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.
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 UK. 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 space. They poured it as a sauce over different kinds of pasta or ate it as a hearty stand-alone meat and vegetable main course.
The Second Episode:
There was a German boyfriend for a few years. His mother was an 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 lasagna layers. Then he suggested a bit more cheese might enhance the final result. That 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 to a local restaurant for dinner.
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, both calming and centering, to cook for friends we love very much and hadn’t seen in 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 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! Perhaps it’s because these lasagne layers evolved with love.
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]
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 lasagna sauce of choice, ~300 gm [As above.]
- 250 gm mature salty cheddar cheese, grated
- 250 gm mozzarella cheese, grated
- Baby 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:
- Heat 2 T. olive oil in large saucepan over medium heat.
- Sauté onion until translucent.
- Add carrots and celery and cook until softened.
- Add 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, garlic, fresh ground black pepper, mushrooms and dried spices.
- Keep stirring and mix everything together well.
- Turn heat to low for 45 minutes to one hour, cooking until mixture is thick.
- Take off heat and set aside.
This sauce can be used with any type of pasta.
Assembling the Layers:
- 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 bolognaise sauce over noodles.
- Sprinkle a sparse layer of grated cheeses over sauce.
- Add a layer of fresh spinach [and a few mushroom slices if you kept any aside.]
- Add 5 leaves of fresh basil, optional.
- 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 want.
- 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!]
Serve immediately with salad and fresh baguette slices to mop up sauce. Decant a Volnay red wine from Burgundy or serve a Chablis if you prefer white. Light candles. Savor everything and everyone 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 extra delicious. Adam still does the cheesing at home. She usually thinks he overdoes it, but then says it always 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. I don’t actually know how that would taste. The bacon adds something so subtly sublime.
- No added salt. Bacon and salty cheddar are enough.
There is flexibility in adding personal touches. I usually put red pepper flakes on the table because I never know others’ preference for spiciness, but sometimes I sprinkle them inside before baking. French rose garlic slices slipped into the layers is another wendy-thing.