I have to admit this past week was a tough one. Making the time to cook from scratch in between shopping for gifts, wrapping presents, cleaning the house, shoveling snow, baking my own gifts for people and oh yeah – working – made for some pretty boring meals all week (for me that’s meat, vegetable, starch). If any time of year was ripe for reliance on convenience foods, I’m declaring that it’s the week before Christmas. Thankfully the holiday landed on the weekend so I had the time to plan out a Christmas dinner from scratch that would really bedazzle my guests with the culinary skills I’ve picked up so far.
My family has a holiday tradition of a “themed” Christmas gathering. It started years ago when my niece wanted us all to wear our pajamas on Christmas with the family. From there the themes began and transitioned into a toga Christmas (flannel holiday sheets), vintage aprons, Hawaiian shirts, space-themed outfits, to last year’s now infamous lumberjack Christmas. Not to be outdone by any themes of our past, the chosen theme for 2010 was ugly sweater. Now a sweater that’s “ugly” walks a fine line from those that are perhaps fashionable to wear for some, so you don’t want to cross that line and say “I’m wearing one ugly sweater”, to a family member who has gifts for you and would actually wear your sweater to a normal holiday gathering. And while there is never any contest between my family members when it comes to dressing the theme, this year when seeing my Dad in his ugly holiday sweater, my sister simply proclaimed “you win.”
Whenever I describe to someone which types of foods I have to make from scratch or do without, the tendency among many is to “gift” those foods to me. Now I’m not complaining, in fact the gifts of food this year in particular were generous and happily received (voice inside my head – yeah, get to the gym, Pam). There were the practical gifts (ie: you’re gonna’ need these to keep up with all your cooking), which I totally love, that came in the form of cookbooks, food magazines, and a set of lovingly stitched dish towels which my Mom proclaimed are not to be used but are only for show. Lisa and I also got matching coffee mugs handmade by our artist friend Annie, depicting a sea lion from our Maine vacation this past summer. And there were the food gifts, most of which appeared in the form of snack foods in my Christmas stocking on Friday morning, but also in the form of home made cookies, seasoned pretzels, home-seasoned Chex mix, and a bag of caramel “poofs” my sister makes that we all refer to as “crack.” The most clever gift of food, considering my current circumstances of eating out only when invited and only at local restaurants, was a tin of coasters from City Tins – each redeemable at a local restaurant for $10 off a minimum dining purchase of $25 or more. Now is the tin itself the invitation to dine out?
Okay, so here’s the deal with Christmas dinner. I planned to cook the “everything” from scratch meal consisting of lasagna, Italian bread, and salad with balsamic dressing. Simple enough. That meant I would need to make the marinara sauce from the tomatoes I froze this summer, the béchamel sauce, and fresh pasta for the lasagna, as well as bake my bread and throw together a salad dressing. Ultimately I had planned on making my own mozzarella cheese for the lasagna as well, but never having made cheese before this, I chickened out on that one pretty early on. As it was the bread was a two-day process as I needed to start the biga (to ferment) on Christmas eve, and still hoped to have enough time Christmas day for the early morning tradition of opening gifts before spending the rest of the day in the kitchen.
In retrospect I can laugh now, as our kitchen felt a bit like kitchen stadium on Iron Chef America – a chaotic disarray of ingredients and pots and pans thrown about, steam billowing from the sink from the pasta water, the two of us doing this kind of dance around each other while the smoke alarm screeches from the leftover burnt sweet potato on the bottom of the oven – me rushing to throw ice cubes into the hot pan to create the necessary steam that will give my bread a good crust. I was putting the two loaves of bread into the oven right as our guests arrived, and thankfully yes thankfully, I received one last food gift from Lisa that morning – a box of lasagna noodles.
The bread turned out fabulously, I mean it was really wonderful, the lasagna delicious but not quite saucy enough, and the salad was a fine accompaniment to the meal. I’m happy to share the recipes with you but I recommend twice the amount of marinara for the lasagna, to make sure it oozes over the top of the pan as it cooks.
Here is a comparison of how I used to make the marinara sauce for lasagna, and how the process changed using a truly from-scratch version with a recipe from Giada De Laurentis.
The Marinara Sauce
|Original Recipe (from my mom)||From Scratch by Giada|
|2 cloves garlic, crushed||2 cloves garlic, finely chopped|
|1 can crushed tomatoes (1 ½ cups)||4 cups (32 ounces) crushed tomatoes (from my freezer)|
|1 can tomato sauce (1 cup)||(Nope, nothing to thicken this sauce but my own ingenuity)|
|1 package spaghetti sauce mix||(And again, good luck with the seasoning)|
|½ cup olive oil|
|2 small onions, finely chopped|
|2 stalks of celery, finely chopped|
|2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped|
|2 bay leaves|
|2 teaspoons salt (more than the recipe called for since I wasn’t using canned tomatoes)|
|1 teaspoon oregano (my addition to the recipe)|
|Fresh ground pepper to taste|
(directions from this point are for Giada’s recipe)
Heat the olive oil in a small stock pot over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and sauté until the onions are translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the celery, carrots, and 1 teaspoon salt. Saute until all the vegetables are soft, about 10 more minutes. Add the tomatoes, bay leaves, and oregano and simmer over low heat for an hour or more, until sauce reaches your desired thickness. Remove bay leaves and discard. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste.
At this point in the recipe I decided to make a thicker sauce by using my immersion blender. If you like a sauce with an orange hue, I’d recommend doing this. If you think that’s too weird, I understand as I wondered how I was going to disguise the color in my lasagna.
Giada’s recipe for lasagna also includes a béchamel sauce.
The Béchamel Sauce
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup all purpose flour
2 cups warm milk (I used skim and it didn’t affect the flavor whatsoever)
¼ teaspoon salt (or more to taste)
pinch of white pepper and nutmeg
Melt the butter over medium heat in a two-quart saucepan. Stir in the flour and whisk until smooth and the flour begins to brown, about two minutes. Gradually (and she means gradually) add the warm milk whisking constantly to avoid lumps. Simmer sauce over medium heat, continuing to whisk the sauce until it becomes thick and creamy. This will take about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the salt, white pepper and nutmeg.
In my original recipe for lasagna I didn’t have béchamel sauce, but all of the other ingredients were similar, including the spinach. Naturally I used frozen spinach in the original recipe, since it was easier. In this version I used fresh spinach that I cooked down in the same pan I browned the meat, soaking up any leftover meat flavor from the pan.
Assembling The Lasagna
12 ounces lasagna noodles
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound ground beef or ground chuck
2 cups béchamel sauce
2 cups marinara sauce (Giada has 1 ½ but I found the lasagna didn’t have enough sauce so I’m upping the amount here)
1 ½ pounds ricotta (Again, I used skim)
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 cups shredded mozzarella
1 pound spinach, cooked and squeezed dry
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
- Boil the lasagna noodles in a large pot of water, cooking until they are almost al dente, about 6 minutes. You want them to still be a bit firm for layering. When the noodles are done, rinse immediately in cold water and lay them out individually on a damp towel so they don’t stick together.
- Cook the ground beef until brown, draining off any fat. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
- In a separate bowl, combine the béchamel and marinara sauces to blend. Season additionally with salt and pepper as desired.
- In another bowl mix together the ricotta, eggs, and ½ teaspoon each salt and pepper until well blended.
- Prepare your 13 x 9 inch pan for assembly by spreading the melted butter over the bottom. Spoon in a layer of the marinara/béchamel sauce (using about 1/3 of your mixture).
- Next add a layer of lasagna noodles, overlapping them by about ½ inch. Add ½ of the ricotta mixture and your spinach, then another layer of noodles.
- Next layer up is another 1/3 of the marinara/béchamel mixture, the rest of the ricotta mixture, and the ground beef. I’d throw in a bit of mozzarella cheese at this point as well, and add your final layer of noodles.
- Finally, add the remaining 1/3 of the marinara/béchamel, the remaining mozzarella cheese and parmesan cheese.
- Heat the oven to 375° and bake until the dish is bubbling over, about 45 minutes. You may want to set your lasagna pan on a baking sheet covered with foil, so the lasagna doesn’t drip over the pan onto your oven.