Thursday, April 20, 2006

Cooking: Lasagne.

It's late but I'm making a lasagne, for a party tomorrow. A white one, with sautéed mushrooms and zucchini layered with mozzarella cheese, noodles, and a béchamel sauce. All topped with grated parmesan cheese and baked until bubbly and golden on top. This time I borrowed a Cuisinart, because last time it took me over an hour to finely chop two pounds of mushrooms, two zucchinis, and an onion. I wanted to stab myself through the heart before I was half done, like Vatel, only with my Henckels chef's knife instead of a sword.

I think lasagne was one of the first things I learned how to cook. I must have been in middle school; this would be the one of the first real things I made, from a recipe, using the oven (previously forbidden territory, for, ahem, safety reasons). First we tried a recipe from the back of the noodle box. Your basic ground beef, tomato sauce, noodles, mozzarella and parmesan cheeses. It was good, and we made it for scores of parties. Later, my friends and I invented (in our own way) a vegetarian lasagne, a medley of vegetables, tomato sauce, ricotta cheese, tons of spinach, and a vast quantity of cheese. In the past few years we've always made the lasagne from America's Test Kitchen, a PBS cooking show that is as unintentionally hilarious as the magazine published by its producers, Cook's Illustrated. Although usually we substitute spicy Italian sausage for the ground meat in the sauce and sprinkle a little extra cheese on top. I think, for me, lasagne has always been the quintessential comfort food. Something to lift the mood, make everything cozy. It's a project for a rainy afternoon with a few hours to kill, time-consuming, from chopping vegetables to browning meat to letting the sauce simmer, then layering everything in a big dish, then the endless wait as it bakes, and then the final few minutes of impatiently sniffing at the rich, comforting aroma rising from the table until at last, it's ready to cut and you can dive in. If you don't let it cool once out of the oven, it collapses on the plate, a muddle of sauce and noodles and oozing cheese. But still delicious. I have never had a bad lasagne, at least not a bad homemade one. There have been béchamel sauces that burned (I think once we melted the plastic coating on the whisk), sauces that were too runny and caused the whole dish to sink in the middle and erupt around the edges, failure to buy enough cheese, foil that stuck to the top layer and left bare patches of tomato sauce peering glumly through islands of parmesan...and yet the end result is always good. Even if I don't follow the recipe to the letter, lasagne has never let me down. There are so many kinds, just waiting for me to try them all. I can't wait.

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