Monday, August 02, 2010

Lasagna and College

Category: Issue 19

Dear daughter,

You are off to college and from there on to the rest of your life. I thought you might enjoy this little recipe. It is something you enjoyed as a kid and may help you fight off home sickness while you are away.
As with any project, the first step is to gather your materials. When you were little, we said this in French – Mise en place. The first thing to get is a good lasagna dish. Don’t just grab the first dish you find. You and your dish will be together for a long time, so care in choosing is important. You may want something that looks pretty and that is fine, but looks are not everything. You want a dish that you will be comfortable with for a long time. Look for a solid casserole dish, made of glass or ceramic. It should be big enough to hold generous portions but small enough to be manageable. It is a good idea to try a few dishes out before you settle on the right one. When your mother and I split up, I left my dish behind and found a new dish. I know this was not easy for you, but you handled this difficult situation with strength and wisdom. I am so proud of the woman you are becoming.
You will also need a sauté pan, a couple of mixing bowls and a sharp knife. Keep your mind open and the tools you need will reveal themselves.
The ingredients for lasagna will determine the nature of the final dish. The sauce should bring bright, fresh flavors. The meat gives it a satisfying power. The pasta is the structure and fills you up. The cheese is the milk that nourishes you. The seasonings make it interesting. Choose these items with the love and care.
Life is happening fast for you now. There won’t always be time for your grandmother’s sauce. It is an all-day job to gently fry finely chopped onion and garlic, add in peeled and diced fresh tomatoes, carefully spice with oregano and basil, balance the flavor with a bit of sugar and salt and cook slowly until the maillard reaction turns the sauce into a delicious, preserved summer day. Don’t worry if you have to use sauce from a jar. Grandma knows that life is too short to fiddle with every little detail.
Even if you don’t make your own sauce, you will need to prepare onions, garlic and herbs. I know you don’t like onions, but like many things you will have to do, this is necessary. Face the tears courageously and chop the onion fine to get the flavor you need and avoid having to deal with too much of it at a time.
Garlic holds several memories for you. I hope that you can forgive me for forcing too much of it on you when you were young and remember the fun we had working together to crush the cloves with the side of the knife. There is plenty of good and bad in the world. Sometimes the only difference is how you look at it.
Fresh herbs fill the kitchen with the most wonderful smells. If you can get them, give them a try. You should experience the best that the world has to offer when you can. But never be ashamed to used dried spices. Our family has never had financial privilege, so we have made do with what we could get and it has never hurt us.
When you fry the meat, be patient. Break the job down into small batches that you can fit into the pan and put the perfect coat of brown on each little piece. Stick with the job and don’t cut corners. Consistent work is the secret to getting a tedious task done. Don’t be afraid of a little salt. Include a bit of onion and garlic, but be careful not to burn these.
All kinds of cheese work in lasagna. The classics are ricotta, parmesan and mozzarella, but feel free to try asiago, romano, even cream cheese or cheddar. Never stop trying new things and you will never grow old. I like to blend all the cheese with a few herbs and an egg. Then, I spoon it into the pan to make little exciting pockets of cheesy goodness. Yum.
You need a big pan to boil the noodles. Let the water get really bubbling before you drop in the pasta. Stay nearby so that you can get the noodles out as soon as they are cooked through, but before they get mushy. This is one of those cases where timing is everything. The key is to be prepared for that moment when they are perfect so you don’t miss the opportunity.
Assembling the lasagna is my favorite part. This is where all your hard work getting ready turns into something beautiful. Put a bit of sauce at the bottom of your lasagna dish and layer noodles over it. Scatter some meat over the noodles and dot in the cheese. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty, prissiness never made a good dish. Keep adding layers of sauce, noodles, meat and cheese until the ingredients are gone and the dish is full.
Take a little time on the top layer to make a good impression. Some extra parmesan cheese and a sprinkle of herbs will make a lovely crust that will appeal to the eye as much as the goodness inside appeals to the stomach.
The oven should be 375 degrees when you put the lasagna in. It will take as long as it takes to cook the dish through, blending the flavors, making the cheese bubble and the sauce pull everything together. Use this time to clean up. If you did it right, there will be a huge mess and you need to take responsibility for it. Clean off the bowls, pans and counters and put everything away, then do one more cleaning task to leave the work area better than you found it.
While the lasagna cooks, the smell will fill all the nearby spaces. This will attract others. Invite them in. Many of the best things in my life have come on the coattails of generosity. Offer these guests a bit of bread and ask them about themselves. There is something interesting about everyone; you just have to draw it out.
When the cooking is done, set the dish on the counter and be patient. It will look so great and smell so tempting that you will want to dive in right away. If you give in, you will get a sloppy mess that will disappoint you and burn your mouth. Mastering temptation for at least ten minutes will be rewarded with a perfect dinner that will nourish your body and your soul.

All my Love,

Posted by GarySyck on 08/02 at 06:03 PM | Permalink
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