Thursday, December 23, 2010

Fun Playing with Lasagna with Help From Ohio City Pasta and Michael Symon

Lasagna is one of those foods, like meatloaf, that everyone's mom makes and it's all good. And I don't know about your mom - but my mom's lasagna rocks. I still can't exactly duplicate my mom's delicious lasagna, but to me, it was always the best lasagna.

Bob and I planned to shop at the West Side Market last Saturday and pick up the December installment of my Ohio City Pasta prize - and I'd been fantasizing about making a lasagna with fresh OCP pasta sheets and frozen garden tomatoes. I don't usually follow a recipe when making lasagna, though I do like to consult a couple of "reference" recipes when constructing the sauce. For years, my "go to" for this purpose has been from Dom De Luise's "Eat This, You'll Feel Better," which I've annotated with tips from other chefs I respect. But I knew that Michael Symon's book Live to Cook had a sauce recipe, which is why I reached for our copy of this book last Friday night. It turned out that the Iron Chef included his mom's lasagna recipe! And that recipe contained some unique elements, like using pork neck bones in building the sauce. I couldn't wait to try it.

The recipe's ingredient list practically begged for a trip to the West Side Market. I knew we could get every ingredient that we didn't already have, including pork neck bones and fresh mozzarella. We'd also defrosted a pound of Miller Livestock Co. ground beef (which we could have bought at Foster's Meats at the WSM if we didn't already have) and a pound of spicy Italian sausage from our Breychak Farm hog (we could have gotten lovely sausage at the Market if we'd needed it). The only deliberate variation from Michael's recipe would be the use of fresh pasta from OCP rather than dried. I was excited to photograph and blog this meal because it would be loaded with fantastic, locally sourced ingredients and promised to taste so good. I anticipated those photos capping off a post showing off the Ohio City Pasta prizes from October, November and December (don't worry - I'll be showing you October and November shortly in another post).

After a Saturday morning of running around and shopping, about 3pm, I propped open the book and began to follow the recipe. If I use an actual recipe when cooking (which isn't often), I like to follow it pretty exactly  the first time I use it - how else will I learn anything new? However, over the next two hours, it became apparent that somehow, the recipe contained a few wrong turns.

When Alton Brown signed our copy of "I'm Just Here For More Food," he made a point of correcting a typo that found it's way into a recipe for pizza dough (page 238) that he told us could kill him - the "chewable children's vitamin C" in the recipe proof sent to the printer somehow came out of publication as "aspirin." Alton told us that he is deathly allergic to aspirin, and this fact made the publishing error just a bit ominous, even though it was sheer happenstance. My friends Linda and Fred Griffith have written no fewer than six cookbooks (one of which won a James Beard Award), and they also tell me that these kinds of things happen more than you'd think between final proofs and publication. So - I regret that a long day and late dinner made me rant to my Facebook friends about  some glitches in the published lasagna recipe. Of course, it isn't every day that people who are involved in the creation of a published cookbook are also reading your FB posts - but I now know on very reliable authority that the recipe for "Mom's Lasagna" on page 234 of Live to Cook has a couple of publishing errors. And while those errors led to some extra fussing and achy feet last weekend - they did not detract from the ultimate deliciousness of the dish. Which by coincidence, Michael's mom actually made for him the very next day!

I was blissfully unaware of any of these issues as I prepped the items needed for the sauce pan.

Chopped Farmers' Market Onion, Garden Garlic, Bay Leaves

Pork Neck Bones - Foster's Meats (WSM)

Hot Italian Sausage - Breychak Farms Berkshire Hog

Ground Beef -  Miller Livestock Co.

Ground Veal - Sebastian's Meats (WSM)

Unfortunately, the very first steps of the recipe became my undoing. The recipe said to sweat the onion and garlic in olive oil with salt, then add the pork bones and brown them, then add the rest of the meat and brown on medium heat. Oops. Moments after the bones hit the pan, I knew I was in trouble. The high heat needed to brown the bones would scorch the vegetables. So I scooped the bones out. Then I scooped the veggies out. Then I returned the bones to the pan on high heat to brown. But since I hadn't re-rinsed the bones, bits of garlic and onion were stuck to them, and yes, they burned. Ruined the fond. Luckily, the smallest piece of neckbone Foster's had was 1.5 pounds - a bit more than the 1 pound called for in the recipe. So even though I lost the fond, my sauce still had a fabulous depth of porky flavor. Note to self - always brown the bones first, then meats, then and only then veggies and only after removing said meats from the pan. No matter what the recipe says. The sauce also seemed to need more tomato balance, so I added a small can of tomato paste a bit at a time as the sauce simmered.

And [insert best Droopy voice] do you know what? Though it wasn't fun while it was happening (it was a pain in the buns to switch to a clean pan and to get everything in the right order, and we did try to save the scorched fond), and though the process took about two hours total because of the snafu - the final result was a mighty fine, mighty porky, yet still beefy sauce:

While the sauce simmered for two more hours, I assembled the ricotta cheese mixture. Thankfully, the recipe did not call for the traditional bechemel sauce, which would have required still more cooking prior to final assembly.

Fresh Ricotta - MEDITERRANEAN IMPORTED FOODS STAND: NW Corner of the Market

Fresh Mozzarella - MEDITERRANEAN IMPORTED FOODS STAND: NW Corner of the Market

Fresh Ohio City Pasta Sheets

The Ohio City Pasta was simply fabulous. I neither precooked it, nor did I slice it into strips, as some online recipes suggested. Due to the large size of the pan (Bob talked me out of using a smaller glass lasagna pan in favor of a roasting pan), it took two sheets of pasta to make each layer (which is why I didn't cut it up further). Also, I should note that OCP makes several flavors of pasta sheet, though we stuck with the traditional for this application.

Here, a layer of sauce is covered by the raw OCP, then a layer of sauce.

The ricotta was mixed with fresh parsley and oregano, and frozen garden basil, as well as farmers' market eggs and some of the fresh mozzarella that didn't like my attempt to grate it in the Cuisinart. A layer was spread over the sauce in the pan. Then more fresh pasta, sauce and cheese mixture. Since the fresh mozzarella didn't like the automated grating process (though to be fair, grating a similarly fresh cheese by hand on the box grater did work), I sliced the rest for the topping. That's how my mom topped her lasagna, anyway. A generous dose of grated Parmesan went on top as well, per the recipe. Covered and baked for an hour, then uncovered and baked for half an hour - we got this:

Another oops - I probably should have cut the pasta sheets into strips - we got a bit of an air bubble, which disappeared upon insertion of a sharp knife point.

And so, around 10pm - dinner was served, and yes, it was a dinner worth waiting for. We added additional mozzarella to the top of the leftovers for the re-heats (remember, I lost a bunch of my original mozzarella topping to the Cuisinart, though it's in there!), but don't worry, the top layer of cheese only looks sparse - the taste and texture were simply marvelous.

The OCP pasta sheets added an even fresher and toothier dimension to the fabulous ingredients listed in the recipe. The only other note is that the final product needed more salt - I suspect that the raw pasta cooking in the lasagna pan may have sucked out some of the salt from the other ingredients.  But with a little sprinke of salt, the taste was sublime. No, this wasn't my mom's lasagna - but it was definitely a mom's lasagna and most worthy of the moniker.

I promise to show you October and November's Ohio City Pasta goodness in another post - but this lasagna seemed to deserve a post of it's own. And we will be enjoying it right through Christmas Eve!

So, what did this kneehopper learn? First - never ever put your brain in park when cooking - even if the recipe originated with people you adore and respect - there are so many ways it can go wrong. Listen to your inner cook if a step in a printed recipe seems a little off. Use amazing ingredients if you can; they can cover many cooking sins. And don't hesitate to laugh at yourself if things seem like they are getting out of hand. Chances are, it will still taste good! Follow these guidelines to play with your food and you will be rewarded with yummies.

Merry Christmas to those who celebrate on Friday and Saturday (I'm going to my first ever Christmas dinner this year), and best of the Holiday Season to all!


  1. It looks delicious. I'll have to give it a try. And I hope you enjoy your very first Christmas dinner.

  2. Happy Holidays! This post puts me in the mood for my dad's version. He is the master in my family's household.

  3. Happy Holidays, Nancy! I've been looking forward to this post since you first talked about it last weekend on Facebook. :)

    I always wondered how fresh pasta would hold up to being cooked for 90 minutes ... now I know.

  4. Merry Christmas to all of you! @Tino - not only did the fresh pasta hold up extremely well in the original cooking, it has gotten only a tad overcooked as a leftover. And we've been reheating the lasagna in the oven rather than the microwave.

    One reason might be that I ignored the advice of some of the "fresh pasta lasagna" recipes to run the purchased pasta sheets through a pasta roller and make it thinner (mostly because I don't own a pasta rolling device). I thought it was perfect "as is."