I’m making my first lasagna of the season — rainy day, fall weather coming together with a burst of cooking energy — and got to thinking about last year’s first lasagna, which brought about this blog entry last year on “Working… With Kids.” I figure it’s just sitting there, out in the Internet ether, so it’s mine to use…
The water’s boiling and I slip in the plum tomatoes. It’s almost heretical to use fresh tomatoes in my mother’s lasagna recipe but, hey, I’ve made a lot of changes over the years. They drop to the bottom of the pan only to bob to the surface minutes later, the skin gradually cracking. I scoop them into a colander to sit, steaming, in the sink.
Olive oil, enough to coat the bottom of the pan. Minced garlic. An onion, chopped in a blur. I used to hack away at the onions when I first cooked in my Boston student apartment, in the tiny kitchen where I had only a steak knife for cutting. I upgraded to a Ginsu, bought at the Texas State Fair, when I had my first adult apartment in that creepy attic. Now it’s a Henckel, perfectly balanced in my hand, a Christmas present from the husband who knows that perfect tools mean more lasagna.
I add a handful of parsley to the wilting onions. My mother’s original recipe was given to her by a neighbor in Framingham when I was a baby. I copied it off a tomato-splattered card when I moved off campus at the urging of my friend Sharon, who firmly believed my mother was an excellent cook on the basis of this lasagna. Mom had served it to my friends and I when we came back from Spring Break; four girls who had spent little money on food but a lot of money on tropical drinks, suntan lotion and souvenirs inhaled it.
Now come the sausage, the meat squeezed one-by-one from the casings. The sausage is another deviation from the original, which called for hamburger. As a frugal student, I’d noticed sausage was less expensive and, my friends agreed as they emptied the pan, it actually tasted better.
My father, of course, argues that he originally made the change. Whatever the case, Lord Lasagna is now required to contain sausage.
The sausage is broken up and browned, then drained of the grease. I had to learn the hard way not to pour it down the kitchen sink. I try not to think of the remaining grease clogging up my arteries and work quickly now — chopped tomatoes, now cool enough to handle. A can of tomato paste. Basil, oregano, a bit of pepper, a tablespoon of sugar to cut the acid.
Simmer. My mother used to tell me to keep an eye on the sauce when I was first old enough to handle cooking food. I’d sit in the kitchen and religiously stir every five minutes, nose stuck in a book as I waited. Lasagna was always an occasion when I was little. It meant we’d have garlic bread.
The lasagna pan was a wedding gift, white ceramic, now spiderwebbed with heat cracks. The first time I made lasagna for my Italian-American husband, he asked me to marry him. It was only a joke at the time — the actual proposal wouldn’t come for another four years — but it set the tone. Heck, my future father-in-law told him to marry me the first time he had my lasagna.
I boil noodles, exactly nine. Every time I make lasagna for friends, someone asks if I boil the noodles, then they say they have a recipe that does away with the step. I know that nine boiled noodles, layered three at a time, perfectly cover my lasagna pan. Lasagna is a ritual. The boiling is part of it.
Here comes the assembly, I can do it in my sleep: layer of sauce, layer of three noodles. Ricotta, daubed down each noodle, exactly eight to a noodle. Shredded mozzarella. Parmesean cheese, grated directly over the pan. Repeat. I’ve made them in assembly lines, to sell in college and for both children’s Christenings. It’s an easy rhythum — splash, noodle-noodle-noodle, daub-daub-daub-daub, daub-daub-daub-daub, daub-daub-daub-daub, scatter, grate, repeat.
Into the oven for an hour. The kitchen smells of tomato and onion. If my husband’s around, he wipes out the sauce pan with a piece of bread. I’ve made lasagna more times than I can count as bribes for his friends to help us with house projects. The paint job on our Northborough house? It cost us probably five lasagnas.
My mother believes the recipe was originally from the back of a pasta box. It’s now been perfected by two generations. Someday, my children will add their own touches.
My daughter claps her hands with glee when she sees the pan in the oven. She knows lasagna’s an occasion.
It means we’ll have garlic bread.