Monday, December 28, 2009

Viva l'italia !

Spaghetti bolognaise would have to be one of my favourite comfort foods and it is a dish that most people really love. I have two distinct ways of making the bolognaise sauce for this - the first is the "I just got home from work and I'm starving and I want dinner asap" version which is pretty quick and basic, and the recipe I would like to share with you today, the "Lovingly simmered as if made by your own Italian Nonna" version. This version should be allowed to slow cook for at least a couple of hours. It takes its cue from the more traditional approach to bolognaise and contains two kinds of meat - beef and pork. The flavour is beautiful and that extra time makes all the difference!

Today I decided to go a step further and make a large tray of lasagne using the bolognaise sauce - I don't make it that often and usually cook it with the aim of freezing it in one serving portions for a quick and easy dinner. I have included my lasagne recipe too, if you are so inclined.

I have a real soft spot for Italian cuisine - I am not Italian (often people ask me if I am!) but when I was growing up, my parents had close friends from the north of Italy - the Bertollini's who ran an old school Italian family restaurant in the town of Seymour in country Victoria. They often took care of me and I remember playing in the kitchen of the restaurant where the old lady, Nonna would hand make pasta for the restaurant. She was always in the kitchen and I don't think I ever saw her without her apron on. Although I was very young, they made a huge impression on me. They were loud, loving and chaotic and food was always the centre of their world. I remember the incredible aromas from that kitchen, beautiful northern Italian dishes - I still remember the sublime smell of wild rabbit cooked with garlic and rosemary and slow cooked sauces and ragu. My most vivid childhood food memory is standing on a chair so that I could reach the table and Nonna showing me how to hand roll Gnocchi by rolling it off the fork, a skill I took into my adult life and into my own kitchen.

I spent so much time with them that I actually spoke Italian before I spoke English and would apparently speak Italian at lightening speed to my bemused non- Italian speaking Australian mother. I would also drink the Bertollini's homemade wine like a little Italian kid. My mother tells the story that I usually protested when they tried to top my glass up with water - the older you are, the more wine and the less water you are supposed to get. Bambinos only get a little splash of wine. I didn't like this at all and would tip the watered down wine into the sink and yell Vino! Vino! until I got a higher wine/water ratio. My love of wine clearly carried through to my adulthood. I blame the Bertollini's!!

Nonna's Slow Cooked Bolognaise Sauce

You will need: 500g minced beef, 500g minced pork, 2 medium carrots, 3 sticks celery, 2 large onions, 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley stalks (no leaves) , 3 large cloves finely chopped garlic, olive oil, 700ml Passata (or 2 x cans crushed tomatoes), 1 1/2 cups red wine (I use Shiraz), 1litre beef stock, 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 1 tablespoon mild paprika, 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg, 3 teaspoons sugar, salt, pepper.

Method: Chop the carrots, celery and onions into small cubes. Heat a splash of olive oil in a large saucepan and then add the carrot, celery, onion and parsley stalks. Cook on a medium/high heat for about 5-7 minutes, until the onion starts to turn transparent. Add the mince and garlic. Cook for another 5-7 minutes until the meat is all browned. Add the paprika, cayenne and nutmeg and combine well.

Turn up the heat and add the red wine. Combine well with the meat mixture and let it bubble vigorously for about 5 minutes. Add the Passata (or tomatoes), sugar and plenty of salt and pepper. Mix well and then add the stock. Bring the pot to the boil and then reduce the heat until bubbles are only just breaking the surface of the sauce. Simmer for 2 - 3 hours, stirring occasionally to ensure that the sauce does not stick on the bottom.

If the sauce becomes too dry, top up with a little bit of water as you go. When the sauce is cooked, taste it for seasoning and adjust if neccessary (this will usually depend on how salty - or not - your stock is) If your minced meat is not super lean, there may be a thin layer of oil on the top of the sauce when it cools. Simply spoon this off before serving, or dividing into containers for freezing.

This recipe will make enough for a large Lasagne, or 4-6 takeaway containers of sauce to freeze. Each container will serve 2-4 people if serving with spaghetti or other pasta.

 Lasagne al Forno (Baked Lasagne)

You will need: 1 quantity of slow cooked bolognaise sauce (see above), 4 cups milk (plus a little extra), 2 heaped tablespoons plain flour, 2 heaped tablespoons butter, 1/2 cup grated cheese (mozzerella is good), 1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese, Generous pinch cayenne, 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg, salt, pepper, 1 pack fresh lasagne sheets.

Method: In a saucepan, melt the butter over a medium heat. Add the flour and using a whisk, combine well. Allow the flour and butter to cook for a few minutes, being careful not to brown or burn the mixture. The flour will take on a pale appearence as it cooks. This is what is called a white roux, and is the basis for your bechamel sauce.

Remove the pan from the heat and add about a quarter of the milk, whisking constantly until it is smooth. Keep adding the milk until it is all combined. Return the pan to the heat and cook on a medium heat until it starts to thicken. Add the cayenne, nutmeg and season with salt and pepper. If the sauce becomes too thick, whisk in more milk. When it is the consistency of custard, remove from the heat and stir in the parmesan cheese. Set aside.

Heat the oven to 240C. Line a baking dish with baking paper. Put a few tablespoons of the bolognaise in the bottom of the dish, then a layer of pasta, another layer of bolognaise and another of pasta. Now add half of the bechamel sauce, and complete the layers of pasta and bolognaise until you are left with a pasta layer on top. Add the rest of the bechamel to the top and sprinkle with cheese. Cover with a piece of baking paper.

Cook for 45-50 minutes, until the pasta is tender and the lasagne is browned on the top. Allow to stand uncovered for at least 10-15 minutes before serving. Don't be tempted to try to cut it into portions the second it is out of the oven - it needs time to rest. It will be easier to handle and will look much better if you are patient. This dish is ideal for making the day before serving (just reheat) and is suitable for freezing. Serves 8-10 people.


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