Making lasagnaTraditionally, Bolognese and lasagna are not tomato-based dishes. Screw tradition!

Flavor boosting tip no. 2: Don’t be afraid of canned tomatoes! Allow me to spend a few lines clearing up a popular misunderstanding. Fresh tomatoes are not necessarily better than canned tomatoes. Au contraire, mes amis! Fresh tomatoes are great when in season and available in their natural sun-ripened state. The tomato season is frightfully short, though, and many of us live in a part of the world where it’s not even guaranteed to take place. If tomatoes are not in season and absolutely perfect, use canned tomatoes. Don’t assume that fresh is better, and don’t feel ashamed, canned tomatoes are always picked in their prime and quickly preserved in order to help you through the winter. In other words, they’re there for you! There are some perfectly good and very affordable brands out there. Find a good, organic brand and use it!

The good news now is that you’re almost ready for another break. Dump a glass or so of whole milk into the pot and add just enough beef stock to cover the meat, turn on the heat and bring everything to a simmer and leave it there for about an hour before doing anything else. The flavors need time to get to know each other before we move on.

Flavor boosting tip no. 3: Milk! You may be shocked to learn that popular Italian stewing dishes such as Bolognese and Lasagna, in their original form, are not tomato-based dishes. They are, in fact, meat and milk based stews. This may all well sound a little bland, but the fact is that the milk contains lactose sugars and proteins that react with the flavor compounds of the meat and create a richer, deeper flavor over the course of cooking. Go on, try a bit of milk (or cream) in your meaty stews. It really adds a lot of extra character.

 

Enter: The simmering phase

So, the general thing about slow food is that it takes time. A lot of time. Like I stated above, you needn’t even check on the pot for the first hour or so, so once again go find something to do. Mow the lawn, watch paint dry, go outside, place threatening phone calls to strangers (really, no!) and after about an hour, add the final ingredients:

  1. A dash of fish sauce
  2. a dash of hot sauce
  3. a splash of our secret ingredient: Heinz tomato ketchup – no, really! Don’t ask me why, it just works!

… And, alcohol! Why alcohol? Because it helps improve the flavor, seriously. What kind of alcohol, you ask? The kind you like, really!

You could use vodka, it would do the trick but not add very much additional flavor to the party. You could use a nice, oaked Chardonnay which would add some freshness as well as some buttery notes… Or you could use a red wine which would add a little more color and oomph! The choice is yours.

Cooking with wine“I love cooking with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food!”

In recent years, I’ve gotten into using white wines for my Bolognese and my lasagna because, well, they just work well and they don’t contain any tannins that might clash with the flavor profile. If using red, I’d go with something Italian, concentrated and fruity. Oh, and I’d get two bottles. Half of one I’d put in the sauce, the other half I’d share with whomever I had around during the cooking process. The other bottle, I’d drink with the dish.

If I were using a white wine for my sauce, I’d use half a bottle in the sauce, drink the other half during cooking and serve a nice, subtle red with the finished dish.

Flavor boosting tip no. 4: Alcohol boosts flavor! So why do chefs add alcohol to dishes? You may think it’s just for show, booziness or a bit of wine flavor. And all of those perceptions may well hold true. However, there’s just one more thing, though… Many ingredients, tomatoes famously, contain flavor compounds that are coaxed out in different ways during cooking. Some are brought out by water, some by oil and some by, you guessed it, alcohol! Try adding a bit of alcohol to your tomato-based dishes and you, too, will taste the difference. See, suddenly Penne alla Vodka makes sense!

But I digress, your mission here is to stir in whatever alcohol you’d like to go with and let the pot come back to a simmer, then simmer over low heat for… Well? Anywhere from two to five hours, really. I would not simmer a Bolognese (and what we have now is essentially a Bolognese) for anything less than three hours total, six would be better if time permits.  Long story short: simmer the sauce for as long as you possibly can (or for as long as you can be bothered), reducing it slowly and concentrating the flavors.  The longer you cook, the more concentrated the flavor. Add a little liquid from time to time if needed. The finished product should be a thick sauce without much liquid, but it shouldn’t boil completely dry and burn either. As you simmer the sauce, fat may start pooling at the top of the pan. You may want to skim some of this off, but remember that fat is a great carrier of flavor, so leave some.

The final step of cooking starts about 45 minutes before you’ve decided that your meat sauce is done simmering, and it revolves around the other vital ingredient of lasagna: cheese, glorious cheese!

 

Super string theory: How to make cheese sauce

There are many schools of lasagna cooking. Some propose (and I’ve always found this a little odd) that lasagna is a layering of meat sauce, lasagna noodles and plain French Bechamel Sauce. Others say lasagna is a layering of meat sauce, lasagna noodles and fresh, creamy cheeses such as ricotta or mozzarella.

Me, I’m a best of both worlds kind of guy, so I make a Bechamel sauce into which I then stir ungodly amounts of fresh, buffalo mozzarella; the fresh creamy, white, tangy variety. If you, too, want to be like Johan, here’s what you do:

While your meat sauce finishes simmering, grab a small sauce pan and put it over medium heat, throw in a generous knob of butter and let it melt before adding an equal amount of plain white flour. Turn down the heat a little and cook the mixture for a few minutes to get rid of the flour taste. What we’re doing here is forming a so-called roux, a traditional French way of adding thickness and depth to sauces.

When your roux is nicely heated through, grab a carton of whole milk from the fridge and slowly pour in a little. The roux will absorb the milk and thicken immediately, keep stirring constantly and drizzle in more and more milk until you hit about the half liter mark. You’ll eventually a have a smooth and manageable sauce. Carefully bring this to a slow boil. Doing so may cause it to thicken a little more. If you deem it too thick at this point, add a little more milk. Then add a halved onion, a couple of bay leaves and a few cloves and leave to simmer for about half an hour. Then fish onion, bay leaves and cloves back and season to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

Congratulation! You now have a Sauce Bechamel, one of the mother sauces of the French kitchen, the foundation on which many sauces are born. Now, let’s Mornay that sucker up. That is, let’s add some cheese!

Keep your sauce just below a simmer and shred or dice a couple of balls of good quality mozzarella. I prefer the buffalo kind. Slowly, but steadily, add bits of cheese to the sauce, whisking as you do. Allow one addition to dissolve before adding the next load.  This procedure takes time and the sauce will want to go really gluey and stringy on you in the process. Stand your ground and keep working and eventually you’ll have a consistent and yummy yet very stringy cheese sauce. Don’t’ let this boil or bad things might happen, but keep this on the heat during the last bit of prep or it will set on you. You can use the lowest setting on the burner or turn it off and leave it on the residual heat. No stress, we’re almost there.

Home-made Mornay sauceSuper string theory!

Want even more character? Substitute part of the mozzarella with a more flavorful cheese such as Gruyère, Parmesan or sharp cheddar. Want a less stringy sauce? Cut the mozzarella with a bit of lemon juice, it will reduce the stringiness. This really is a rather pointless piece of advice in this context since we’re laying things up anyway, but if using the sauce in another application, it may come in handy.

 

Layering things

Wait, are you still here? Surely I thought you’d have given up by now, kudos for staying with us! As I’ve repeated over and over again, slow food takes time. But fear not, we’re nearly there! We just need to layer things up, oh and cook them once again.

The general process of lasagna building that everybody should be familiar with goes like this:

  1. Find a suitable, large, rectangular oven safe dish.
  2. Lube it up thoroughly with non-stick spray, oil or butter… The choice is yours, as long as you use butter.
  3. Start layering away according to the principle below:

Add one layer of meat sauce, one layer of cheese sauce, and a layer of lasagna noodles. Repeat till dish is nearly full, finishing off with a layer of meat sauce, topped with a few dollops of cheese sauce. Or many dollops of cheese sauce if you’re feeling generous.

A few thoughts on lasagna noodles: Depending on where you are in the world, lasagna noodles are available in a variety of different kinds and shapes (well, one shape mainly): There are pre-boil lasagna noodles, no-boil lasagna noodles, dried lasagna noodles, fresh lasagna noodles, flour noodles, egg and flour noodles, chocolate… Alright, maybe not! Fact of the matter: There are a lot of options. I’d advice that you work with the type of noodle that you feel comfortable with. For richness and taste, though, I’d suggest you use one made with eggs, it really makes a difference in flavor! Dried or fresh? Well, the rule we applied to tomatoes work here as well. Don’t naturally assume that fresh is better! There are a lot of crappy noodles out there; both fresh and dried. I’m afraid you’ll have to experiment to find your own perfect noodle. After years of experiments, I’ve found a brand of hand-made, fresh, egg-based, reasonably affordable Italian pasta that makes me happy. It’s part of the fun of cooking, finding your own perfect match. Just don’t get the cheapest brand, quality pasta (sadly) is never cheap.

Now, lastly carefully (lest all your hard work be in vein) move your decadent construction to a 190 (C) degree oven and bake for about 15 minutes. The lasagna won’t be done at this point, but we’ve got one more last thing to do..

 

A dusting of Parmesan: More cheese joins the party

At this point the observant reader may have deducted that this is no Weight Watchers friendly dish. So since we’ve already come this far, why not go completely over the top? Grab a grater and finely grate about a hundred grams of real Parmesan cheese, open the oven and distribute evenly on top of your half-baked lasagna. Close oven door back up and continue baking for another 15 minutes or so until top is golden brown and delicious. Turn off the oven, evacuate lasagna and… Wait!

 

All good things come to those who wait…

Yes, I’m saddened to have to tell you this, but you’ve got a little more waiting to do. What you now have before you is a dangerously hot mess of molten cheese, meat, pasta and sauce. Bite into this now and you will hurt yourself. Patience, young grasshopper. Let the lasagna stand for at least fifteen minutes to cool down a little and not only will it be more manageable and edible, it will also firm up quite a bit, making it easier to cut and handle and a lot more presentable on the plate.

Waiting for lasagna to cool.. The longest minutes of your life!Waiting to cut into the perfect lasagna may well be the longest wait of your life!

Avoid a landslide! We’ve probably all had the pleasure of trying to plate up a slice of lasagna only to have it collapse in an ingredient landslide all over the plate. Here are a few things that may help: Use a shallow-ish dish for your lasagna, this helps excess moisture evaporate. Make sure that your meat sauce is relatively dry, watery sauce = more liquid, so reduce your sauce properly. Keep sauce layers relatively thin so that the noodles can absorb the liquid and surrender their starch to the surrounding layers. And finally, let lasagna stand for a while after cooking. It not only helps it cool down, it also allows it to firm up and set a bit.

Is it worth putting this much time and effort into a lasagna? Is it worth waiting this long for dinner in a busy world? You be the judge! If you’re still reading this, you probably at least partially think so. All I can tell you is I certainly think it’s worth my time, and that my friends certainly deem the result more than passable. They also love joining me in the kitchen for a drink or two during cooking.

And hey, when was spending an entire day geeking out over food, with friends, over a glass or two of wine, pouring your heart and love into a communion meal not a good idea? Food is what you make of it and what you put into it, so let’s make the best of it!

Besides, it’s probably about time most of us wound down a bit and focused on spending the longest time possible on achieving the absolute perfect result rather than chasing many results in the shortest possible time span. The concept of slow food lets us do just that.

See, slow food really is good for you. Meat, cheese, butter and all…

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