Lasagna's secret: watching another do the cooking


Good lasagna is easy to make, and bad is easier still.

Great lasagna, that's something else altogether and best left to someone who has studied the craft for decades under an expert from the Old Country. We're talking about a mama who knows lasagna, because her nonna taught it to her mama, who taught it to her.

"I always watched my mother," confirms Joann Simonetti, one such pasta pro who lives in Chicago Heights. "I used to watch her and help her."

Simonetti's lasagna is unbelievable, a beef-and-ricotta version that is simultaneously light and indulgent, with support from the tomato puree that her son Ron preserves from his garden. There is no recipe, at least not the kind with fractions and ink. "It was always a pinch of this, a pinch of that," she says.

As Simonetti says this, her sisters Frances Somers and Eleanor Pignotti, as well as her daughter, Lynda -- who are joining her this afternoon to help cook the lasagna dinner -- raise their eyebrows and / or make faces, indicating that Simonetti can share but won't. Our evidence supports Simonetti, because today she is sharing.

She learned by watching her elders: her mother but also, she says, her father-in-law and mother-in-law.

Talk to anyone in the food business, and chances are he or she also benefited from an older generation of great cooks. Not everyone is lucky enough to have someone to watch -- or someone willing to be watched. It's why we're in Simonetti's kitchen, taking notes and watching closely.

Though the recipes here approximate her lasagna, they can't duplicate it. They'll be a bit different when you make them, too, and in the hand-me-down world of family recipes, change is good.

Just ask Simonetti. She started with her family's recipe, then, she says, "over the years I bought cookbooks, and changed it a little bit here and there." The current version is largely influenced by Italy's Marche region, where her mother was born, but she says it also has a Sicilian flavor inspired by her husband Louis' family.

Simonetti heats the burner of her electric range to medium. She pours oil into a weathered stockpot: "Drizzle the olive oil to 'wet' the pan," she instructs. She adds half a diced sweet onion to the pan, then slices off a chunk of butter and drops it in.

When the onions have cooked to her liking, she adds a large mound of ground beef -- always ground chuck for lasagna. She adds salt, pepper and garlic powder with her fingers, moving them in a spiral motion around the surface. Then she breaks up the meat again. "Don't over-salt," Simonetti warns.

Time for the tomatoes. First, Simonetti pours in a quart of the tomato puree her son canned the previous autumn. Then she adds crushed tomatoes, a little at a time, slowly incorporating them into the meat. It's important to do this gradually.

A beguiling aroma starts to envelop Simonetti's kitchen. That tells her it's time to add the first dose of basil. It, too, is from the previous season's garden -- she dries, then crushes, the leaves and stores them in the pantry. She grabs a small fistful, and sprinkles them with another spiral before stirring them in. Then she sprinkles around some sugar.

Time for more basil, this time in the form of "fresh" sprigs from her garden: Simonetti freezes whole leaves to use year-round. She adds some grated Romano cheese ("I drizzle it around once"), stirs it in and takes a taste.

Tasting is important. At this point, she might add salt or basil. Today, it's five more basil leaves. Then the sauce simmers -- "about an hour, an hour and a half," Simonetti says. She decides when it's done by tasting.

Simonetti is ready to make the cheese filling: "I make a custard filling. It's very light." For the past hour, ricotta has been draining in a colander set over a bowl. This is essential; otherwise the filling will be too watery.

She tosses out the water in the bowl, drops in the ricotta and breaks it up with a fork. She adds all the ingredients at once, with sprinkles of salt and fistfuls of curly parsley. Cinnamon, she concurs, is unusual for lasagna: "It's kind of my recipe." Her daughter grates the lemon directly over the bowl, letting the zest fall into the ricotta. Then she cuts off a third of the zested lemon and squeezes the juice directly into the cheese mixture.

Meanwhile, a roasting pan of water is heating to a boil -- the wide pan will cook the noodles flat. When they're the right texture, the noodles are removed with wooden tongs to a holding pan; a little cooking water is added to keep them moist.

Simonetti gets ready for the final assembly. She cuts off a large chunk of butter and grabs it with a piece of wax paper, then butters a large glass baking pan. Using a ladle, she scoops the sauce from pan to dish and she works fast ("so the pasta doesn't stick").

When the meal is ready, everyone heads to the beautifully laid-out table to eat. "There's always an extra chair for someone," Simonetti says. "I always have an extra place setting. Always."


Renee Enna writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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