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.
Mmmm spinach pasta, with a delicious meaty ragu, creamy bechamel, and parmesan cheese?? Lasagne Verdi Al Forno? This is a tasty dish, there is no way around it. Everyone enjoyed it.. and sorry for the dark pictures but I tend to rush through photography when I'm not at home.. and I never seem to be with bloggers/foodies so I'm always the oddball with the camera by her plate! :)
The detailed recipe can be found on Mary's blog, but here is the general run down for this dish... it took about 7 hours, so it's a good thing I'm not a full-time old Italian lady where this kind of thing would be expected all the time (though I'd probably be faster in that case!)
The recipe calls for handmade spinach lasagne noodles which are layered with a bechamel sauce, country ragu, and parmesan cheese and then baked until hot, gooey and delicious. The bechamel sauce, a classic french sauce, is a pretty quick fix, maybe taking 20 minutes and it tastes oh-so-yummy. I would trade this for any "alfredo" sauce on pasta any day, that is for sure. I am reading a book called "The Making of a Chef" which describes the experience of a student at the Culinary Institute of America, and they make at least one bechamel sauce every day, so this was great timing for this challenge to coincide with this book.
The recipe for Country Style Ragu (ragu alla contadina) - a meat sauce - was more time consuming but it was quite good and worth the effort. First, I had to get some interesting cuts of meat - veal shoulder, pancetta, pork loin, skirt steak, and prosciutto. The pancetta was diced and sauteed along with mirepoix (diced onion, celery, carrot).
Meanwhile, I got to try out my new KitchenAid meat grinder attachment which I just got for Christmas - the veal, pork loin, beef, and prosciutto all got grinded up and then tossed in with the pancetta/veggies. Once everything was browned and drained, you add in some red wine, chicken stock, and eventually milk, while the sauce is simmering. You let it go for about an hour and then it's time to add 3 plum tomatoes... I was a little worried about the lack of tomatoes in this dish so I put in the rest of what I had in my can, and it still wasn't very tomato-y (and it still was excellent). You let that simmer for another 45 minutes and then season with salt and pepper.
So the Country Style Ragu is not your typical tomato sauce for lasagna, but it has awesome flavors. I was so surprised that there weren't any cloves of garlic going in or even any Italian seasonings. "Less is More" is the theme with this lasagna and a few really great ingredients layer up to make a complex and flavorful combination.
You can make the bechamel and ragu ahead of time, which I did the night before, and on the day-of I set aside a few hours to make the pasta and then assemble the lasagne. The pasta went OK, it was just a little time consuming. I do have an automatic pasta maker but the lasagne plate attachment would've made 2 inch wide ribbons of pasta so I stuck with going through the experience of hand-rolling out full sheets of pasta for the lasagne.
It actually took quite some time to de-stem all of the baby spinach, and then I used my mini-cuisinart chopper to chop it up. That plus eggs went into the flour and I used my KitchenAid in an attempt to have a shortcut pulling the dough together but I'd just do this by hand in the future, all I ended up with was a mealy mess of dough bits that had to be smashed together by hand anyway. (Plus I had to add a little water).
I was worried my dough wasn't the right consistency but I followed directions and kneaded for over 10 minutes and then let it rest for an hour. Then I separated it into quarters and rolled it and stretched it out as thin as possible (sometimes I would get tears, though) so that you could see through the pasta... and then cut it into shapes roughly 4in by 8in. This was a bit time consuming. Then, I cooked the noodles for a few minutes, put them in cool water, and reheated my bechamel and ragu, and was finally ready to make the lasagne.
You layer up the bechamel, noodles, more bechamel, ragu, more bechamel, and then parmesan cheese... and then repeat with more noodles, etc. I made this in a large 11x17 glass dish and made about 4 layers of pasta and meat, I think.. topping it with lots of parmesan, and then it was ready for the oven. Bake at 350 for 40 minutes covered, then another 10 minutes, cool a few minutes, and then serve!
This is a really different style of lasagne but the best "green" or "spinach" lasagne I've ever had, and that Country Ragu and bechamel sauce are totally excellent. I can definitely see myself making those items again. All of our lasagne taste-testers were pleased, as was I, so I am happy to have participated in this challenge. Thanks Daring Bakers!