I’d like to tell you about one of mine. Laura del Principe is not a Top Chef or an Iron Chef. She doesn’t have ridiculous bleached hair or tattoos running up and down her arms or a line of cookware created in her name. The restaurant she runs with her husband is tucked away in the mountains of Abruzzo. It was not on the recently released World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. But it is on mine.
I wrote an essay about Laura and her restaurant, Plistia. It was featured as the lead story in the May 15 issue of the Chicago Tribune’s food section. This makes me happy beyond words, not so much because of the play the story got but because it gave me an opportunity to acknowledge someone whose cooking has inspired my own for years. I posted the story on my Facebook page and tweeted about it. But for those of you who haven’t had a chance to read it and would like to, here is the link.
Laura’s recipe for lasagne in brodo (lasagne in broth) ran in conjunction with the story. So many recipes these days are described as “genius,” but this one really earns it. It is composed of many layers of pasta, cheese and tiny veal meatballs. But instead of being baked in sauce, the lasagne is baked in homemade broth. The noodles and meatballs absorb the broth as the lasagne bakes. It is rich and comforting and delicate ~ truly one of the best pasta dishes I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating.
I had lasagne in brodo at Plistia last summer during a trip to Italy. When I got home, I recreated it. This is my version of Laura’s genius recipe. Yes, it is a labor of love ~ homemade noodles, homemade broth, all the rolling of the tiny meatballs. But make it anyway. Not today, but on a day when you’re looking for a good kitchen project to tackle. Make it because recipes like these by real culinary stars deserve to be appreciated and brought to life in people’s kitchens.
Who inspires you in the kitchen? I’d love to know.
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Oh, and speaking of Chicago (one of my favorite cities; I got engaged there in 1992!), I am excited to be participating in this year’s Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest, which is being held June 8 and 9. I’ll be signing books and doing a cooking demonstration on the Good Eating Stage on Saturday, June 8, at 2:30 p.m. If you happen to be there, please do come find me and say hello!
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I was inspired to make lasagne in broth after enjoying it at Ristorante Plistia, in Pescasseroli. Plistia is one of those typical Italian homestyle restaurants with a casual dining room, plain but solid wooden furniture and no menu. You eat what the cook is making. I love dining this way, and if I were ever to open a place, that is exactly how I would run it.
Set aside a decent amount of time to make this showstopper recipe. You will need to make homemade lasagne noodles, homemade broth and a batch of tiny meatballs (easy to make but time-consuming to roll out). The easiest way to get it all done is to do it in steps. I usually make the broth and meatballs a week or two in advance. I also make the lasagne noodles ahead of time and freeze them. This leaves just the cooking of the noodles, and the assembly and baking of the lasagne. Totally worth every ounce of time, effort and love you put into it.
- Homemade chicken broth
- 1 chicken, about 4 pounds
- 1 yellow onion, quartered
- 4 whole cloves
- 2 carrots, cut into 2-inch pieces
- 2 ribs celery, including leafy tops, cut into 2-inch pieces
- Handful of parsley (leaves and stems)
- 1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- Water (about 4 quarts)
- Sea salt
- Lasagna noodles
- 2 to 2 1/4 cups "00" flour or unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon semolina flour, plus more for dusting the work surface
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
- 3 extra-large eggs
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 12 ounces ground veal
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- Vegetable or olive oil for frying
- 1 pound fresh mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
- 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, about
Homemade chicken broth
1. Put all of the ingredients except the water and salt into a large stockpot. Add enough water to cover the ingredients by about 2 inches. Bring the broth to a boil over medium-high heat, skimming any foam that forms on the surface. Reduce the heat to medium-low or low; cook, uncovered, at a gentle simmer, until the broth is reduced by about half, about 4 hours. Continue to skim the broth as needed as it cooks.
2. Toward the end of cooking, season the broth with salt to taste; let it simmer until it has developed a rich, meaty flavor, 30 minutes.
3. Strain the broth through a colander lined with several layers of damp cheesecloth into a container. Let it cool to room temperature; cover and refrigerate until well-chilled. Skim off and discard the congealed layer of fat on the surface. Measure out 5 cups of broth for the lasagna. Reserve the remaining broth for another use. You can store it in an airtight container in the freezer for 1 month or longer.
1. Make the dough: Whisk together the flours, salt and nutmeg in a bowl. Dump the mixture into a mound onto a clean counter. Make a wide, shallow well in the center of the mound.
2. Break the eggs into the bowl. Add the oil and whisk lightly. Pour the egg mixture into the flour well. Gently whisk the eggs with a fork while gradually drawing in flour from the inside wall of the well. Continue to whisk flour into the eggs until the mixture is the consistency of thick batter. Now use your hands to draw more flour into the egg mixture until a dough forms. Begin to knead the dough. Using the heel of your hand, push the dough gently but firmly away from you, and then fold it over toward you. Rotate the dough a quarter turn and repeat the pushing and folding motion. As you knead, continue to incorporate flour bit by bit until the dough is quite firm but still pliable. You may not use all the flour; use a dough scraper to sweep away excess flour and any small bits stuck to the work surface.
3. Continue to knead the dough until it is smooth and silky, about 5 minutes. Form it into a ball; wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. Let it rest at room temperature, 30 minutes.
4. Make the lasagna noodles: Set up your pasta machine with the rollers on the widest setting. Scatter a little semolina flour on the work surface around the machine. Cover a large area such as a kitchen table with a tablecloth; sprinkle it with semolina. This is where you will put the lasagna noodles.
5. Cut the dough into quarters and re-wrap 3 pieces. Knead the remaining piece briefly on the work surface. Then pat it with the heel of your hand to flatten it a bit. Feed the dough through the rollers of a pasta machine; then lay the strip on the work surface. Fold the dough into thirds, like folding a business letter, sprinkle with semolina and pass it through the rollers again. Repeat the folding and rolling a few more times, until the strip of dough is smooth. Move the roller setting to the next narrower notch; feed the strip of dough through it twice, sprinkling with semolina as necessary to keep it from sticking. Then move the notch to the next setting.
6. Continue to stretch the dough in this way, twice on each setting, until it is very thin — about 1/16-inch thick. Because lasagna noodles are layered, they need to be thin. You should be able to see the shadow of your hand through the strip.
7. Cut the strip of dough with a fluted pastry wheel or a sharp knife into 4-by-6-inch rectangles. Carefully transfer the rectangles to the semolina-dusted tablecloth, arranging them so they are not touching each other. Stretch and cut the remaining pieces of dough in the same way until you have cut them all into lasagna noodles.
8. If you are assembling the lasagna the same day, you can leave the noodles out. If you are making them in advance, it is best to store them in the freezer, where they will keep for up to 1 month: Sprinkle semolina on a rimmed baking sheet and arrange a single layer of noodles on the sheet. Cover with a sheet of waxed paper. Sprinkle a little semolina over the waxed paper and add another layer of noodles. Continue to layer all the noodles in this way. Put the baking sheet in the freezer and freeze for at least 2 hours or until all the noodles are firm. At this point you can transfer the frozen noodles to one or more tightly lidded containers and store them in the freezer. (Do not store the noodles in the refrigerator; they will turn brown.)
1. Combine all the ingredients except the oil in a bowl; mix thoroughly with your hands or a spatula. With your fingers, pinch off small pieces of the mixture and roll into tiny balls about the size of a hazelnut. Place the meatballs on a clean baking sheet or platter. You will have 125 to 130 meatballs.
2. Pour the vegetable oil to a depth of 1/4 inch in a large skillet; place over medium-high heat and heat to 375 degrees on a deep-frying thermometer. If you don't have a thermometer, carefully drop a meatball into the hot oil; if it sizzles on contact, the oil is ready. Place a platter lined with paper towels near the stove. Carefully add the meatballs to the hot oil, working in batches so they don't crowd the pan. Fry the meatballs, nudging them around from time to time with a skimmer or slotted spoon, until they are lightly browned, 3-4 minutes. Transfer the meatballs to the prepared platter. Repeat until all the meatballs are fried.
1. Lay a tablecloth or several clean dishcloths out on a clean, flat surface near the stove. Have ready the broth, heated to a simmer; the lasagna noodles; the meatballs; and the mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses.
2. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly coat the inside of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with butter.
3. Heat a large pot of water to a rolling boil; salt generously. Carefully drop in 6 to 8 sheets of pasta noodles, taking care not to crowd the pot. Boil the pasta for just a couple of minutes, until they begin to float to the surface; fresh pasta cooks quickly, and the lasagna sheets should be slightly underdone. Use a large skimmer to remove the sheets from the pot; spread them out flat on the tablecloth. Be careful as you spread them out as they will be hot. Cook and lay out the remaining sheets in batches.
4. Pour a ladleful of broth in the bottom of the baking dish. Arrange a single layer of pasta sheets over the broth. Lay several slices of mozzarella over the lasagna sheets and sprinkle a little Parmesan on top (1 to 2 tablespoons). Scatter a small handful of meatballs over the cheeses. Pour another ladleful of broth over the cheeses and add a second layer of noodles, cheeses and meatballs. Continue to layer the broth, noodles, cheeses and meatballs until you have made at least six layers. Make a final layer of noodles; sprinkle 1/4 cup Parmesan over them. Keep any remaining broth hot; you can ladle it over the lasagna at serving time.
5. Cover the lasagna with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Uncover and bake until the lasagna is bubbling and the top is golden, with browned and slightly crisped edges, 20-30 minutes. Remove the lasagne from the oven and let it rest for 5 minutes before serving.
6. To serve, cut the lasagna into individual portions; transfer the slices to shallow-rimmed bowls. Spoon a little broth from the baking dish or from the pot of extra broth over each serving. Sprinkle a little extra Parmigiano on top if you like.