Lasagne al ragu’

May 31, 2006

I made this dish this past mother’s day.

It’s a classic “mom’s” recipe and I thought the occasion was perfect.  I had over Hellai and her family.  There were about 12 of us.  Good size party.

Lasagna is another of those dishes that have probably 200 variations and interpretations. I favor the basic approach.  This means that I stay away from any bechamel or cream, keep the sauce to the basic flavors and don’t overload the lasagne with too much stuff.  Fundamentally I focus on having a great sauce with good ingredient and cooked with lots of love.

Now, back in the days my granma (and my mom) would have woken up at 6am to cook the all thing…but that does not work for me.  So, I took the two-day approach.  I made the sauce on Saturday (took about 5 hours cooking) and the lasagna Sunday morning.   It made for a much nicer Sunday.

Here’re the ingredients for the ragu’ sauce (sauce for about 2 1/2 pounds of lasagna):

  • 3 1\2 big cans of crushed tomatoes (the ones you buy a QFC, Safeway, etc…)
  • about 2 pounds of good ground beef (i got the angus one)
  • about 1 pound of beef chunks, the same one often used for beef stew (stick to the good stuff)
  • 6 chicken drumsticks (get the organic stuff)
  • 2-3 pork chops
  • 8 fresh tomatoes
  • 4 sticks of celery
  • 2 carrots
  • 1 onion well chopped
  • 2-3 garlic cloves
  • Salt, pepper, oregano, basic
  • olive oil (at leave half cup…I think I used 3/4 of a cup)
  • fresh spice pepper

The immediate question would be: what’re you doing with all that meat?  The meat serves two purposes (1) gives lot of good flavor to the sauce (2) makes the sauce richer (3) i find beef only too strong, the port and chicken help to smooth it (4) it makes for a great “second dish” which goes really well with the lasagne.  Anyway a win-win-win-win type of situation.

Phase I – The sauce

The sauce is made using a fairly standard process. Here’re the basic steps:

  1. Start the “soffritto” (the basic of every italian dish).  This means in a (very) large sauce pan put the olive oil, onion, garlic, celery and carrots.  Let it cook for a few mins.  Keep the heat at medium at most…you don’t want to fry the ingredients, just simmer them.  You can tell that it’s being cooked because the onion gets translucent. 
  2. At this point add the chicken, port and beed chunks.  You will add the ground beef later (less cooking time).  As the meat is cooking and the water starts to dry up a bit add a little white wine (about half cup).  This is about the time when I add the ground beef.  Overall you’ll want to cook the meat for about 30mins or better yet “until it’s done” (I usually just take a piece of chicken and beef, cut it and see if it’s cooked).   Once the meat is cooked.  Take it out, cover it and keep it warm.  Leave the ground beef, since it will cook with the sauce the entire time.
  3. At this point we move to the tomato sauce part.  First step is to add the chopped freshed tomatoes.  Leave them cook for a few mins (probably 5 or so).  
  4. Add the crushed tomatoes and the spices (salt, pepper, oregano, a few pieces of spicy pepper and a few leaves of basil).  At this point I am not overly concerned about the amount of spices…we do have lots of time to calibrate the flavor.
  5. You’re on your way to be done.  At this point you just want to simmer the sauce for at least couple of hours.  Make sure you stir it every few minutes (it would not taste too good if the bottom burns).
  6. After couple of hours add back the meat and leave it simmer it for another hour or so.
  7. You are done with the sauce.  The question is…when is the sauce done?  The timeframe I specified here is a reference, but it really depends on many factors.  Here’re some of the things I looked at: (1) density (or viscosity): you don’t want it to liquid or dense.  You should be able to feel a good texture.  (2) oil factor:  when I see a little oil condensing on top of the soap it usually mean that we are almost there (3) bread test: take a bite of bread with some sauce and taste it…how does it taste?  To get an idea of how this could look like:

OK. The sauce is done.  If you are making the lasagna the day after, just rest the sauce in the fridge.

Phase II – Lasagna day

It’s the day to make the lasagna.  Ingredients:

  • 2-3 packages of lasagna (I used the Barilla brand.  I like the “flat” type)
  • a cup of grated parmiggiano reggiano (get the good stuff…go to PCC/Wholefood)
  • a log of Mozzarella, chopped (get the good stuff!)
  • the sauce we made (warm it up a bit, but don’t cook it again!)

Here’re the steps:

  1. Boil the lasagna for 2-3 minutes.  I know the box says that you don’t need to, but my mom said it’s better doing it, so we just do it.
  2. Take the boiled lasagna and lay it out on paper towel or cloth.  This will dry it, keeping it moist.  Make sure that you put the cooked lasagna under cold water so that it stops cooking.  Check this out to get an idea of what the lasagna should look like after this step:
  3. It’s about time to start putting this thing together.  I used a big foil pan. Add a little oil and sauce at the bottom…just to keep it moist. 
  4. Lay out your first layer of lasagna.  Now add the sauce, make sure that you cover the entire area.  Don’t be to shy with the sauce, but don’t put too much either.  You want a good balance.  I really never liked a lasagna that is too saucy.  Also…in the layer don’t put the big chuncks of meat (or chicken or pork) stick with the sauce with ground beef.
  5. After the sauce add some the parmiggiano and mozzarella. For the mozzarella I usually follow the “handful” rule…in other words I take an handfull of the chopped mozzarella and equally spread it around (of course you could add more).
  6. Repeat the step above for 5 times (I usually do about 5 main layers).
  7. The last layer is the lasagna, with just a bit of sauce on top and a good chunk of parmiggiano.  This is the layer that will get slightly burned.  Good stuff.
  8. Ok…you are done.  Pre-heat the over to 400F and stick it in there for about 40mins.  After the forty means I do the “fork test”…if the fork can go through without much resistance, than it’s done!  I turn on the broiler to high, put the lasagna back for couple of mins and it’s done!

NOTE:  Don’t serve the lasagna right away.  Let it rest for about 5 minutes.  It will be much better.

Don’t forget that you also have that great meat that has been cooking in the sauce. That’s good stuff.  Serve it on the side and all the guest will be super-happy!

Let me know how it goes…


Last week I was in Vegas for a conference.  One of the perks of going down there is that you get the chance to hit some good restaurants.  This time around I visited couple of staple restaurants in the Venetian:  Zeffirino and Valentino.  Both Italian!!!

Let's start from Zeffirino.  I was lucky enough that I lunch and dinner there!   They have a 22USD lunch special.  You get an appetizer, main dish, dessert and coffee.  The portions are good and the quality is good as well.  Believe me that's a good deal, when you go for dinner you can barely get an appetizer for the same price! 

Dinner was more interesting.  The menu is a decent size and the wine menu is fairly large.  Let the servers reccomend wine, it makes the all thing smoother.  They were good at accomodating our price range.

This is what we had:

  • Appetizers
    • Carpaccio d'Orata con misticanza all'extra vergine agrumato
    • Filetto con patate tartufate all'emulsione di tartufo nero
  • Pasta
    • Fettuccine al granchio, astice e gamberi
  • Dessert
    • None…we skipped it, but we got a Lemoncello and a coffee
  • Wine
    • This sounds bad…but I forgot the actual brand.  It was a dry white wine.  Good "value".

The appetizers were a little of a disappointment.  I have to admit, we got fooled by the fancy names (they are fancy also in Italian).  You would expect that being Italian I would catch it right away, but not…I was a little naive.  Think about it "misticanza all'extra vergine agrumato" simply means "olive oil with lemon".  Duh!!! What I was thinking? 

They were literally couple of bites each.  OK, I am cheap…but if I pay 20USD for an appetizer I do want a little more than that!

The pasta was much better.  The pasta they use at the restaurant is homemade.  The sauce (crab meat, lobster and big shrimp in a light tomato sauce) was well balanced.  The quantity was generous. But, hey…at 40USD that's the minimum I would expect. 

We ended up paying about 100USD (and the 2 appetizers were split among the three of us).  This is my quick take on Zeffirino:

  • Go there for lunch.  Great deal.
  • Dinner is overpriced…for a pasta to be 40USD must be EXCEPTIONAL.
  • If you go for dinner skip the appetizers!
  • If your company is paying for it…enjoy the meal! 🙂

Couple of days after the Zeffirino dining experience we had a customer dinner at Valentino.   According to the site and the many reviews this restaurant is supposed to be outstanding.  I found it not be such.  The atmosphere is not too good…the decor does not have any character, very blend and simple (not a "good" simple).  Even worse the food was very generic and without character (it actually matched the place well).   This is what we had:

  • Insalata amara
  • Garganelli with a dried tomato and light cream sauce
  • Branzino with light orange cream

True.  We did not have a full selection and menu was constrained (there were about 30 folks in our group), but that does not justify the actual quality.  Very blend and NOT very Italian…

My quick vote…skip it!  I didn't like it and I did not have to pay for it!

This weekend I am heading to Napa Valley for a long weekend.  Report to come next week! 

Spring is in the air and the summer is coming soon.  So it's about time to explore some of those light seafood dishes that are perfect for the summer dinners.

Let's start with a GREAT appetizer: guazzetto di cozze e vongole (light mussells and clams broth). This is ideal for any size gathering.

In Italy this dish is very popular in coast towns. You can either buy the goods from a local fish market or in many cases you can find them from vendors off the street.  In "theory" it's not legal to go catch mussells yourself, but in my town there are ton of them and some people do round up a few extra $$$ by diving early in the morning. I tried a few times, but quickly realized that I was better at eating them than catching them.
In the States you can easily find both mussells and clams. I usually prefer to buy them from specialized fish markets or higher-end supermarkets (Wholefoods or Larry's).  The reason is quite simple: you really don't want to mess up with the quality of these things. Added bonus: the price is pretty much the same.

Before moving to the recipe (very easy), couple of words on how to get the goods:
– Clams…you want them closed
– Mussells…you want them closed and intact

There is another reason to go for a specialized market. They know this stuff and they will discard the ones that are not good.  You don't want to pay for mussells that are you going to throw away…do you?

Once you get them you need to prep them.  This is what I do:

Clams: Put them on warm water with rock salt and leave them for few means (at least 15-20).  The goals is to have them open them just a bit to have the sand comeout.  You may want to go through this couple of times.  Make sure you rinse them one more time before you put them in the pot.

Mussells:  It would be great if you can get mussells already cleaned.  If your provider will not clean them for you, than you'll have to do it.  Budget for the time, it takes more than you may think (of course it depends on the quantity).  When I clean mussell I make sure I do couple of things: clean all the "things" that are stuck to the surface and make sure that I remove the little green cord that comes out of it (sorry…but I don't know how these are called!)

OK…let's move to the official ingredients:

  • One pound of clams
  • One pound of mussells
  • Three cloves of garlic
  • One tomato
  • a cup of white wine
  • a bunch of italian parsley
  • olive oil
  • black pepper
  • optional: some bread (the "regular" one, something like "pugliese")

Putting this together is really easy.

Take a decently sized pot.  In the pot pour the olive oil (between 1\4 and 1\2 cup), the garlic (don't over chop it, I usually just make 4-5 pieces out of each clove), clams, mussells, tomatos (I remove the "soft" part and cut it in big chunks), ground pepper, wine and some chopped parsley.

Leave it cooking at medium hit for about 10mins.  You will see the clams and the mussells opening up, after they are open just keep them for 2-3 minutes.  You don't want them to overcook and become dry. 

You are done!  Just pour such goodness in a big serving plate, sprinkle some fresh chopped parsley and enjoy!

Bonus.  Take the bread, slice it and toast it.  Serve the bread on the side of the serving platter…that toasted bread with the clam/mussells broth tastes really good!

Couple of reference pictures here.

I leave with a final note…PLEASE do not use cream on this dish! 🙂