Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Lasagne Verdi al Forno and a few other Old School Favourites

We had friends over for dinner on Sunday, one of whom - as W was quick to gently remind me several times the past week, given my predilection for getting carried away - is partial to comforting and heartily old school food. No fuss, no muss, and certainly no frothy espumas.

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).

Crab Cakes

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.

"Brownies and Ice-Cream"

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.


Blogger Krithika said...

Your pasta looks sooooo good and that ice cream with brownies ... hmmmm delicious !

2:41 am, September 05, 2006  
Blogger Callipygia said...

Your guests are quite lucky to partake in all that wonderful food. I remember a Saveur issue dealing with lasagna similar to the one you made, sublime!

4:21 am, September 05, 2006  
Blogger Astrid said...

No fuss, no muss? But tons of work, a true labor of love! Your guests are incredibly lucky people. And you make comfort food seem the ultimate luxury.

4:52 am, September 05, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What vivid colours. Everything looks exquisite, J. Your guests are lucky indeed! I wish i was one of them :)

5:30 am, September 05, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I come worship at the feet of the queen of homemade pasta. Those lasagna sheets look stunning.

9:10 am, September 05, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your pasta looks just gorgeous - I'd say any qualms you had about not hand-rolling the sheets are entirely unfounded given the results you got. And I love the choice of dessert:)

12:57 pm, September 05, 2006  
Blogger Cerebrum said...

So what time should I be there?;-) Fabulous, all of it!

5:24 pm, September 05, 2006  
Blogger gagatka79 said...

I've never eaten Vichyssoise but that is certainly one of those thongs I'd like to eat before I die:)

6:54 pm, September 05, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Such elegance! Everything looks so perfect!

1:20 am, September 06, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

glad i stumbled upon your site through mae! lovely! and everything looks so pro! are you? may i ask?

3:34 am, September 06, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a phenomenally beautiful meal. I'd love to know how you manage the logistics of preparing such stunning food, while lighting and lining up these perfect shots. Somehow I don't think you are edging the guests aside with the tripod like I am. Whatever you do... lovely!

Christine (myplateoryours)

4:29 am, September 06, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I simply must find a way to get myself invited to your home for dinner!

I've had my eye on The Splendid Table and Cooking by Hand for some time. You've convinced me.

As always, your food is inspiring!

9:18 am, September 06, 2006  
Blogger Steffles said...

lucky friends... the 4 courses looks utterly awfully delicious! i wonder if you can share your crab cake recipe in detail? :P

4:43 pm, September 06, 2006  
Blogger Jen said...

I thoroughly enjoy pasta making as well. I love the texture and delicate nature of fresh pasta.
Yours looks magnificent and that ice cream cake, well, my mouth is agape at how beautiful it is.

5:36 pm, September 06, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Joycelyn - no one would call this spectacular meal 'no fuss' :) although I love the warm, hearty menu you chose. Everything looks so fresh and delicious, oh and of course I've ordered the new Luchetti book as soon as I read your post ;)

7:38 pm, September 06, 2006  
Blogger siewyuk said...

such gorgeous pics,your guests are such blessed people...you are truly a purist in food and in styling, i can see!

8:03 pm, September 06, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

W is a very lucky person!
And your take on brownies a la mode is worth enough of Parisians who are crazy for the American treat!

9:44 pm, September 06, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is a gorgeous spread. I'm very very jealous.

11:41 pm, September 06, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everything looks fantastic. I love the photo of the soup.

4:32 am, September 07, 2006  
Blogger Anne said...

Lovely as always. Did you make the lasagna in individual baking dishes or is that one, large one?

4:47 am, September 07, 2006  
Blogger Annette Tan said...

Hi! Thanks again for yet another amazing meal. I loved every single thing even if my esophageal sphincter wouldn't allow the portions I would have liked :) Lucky for me, M is still feeling poorly so he let me have half of the lasagne I took home. He thinks it's fab too!

11:32 am, September 07, 2006  
Blogger Elodie said...

Lucky guest ! Next time, could I come ??!!

8:00 pm, September 07, 2006  
Blogger sooishi said...

It's so beautiful!
I'm totally in love with your picture :)
A bientôt

11:16 pm, September 07, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow! your food is beyond beautiful! i am beside myself with awe at how perfct the pasta came out, it looks like it might float away :)

11:58 pm, September 07, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Comfort food has never looked so exquisite. Truly, J, you are a marvel! Since I don't know if I could keep myself from reaching for that food processor, I'll just have to add your lasagna (along with everything else here!) to my request list for the day I finally make it to your house for dinner... :)

12:23 am, September 08, 2006  
Blogger Gustad said...

i love making my own pasta. this is the first time i made ravioli...

5:10 am, September 08, 2006  
Blogger *fanny* said...

Di i read 'no fuss no muss' or it is a pure product of my imagination?
This menu is certainly one of the most beautiful and well-built i've ever seen.
And your pictures are G-O-R-G-E-O-U-S!
Ever since i read this article i've been spinach lasagna sheets in my mind.


3:29 pm, September 08, 2006  
Blogger Shauna said...

Gorgeous, as always, particularly that soup shot. And this is your comfort food?! Can I come be comforted at your house?

2:10 am, September 09, 2006  
Blogger Julie said...

Thank you for mentioning how much you like Lynn Rosetto Kasper's book. I have her book, The Italian Country Table, and now I want to get the Splendid Table as well! I love how you did the lasagna in individual dishes, and the chocolate-dipped pecan is the most elegant topper for your beautiful ice cream cake.

4:54 am, September 09, 2006  

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