"Not Just for Sunday" Lasagna or... Cheater's lasagne!

So which came first? Spaghetti or Lasagne???Tough question, seeing as the even great culinary authorities can’t agree on where spaghetti originated – China or Europe!! 

However we do know that the Etruscans (VII century BC) made lasagne with spelt (a grain similar to wheat).  The Greeks and Romans made lasagne (pasta cut into large squares) filled with legumes and cheese.
In the 14th century, a recipe for lasagne layered with cheese only was published in a cookbook written by F. Zambrini. The legumes had totally disappeared.

No one really knows how the recipe for the Classic Lasagne alla Bolognese was born. In fact, Pellegrino Artusi doesn’t make mention of this recipe in his book “La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene” (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of eating well), published in 1891 and considered to be the Treatise of Italian regional cooking. 

The dish mysteriously began to appear in the restaurants of Bologna at the beginning of the 20th century and, in 1935, Lasagne alla Bolognese was made famous by Paolo Monelli, who included it on the menu of “Il Ghiottone errante”, his restaurant .
The original recipe for lasagne is so important that the Accademia Italiana della Cucina deposited it with the Bologna Chamber of Commerce on July 4, 2003.

However, anyone who has toured and eaten in Italy knows that depending on where you are in Italy, the recipe for Lasagne changes!
In Emilia Romagna, there is no ricotta in the recipe. In fact the original recipe uses the classic Bolognese Ragù, made with several types of meat, and a rich béchamel sauce made with butter, plenty of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggianocheese and fresh whole milk.
In the Marche the dish is called “Millefoglie” or “Vincisgrassi”: some say the dish was named for Windisch Graetz, an Austrian General who was in Ancona with his troops in 1799, during the Napoleonic wars. They say his personal cook had invented a recipe, so delicious that it soon spread throughout the region. However, others say that the General merely tasted Vincisgrassi, a recipe which had already appeared in a 1784 cookbook  “Il Cuoco Maceratese” written by Antonio Nebbia, and was already widely used in the Macerata region of the Marche. 
In Campania, the recipe for lasagne includes a rich filling made with ricotta, eggs and grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese. And the squares of egg pasta are layered with a rich tomato sauce, the ricotta filling and other ingredients that vary depending on what the cook has on hand: sliced hard boiled eggs, sliced salami, tiny meatballs, chunks of cooked sausage – to name a few.
I have eaten Pugliese style lasagne, with artichokes layered along with the cheeses and sauce and if you travel in Sicily or Veneto or Umbria, you will find some version of the lasagne recipe.
However, everyone does seem to agree on one thing: baked lasagna is the perfect end to the Carnival season and is traditionally served on Martedì Grasso (Fat Tuesday, Mardigras) in almost all of Italy, a sort of last gastronomic fling before Lent.

My recipe is an everyday, low fat version of Lasagne. You might call it cheater’s lasagne because I use store bought pasta, a simple meat sauce and low fat ingredients. But I assure you, the results are delicious! The beauty of this recipe is that you can make it in less than one hour, but your guests will think you spent hours slaving over a hot stove, unless you tell them otherwise!

On to Donna’s “Not just for Sunday” Lasagne!

Ingredients for 4 large servings:
12 ounces of fresh egg pasta in sheets for lasagne from the super market specialty foods section
For the sauce:
1 large can (or 2 small cans) of Italian plum tomatoes, pureed, or tomato puree or tomato sauce
½ lb lean ground beef
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
Extra virgin olive oil
Fresh basil
Salt and pepper to taste

For the filling:
½ lb ricotta (not creamed ricotta)
¼ lb low fat mozzarella, grated
1 egg
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Fresh parsley, finely chopped
Freshly ground nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 375°F

Start the sauce:
In a large fry pan, sauté the chopped onion and minced garlic in a couple of tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. If your family doesn’t like to find little pieces of onion or garlic in their food, use the onion and the garlic whole and remove when the sauce is done. 
When the onion is translucent, add the ground beef and lightly brown. While the meat is browning, make the filling.

Make the filling:
In a medium size bowl, mix the ricotta, grated mozzarella, grated Parmesan, egg, chopped parsley, freshly ground nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste. Mix well with a spoon.
By now the meat is browned, so add the tomatoes, salt, pepper and basil to the pan and bring to a boil. When it boils, lower heat to medium low and cook for about 15 minutes. We want a rather thin sauce because we are NOT going to boil our pasta first.

I can't let you smell the sauce, but I can let you see and hear it simmering away!
Now you are ready to start making the lasagne. Use a large square, ovenproof dish, about  9 or 10 inches square.

Start by putting several tablespoons of the sauce in the bottom of the baking dish, next a layer of pasta (in my case 2 sheets of pasta, but use your judgement based on how large or small your pasta sheets are). Spread the pasta with 3 or 4 tablespoons of the ricotta filling, next more sauce (don’t be skimpy with the sauce, we are going to use it all). Now a layer of pasta, then ricotta, then sauce. End with a layer of pasta, covered with sauce. Sprinkle with grated parmesan cheese if you like. Bake for about 25 minutes in a pre-heated oven.

When the top is crunchy and browned, remove from oven and allow it to set for about 5 or 10 minutes (depending on how long you can resist the aroma!). 

Cut into squares and serve!

And... as Julia Child would have said had she spoken Italian...


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