La lasagna is without a doubt one of the most well known Italian dishes. It’s like an old legend depicting the beginnings of Italian cuisine. It is also an art and as such, it comes with artistic freedom: there isn’t a right or wrong way to create the dish; you have your secret recipe and I have my recipe and grandma has her recipe. It’s the circle of life.
I have learned making lasagne from my mom, who, in turn, learned from her mom…. you get the drift. Every family in Italy adds a slight twist to the original recipe and it is not an exaggeration to say that each lasagna tastes a little bit different – more besciamel, less Parmesan cheese, a pinch of oregano, etc.
Without further ado, here is my family recipe. (Mom and dad have graciously agreed to be hand models….)
The Lissoni/Canzi Family Lasagne Recipe
1 large onion
1 pound of ground beef
1 box of pasta for lasagne (I would recommend making it from scratch)
As much besciamella as you like (recipe follows)
2 cans of whole peeled tomatoes (San Marzano are by far the best)
a splash of white wine
Salt and pepper
First things first. Water in a pan. Pan on the stove. Add Extra virgin olive oil. Dice an onion. Add the onion to the oil and let it brown nicely. The base for a lot of Italian pasta sauces is this simple. Let the onions cook for about 5 minutes or until tender and brownish.
Once the onions are the perfect combination of tenderness and color, add the ground beef. We choose a leaner meat option, but you can choose the level of fat your heart desires. Let the beef cook until brown and well mixed with the onions. It is at this point that white wine comes to play.
Add white wine to the ingredients and gently stir until the remnants of the beefy goodness stuck to the bottom of the pan is finally incorporated. It is serious deliciousness. Next, add the cans of tomatoes and stir. There is a lot of stirring involved in Italian cooking – whether you like it or not, you stir pretty much everything.
Next, add the diced celery and carrots to the tomato-beef-onion goodness and let it cook for about 10 minutes. You can add as much or as little (even nothing, nada, zip) of either of these veggies as you prefer. I, for example, LOVE celery and would add pounds and pounds of it, but Francesco is not a big fan. Compromise? You betcha. Results? Still yummy.
Italian cooking is as much as about ingredients as it is about love. No joke. You can add your own secret ingredients to any dish and you’ll always have a spot-on meal. That is the main reason I love my culinary culture: I love to improvise and with a dish like lasagne, I can be as creative as I want to be.
Before going any further, preheat the oven at 350F. And now, my favorite part: besciamella. The light, fluffy, buttery sauce is, no surprise, French. It’s so simple, I often wonder why I don’t use it in more dishes or just eat it out of the pan.
Essential ingredients: butter (of course), milk, flour, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Melt 1 stick of butter in a medium sauce pan. Add 1 cup of flour slowly whisking continuously to avoid clumps. Warm 1 liter of milk and add it to the butter/flour/milk mixture. Cook the sauce for a 10 minutes and add salt, pepper and nutmeg as desired.
Once the besciamella is thick and creamy, add it to the tomato sauce and stir until well incorporated.
After mixing the sauce it’s time to build the dish. Lay a generous spoonful of sauce on the bottom of a dishpan (foil, ceramic or glass) covering the entire area. Add a layer of pasta sheets. Cover each layer with shredded mozzarella cheese. Repeat 2 or 3 times and on the last layer, add the mozzarella and a pinch of Parmesan cheese.
Cover the lasagna with aluminum foil and bake for 25 or 30 minutes in a 350F oven. Once cooked, let it rest for 5 minutes and serve hot.