There are two kinds of people who make messes in the kitchen–those who cook and those who prepare meals because they have to eat.
Anna, our Latvian/Russian daughter-in-law, is one who cooks. All the women in her family chop, stir, taste, and serve wholesome food. From a young age she learned from her grandmother and mother before beginning to experiment on her own.
The cooking gene skipped around in our family. My grandmother cooked. My daughter cooks. My mother prepared food that fed us. Joy of cooking doesn’t fill me either.
For most of my life, I never made lasagne. To me, béchamel sauce is like wallpaper paste. Bolognese is so heavy with meat and thick with canned tomatoes. Then, all those layers of rubbery pasta–simply too much of everything.
Then Anna made what she called Latvian Lasagne for Christmas Eve dinner one year. It was a recipe she invented. The origins began while she was a student in university. It evolved as her life changed and each improvement was sparked by an episode of love.
In 2007 Anna left Riga, Latvia to attend Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom. She bought a used book called Simple Pasta for one pound Sterling. It featured a Bolognese recipe, full of vegetables, which she cooked for herself and friends in their shared living quarters. They poured it as a sauce over pasta or ate as a hearty stand-alone main course. It was nourishing and inexpensive on a budget.
The Next Episode:
For a time, there was a German boyfriend. His mother was a wonderful cook who took pride in her meals. Once, while Anna was visiting, lasagne was served, but it was a disaster. The green-colored pasta was undercooked and crunchy, the sauce, dry and tasteless. Three sons complained loudly. There was drama. German mother, humiliated by criticism, slammed her hand down on the table and left the room, taking a full bottle of wine with her.
Anna thought the recipe could be improved. She began by using her already delicious sauce, layered it with thin, flat sheets of pasta and baked it in the oven.
The Final Episode:
A new relationship bloomed between Anna and our son, Adam. He told her I said he should eat something green everyday. So they began adding fresh spinach and basil leaves into the lasagne layers. He suggested that a bit more cheese might enhance it. This became his part of the assembly. Together, they improved the recipe to its final evolution and, soon after, began a new life together. Letting Go In Latvia
November 2015, in the first days after the terrorist shootings in Paris, cooking this recipe offered me respite from the shock of a devastating event. Planned violence at several popular cafés and the Bataclan concert theatre occurred on a Friday night. Everyone in Paris was tender and raw. Friends from the United States were arriving on vacation. We had planned to take them out for dinner in our neighborhood.
Eating out was the last thing anyone felt like doing. Instead, I shopped in the morning on my eerily quiet and deserted market street. Then spent the afternoon meditatively chopping, sautéing, and stirring a bubbling pot of sauce. I set a formal table, assembled, and baked Anna’s lasagne for our guests. It was focused and calming, cooking food for friends we hadn’t seen for many years.
That evening, six of us sat around the table, warmed by candles, nourishing food, friendship, and conversation. It was the right blend of the right ingredients and the right recipe. I remember everything, even now, entwined as it was in those circumstances of the time.
With our dual-culture family in Paris with us this Christmas, we will chop, stir, and assemble layers of Latvian Lasagne on Christmas Eve. It’s a new family holiday tradition.
Even if you have your own traditional holiday meals, this lasagne recipe is one of the very best cold weather comfort foods for family or guests.
Everything about the result is worth the mess it creates the kitchen.
Ingredients for Bolognese:
- 2 large carrots, diced
- 1 large onion, diced
- 4 large stalks celery, diced
- 6 large mushrooms, chopped in half, then sliced
- 6 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1/2 lb. thin slices of bacon, chopped [I use center cut bacon]
- 1 lb. lean ground beef [5 -10% fat]
- 1 large can or 2 regular size cans diced tomatoes in juice
- 2 C. red marinara sauce
- 2/3 cup red wine
- 2/3 cup milk
- 1 T. dried oregano
- 1 T. dried basil
- Fresh ground pepper
- Red pepper flakes [optional]
Ingredients for the Layers:
- Red sauce of choice, ~2 C. This is approximate, but use an amount that when mixed with the white sauce covers the casserole to the edges.
- White Alfredo or lasagne sauce of choice, ~1 C.
- 8 oz. Italian blend cheese, grated
- 8 oz. mozzarella cheese, grated
- Baby spinach or torn up leaves of regular spinach
- Fresh or dried lasagne noodles, enough for 3 layers in casserole dish Use thin, flat sheets of pasta, rather than the wavy variety.
Making the Bolognese:
- Heat 2 T. olive oil in large saucepan over medium heat.
- Sauté onion until translucent.
- Add carrots and celery. Cook until softened.
- Add chopped bacon and cook until it turns pink.
- Add ground beef. Cook and stir until it turns brown.
- Add red wine, reduce heat and simmer until ½ has evaporated.
- Add milk and do the same thing.
- Stir in canned tomatoes with juice, marinara sauce, chopped garlic, sliced mushrooms, dried spices and fresh ground pepper.
- Keep stirring and mix everything together well.
- Turn heat to low for 45 minutes to 1 hour until mixture is very thick.
- Take off heat and set aside.
This sauce can be used with any type of pasta.
- Wipe bottom and sides of a deep-sided casserole dish lightly with olive oil.
- Place a layer of noodles on the bottom. Break dry noodles to fit evenly in pan.
- Spread one layer of sauce over noodles.
- Sprinkle a sparse layer of grated cheeses over sauce.
- Add a layer of fresh spinach, as much as you wish, and a few mushroom slices if you kept any aside.
- Cover with another layer of noodles.
- Repeat layers one more time.
- Cover all with noodle sheets.
- Mix red and white sauces over top and spread to edges of pan.
- Cover with remaining cheese, as generously as you desire.
- Bake 350 F. for convection oven [385 F. for gas oven] for 60 minutes. If pasta sheets are fresh, 30 minutes cooking time. Keep an eye on it. When top is browning and bubbly, check that noodles are cooked all the way through. Cover top lightly with foil if cheese is too brown before noodles are tender. Remove from oven and let sit 5-10 minutes before cutting into squares and serving.
Serve with salad and fresh baguette. Decant a red wine from Burgundy or pour a Chablis if you prefer white. Light candles. Sit around the table for a long, relaxing evening.
- Purists will note this is not Italian style lasagne. Anna describes it more as a “pasta cake”. She believes cheese is what makes the whole thing delicious. Adam still does the cheesing at home. She usually thinks he overdoes it, but then says it turns out great.
- You can make it non-dairy by eliminating milk, white sauce and cheeses. It then becomes a tasty red-only-pasta-cake.
- You could make it vegetarian by eliminating bacon and beef. However, bacon adds something sublime to the sauce.
- No added salt. Bacon and cheese are enough.
There is flexibility in personal touches. I usually put red pepper flakes on the table because I never know other’s preference for spiciness. Sometimes I sprinkle them inside the layers.