Thursday, June 24, 2010

Staff Lasagna

I'm starting to get emails complaining about the dearth of posts this week. Let me explain. Two weekends ago, while prepping some blue crabs for an upcoming article, I sustained a finger injury that got infected. My left hand has been out of commission since then, at first painful and now only inconvenient to cook.

Fortunately, it's been healing speedily and is finally to the state where it's no longer greenish purply and looks somewhat healthy. So a valuable lesson learned -- crustaceans contain a lot of weird bacteria and parasites, so wash your hands carefully if any of them get into your bloodstream. Now, on to the cooking!

I decided this week to make Staff Lasagna, the post-lunch, pre-dinner meal they serve to the staff at Per Se. It's not particularly exciting or expensive, i.e. there is no caviar, truffles, lobster, foie gras, or other delicacies in this. It was simple to make, but the yield was delicious. In fact, I've received so many compliments on the sauce that I am thinking of rotating this into the permanent collection.

What piques my interest is that this recipe contains no bells-and-whistles, no expensive ingredient that requires intense preparation and brings fervid flavor to the dish. It is merely a tomato-based sauce, a cheese mixture, and pasta noodles. There isn't even any meat in it!

I started by preparing the sauce. I heated up some oil and added finely minced garlic and onions to it.

Once they were tender, I added the tomato paste and cooked it for about ten minutes. The oil became a bright orange color, which is exactly what I wanted.

Lastly, I added the fresh tomatoes -- all eight (!) cups of them.

The recipe then says you can cook it two different ways -- either in the oven with a parchment lid, which is what they do in the Per Se kitchen, as it requires less oversight and heats more evenly, or on the stove, where it takes less time and requires some monitoring. I chose to cook it on the stove for time reasons -- I wanted to go to bed before 4am.

I simmered it for about two hours, where it thickened more and more. I also deviated from the recipe by adding a few tablespoons of butter, which was a very wise decision as I later assessed.

Here's what the sauce looked like after two hours:

I turned off the heat, letting it cool, and added freshly chopped oregano (from my garden!).

Meanwhile, I prepared the ricotta cheese mixture that would function as a filling for the lasagna. I cracked opened three eggs, whisking in ricotta, salt, black pepper, and some other stuff...

Lastly, I cooked the lasagna noodles. I bought some homemade noodles from Whole Foods (a less than perfect choice, as I later thought). But, it sufficed and it was easier than making my own homemade dough and noodles.

I assembled the lasagna by getting a large baking pan, adding a layer of sauce on the bottom, then noodles, then ricotta mixture, then repeating until the top. I sprinkled a layer of shredded mozzarella on the top and put it in the oven.

I baked this and tada! here's what it looked like when I took it out:

A lovely golden color, tomato and cheesy aroma, and saucy interior.

Wow! I know it's just lasagna, but this is one of the best lasagnas I've had ever. And it doesn't even have meat. But the sauce was absolutely terrific and I'm not the only one who thinks that. Two people who also tried this lasagna told me the same thing. For future iterations of this recipe, I can think of a lot of easy and interesting changes to make it even better.

1) Homemade lasagna noodles or maybe a different source at least. I know a lot of great homemade fresh pasta stores in the city if I decide to be lazy again.
2) Assembling it better -- Calling me an amateur at lasagna assembly would be a compliment if you had had the chance to see me putting this together. I had overlapping noodles, broken noodles, sauce and cheese mixing together, and every other conceivable disaster known to man while attempting to build the dish.
3) Adding meat -- I am a dedicated lifelong carnivore and I can think of meat-a-plenty I'd love to add to this dish. Veal, turkey, (maybe lobster?). The possibilities are endless.

Produce and lasagna from Whole Foods