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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Lasagna Blooms

Lasagna has become a comfort food in North America equally at home on a restaurant menu as it is homemade. It transcends all nationalities today though it is a dish widely believed to have originated in Italy in the city of Naples where the first modern recipe was created and published.

There are other theories laying claim that lasagna comes from the Greek 'laganon', a flat sheet of pasta dough cut into strips. Another theory is that the Romans borrowed the word as 'lasanum', meaning a cooking pot or dish in Latin. Finally, the English raise their hands proposing that it was a dish developed in the 14th century England called 'Loseyn', described in The Forme of Cury, a cookbook in use during the reign of Richard II.

Boiled lasagne sheets.
Regardless of whether the argument sways towards Greece, Italy or England, today most of us think of it both as a food and a dish in which it is cooked. As a chef who fooled around with tradition a number of years ago, I decided to bake my lasagna in a less than usual manner. I brought my version to my chef's station and it turned out to be quite a hit.

The basic recipe is not so different to many of others; ground beef, provolone cheese mixed with ricotta, a wonderful tomato based sauce and the obligatory sheets of pasta. If you are to use store made sheets I recommend more the style that needs to be boiled over the oven ready version, my reasoning will become clear in a moment.

For me tradition is wonderful but not untouchable. I decided to make my lasagna not in a lasagna pan; rectangle, long and in one whole piece. Rather, my muffin pans stood up ready for duty. I boiled the pasta sheets to the desired level of softness, then after rinsing under cold water I lay them out onto parchment paper and let them dry individually.

Mini lasagne ready for the oven.
The filling this time somewhat traditional with ground beef, seasoning, finely chopped sweet onion and a half cup of red wine. Sauce for the lasagna was made separately from the raw stage, though there are many ready-made pasta sauces available anywhere. I decided to take six large fresh tomatoes, boil water and drop them in for 5 minutes. Don't forget to put a small cross with a sharp knife on the butt side; this will make peeling them easier.

Once the tomatoes are peeled I put them through a sieve to remove the seeds, then into a preheated pan with a little olive oil. Cook them for about 5 minutes, crushing and moving them around, add ¼ cup red wine, salt and pepper, blend well and bring to a simmering boil. Add finely chopped mushroom, onion, bell pepper and one large garlic clove finely chopped. Cover and simmer away for ½ hour on low. The cheese of choice for me is provolone rather than mozzarella, shredded not grated.

As the sauce finishes I add a large handful of freshly chopped basil and get ready to assemble. Take a cup full of the tomato sauce and 2 cups full of cooked ground beef, place into a bowl and mix well. Add some fresh finely chopped oregano and the filling is ready. Shredded provolone is blended with ricotta cheese and seasoned.

Muffin tins at the ready, I cut parchment paper into approximately three inch squares and fold into each opening. A good trick is to drop a tablespoon of tomato sauce into the bottom of the parchment lining so as to keep it from popping out, and trim any excess. The pasta sheets are a little too long so I cut approximately 2 inches from the length, setting it aside. Curve the pasta inside the muffin tin with about 1 inch overlap, cut to fit a small piece to fit on the bottom, drop a little sauce then half fill with meat mixture. Cut another small piece of pasta and place on top of meat, add 1 to 1½ teaspoon of sauce on top, then add the ricotta mixture, and finish off with shredded provolone cheese over the top.

Preheat the oven at 375° and place the muffin lasagna on the middle rack. Bake for approximately 15 to 20 minutes or until the very tips of the pasta begin to show a browning. If needed you can turn the broiler on for 5 minutes to brown the provolone cheese on top. After removing from the oven let the mini-lasagna stand for 5 minutes to cool. Remove from muffin tins to plates, peel away the parchment and serve with a freshly made salad.

I had said earlier that oven ready pasta is not as good as the one you have to boil and the reason is simple. Muffin tins are small in diameter and the oven ready pasta sheets would not be able to bake well enough and leaves an unpleasant taste. This recipe is also simple to change from ground beef to chicken or even to an all vegetarian lasagna.

Let your imagination be your guide on this food journey and all others you wish to take, unleashing the cook inside.

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