Belgians are gregarious people by nature. We enjoy mingling with friends & family in our local cafés, and we love food & drink as much as we enjoy engaging in theatrical debates about the linguistic & political divide in the country. Most of this bickering takes place over a few pints of ‘Maes Pils’ or ‘Leffe’, and the more freely beer flows, the better we seem to understand each other. Heated arguments nearly always end in boisterous laughter and an amicable pat on the back, and a family size paper pack of mayo-laden French fries is never far away. While it’s widely known for Italians to visually paint their verbal language with dramatic hand gestures & body language, you’ll find similar story-telling antics in Belgium. For instance, mom has always been exceptionally talented in adding depth to her words with dramatic facial expressions and colorful hand gestures. I’ve secretly pondered if perhaps she isn’t part Italian, a belief that was reinforced by her uncanny ability to cook a mean spaghetti.
Which brings me to Italian food… Italian cuisine is celebrated everywhere in the world and Belgium is no exception to this. Our people embrace pasta and Parmigiano Reggiano like no other, and our towns are dotted with colorful red/white/green pizzerias and rustic trattorias. We didn’t get to eat out very often, but during town festivities or family gettogethers, when the ever-watchful eye of mom wasn’t so watchful, we’d gorge on Italian wedding cake and
forbidden fruit cream soda like there was no tomorrow. Italian food has always been a sultry lover of mine. Despite my best New Year’s resolutions, I can’t seem to resist its salty cheeses, wine-cured meats or dreamy pastas… It’s no wonder then that I sometimes ‘go to the mattresses…’ in my small apartment kitchen, and bake lasagna from scratch, leaving the kitchen looking like a bloody scene out of ‘The Godfather’. The tomato-mess is well worth the army-size supply of lasagna we end up, as I haven’t quite mastered the art of portion control just yet. Half a year ago A little while ago, I brought lasagna leftovers to the office and shared them with my colleague Melanie F. It was amore at the first bite. She’s asked me for the recipe ever since, but has been patiently waiting for my procrastination to die down naturally. In talking about my blog the other day, she jokingly reminded me I still owed her that recipe, so I crossed over to the pimp-side and promised her I’d post it if she’d become a follower on my blog… Yeah. I’m that cheap, y’all. So without further ado, here’s Melanie’s promised lasagna recipe…
MELANIE’S PROMISED LASAGNA
For the meat sauce:
– 1 large carrot, grated
– 2 shallots, grated
– 2 ribs of celery, grated
– 2 28oz cans of crushed tomatoes
– 1 8oz can of tomato paste
– 12 oz of chianti (or any dry red wine)
– 1 lbs of ground beef (extra lean)
– 1 lbs of Italian sausage, casings removed (hot or sweet, but I prefer sweet)
– 1 large onion, finely chopped
– 6 small cloves of garlic, pressed or minced
– 1.5 cups of fresh basil, chopped
– salt & pepper, to taste
In a large heavy pan, sauté the grated carrot, celery & shallot (aka ‘mire poix’) until fragrant and beginning to brown. Add garlic and sauté for a minute or so longer so the garlic has time to release its flavor a bit. Add chopped onions and brown until translucent and soft. Add the meats and brown until crumbled and mostly done. Add tomato paste and brown 2-3 minutes longer until tomato paste gets a deep brownish red color. Douse with half of the chianti and let reduce until most of the wine has evaporated. Add crushed tomatoes, rest of the chianti and salt & pepper, and simmer without the lid until all of the watery liquid has evaporated and you achieve a thick sauce. Fold chopped basil in the sauce and season with salt & pepper to your liking.
For the creamy béchamel-like sauce
– 2 15oz tins of ricotta cheese
– 2 cups of milk
– 2 Tbsp of butter
– 2 Tbsp of all-purpose flour
– pinch of nutmeg
– pinch of cayenne
– salt & pepper
Melt butter in a sauce pan. When butter is melted, add flour and cook for 1 minute until an even ‘paste-like’ consistency forms. Slowly incorporate milk and bring to a boil over medium heat. Sauce should start thickening fairly soon when milk simmers. When béchamel sauce is ready, stir in a pinch of nutmeg, salt & pepper to taste. Take pan off of the stove, and add 2 tins of ricotta cheese. Fold until you get a thick, creamy, pudding-like consistency. Salt & pepper to taste.
Building the lasagna:
– 2-3 boxes of lasagna noodles, par-boiled & drained (or use the ‘no-cook’ kind)
– 3 cups of Parmesan cheese + Pecorino Romano, freshly grated by hand
Heat oven to 375F. Butter a large deep oven-pan. Spread a few Tbsp of the meaty tomato sauce to coat the bottom & prevent noodles from sticking to the pan, and place a layer of noodles on top of the sauce. Overlap the noodles’ egdes slightly. Then, evenly spread a thick layer of the ricotta/béchamel sauce over the noodles (careful not to shift the noodles too much) and sprinkle liberally with grated cheese so the cheese covers most of the béchamel sauce. Top with an equal layer of the meaty tomato sauce, then add another layer of cooked noodles on top of the tomato sauce. Repeat this process 2 more times until your dish is full (+/- 3 layers) and you finish with a top layer of tomato sauce. Simply sprinkle grated cheese directly on top of the tomato sauce, and bake in the oven for approx. 45-60 minutes until heated through and cheese on top is bubbly and brown.
Serve with crusty bread and a nice glass of Chianti.