Ah, the holidays. Already? How did we get here so quickly?
For some, this is a cherished, happy, family-filled time of year. For others, the holidays can be a bit of a gray cloud over our heads. They have been both for me through the years. But no matter where I have been in my life, food and entertaining always have been a big part of my holiday season. And figuring out ways to make that as easy as possible (so, I can minimize the crazy as much as possible) is my new M.O.
For me, finding food that can be made ahead of time works really well. It’s even better if it can be frozen.
It is a nearly perfect food for entertaining: It can be made ahead, it can be frozen, it feeds a crowd, it’s a one-dish meal (you really only need a salad to make it complete), and leftovers can be reheated for several days afterward.
As many of you know, this past September, I embarked on a culinary tour of Northern Italy. I spent time eating, drinking wine and exploring the Emilia-Romagna region. It is in the north and home to cities like Bologna, Moden and Parma. It also is home to three classic Italian food traditions: Ragu sauce, balsamic vinegar and Parmesan cheese.
While I was there, I took a pasta-making class, and let me tell you, Italians take their pasta seriously. Very seriously. And every region or even city has a type of pasta. In Emilia-Romagna, they are known for tortellini; cappelletti (literally “little hats” — it is another stuffed pasta that looks similar to tortellini); tagliatelle (long ribbons of pasta) and lasagna.
We made long sheets of pasta in the class, rolled out by hand — thinner and thinner — turning and turning, making sure it didn’t stick to the surface, until it was as thin as a credit card. These are the layers of pasta that make a traditional Italian lasagna — of which, I was surprised to learn — there are many different varieties and many of them vegetarian.
Here are just a few:
Lasagna alla Norma. This is a Sicilian dish that includes lasagna noodles layered with thinly sliced eggplant, ricotta salata cheese, tomato sauce and basil.
Lasagna alla Genovese. This hails from the city of Genoa in the Liguria region, which is known for its basil pesto, so this version is meatless and made with a pesto sauce.
Lasagna alla Napoletana. It is from Naples and typically is served only during carnivale, the season before Lent. This is because it is so decadent: Ragu sauce, ricotta cheese and meatballs.
Taleggio lasagna. From Treviso. It is a vegetarian lasagna starring raddichhio, Taleggio cheese, shallots, mushrooms. Add pancetta (Italian bacon) if you’d like some meat.
But the most famous lasagna of all comes from Bologna: Lasagna Bolognese al Forno. It is made with a ragu meat sauce, beachemel and most distinctively green spinach-colored pasta sheets. How festive! And here is the best part: It is a very traditionally served on Christmas Day.
We didn’t make this in my pasta class, I am sorry to say. But this is one of the dishes I am considering for our upcoming family holiday. I will refer to my bible of Italian cooking, “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking,” to get the details right. The cookbook is by Marcella Hazan. She is to Italian cooking as Julia Child was to French cuisine.
All the kids will be back in town, so I think it might be fun to make this from scratch as a group. (And now that I think about it, that sounds like that might even be the easiest way to make a holiday meal — recruit help.)
You also might want to seriously consider serving lasagna this year, too. So what if you get a few raised eyebrows around the holiday table. Just tell them it’s an Italian tradition.
Hand-rolled Spinach Pasta
Yield: Approximately 1 pound fresh pasta — four standard portions.
What you’ll need
• 1½ cup unbleached flour
• 2 large eggs
• 5 ounces frozen spinach or ½ pound fresh spinach, cooked and squeezed as dry as possible and chopped fine with a knife
What you’ll do
Pour flour onto work surface, shape into a mound and scoop out a deep hollow in its center. Break the eggs into the hollow, and add the chopped spinach.
Beat the eggs lightly with a fork for about 2 minutes, as though you were making an omelet. Draw some of the flour over the eggs, mixing it in with the fork a little at at time, until the eggs are no longer runny. Draw the sides of the mound together with your hands, but push some of the flour to one side, keeping it out of the way until you find you absolutely need it. Work the eggs and flour together, using your fingers and the palms of your hands, until you have a smoothly integrated mixture. If it is still moist, work in more flour.
When the mass feels good and you think it does not require more flour, wash your hands, dry them and run a simple test: Press your thumb deep into the center of the mass. If it comes out clean, without any sticky matter on it, no more flour is needed. Put the egg and flour mass to one side, scrape the work surface absolutely clear of any loose or caked bits of flour and of any crumbs and get ready to knead.
Return to the mass of flour, eggs and spinach. Push forward against it using the heel of your palm, keeping your fingers bent. Fold the mass in half, give it a half turn, press hard against it with the heel of your palm again, and repeat the operation. Make sure that you keep turning the ball of dough in the same direction, either clockwise or counterclockwise, as you prefer. When you have kneaded for 8 minutes and the dough is very smooth, let it rest for 10 minutes, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap or in the fridge for an hour.
Then, start rolling it out, making sure to stretch and turn the dough as you go until you have rolled it to be the thickness of a credit card. Add a little flour if starts to stick to the surface, but just a pinch or two each turn.
— Adapted from “Essentials of Italian Cooking,” by Marcella Hazan
Leslie Shalabi is the co-founder of Convivium Urban Farmstead, a Dubuque-based nonprofit organization based on the idea of creating community around food. A life-long lover of food and entertaining, she is dedicated to helping people find ways to connect through the universal languages of food and hospitality.