Learning to love lasagna

They say that first impressions are everything, and I think this is true of food more than most things in our lives. You can get over the fact that the first time you saw your future husband he was that total jerk drunk off his ass who threw up all over your shoes. But you never get over your mama’s pumpkin pie, or the way your grandmama made soup when you were a kid, or how your dad taught you was the only proper way to grill a hamburger. You may have other pumpkin pies, with richer ingredients and more subtle flavors. But although they may taste good—even spectacular–they will never give the same sense of satisfaction as the pie you grew up with. Your mother’s pie carries the weight of definition—it is the pie one ought to find under “p” in the dictionary.

Of course, the opposite is also true. A bad first experience can ruin a thing for life. There was a time when a friend and I once ate far too much popcorn—binged on the stuff, actually–and got as sick as only two girls who have eaten nothing but candy and popcorn and orange sodas can. To this day, I don’t order popcorn at movies. And it wasn’t until someone thought to cover popcorn in powdered cheese that I was able to eat the stuff once again. (Cheese popcorn tasted nothing like the oily, buttery stuff I made myself sick on at the age of eight).

Which brings me to lasagna, a dish that has been my bete noir for most of my life. I don’t actually remember the very first time I ate lasagna. It must have been very young, and it couldn’t have been all that bad an experience. I am Italian, after all. But I do remember the first two dozen times I had lasagna—and it became a re-occuring trial and source of much angst in my family.

My grandmother, you see, got it into her head that we—the entire family—loved lasagna. That it was our very favorite meal on earth. So she naturally made it whenever we came for a visit. The problem was, at this time in our lives my grandmother lived in another state, and it was a good six or seven hour drive to get to her house. Sometimes even longer, if mom and dad decided to stop for a rest along the way (a necessity when the car is crammed with three kids). And because we would often leave for our visit after my dad came home from teaching school, sometimes we wouldn’t pull in to grandma’s drive until ten or even eleven at night.

And there she’d be; the table set, the house filled with the aroma of tomatoes and garlic, and a great huge pan of lasagna just laying in wait for us. Now kids are pretty resilient, but I can tell you that after a long and cramped car ride (back before the days when cars had air conditioners), the last thing any of us felt like doing when we finally arrived was sit down to a big meal, only to go right to bed afterwards with stuffed, queasy stomachs. Still, there was no getting out of it. You couldn’t tell grandma you weren’t hungry. You couldn’t tell her that it was too late to eat anything. She would just look at you with that grandma-knows-best look and say, “oh, you can eat just a little something.”

A little something. Words that made us all groan in despair. What made the whole thing especially frustrating was that grandma was a small person who didn’t eat enough to keep a chihuahua alive. So while we all had to force down generous helpings of pasta heavy with ricotta cheese and italian sausage, Grandma would just sit with us at the table and WATCH US EAT. Mom has told me that they tried calling ahead on these trips. Dad would phone grandma from some rest stop to tell her specifically and unambigously NOT to cook. “We’ve eaten on the road” he’d say. “You don’t need to make anything.” “Oh,” grandma would answer, “I’ll just have a little something.” “Crap.” Dad would say to mom as he hung up the phone. The lasagna would be waiting.

Lasagna may not be your first weapon of choice when waging a passive aggessive war, but it is a very effective one. Mom stopped making lasagna at home. Once I left for college, I never ate lasagna again. I have learned to cook, learned to tell good Italian food from bad, learned how to distinguish between the sauces of the different provinces of Italy, but I have never ordered the lasagna in any restaurant. Just the thought of it brought a lingering and faint sense of dread. It is a little embarrassing to admit that as an Italian food critic I am afraid of lasagna, so this month I decided to conquer my irrational fear and reclaim this signature dish.

Lasagna is one of the great comfort foods. I have always assumed the incarnation we now think of– a lavish dish with layer upon layer of cheese, meat, pasta and rich sauce to be rather medieval. They had a way of going rather over the top when it came to food—medievals were constantly doing things like stuffing sparrows into peacocks, and the layered hedonism of lasagna seemed to come from the same kind of indulgent impulse. In fact, lasagna, or a version of it, can be traced back to the Romans—who knew all about over doing things.

I decided that if I was going to reclaim lasagna for myself, it had to be something significantly different from my grandmother’s, and yet still feel traditional. No eggplant substitutes, no “vegetarian” versions. No sneaking in mushrooms instead of meat. But neither did I want it to be “too cheesy” or “too tomato-y”—the two faults that I have always associated with my grandmother’s version.

Eventually I decided to make something that might be considered a cross between your traditional lasagna, and the Bolognese version that uses less tomatoes, and more mushrooms and bechemal sauce. I followed a traditional recipe, but added prosciutto to the sausage layer, and grated smoked cheese to the ricotta layer. I also made a tomato sauce from scratch, because canned sauces are always too sweet for me. Ever since I learned to make baked tomato sauce (where the tomatoes, peppers and garlic are all roasted before being peeled, crushed and stirred into the sauce) I haven’t been satisfied with anything less.

The end result (from the recipe below) was amazing. Oh, I had my difficulties—I discovered that one result of avoiding lasagna my entire life was that I had no lasagna pan, so I had to make do with a baking dish that was a little too shallow for my purposes. I also discovered that while I have a fairly decent sense of what ingredients go well together, I apparently have no spatial sense at all—I made far too much pasta. I really only needed enough for about three layers (nine sheets). I made twice that amount, much to the amusement of friends. And since there is really nothing you can do with cooked lasagna noodles except make lasagna with them, I was forced to throw some of it out.

Still, all in all, the mission was a success. I found that while the dish looked like grandma’s lasagna, it tasted very different. Rich and smoky from the mozzarella and the roasted tomato sauce. The mushrooms also helped nudge the taste away from the sharp, tomato-y taste I remembered.The proscuitto melted into the dish, acting almost as a seasoning for the sausage—I used 5 ounces, which I think made the dish a little too salty, so I’ve reduced the amount in the recipe below.

Most importantly, I’ve started looking forward to having lasagna. I find I am now looking for it on the menu when I go out to eat, and finding excuses to invite people over so I can serve it at home. I think I have finally exorcised that demon. And when Mom called to say she and my father would be driving down for a visit this summer, I told her I’d be sure to have lasagna.

“What?!?” she said in alarm.

Rosa’s Lasagna (based on a recipe from Gourmet Magazine, May 2004)
Feeds 6-8, especially if consumed just after they have arrived from a long car trip
3 tablespoons olive oil
1.5 pounds FRESH Italian sweet sausage (not spicy!!). Take it out of the casing if there is any. If you are using regular Italian sausage (not fresh) then add a half teaspoon rubbed sage.
3 ounces prosciutto, chopped
2 cups chopped onions
2 celery stalks, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 garlic cloves, roasted in their skins then peeled
1 teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
half a teaspoon of cinnamon
4 tablespoons tomato paste
1 28-ounce can San marzano tomatoes OR
five good-quality marzano tomatoes, skins oiled and roasted, then peeled and crushed, juices reserved
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

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