Love and Layers of Lasagne

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.

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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 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.

The Beginning:

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.

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Anna in the UK

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

It was during that Christmas Eve dinner when Adam and Anna were dating 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, lots of vegetables, liquefied and mellowed with milk and red wine reductions. The ingredients blended smoothly and distinctively. Everything worked in this dish. Now I wanted to know how to cook it.

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.

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one of the restaurants where shootings occurred, as a memorial site

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.

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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 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.



LATVIAN LASAGNE

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

 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]
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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, ~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:

  1. Heat 2 T. olive oil in large saucepan over medium heat.
  2. Sauté onion until translucent.
  3. Add carrots and celery. Cook until softened.
  4. Add chopped 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, marinara sauce, chopped garlic, sliced mushrooms, dried spices and fresh ground pepper.
  9. Keep stirring and mix everything together well.
  10. Turn heat to low for 45 minutes to 1 hour until mixture is very 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 sauce over noodles.
  4. Sprinkle a sparse layer of grated cheeses over sauce.
  5. Add a layer of fresh spinach, as much as you wish, and a few mushroom slices if you kept any aside.
  6. Cover with another layer of noodles.
  7. Repeat layers one more time.
  8. Cover all with noodle sheets.
  9. Mix red and white sauces over top and spread to edges of pan.
  10. Cover with remaining cheese, as generously as you desire.
  11. 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.
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first layer of noodles, sauce, light cheese, spinach
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mushrooms sprinkled in
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red and white sauces over top layer and spread to edges
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fine tuning the cheese on top
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out of the oven and to the table

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.

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dining room chez nous, Paris

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 delicious. Adam still does the cheesing at home. She usually thinks he overdoes it, but then says it 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. However, bacon adds something sublime to the sauce.
  4. 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.

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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

My father was the fourth of six children, but the only boy. His oldest sister, Bess, made him an uncle for the first time when he was ten years old. That nephew is my oldest cousin Cal, who turns 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 Joan wrote, “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. He enjoys canned baked beans on buttered white bread. I use the vegetarian beans, but he thinks they are ‘pork’. His favorite dish from his mother is creamed tuna and peas on saltine crackers. I prefer my tuna and peas on toast points, thank you. As you can see, the bar is not high. We look forward to new ideas from you.”

I have never eaten creamed tuna and canned peas on crackers, toast points or anything. But Cal’s preferences started me thinking about the notion of comfort food.

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

There is no single explanation for how our food preferences arise or change over the years. Yet the taste of certain food is tied to our experiences and emotions. Thoughts of home, family, love, hate, sickness, allergic reactions, holidays, sadness or happiness can trigger a taste memory of longing or loathing.

Cal is a true comfort food creature, formed by his mother’s cooking, honed by childhood likes that matured into adult preferences. His eating experiences are defined by U.S. Midwest geography and by the cuisine of a certain generation.

For example, he is obsessed with Jell-O. Jell-O filled with crushed pineapple and nuts or Jell-O filled with strawberries, bananas and nuts. At Christmastime something special–Jell-O with cream cheese rolled into balls and covered in nuts. This is meant to look like studded snow balls floating in a colored pond. Trying to visualize this, I’m certain I couldn’t eat it.

He 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. Now he enjoys a simpler pudding.”

In similar Midwest fashion, I was raised on meat, potatoes, and mushy canned vegetables boiled before serving. So many childhood meals spent spitting vegetables into a paper napkin and hoping not to get caught.

My food preferences began to cut a wider swath in adulthood when we moved overseas to Singapore in the 1980s. Spices and chilies in ethnic cuisine from India, Malaysia, Thailand, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore happily reformed my taste buds and palate.

Life became a tasting/eating adventure in Asia. I sweated my way through outdoor food stalls in heat and humidity plus the spices in whatever I was eating. It changed my definition of comfort food forever.

As Joan and I compared Cal’s food likes and dislikes, other family food lore tumbled out. My father’s second sister was Dorothy [Aunt Dot] who suffered from a “nervous condition” consisting of some strange phobias. She outlived two husbands and never had children. She also wasn’t much of a cook. At family potluck gatherings, she always brought her “signature” Pork and Bean dish. It was prepared by opening several cans of baked beans that contained cubes of pork fat. She added raw onions, catsup and molasses. The casserole was baked in the oven until warm. The onions were always “crunchy”. Children refused to eat it.

Joan and I lost track of time, talking and laughing about family food foibles. Cal called to ask if she had forgotten about him and his lunch. She left and later sent an email, “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 sweets are offered.

I surveyed other family members and friends for their comfort foods. Choices ran the usual gamut of American food tastes–cheese, pizza, ice cream, popcorn, chocolate, nothing unusual. Friends from other cultures and my Latvian daughter-in-law offered more variety in their comfort food desires.

It was our friend Alec [who is part comedian] that gave the most graphic descriptor:

 “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.

My cousin Cal and I will never share the same food preferences. Nor should we. The important thing is that Cal and I are connected by the way our comfort food choices make us feel–enjoyably nourished, emotionally content, and loved.

Two recipes for opposing tastes, one sweet and bland and one well seasoned.


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.


WENDY’S SPICY EGGS-ON-RICE

  • 1 serving leftover rice, any flavor, placed in a bowl. Easiest rice cooking recipe: hack-1-making-perfect-rice
  • Sauté 1 minced shallot in butter until softened. Add red pepper flakes or fresh chilis [optional].
  • Add 1 or 2 eggs sunny side up to shallots. Turn over easy. Sprinkle with S & P.
  • Slide eggs and butter from cooking on top of rice bowl. With spatula or knife cut into eggs so yolk melts into rice.
  • Garnish copiously with chopped tomatoes.
  • Eat with a spoon.
  • Optional garnish: equal parts chopped garlic and ginger browned in olive oil.
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ginger and garlic garnish

For a less spicy version, leave out red pepper flakes, garlic, and ginger. Just eggs on rice. Very nice.


former location of cal and wendy’s grandfather’s feed store, kirkwood, missouri