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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Lasagna Caprese: an ode to Jan and a Roman grandmother

Food can spark  conversations.  Food can tell stories. Certain dishes and recipes can unlock smells and memories that take us to wonderful distant places.

Jan brought this lasagna caprese to a Valentine's Day potluck a couple of weeks ago.  I had one bite and was totally un-done.  It was so unadorned, pure, not fussy, and delicious..  I met Jan over this lasagna at this potluck.  As is my nature, I asked her how she made it, what was in it, and, why was it so perfectly simple?  She told me a story of a Roman grandmother and a recipe for this lasagna.  I think that was what I heard.  I was so overtaken by the flavor, I missed the details.  On her way out the door, I asked for the recipe and meant it.  She sent it a few days later.  I asked for the story again, so that I could connect with the food, the people, and somehow be part of the story.

Her cousin was in Rome with her husband.  They were sightseeing on a summer evening when they found a small cozy restaurant with seating in the back alley.  They were starving and "everyone looked happy" in this cafe, so they sat down, had a glass of wine, and ate.  They ordered the lasagna.  They both moaned so loudly after their first bite, the owner ran to the table to see if everything was ok.  The owner, a kind woman,  invited her cousin into the kitchen to show her how to make the recipe, speaking no English, and likewise, no Italian.

I had to make this lasagna.  I followed Jan's recipe to the letter.  The only difference being I made my own pasta  because, well,  I love making pasta. 

I made the pasta, rolled it out, cut it, shaped it, and left it to dry.

The sauce  was made up of a can of san marzano tomatoes, tomato paste, garlic, oregano, onion, salt/pepper, and a pinch of sugar,  simmered for 45 minutes

The meatballs were a combination  of beef & pork, parmigiano reggiano, garlic, parsley, eggs, and milk-soaked toast, gently rolled, fried and simmered in  a separate pot of the same san marzano tomato sauce.
When everything was ready to assemble, it was an easy layering of sauce, pasta, fresh torn basil leaves, fresh thinnly sliced mozzarella, and parmigiano.  The layers were repeated, ending with one last layer of sauce, mozzarella, and basil.  Baked covered for 45 minutes, uncovered for 15 minutes, and 20 minutes to rest & set

It was absolutley delicious.  Pure flavor from  san marzano tomatoes, fresh bursting (almost anise-tinged)  undertones of basil, and  the unequaled melting ooze of fresh mozzarella. 

I have made a new friend with this lasagna.  I even feel as though I know her cousin who discovered it and brought the recipe back with her.  Jan's lasagna was far better than mine.  But,  I could taste it here, could feel the warm Roman summer air, and smell the kitchen where it started.

Food can tell stories.

And this woman?  This Roman grandmother?

Jan wrote me, "So I guess you can consider this woman my Roman grandmother, so to speak.  Little did she know that her recipe would make it's way from her cucina in Rome, across the continents and an ocean, to the bluegrass of Kentucky to make us happy too."


Cin Cin.

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