Lasagne Verdi al Forno and a few other Old School Favourites
Lasagne verdi al forno it would be for the main event. While I enjoy making pasta, and I enjoy making ragù, lasagne is not something I make as frequently as I would like demanding as it does an uninterrupted stretch of labour taking up the better part of a day to create and assemble all the various components. But when time does permit, there are few activities as rewarding. This sumptuous Bolognese classic from the heartland of northern Italian food, Emilia-Romagna, truly puts that epithet Bologna la grassa (Bologna the fat) in perspective - sheer films of a richly succulent meat ragù and velvety, delicate besciamella slick gossamer sheets of pasta verde, each layer dusted with Parmigiano-Reggiano. A whole truly greater than the sum of its parts.
I love the way the verdantly vivid pasta looks, virtually weightless kerchiefs flecked with mere specks of spinach. Spinach, unfortunately, that you'd have had to be at pains to carefully rinse, stem, cook, squeeze of every last drop of moisture and chop as finely as is possible with a very well-sharpened knife. If this vegetal business sounds like utter tedium, and the food processor beckons, resist - it draws out far too much moisture. Even more tempting, a box off the aisle - sure, you'll lose the need for time and elbow grease. Alongside the raison d'être; Emilia-Romagna, afterall, is the region where the sfoglina and her la sfoglia rule supreme. I've yet to master hand-rolling the dough "leaf" with nothing but a wooden dowel-style 35-inch pin and tremendous skill; so excuse the cranked pasta machine, considered heretical by emiliani and romagnoli pasta purists. Nonetheless, if, like me, you find it challenging to deftly execute the requisite stretching and thinning motion without resorting to pressing and pushing - one rolls pasta not as one rolls pastry - you're probably better off letting the parallel stainless steel rollers do the trick; better hand-cranked fresh pasta that's properly stretched and thinned than ineptly hand-rolled that's improperly stretched and thinned, proper stretching and thinning being key to the texture and character of good pasta. And it goes without saying, better hand-cranked than hand-to-cart.
The recipe for lasagne al forno can be found in any number of good Italian cookery books; I like Lynne Rossetto Kasper's The Splendid Table, quite arguably one of the most definitive cookbooks written in the English language on the food of Emilia-Romagna. Her chapter on ragùs alone - 26 pages including a grand total of not 2, not 3, but 9 fabulous recipes, each spectacular in its own right - is, for me, worth the price of the book. Another excellent ragù alla Bolognese recipe is that from Paul Bertolli's Cooking by Hand, found in the chapter entitled "Bottom-Up Cooking". A fabulous ode to the beauty of fondo di cottura, Chef Bertolli's ragù is based on "building a bottom" to the sauce, building a foundation of flavour, by encouraging residue development of the essential renderings settled on the bottom of the cooking vessel and multiple deglazings with a deeply flavoured brodo (meat broth).
The rest of the menu:
One of the first things I ever cooked for W when we first met, and it continues to feature with regularity on our table for reasons both sentimental and gustatory. Made in the lavish manner as was surely intended by Louis Diat, this chilled leek and potato soup always seems right when the mercury is rising, which over here means year-round! I like the classic recipe in Lydie Marshall's A Passion for Potatoes, using as it does unstintingly of cream and butter. The garnish of heavy cream and chives is traditional, the addition of a poached prawn, chilled, and a drizzle of prawn oil are not (but happen to be additions we very much enjoy).
The secret to great crab cakes lies, unsurprisingly, in the crab - freshly picked, from specimens that just moments ago were writhing in the sink. Bound by nothing but a little homemade mayonnaise, with absolutely no "filler" (bread crumbs should only ever feature in the coating of the cakes and not in the cakes themselves), it's an extravagance demanding of time and effort, and a luxury not lost on those who love the taste of crab but hate the work involved. The recipe I've used for the longest time comes from Chez Panisse Cooking; subtly flavoured with spring onion, lemon zest and cayenne, nothing distracts from the pure, sweet, briny flavour of the crab. I like serving crab cakes with a herbed mayonnaise (dill, chives and chevril together work a treat), although a garlicky aïoli is very good too.
I wanted to serve brownies a la mode but wondered how to spruce up the presentation; it never occurred to me to make an ice cream cake until I flipped through Emily Luchetti's A Passion for Ice Cream and chanced upon her recipe for Chocolated-covered Pecan and Milk Chocolate Ice Cream Brownie Cake. It's a fantastic recipe; the only thing I did different was to mold individual servings rather than one large cake.