Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Abbott's choice

Lasagne in the middle of summer might not sound good to you, but it is Abbott's favorite meal, and I wanted Jean, our houseguest, to try this version - with bechamel! - before heading back to France. After making this for the first time, a few years back, I haven't made another version since.

Beef Lasagne
from Pasta & Co By Request by Marcella Rosene

"This is the lasagne we have made and sold for over a decade. Several things set this apart from the dozens of other lasagne recipes. Its sauce is strongly seasoned with oregano. It calls for a thick filling of bechamel instead of ricotta cheese. It uses feta cheese to step up the flavor of the dish. And it takes advantage of fresh lasagne noodles, which can go in the dish without any precooking. Our sales of this product are the best proof that the formula works."

Serving notes: Make a day ahead and bake when needed, or do as we do and freeze. Take the lasagne straight from the freezer and adjust the cooking time accordingly. Be sure to let the lasagne sit for 20 minutes before serving.

*I always double this recipe - I like to have extra to freeze or to feed a large crowd.

1 1/4 # lean ground beef
1/4 cup pure olive oil
1 1/3 c coarsely chopped onions
1 heaping tablespoon oregano
1 1/2 teaspoons finely minced garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons basil
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons dry white wine
3 1/4 cups Paradiso brand crushed tomatoes in puree. (There will be a couple of ounces left in the 28 ounce can. Save it for assembling the lasagne.)
5 ounces frozen spinach (half of a 10 ounce bag), thawed and drained of liquid

3 cups mozarella cheese, grated
1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled

1 1/2 cups milk
1 cup cream
big pinch white pepper
big pinch thyme
big pinch nutmeg
big pinch basil
3 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon flour
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons grated Romano cheese

uncooked lasagne noodles, enough for three layers in a 9 inch by 13 inch pan

1/4 cup unseasoned bread crumbs
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon very finely chopped parsley

To make the sauce, cook the ground beef in a saute pan over medium heat until the pink is gone and the meat is crumbly. Remove from heat and pour through a colander to drain off all the fat. Reserve the meat.

In the same saute pan, heat the olive oil and add onions, oregano, garlic, basil, salt, black pepper, and red pepper flakes. Cook over medium heat until the onions are translucent. Add the wine, bring to a boil, and cook until the alcohol has evaporated - about 10 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes. Add the spinach and the reserved meat. Continue simmering for a few minutes. Remove from heat and reserve.

Mix together mozzarella and feta cheeses and set aside.

To make the bechamel, heat the milk, cream, white pepper, thyme, nutmeg, and basil in a small saucepan until it nears a boil. Turn off the heat. Melt the butter in a medium size saute pan. When the foam recedes, remove from the heat, add the flour, and mix well. Return to medium-low heat and, stirring frequently, simmer for 2 to 3 minutes to cook, but not brown, the flour. Gradually stir in the hot milk and cream mixture. Raise the heat to medium-high and continue stirring until the mixture is smooth and thick - about 5 minutes. Add the Parmesan and Romano cheeses and whisk until smooth. This should be the texture of wallpaper paste, not of the white sauce more often associated with bechamel.

To make the topping, mix together the bread crumbs, Parmesan, and parsley. Reserve.

To assemble and bake:

Preheat oven to 400F.
Spread 2 tablespoons of the tomato juices left in the tomato can on the bottom of a shallow baking dish. Lay in one layer of the uncooked lasagne noodles. Spoon on 3 cups of the meat sauce. Spread 1 cup of bechamel across the sauce in two diagonals. Top with 2 cups of the cheese mixture. Lay on another layer of lasagne noodles and repeat, using the same amounts of sauce, bechamel, and cheese. Top with the last layer of noodles, and with your fingertips, press lightly to distribute the bechamel smoothly in the layers. Using a long metal spatula, "frost" the top layer of noodles with the remaining bechamel. Be sure to completely cover the noodles so that they do not dry out in baking. Sprinkle evenly with the reserved bread crumb mixture.

Bake at 400F for about 60 minutes or until sauce bubbles around the edge and top is nicely browned. If the top browns too quickly, cover with aluminum foil during the last 10 minutes of cooking. If baking the lasagne straight from the freezer, add about 20 minutes more to cooking time.

Once out of the oven, let it set up for about 20 minutes before serving (critical for ease of serving).

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