Here is my favorite recipe for lasagna. It is different from the classic layers of noodles, meat sauce, ricotta and mozzarella. While I love the gooey goodness of that version of one of the world’s favorite foods, this recipe is another, more classically Italian kind of lasagna. On the one hand it is a much lighter dish–but at the same time this version has a really wonderful depth of flavor that comes from taking the time and trouble to make a long-simmered meat sauce—a classic Italian ragu. If you’re having a special dinner, this is a great centerpiece of a meal that can consist of a lovely green salad, crusty bread with lightly salted butter, and a purchased or homemade tiramisu for dessert.
In an ideal world where time is never an issue, this dish is most delicious with homemade lasagna noodles. I have made it both ways and the homemade pasta is simply the best. But don’t stress about it, the no boil lasagna noodles work just fine and the dish is still light and delicious. To make this in advance, you can make the meat sauce and the white sauce a day or two before, just gently warm the meat sauce over low heat so that it is stirrable when you are ready to assemble the dish—which you can do early in the day or even the day before.
Special Occasion Lasagna
Ingredients for the meat sauce:
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
¼ pound pancetta, cubed or sliced
1 pound ground veal
1 pound ground pork
¼ cup tomato paste
1 cup whole milk
1 cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Ingredients for the white sauce:
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
4 cups whole milk
1 ½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg or ¼ teaspoon ground
1 cup finely grated Parmesan-Reggiano
Make the meat sauce:
Heat oil and butter in a 6- to 8-quart wide heavy pot or Dutch oven over moderate heat until butter is melted. Add the carrot, onion, celery, and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender but not browned, 10 to 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, put the pancetta in a food processor and pulse until finely chopped.
When the vegetables are tender, increase the heat to high and stir in the veal, pork, and pancetta. Cook, stirring occasionally and breaking up any lumps, until the meat is no longer pink. Stir in the tomato paste, milk, and wine, bring to a simmer, and gently simmer, uncovered, over low heat, stirring occasionally, until almost all of the liquid has evaporated but meat is still moist, 1 to 1 ½ hours. Stir in salt and pepper and remove from heat.
Make the white sauce:
Start by melting the butter in a 2 to 3 quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat. Add the flour while whisking and continue to whisk until the mixture is a light golden brown, for about 4 or 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the milk in a 1 to 1 ½ quart saucepan until hot but not quite boiling. Add the milk to the flour mixture, one cup at a time, whisking constantly until the sauce is very smooth. Bring the sauce to a boil, still whisking, and cook for 30 more seconds. Remove the sauce from heat and whisk in the salt and nutmeg. Cover with a buttered round of wax paper (buttered side down) and cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally.
Assemble the lasagna:
Spread 1 cup of the meat sauce over the bottom of a 9 x 13 inch rectangular casserole dish or lasagna pan and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of the Parmesan cheese. Cover with no boil lasagna sheets and spread ½ cup of the white sauce over the pasta.
Repeat the layers two or three more times—depending on the depth of your dish (meat sauce, cheese, lasagna sheets, and white sauce), ending with 1 cup of white sauce to completely cover the top layer of lasagna sheets. Sprinkle the top of the dish with the remaining cheese and lightly cover the dish with aluminum foil.
In a preheated 350 degree oven, bake the lasagna, covered, for 45 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to bake until the top is nicely golden in spots and the sauces are bubbling, about 15 more minutes. Remove from the oven and let stand for 10 minutes before serving.