Love and Layers of Lasagne

There are two kinds of people who make messes in the kitchen–those who cook and those who simply prepare meals.

Anna, our Latvian/Russian daughter-in-law, is one who cooks. All the women in her family chop, combine, stir, taste, and serve wholesome food from scratch. From a very young age she watched and learned from her grandmother and mother before beginning to experiment on her own.

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The cooking gene skipped around in our family. My grandmother cooked. My daughter cooks. My mother prepared food that fed us. Joy of cooking didn’t inhabit me either.

Because I care about nutrition and eating well, I put in the time required for meal prep during the years when everyone was living at home and hungry. Friends who loved stirring up tasty concoctions everyday were a regular source of inspiration. I copied their easiest ideas. One-dish meals, everything mixed together-protein, veggies and carbs, were my best efforts. This was also efficient because meals could be made in large enough quantities for leftovers.

I have never lusted for or spent any time making lasagne. To my taste, béchamel sauce is like eating wallpaper paste, bolognaise sauce so heavy with meat and thick chunks of canned tomatoes. Then, those layers of rubbery pasta–simply too much of everything.

One December, several years ago, Anna made what she called Latvian Lasagne for our Christmas Eve dinner. It was a recipe she invented. The origins began while she was a student in university. It evolved as circumstances in her life changed. Each improvement was sparked by an episode of love.

The Beginning Episode:

In 2007 Anna left Riga, Latvia to attend Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom. While there, she bought a book for one pound Sterling called Simple Pasta. She found her bolognaise recipe and cooked it many times for herself and friends in their shared living quarters. They poured it as a sauce over different kinds of pasta or ate it as a hearty stand-alone meat and vegetable main course.

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The Second Episode:

There was a German boyfriend for a few years. His mother was a wonderful cook who took enormous pride in her meals. Anna enjoyed many excellent dinners in their home. One time, lasagne was served. But, it was a disaster. The green colored pasta was undercooked and crunchy, the sauce too dry and tasteless. All three sons complained loudly. There was drama as their mother, humiliated by criticism, slammed her hand on the table, stood up and left the room, taking a bottle of wine with her.

Anna thought the recipe could be improved. She began by using her already perfected bolognaise sauce, layered it with thin, flat sheets of pasta and baked it in the oven.

The Final, Most Important Episode:

A new relationship bloomed between Anna and our son, Adam. He told her his mother said he should eat something green everyday. So they began adding fresh spinach and basil leaves into the lasagne layers. Then he suggested a bit more cheese might enhance the final result. This became his special part of the assembly. Collaboratively, they improved the recipe to its’ final evolution and, soon after, began a new life together. Letting Go In Latvia

It was during that Christmas Eve dinner several Decembers ago that my taste buds took serious notice. This was lasagne I wanted to eat again. It wasn’t ponderously heavy. It was slightly sweetened with the addition of bacon, flavor-enhancing vegetables, liquefied and mellowed with milk and red wine reductions. The ingredients blended smoothly, beautifully, yet distinctively. You couldn’t help but comment on the wonderful combination of flavors. Everything worked in this dish. I wanted to know how to cook it.

November 2015, in the days after the terrorist shootings in Paris, Latvian Lasagne offered me respite from the shock waves that followed. Planned attacks on several cafes and the Bataclan concert theatre occurred on a Friday night. Everyone in Paris was tender and raw after the devastating events. Friends from the U.S. were arriving on vacation. We had already arranged to take them out to a restaurant for dinner.

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la belle equipe memorial after paris shootings november 2015

Eating out socially in a public setting was the last thing anyone felt like doing. Instead, I shopped in the morning on my eerily quiet market street and spent the afternoon meditatively chopping, sautéing, and stirring a bubbling pot of sauce. Then I went about setting a formal dining table, assembling and baking Anna’s lasagne to share with our guests. It was an activity I needed, focused and calming, to cook for friends we love and hadn’t seen in many years.

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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 can’t forget it, even now, entwined in the world circumstances…

This month we are approaching a holiday season where family and friends gather in celebration and familiar food is often featured. Traditions in our family have benefitted from each overseas location where we have lived. Merging ideas from other geographies and people who became part of our extended family have contributed to our own evolving traditions.

With our dual culture family with us in Paris this holiday season, we will chop, stir, and assemble the layers of Latvian Lasagne together on Christmas Eve.

Even if you have your own traditional holiday meals, this is one of the very best cold weather comfort foods to cook for family or dinner guests.

Everything about the end result is worth the mess in the kitchen!

LATVIAN LASAGNE

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Some of the basics: flat sheets of pasta, spices, canned tomatoes in juice, white and red sauces, red wine, milk

 Ingredients for Bolognaise:

  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 6 stalks celery, chopped
  • 6 large mushrooms, chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 300 gm bacon, chopped [In France, I use lardons which are already chopped chunks of bacon]
  • 500 gm [1 pound] lean ground beef [5% fat]
  • 600 gm or 1 large can of tomatoes in juice
  • 150 cc [2/3 cup] red wine
  • 150 cc [2/3 cup] milk
  • 1 T. dried oregano
  • 1 T. dried basil
  • Fresh ground pepper
  • Red pepper flakes [optional]
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spinach, mushrooms, celery, carrots, onion, garlic, grated cheeses, fresh basil

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chopped and ready to cook

Ingredients for the Layers:

  •  Red sauce of choice, ~400 gm [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, ~300 gm [As above.]
  • 250 gm mature salty cheddar cheese, grated
  • 250 gm mozzarella cheese, grated
  • Baby spinach or torn up leaves of regular spinach
  • Fresh basil leaves [optional]
  • Fresh or dried lasagna noodles, enough for 3 layers in casserole dish [Do not use wavy edged noodles. Anna says these are ugly. Use thin, flat sheets of pasta.]

Making the Bolognaise Sauce:

  1. Heat 2 T. olive oil in large saucepan over medium heat.
  2. Sauté onion until translucent.
  3. Add carrots and celery and cook until softened.
  4. Add bacon and cook until it turns pink.
  5. Add ground beef. Cook and stir until it turns brown.
  6. Add red wine, reduce heat and simmer until ½ has evaporated.
  7. Add milk and do the same thing.
  8. Stir in canned tomatoes with juice, garlic, fresh ground black pepper, mushrooms and dried spices.
  9. Keep stirring and mix everything together well.
  10. Turn heat to low for 45 minutes to one hour, cooking until mixture is thick.
  11. Take off heat and set aside.

This sauce can be used with any type of pasta.

Assembling the Layers:

  1. Wipe bottom and sides of a deep-sided casserole dish lightly with olive oil.
  2. Place a layer of noodles on the bottom. Break dry noodles to fit evenly in pan.
  3. Spread one layer of bolognaise sauce over noodles.
  4. Sprinkle a sparse layer of grated cheeses over sauce.
  5. Add a layer of fresh spinach [and a few mushroom slices if you kept any aside.]
  6. Add 5 leaves of fresh basil, optional.
  7. Cover with another layer of noodles.
  8. Repeat layers one more time.
  9. Cover all with noodle sheets.
  10. Mix red and white sauces over top and spread to edges of pan.
  11. Cover with remaining cheese, as generously as you desire.
  12. Bake 180 C. [350 F.] 30 minutes for fresh pasta, 60 minutes for dried. [Noodles must be cooked all the way through. No crunchy pasta like German mama!]
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first layer of noodles, sauce, light cheese, spinach

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mushrooms sprinkled in

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grating salty english cheddar

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pouring red and white sauces over top layer and spread to edges

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adam fine tunes the cheese layer

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out of the oven and straight to table

Serve immediately with salad and fresh baguette. Decant a Volnay red wine from Burgundy or serve Chablis if you prefer white. Light candles. Savor everything and everyone around the table for a long, relaxing evening.

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latvian lasagne dinner chez nous, recently, for friends

Final notes:

  1. 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 extra delicious. Adam still does the cheesing at home. She usually thinks he overdoes it, but then says it always turns out great.
  2. You can make it non-dairy by eliminating milk, white sauce and cheeses. It then becomes a tasty “red-only-pasta-cake”.
  3. You could make it vegetarian by eliminating bacon and beef. I don’t actually know how that would taste. The bacon adds something subtle and sublime.
  4. There is no added salt. Bacon and salty cheddar are enough.

There is flexibility in personal touches. I usually put red pepper flakes on the table because I never know other people’s preference for spiciness, but sometimes I sprinkle them inside the layers.

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anna jerofejeva ulfers

Other stories about Latvia and Anna’s family: Begin With Russian DumplingsShrooming in LatviaLetting Go In Latvia

Comfort Food for Cal

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what comforts cal

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what comforts wendy

comfort food: n. food that is simply prepared, enjoyable to eat, and makes one feel better emotionally. [Collins English Dictionary, HarperCollins Publishers]

My father was the fourth born of six children, but the only boy. His oldest sister made him an uncle, for the first time, when he was ten years old. That nephew, my cousin Cal, is 84 this month. He doesn’t see so well anymore, yet still spends several hours a day at his law practice, serving clients he continues to outlive. His wife of more than 60 years, Joan, is one of my favorite people. She says that Cal has never been motivated by food, or by his appetites.

Shortly after my first story was published, she wrote to say, “I am actually doing a bit of cooking. Going out to eat has lost some of its charm. My efforts are very basic, as Cal doesn’t like anything fancy. His favorite dish from Bess [his mother] is creamed tuna and peas on saltine crackers. The bar is not high. Cal also enjoys canned baked beans on buttered white bread. I use the vegetarian beans, but he thinks they are “pork”. I prefer my tuna and peas on toast points, thank you. We look forward to new ideas from your blog.”

I have no desire to eat creamed tuna and canned peas on crackers, toast points or anything. But Cal’s preferences started me thinking about the notion of “comfort food”. There is no single explanation for how our taste preferences arise or even change. It must be tied to our senses, our experiences, and certainly to our emotions. Thoughts of home, family, love, hate, sickness, allergic reactions, holidays, sadness, grief, punishment, or contentment can trigger a taste memory–by longing or loathing.

Cousin Cal is truly a comfort food creature, formed by his mother’s cooking, honed by childhood tastes that matured into strong adult preferences. His eating experiences are limited to the USA Midwest, highlighted by cuisine of a certain generation.

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Joan says he is obsessed with Jell-O. th Jell-O with crushed pineapple and nuts, Jell-O with strawberries, bananas and nuts, and, at Christmastime, Jell-O made by rolling cream cheese into balls covered with nuts somehow meant to resemble snow balls in red gelatin. I’m trying to visualize what this looks like. Less certain I could eat it.

Cal also loves sweets. Chocolate pudding, cupcakes, or butter cookies like Aunt Bess used to make. Joan wrote, “Tapioca pudding is his favorite dessert. His mother made it from scratch, separating the eggs, beating the whites stiff, and folding them in after it had cooled somewhat. I make this from scratch when I see pigs fly by the window.”

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In similar Midwest fashion, I was raised on meat, potatoes, and over-processed vegetables from cans. Uncountable family meals spent spitting vegetables into a paper napkin and then [hopefully] into the garbage without being caught. Now, thankfully, my food preferences cut a wider swath simply because we moved overseas in the 1980s. Spices, particularly fresh chilies, in ethnic cuisine from India, Malaysia, Thailand, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore happily reformed my taste buds, and more.

Life became an eating adventure that changed my definition of comfort food forever. It should awaken my senses with spicy flavors, stirring memories of literally sweating my way through an Asian food stall.

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fresh or dried, equally good

Cal and I are as opposite as any two people could be in what excites us at the table. He eats his vegetables “well cooked”, his fried egg sandwich only on white toast, and of course the Jell-O thing.

As Joan and I talked about Cal’s food likes and dislikes, other family eating lore tumbled out. She told of my father’s second sister, Dorothy [Aunt Dot], who suffered from a “nervous condition”, outlived two husbands, and never had children. She had some peculiar phobias and was not much of a cook either.  To family potluck gatherings she always brought her signature Pork and Bean dish. This was prepared by opening several cans of baked beans containing cubes of pork fat.  Then she added raw onions, catsup and molasses. The whole mess was baked for awhile in the oven. The onions were always “crunchy” and hated by small children. Perhaps everyone else too.

We lost track of time as I took notes and enjoyed being with cousins I don’t see very often. Cal called Joan’s phone to ask if she had forgotten about him and his lunch. Later that day she sent an email with a few more thoughts ending with, “Cal is such a Prussian! The trains must run on time even if they have nowhere to go. However, upon seeing the glorious cupcakes you sent home to him, he was easily placated.” You have to love a man who softens when favorite sweets are offered.

I asked extended family members to talk of their comfort foods when we were at a reunion last summer. Choices ran the gamut of American food tastes. Friends from other cultures, including my daughter-in-law who is Russian/Latvian, offered a more varied palate. But it is this quote, from an overseas American friend, that provided the most surprisingly unique definition:

“My comfort IS food. I love to have my mouth FULL. A bite that causes the cheeks to protrude like two small Buddha bellies is a sign of bliss. I am comforted by eating with my hands…likely linked to Neanderthal kin who subdued dinner with their bare hands. There is nothing more satisfying than having a chokehold on a stuffed burrito or pinning the buns of a burger into submission before taking an oversized bite. Wrestling with my food gives both the victor [me] and the vanquished a sense of exhausted satisfaction, after the battle.”

It seems unlikely that Cal and I will ever share similar food tastes, but that doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that we are linked by the way our choices make us feel. Satisfyingly nourished, emotionally content, warmly loved.

Two recipes; one sweetly bland and one very well seasoned.

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lineup of opposing food ingredients, cousin versus cousin

CAL’S TAPIOCA PUDDING

  • 1/3 c. granulated white sugar
  • 3 T. minute tapioca
  • 2 ¾ C. milk
  • 1 egg beaten
  • 1 t. vanilla extract

Mix first 4 ingredients in saucepan and let sit 5 minutes. Cook on medium heat. Stir constantly until it reaches a full boil. Remove from heat. Stir in vanilla. Cool 20 minutes and stir. Makes 4 servings. Eat warm or cold. Top with seasonal fruit if desired.

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tapioca undressed

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casually dressed

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well dressed

WENDY’S SPICY EGGS-ON-RICE

  • 1 serving rice, any flavor, placed in a bowl. Leftover rice works well.
  • 1 or 2 eggs cooked in butter, turned over easy for a few seconds at the end.
  • Sprinkle eggs liberally with red pepper flakes or fresh chopped chilies. Salt and pepper to taste.
  • Slide eggs and any remaining oil from cooking on top of rice. Take two knives and cut eggs into pieces so yolks run into the rice.
  • Garnish copiously with chopped cherry tomatoes.
  • Eat with a Chinese ceramic spoon.
  • Optional garnish: equal parts chopped garlic and ginger, browned in olive oil.
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ginger and garlic garnish, optional but deliciously optimal

For a blander, easy to digest version, simply leave out the chilies, garlic and ginger. Just eggs on rice. Very nice.

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