Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Lasagna Bolognese

My grandfather went off to Italy in WWII and brought back more than a love for Italian food - he brought back a wife and they had 6 children, the second oldest of which is my mother. My mother and her siblings all had multiple children, I am the second oldest of 18 grandchildren. We all spent many years growing up in and around my grandparent's huge Victorian home, and many of my favorite memories involve what we ate. Way before I knew that it was anything special I was eating fine, hand crafted Italian food and drinking amazing espresso. It's funny how most people develop a taste for finer food as they age, I think I've spent most of my adulthood coming back to the food of my childhood that I never fully appreciated when I was young. What's that joke about what do Chinese call Chinese food? Food. I never realized how spoiled I was, food-wise, as a child. I grew up with a heavy Italian influence in the way upper northwest corner of Washington State, right on the Canadian border. Holidays and family birthdays were huge feasts of all you can eat salmon (grilled and home smoked), crab just hauled from the bay across the street, oysters, clams, salads right out of the garden, salami, fresh bread, biscotti, and the family favorite - my grandmother's lasagna bolognese. We had lasagna all the time - some families have an Easter ham, a Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas goose, etc. - the Bennett clan ate those normal holiday foods too but there were always huge pans of lasagna on the table as well. It was a staple, layers of fresh handmade spinach noodles, meat sauce, bechamel sauce, and cheese. It was what they call in foodie circles, rustic. Simple. Beautiful. Delicious.

Later I found out that "grandma's lasagna" was a collaboration between my grandmother and one of her good friends, Bruna - who my family affectionately nicknamed "grandma's kitchen slave". When my grandmother moved over here from Italy she did not speak English (almost 60 years later, some days it's debatable whether she does even now!), she knew no one other than her husband, but she got hooked in with the Italian community in nearby Vancouver, Canada (about 45 min. north) and we had many "honorary relatives" from Canada who would come down for weekends and parties. I could write a whole blog post about Bruna, she's in her 80's now and has lived in the same apartment in East Vancouver for decades. Never married, loves to drink and gamble, picture the stereotype of an old Italian spinster who loves a good brandy and to argue about politics and you've got Bruna. My mom remembers Bruna coming and staying at their house when she was young, Bruna would be doing laundry, cooking, ironing, whatever needed to be done. I like to joke that Bruna was paying off some secret mafia related debt to my grandparents for years and years by doing domestic work but she was probably just a lonely older lady with no family of her own so she was happy to help out in exchange for companionship. Who knows. Anyways, her and my grandmother would get together several times a year for an all-out lasagna making marathon.

I wish I had paid more attention to this when I was a kid. I wish I had watched them make the sauce, roll out the fresh pasta dough, assemble the huge hotel pans of delicious lasagna goodness. But I didn't, I ate that stuff, along with the rest of my cousins, like there was a never-ending supply. In 2001, my grandmother was making a batch of lasagna when she got the phonecall that her oldest son, my uncle Benny had died from a sudden and very unexpected heart attack. She has not made lasagna since that day, that is how powerful the memory is. She says the smell would make her sick now. I was 26 then and had not yet grasped that things and people from my childhood would not be around forever. I grew up in a small town that never seemed to change fast enough when I was growing up and all of a sudden things were starting to disappear that I assumed would always be around. A lot of these things I associate with food - as I lose people in my life, move to new places, etc. I have taught myself to cook things as a way to hold onto memories of people and places I love. I can make my mother's beef stroganoff from memory now, one of my favorite foods growing up. I spent years trying to make my grandmother's very basic chicken soup but pretty much have it down, I can make a mean tater-tot casserole just like my aunt Linda, tollhouse cookie bars just like my mom's and this past winter I spent a few weekends trying to make a cookie bar like I used to beg for every time we went to Nordstrom as a kid.

A couple of weeks before Easter, my grandfather passed away. He was my hero in so many ways and a man who taught me so much about life, family, business, food, and hockey - among other things. He would have turned 80 on April 14th, I always associate his birthday with Easter because we would frequently have a big family get together to celebrate both holidays at once. For Easter this year, thousands of miles away from my family - I wanted my grandmother's lasagna for dinner. I wanted to remember what I consider to be my family's signature dish, feel connected to those memories of big family dinners, and celebrate the life of my grandpa with one of his favorite foods.

So after researching various recipes I chose a recipe for a Bolognese sauce from, I bought some semolina flour which had a simple pasta recipe on the package and I set out Easter Sunday to make a lasagne.

First up, sauce. I started cooking the meat sauce early in the day to let it simmer for several hours. It started like this:

and then ended up like this:

It smelled exactly like I remember my grandma's sauce, meaty and rich. I was feeling good that maybe I was actually going to do this.

Then it was time to make the pasta - I was nervous but it ended up being so easy and since I was making a lasagna that would be layered with sauce and cheese, I didn't have to worry about cutting the noodles so they looked perfect and pretty!

Eggs, water, olive oil, flour and salt

Now, my pasta did have more of a "rustic" look than more experienced pasta chefs would make! But it worked and I chose to immediately make the lasagna and let the noodles cook in the dish rather than boil first because they were fresh and wouldn't take long at all to cook. A layer of sauce, pasta, a little Parmigiano-Reggiano, bechamel sauce, repeat.

Waiting for it to bake and then cool a little before eating was torture - the whole house smelled amazing. The first bite took me right back to my childhood and my family and it turned out to be the perfect way to feel connected to my family when I'm far away.

I'm heading out to Colorado in a few days, meeting up with family at my sister's house for a few days. I'm looking forward to making the lasagna for everyone and enjoying some some great times with great food.