Friday, January 21, 2011

Not-So-Lazy Lasagna

January 20: Group dinner with appetizers

Since I moved into my duplex about two years ago, I’ve hosted several dinners for friends at my home. I finally had a place with space for guests, a nice dining room table, and a bright and roomy kitchen. Many of those dinners, however, were complicated, not timed well, and made me a nervous wreck. When planning this January 20th dinner, I chose menu items that could be made in advance of my guests’ arrivals, something that didn’t have me in utter chaos and flustered throughout the evening. And it was enough food to comfortably feed six people, in addition to myself.

To start with, I chose some appetizers I had made before. From Giada de Laurentiis’ book, Everyday Italian, I made the white bean dip (without the pita chips, as I went with simple bread and crackers instead) and a simple basil pesto.

Basics: Combined drained and rinsed can of cannellini beans, fresh parsley, fresh juice from half a lemon, a garlic clove, salt and pepper in a food processor. Mixed in olive oil during the process. Added more salt and pepper to taste.

Basics: Combined ¼ cup of toasted pine nuts, 2 cups fresh basil, a garlic clove, sea salt and pepper in a food processor. Mixed in olive oil during the process. Added freshly grated parmesan cheese.

The pesto was made the night before and the white bean dip in the morning, both of which were refrigerated until the dinner. The pesto was served at room temperature, and the white bean dip was served warm but cooled a bit, which was still okay. I paired those with an herbed brie that I purchased, as well as some multi-grain crackers and sliced French bread.

It was all tasty and a simple appetizer that was easy to serve. Several people asked for the recipes, and though the brie wasn’t the biggest hit, the bean dip and pesto certainly were popular.

Next up was the salad, which was a fairly easy task, and I did make my first ever vinaigrette, courtesy of Giada. The salad was a simple bagged mix of greens, along with sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, and mushrooms. The dressing was a bit more complicated.

Basics: Combined ½ cup of red wine vinegar, 3 tablespoons lemon juice, 2 teaspoons honey, salt, and pepper, in a blender. Added 1 cup olive oil as it mixed.

The problem here was that I made it in advance, and everything settled. I kept shaking and stirring to combine the ingredients just before serving alongside the salad, but it settled moments later. There was no way to keep it mixed. People liked it, but it was quite frustrating to see it constantly divide in the serving cup. I probably should’ve served it on the salad itself to prevent that problem.

Then came the main course. I looked at numerous lasagna recipes, but it was David Rocco’s that I had seen him make on his Cooking Channel show that really grabbed my attention. I decided to give it my best shot, with the bolognese and bechamel sauces and all, and try to cook the Lazy Man’s Lasagna.

I did make a few substitutions, in that I used all ground beef in the bolognese instead of mixing with pork, and I added actual rosemary to the meat instead of using the sprig and removing it. I also used red pepper flakes instead of dried chili peppers because I could not find the latter at my grocery store.

Basics: See the above-linked recipe for the details, which are many. In summary, salsa di 5 minuti combined onion, garlic, and red pepper flakes fried, then pureed plum tomatoes and salt added, sautéed for ten minutes, and shredded basil leaves added at the end. Bolognese sauce started with onions, carrots, celery, and chili pepper fried in butter and olive oil, ground beef browned in same pan with rosemary added, white wine added, salsa di 5 minuti added, simmered for an hour before added shredded basil leaves and more salt. Bechamel sauce was melted butter and added flour, then added hot milk whisked until creamy. Lasagna was put together with bolognese sauce as the bottom layer, then uncooked pasta sheets, bolognese, bechamel, shredded mozzarella cheese, pasta, repeated until cooking dish nearly full, freshly grated parmesan on top, cooked at 400 degrees for 40 minutes and allowed to rest for another 20 minutes before serving.

That was not easy! Lazy people should never try this.

In Mr. Rocco’s defense, the recipe did say that it would take more than four hours to complete the dish. It did.

The salsa di 5 minuti was about a 20-minute process in reality, but it was fairly easy. The bolognese was not as simple, and I personally felt that there wasn’t enough of it for the lasagna, and it could have used more tomato sauce. As far as the bechamel sauce, I clearly have a problem with this, as it never developed into a creamy, velvety consistency. I’ve tried it in the past for other dishes, and I cannot seem to make a proper bechamel, despite following the recipe to the letter. The end result looked more like milk, and I still used it in the lasagna, which turned out well, but it was no true bechamel. I may never understand what I’m doing wrong there. Another issue was with the panning of the lasagna, as I followed the directions and layered it properly, but I was only able to fit two layers of dried pasta before the pan was full, almost to the top. I was left with half a box of lasagna noodles left over, though I was supposed to use the entire box, but I have no idea how I could’ve done that differently unless I used a pasta sauce instead of a robust bolognese that took up so much space.

The lasagna was actually delicious! The noodles had plenty of sauce in which to cook, and I even left it in the oven for an extra 5 or 10 minutes, but the noodles were al dente in the end. Most people, including my full-blooded Italian friend, did enjoy that aspect of it, as did I. It was very cheesy with plenty of sauce amongst the noodles. Fabulous end result.


There were many. We started with a Colores Del Sol Malbec from Argentina, and we then switched briefly to a champagne toast with Graham Beck Brut Rosé. Back to the wine, we polished off bottles of Close Du Bois Zinfandel and Marchese de Petri Chianti. I’m not a big champagne drinker, so I’m not sure how ours compared to others, but I’ll say that the Malbec was the best of the wines, with the Chianti a close second, though the Zinfandel was good, too. All were enjoyed but couldn’t do much in the way of describing each better, as I was pleasantly distracted by group conversation throughout the evening.

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