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Local Naked Lasagna

January 12, 2010
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February 13, 2009

Tender, velvety hand-rolled noodles relax in a bed of rich, soft ricotta and fresh marinara. Hints of nutmeg and garlic and red pepper tantalize the tongue. Every forkful is sensuous decadence. One taste seems too incredible to tempt a repeat, but once the plate is empty another serving is impossible to resist.

This is lasagna as I imagine the Gods of Roman cuisine intended it. Simple, fresh and made with time. My lasagna usually features things like ground beef or sausage and is built with bland boxed pasta and the flavorless ricotta found in the dairy section of the market. While it has always been satisfying and nothing less than filling, I had no idea what I was missing. Stripping the dish to barest essentials was just what the doctor ordered.

A relative recently visited from the West coast and knocked our socks off with her homemade pizza. Her fearlessness in making everything from scratch was infectious, and I soon found myself kneading dough. Somehow lasagna came into the picture and a long ignored hand crank pasta roller was dusted off.

The recipe was really four. Morning found us searching out fresh milk for homemade ricotta, in this case a pasteurized grass fed half-gallon from our local health food store ($5.99.) Unpasteurized milk is ideal for cheesemaking, and the heat required of this cheese effectively pasteurizes the milk. As it is hard to find a legal source of fresh milk, the next best thing is pasteurized milk. Ultra-pasteurized milk is the norm and is not recommended for any kind of cheesemaking.

While most ricotta recipes call for a teaspoon of citric acid, lemon juice, vinegar or even buttermilk will do the job, but it will take longer for the curd to form. We heated our milk to 184 degrees in a non-reactive pot and added two tablespoons and two teaspoons of white vinegar, then waited an hour for the curd to form. After pouring the chunky liquid through a butter muslin cheesecloth, we froze the whey for use in case of hungry goat kids, broiler chicks or piglets. The curd was left to hang for a few hours. I wanted the ricotta fairly firm for use in lasagna, so I let it hang for about three hours.

While the cheese was hanging, we made marinara from peeled plum tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, coarse salt and black pepper. It cooked for 20 minutes.

Shortly before the lasagna was assembled, we rolled the noodles. Steamed spinach, flour, an egg and more kosher salt made the dough. I kneaded it and let it rest for an hour before cutting it into eight equal parts and feeding it into the flat rollers. We rolled each noodle many times, each time decreasing the aperture of the rollers until the pasta was very thin – the second to last setting on the machine.

Assembling the ingredients meant mixing the ricotta with an egg and nutmeg, then slathering it on layers of fresh spinach noodles, with marinara, mozarella and a little parmesan taking turns.

This summer, if the harvests and stars align, I will bring this lasagna back to the table with garden greens for the pasta, fresh goat milk for the ricotta, and our own plum tomatoes and the garlic we planted last fall for the marinara. The eggs are always from the backyard, but I don’t think I will be able to pull off olive oil or parmesan. A glass of homebrew is the default beverage to compliment the meal. Salt works once graced our family swimming hole, but as much as I have tried to inspire adventure in that regard, no one seems to be taking, so we’ll abandon the idea of sel d’Orleans.  Even with expensive store-bought mozarella – $5.99 for 6 oz, and you need a pound or so – the dish was so rich it lasted two and a half and a quarter diners two nights, costing roughly 13 dollars each night for everyone.

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