Monday, October 25, 2010

Trilogy: ragù, bechamel sauce and lasagne

The week end started pretty badly.

Our little one brought home some nasty germs from day care on Wednesday and by Friday the whole family was hit by the dreaded stomach flu. I woke up early feeling pretty awful only to remember that F was leaving on a business trip and staying away a day and a night.

I had two choices: give in to my feeling of impending doom and nausea or pretend it wasn't happening and go to work. I opted for the second in a moment of relative well-being only to regret it soon after. I had to get some urgent things done at work and decided I would rush home once everyone had left the house and lie in bed feeling sorry for myself. Until the call came: our older one revisited her breakfast just as they were walking out the door. Several calls ensued to organize a baby sitter and let husband leave during the craziest part of my work day (before the stock market opens at 9:00am). This, while feeling like worshipping the Porcelain God myself and dreading the 36 hours stretching in front of me alone with the kids. All I really wanted to do was curl up in fetal position under my desk and cry.*
F left and got sick on his trip, not a better destiny than mine, with the additional question of whether he would make it home the next day or not. He did, thank goodness.

Luckily Saturday evening we were all fine and reunited. I wanted to make something comforting and nutritious to feed and please the whole family, the kind of dish children love and that makes growns ups become kids again. Something that has all food groups in one bite. The obvious choice was lasagne

Now, I know many of you often make lasagne already. If you are one of those, this is probably the last of this post you will be reading and in this case have a great start of your week. For those of you, who like me, often find yourself looking up the most basic or obvious of recipes online, here is a step-by-step tutorial on how to make a real lasagna. Making it is simple, but it does require some planning and prepping. When I first started making lasagne, I bought my bechamel sauce ready-made. Once I discovered how easy and good homemade bechamel sauce is, I never turned back. The same may happen one day with the lasagne too...but for now the ample choice of dry and fresh lasagne on offer here outweighs my desire to make them.

Before I start, please note that there are as many versions of ragù and lasagne as there are families in Italy. This is simply my version.

Ingredients (for approx. 6-8 people)
350gr ground beef
350gr ground pork
2 cans tomato sauce
2 carrots
2 celery stalks
1 large onion
bay leaf
olive oil

Bechamel sauce
100gr flour
100gr butter
1l milk
nutmeg (optional)

1 package fresh or dry lasagne
grated parmesan cheese

The first step is making the ragu because it has to cook the longest. Prepare a mirepoix, called soffritto in Italian, by chopping up your carrot, celery (as you can see in the photo, I used a frozen stalk - a tip from my mother in law: she always keeps some clean celery and carrots in a freezer bag) and onion. I keep my vegetables pretty chunky. Pour some olive oil into a large pan or sauce pan and sauté the chopped vegetables. This is the base of many Italian dishes. When the soffritto has softened add in the ground meat and let brown. Sprinkle in salt and pepper and add the bay leaf (I used a salt and herb mix instead). Then add in the tomato sauce. I usually use the kind with pieces in it but any kind will do. At this point just let this simmer on low heat for as long as you can. The secret to a great ragù is letting it cook a long time. 

If you are pressed for time, you can start preparing your bechamel or white sauce, called besciamella in Italian. Melt the butter in a saucepan and slowly start adding the flour whisking it well to ensure there are no lumps. Let the flour brown a little and then add in the milk (preferably warm) little by little and a pinch of salt (and some nutmeg if you like), mixing constantly. After about 15 minutes it will turn into a dense, creamy sauce. It is better to make a thicker sauce as thinning it is never a problem, while thickening can be. Finally, if you need a more liquid bechamel sauce for your recipe, add an extra 2dl of milk. While you wait for the ragù to finish cooking, cover your bechamel with saran wrap to avoid a film of skin forming on top.

When your two sauces are ready, you can start assembling your lasagne (the recipe). Put a little ragù on the bottom of your baking pan. Place two (or one, depending how big your pan is) sheets of lasagne (the pasta) into the pan, followed by a layer of ragù and some bechamel sauce (which you will mix into the ragù a little). Sprinkle with parmesan cheese and pepper and start over again with a new layer. It is up to you to decide how many layers you want. The last layer should be pasta covered with just a little sauce and parmesan for aesthetics and to avoid the pasta drying out while cooking. I did not specify quantities because everyone has a preference as to how rich they like their lasagna. Just make sure there is enough sauce for the lasagna to cook. When using dry lasagne you will need more liquid. Place in a preheated oven at 200°C until browned on top and cooked through (check cooking time of your lasagne on package). Mine took 20 minutes because I used fresh, very thin lasagne. Lasagne freeze fantastically so I usually try to make a lot (although I do not always manage to save any!).

There are a million different options when making these. Some people add a few slices of cooked ham or mozzarella in between layers. You can substitute the meat for pretty much any vegetable to make a vegetarian lasagna and lasagne al pesto are amazing.

Papa bear.  Mama Bear
Baby bear
Not-so-baby-anymore baby bear

*Now you know why my gnocchi post was so brief. I started it several times throughout the day and had to stop due to increasing levels of nausea while thinking up adjectives to describe a dish I normally love but could barely stand to look at on Friday.


  1. This is exactly how we like our lasagne, with a real Beachamel Sauce! Great recipe.

  2. …ma come mi dispiace aver perso l'occasione di gustare questa leccornia degna di mia nonna!! Baci Cla

  3. My K in the R - Once you make it and realize how quick it is, you wonder why you didn't try it before!
    Cla - non potrei mai fare le lasagne per te, scherzi? Per una romagnola doc con la nonna che faceva le lasagne migliori che abbia assaggiato!

  4. Wow, yummy!! Quick question, why is your first layer ragù and not lasagne? Thanks!!

  5. Moomser - Truth is I'm not sure anymore. I read somewhere once it was the way to go, adding just a little touch of ragù first. I think it has to do with keeping the first layer of lasagne moist and not dry and crunchy. Which is not a problem of course if you make your lasagne very rich and runny or if you are using dry lasagne, since your bechamel and ragù would have to be much more liquid to begin with. Ultimately, I think it is about the sauce factor but also about creating a steam pocket for the lasagna to cook in rather than roast.

  6. First off, I'm glad to hear you're all feeling better! We're going through the same thing here! It's been a difficult week! Kids and husband ill!!!! Ugh! I'm trying to catch up on blogs while people sleep!

    What an amazing step by step post! All the photos are great! This dinner looks amazing and I am sure brought that much needed comfort to them all! A beautiful meal!

  7. Oh ragù!! In my "former life" as a meat eater I had a lovely night with my fellow blogger Manuel: we made a ragù which we cooked 5 hours and we ended up eating our pasta with ragù round 1 am!! :)
    Oh I wish I could eat some of your lasagna!! :)

  8. D,W&D - I read you were back and forth from doctors. I hope you are all feeling better. I am trying to learn to take decent pictures without daylight but having a tough time...I hope they get better...glad you enjoyed the step by step however!
    Jasmine - Next time I will make a vegetarian lasagne in your honour ;o) By the way, my colleague who is coming for dinner just saw your red cabbage soup and loved it. So I think that will be on the menu.

  9. Hello again,
    it's funny how sometimes everyone is in the same mood. I've been working on homemade pasta and made lasagne too, but I haven't had the time to post it yet. yours looks wonderful.

  10. Hello again,
    it's funny how sometimes everyone is in the same mood. I've been working on homemade pasta and made lasagne too, but I haven't had the time to post it yet. yours looks wonderful.

  11. the best way to have lasagna. just discovered your blog and loving it!


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