When troubles pile up, lasagna could be solution

March 28, 2001|By ROB KASPER

SOMETIMES THE answer is making lasagna.

Your 401(k) is shriveling. Your kids are sick and unhappy. Not only is the world giving you and your mate the short end of the stick, it also seems to be whopping you with it. To make yourself feel better, you cook lasagna, all day.

You start with the meat sauce. As two tablespoons of chopped onions sizzle in three tablespoons each of olive oil and butter, they send out an aroma of anticipation, a whiff of good times to come. The smells get sweeter as you add chopped celery and carrots, two tablespoons each.

Carrots are remarkable. When they are raw, they are boring and taste like health food. But when they are cooked, especially with olive oil and wine, they are transformed into co-conspirators of saucy pleasure. You remember seven years ago when Bernard Loiseau, a three-star French chef, cooked at the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia and used only pureed carrots and Cote du Rhone red wine to make sauce for rockfish that was absolutely celestial.

You promise yourself that someday you are going to try making that French rockfish sauce, but not today. Today you are making Italian meat sauce. You add three-quarters of a pound of ground beef to the sizzling carrots, celery and onions. You cook the meat just long enough to lose its raw, red color. Then you toss in a cup of wine. This is not the fine Cote du Rhone that the French chef used. Instead it is a bottle of white wine that has been sitting next to the stove ever since you tasted it several weeks ago and it made your lips curl. One of the miracles of cooking is that a so-so wine can, under high heat, impart pleasant flavors.

You stir the meat as you watch the wine evaporate. Then you lower the heat, add a half cup of milk, and watch it evaporate as well. Watching all these things vaporize reminds you of what is happening to your 401(k), but you quickly suppress that thought, and add a dash of nutmeg, then two cups of canned Italian tomatoes. You let the tomatoes bubble, then turn the heat down to a low, lazy simmer.

This begins the intense aromatherapy part of the process as the uncovered pot simmers on the stove for the rest of the day, or at least 3 1/2 hours. In the meantime you go about your business, running errands, battling boneheads.

At the end of the day, when you enter the kitchen, you are greeted with the welcome scent of the simmering sauce. You know it is just a few more steps until it is lasagna time.

Next, you feed heated milk to flour and butter. This process is called making bechamel sauce, but it reminds you of the few experiments in high school chemistry class that turned out right.

In a pot sitting on a medium flame, six tablespoons of melted butter bubble with 4 1/2 tablespoons of flour. Then the flame is turned off, and three cups of milk, which have been heated to just short of a boil, are added, two tablespoons at a time, to the flour-butter mixture. Your wooden spoon is constantly stirring the mixture as it continues to absorb the milk. Eventually you dispense with the tablespoon, and pour the heated milk in larger, one-quarter-cup servings into the mixture.

When all the milk is gone, you put the mixture over low heat, add a dash of salt, and stir until the sauce becomes the consistency of cream. This process is strangely soothing. The stirring is almost hypnotic. You want to dive into the sauce. Eventually you pull yourself away and pull the pot off the flame.

In a perfect world you would have made your own pasta. But as the events of most days have shown you, this is a flawed planet. You use store-bought, oven-ready, flat, wide strips of lasagna.

You coat the bottom of a 14-inch glass pan with a smear of meat sauce. You put down a layer of pasta, a layer of meat sauce, a coating of bechamel, a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese, and then you repeat the process.

You put the filled pan in a preheated 450-degree oven, and you bake it until a golden crust begins to form on the top, about 20 to 30 minutes.

Then you serve it with salad, homemade bread and a glass of red wine. The meat sauce has bathed the pasta, and the cheese and bechamel sauce have happily joined in the swim of flavors. It might not be eternal bliss, but well-made lasagna can make troubles recede, at least for an evening.

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