Lasagna with Meat Ragu


My aunt, being Neapolitan, always made a southern-Italian style lasagna. Her’s was more restrained, with fewer fillings, than others I’ve had or read about, but it followed the classic formula of a long-simmered meat sauce, mozzarella, ricotta beaten with egg, parsley, and pecorino, and dried pasta noodles. In a 9” x 13” baking pan, she’d spread a thin layer of sauce, then laid down a layer of boiled noodles, coated that with a layer of ricotta and a few slices of mozzarella, followed by a coating of sauce, a sprinkling of cheese, and then on to the next layer, until she reached a total of four or five layers. The hardest part was waiting the 20 minutes after it was baked so that the lasagna could be cut more easily and served in slices. Just the thought of it is making my mouth water. Never served on a weekday, my aunt’s lasagna was reserved for holidays (even Thanksgiving), some birthdays, and once in a while for a Sunday dinner.

It wasn’t until the 70s, when northern Italian cooking swept the US, supplanting familiar Italian-American dishes with their northern counterparts, that I encountered Marcella Hazan’s classic Bolognese version of lasagna. It replaced the tomato dominated sauce with a more complex, meat-centric one and the beaten ricotta with a creamy béchamel sauce. Gone too were the pasta noodles superseded by thin sheets of fresh pasta; nutty Parmigiano-Reggiano took the place of the saltier pecorino; and mozzarella didn’t even make its way into the mix. Given the time it took to make this version, however, I found myself preparing lasagna far less often than my aunt had.

But recently, I came across a recipe for a weeknight lasagna by television’s Rachael Ray. Her version uses a 30-minute meat ragu, a classic béchamel, and no-boil pasta sheets as an alternative to home-made egg pasta. So on a Wednesday night, I though why not give it a try.

To give her relatively quick-cooked ragu more intense flavor, she uses tomato paste and chicken stock as the base of her sauce, which begins with the traditional soffritto (sautéed onion, celery, and carrot). Veal and beef, mixed with rosemary, sage, and bay leaf, are then lightly browned in the same pot, followed by a splash of dry white wine. A good amount of tomato paste is then incorporated into the meat, followed by three cups of chicken stock. The sauce is then simmered for about 30 minutes, or until thick.

While the sauce is cooking, you can prepare the béchamel, which starts with a light roux and ends with the addition of warm milk, whisked and cooked gently until it thickens.

The baking pan gets a thin coating the cream sauce, which is then topped with the no-boil pasta sheets. These get thin coatings of béchamel and ragu and a sprinkling of Parmigiano. These steps are repeated until you have four layers.

The lasagna is baked in a 375°F oven for an hour, or until browned and bubbling. (If using fresh pasta, the cooking time is 30-35 minutes.)

The finished lasagna
The finished lasagna

Although I was skeptical at first, (the reason for so few photos) I was more than pleased with the results. Nevertheless, I did make some changes. I added some canned San Marzano tomatoes, about a cup, to the sauce to give it a slightly brighter tomato flavor. To achieve what I thought was the appropriate thickness for a ragu, I cooked my sauce for almost an hour. In place of some ground cloves to be added with the herbs to the meat, I substituted the more traditional freshly ground nutmeg.

Purists among my readers may cringe, as did I, at some of the elements of this recipe. And while it may be a far cry from my aunt’s as well as from Hazan’s classic Bolognese version, it makes a wonderful baked-pasta dish for a weeknight supper.

Here’s a link to her recipe, which is accompanied by a video of her making the dish.

Wine Pairing: Nebbiolo, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

Pork Roast Braised in Milk Bolognese Style


One of my fondest memories of my years as a young academic in Boston was spending Friday evenings with a couple of colleagues, cooking dinner, and watching “Dallas” and “Falcon Crest.” As we dined and intermittently glanced at the television, we’d offer a running, often cynical, commentary on the show’s lack of any redeeming social value and eventually wind up discussing politics and thus missing the end of the show.

Since I was often the guest, my friends typically prepared the meal, which more often than not was a roast beef. One evening, however, I offered to cook at their apartment. During these years, the late 70s, Marcella Hazan was my go-to authority on authentic Italian cooking; her two volumes of The Classic Italian Cookbook provided me with many recipes that would stun my friends with their simplicity and flavor. So the night I cooked for our Friday get-together I chose Hazan’s Bolognese-style pork roast braised in milk. I could start at 6PM and it would be ready just in time for “Dallas.”

This recipe may be one of her most popular; versions and tales of it abound on the Internet. I believe it first appeared in her the first volume of her classic series. It was so simple: brown a small pork roast in olive oil and butter; season with salt and pepper; add milk, cover the pot with the lid slightly ajar and braise for about 3 hours. When finished, remove the roast, skim the fat from sauce, and serve. The roast was moist and succulent and the milk turned into a sauce of creamy brown nutlike clusters.

I noticed that in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, which is a compendium of the earlier two volumes, the procedure for cooking the roast is more complicated, calling for adding the milk at three intervals, in varying quantities. I chose, however, to follow the original method, adding all of the milk at the beginning, but followed her advice of having the butcher remove the bones from the roast to enable a more thorough browning of the meat and of cooking the bones along with the roast to maximize flavor.

Note that the size of the cooking vessel is essential to the success of this dish. The pot should be no bigger than is necessary to, in Hazan’s words, “snugly accommodate the pork,” which allows about 2/3 to 1/2 of the roast to be submerged in the milk while braising. I used a small 2.5 quart Le Creuset dutch oven.

My only real variation from her recipe is the addition of some fresh nutmeg after adding the milk. I guess this comes from following Hazan’s recipe for béchamel sauce.

Pork Loin Braised in Milk Bolognese Style Adapted from The Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan

The ingredients (missing the olive oil)
The ingredients (missing the olive oil)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
21/2 pound pork loin roast. (Have the ribs detached from the loin and split into two or three parts. Do not removed any fat from the meat. The roast should be tied. See picture below.)
Freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 cups whole milk (You may need a little more in the unlikely event that the milk evaporates too much.)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

The roast with bones separated and cut
The roast with bones separated and cut by great butcher at Dickson’s Farmstand Meats in NYC

1. Heat butter and oil over medium-high heat in a heavy-bottomed pot that that can later snugly accommodate the pork.

The browned roast
The browned roast

2. When the butter foam subsides, put in the roast fat-side down. Brown the meat evenly on all sides. If the fat is becoming very dark, lower the heat. Season the roast with salt and pepper. Add the milk slowly to avoid it boiling over. Add the nutmeg.

The roast in the milk
The roast in the milk

3. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer, and set the lid slightly ajar. Cook slowly for about 21/2 to 3 hours, occasionally turning and basting the meat. If before the meat is fully cooked, you find that the liquid in the pot has evaporated, add another 1/2 cup of milk.

Roast simmering in the milk
Roast simmering in the milk

4. When the pork has become tender and all the milk has coagulated into small, brownish clusters, transfer the roast to a cutting board and tent with foil.

The finished roast
The finished roast

5. Tip the pot and spoon off most of the fat, being careful to leave behind all the coagulated milk clusters. Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of water and boil away the water over high heat using a wooden spoon to scrape loose cooking residues from the bottom and the sides of the pot.

The skimmed sauce

6. Carve the roast into 3/8-inch slices and arrange on warm platter. Spoon all the pot juices over the pork and serve immediately.

Wine Pairing: Dolcetto d’Alba, Dry Lambrusco