I used to love Olive Garden…then I learned the truth

If I have learned anything since moving to Europe it’s that Olive Garden is not Italian food.  I know we like to think that we’re really getting a taste of Tuscany but, take it from me, it’s closer to a  taste of Tucson than anything authentically Italian.

Mike and I fell in love with Italy the first time we went.  It was amazing how the flavors that we loved in America, like spaghetti Bolognese, lasagna and pizza were so drastically different from what we were used to.  At home, Ragu and Prego make our spaghetti sauce not Mamma back in the kitchen.  We pretend that we can taste a sweet hint of vine ripened tomatoes when in fact it’s just a bit of corn syrup and flavoring mixed in with the tomato paste.  But in Italy, in the café on the corner and in most homes, chefs and grandmas alike make fresh pasta and sauce early in the morning and allowed to simmer slowly until lunch time.  You can taste the pride that the chef put into making each bite a perfect Italian experience.   No matter where we went in Rome, the first  bite I  took of every dish my eyes would close, my shoulders would relax , and a chorus of mmm’s would escape my lips as the pure bliss of pasta goodness washed over me.

Two Italian dishes stand out as my favorite.  Spaghetti carbonara is the first.  We went to a tiny restaurant in Pisa (as in Leaning Tower of…) where there was a man whose sole job was to make pizza and bread sticks. If he’s off sick, no pizza or bread sticks for anyone that day.  He would walk around the restaurant dropping hot bread sticks into your basket while pizzas were baking in the clay wood burning stove.  The carbonara was so good that I now refuse to eat it anywhere else and I don’t make it anymore because, quite frankly, my version is sh*t compared to it.  It was creamy and eggy, and sweet and salty with pancetta all at once…just amazing.

Another one of my favorites is very different in Italy than what we’re accustomed to in America. At home layer upon layer of gooey cheese and drippy sauce are what we think of as lasagna.  A dish that, after dinner, has   been known to make more than a few pop open that button on the jeans. But in Italy, it’s a surprisingly light dish with only a couple of layers of ricotta, tomato sauce separated by egg pasta and covered in a wonderfully lovely cheese sauce. Unlike carbonara, I have figured out how to make this lasagna and it’s pretty darn close to what we had in Italy.  (Mike has told me that I can’t take the old school lasagna out of the repertoire though.)    This is a perfect dish for entertaining because, although there are lots of steps, it can be assembled ahead of time and popped in the oven before the guests arrived.  Served with rocket (arugula) and parmesan salad and garlic bread you’ll feel like you’ve just stepped into a cobbled side street in Rome.

Spicy Turkey Lasagna

Prep time – 45 minutes

Cook time – 45 minutes

Serves 8-10

Meat Filling

1 lb         Ground turkey

1 tsp      Chili flakes (more or less to taste)

½ tsp      Sage

1 tsp      Italian herb mix

¼ tsp      Garlic powder

1 tsp      Salt

¼ tsp      Paprika

¼ tsp      Black pepper

Tomato Sauce

3 tbls     Olive oil

10 -20    Fresh basil leaves (about a handful)

1            Clove garlic, chopped

2            12 – 14 oz cans chopped tomatoes

½ glass  white wine

1 tsp      sugar

¼ cup     water

Salt & pepper to taste

 Cheese Sauce

¼ cup     Butter

1             Shallot, chopped

¼ cup     Flour

1 cup     Chicken broth

1 cup     Milk

1 cup     Mozzarella cheese, shredded

½ cup     Parmesan Cheese, grated

½ tsp      Salt

½ tsp      White pepper

 Ricotta Filling

3 cups    Ricotta cheese

¼ cup     Parmesan cheese, grated

2             Eggs

Method

Preheat oven to 375(180C)

Meat filling

Heat a large high sided frying pan on medium high heat and add ground turkey and all other ingredients for meat filling.  Cook until meat has turned white with no pink showing.  Place meat in a bowl and set aside to use later.

Tomato Sauce

In the same pan used for meat filling (do not clean the pan), add olive oil and heat on medium heat.  Once hot add basil leaves and garlic and cook gently (do not burn garlic) for a minute.  Add canned tomatoes then white wine and heat until bubbling.  Once bubbling, boil for at least one minute to burn off alcohol.  Add sugar and water and then stir.  Add salt and pepper to taste, place lid on the pan and turn heat down to low to allow the sauce simmer while carrying on the rest of the recipe.

White Sauce

In a separate sauce pan, melt butter on medium high heat.  Add shallots and cook slowly until they become clear (about 3 minutes) being careful not to burn them.  Once soft, add ¼ of the flours, mix with shallot and butter.  Repeat this step by adding ¼ of the flour at a time until all flour is added.  Mix until flour turns a yellowy beige.  Begin adding chicken broth very slowly while continuously stirring the pan.

 Once all broth is added, slowly add milk stirring continuously.  Once milk is added, add ½ of mozzarella.  Stir until cheese is melted.  Melt the remaining half of mozzarella in the sauce.  Add parmesan and stir until melted.

 Once all cheese is incorporated taste and add salt and pepper. Turn heat down to very low.

Ricotta Filling

In a bowl, add ricotta, egg, and parmesan and mix well.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Putting it all together

Turn off all pans.  Bruch 2 or 3 tablespoons of the tomato sauce across the bottom of the baking pan.  Place a layer of lasagna sheets at the bottom of the pan.  Add ½ of meat filling, ½ of ricotta filling.  Cover with ½ of the remaining tomato sauce and then place another layer of lasagna sheets on top.

Repeat these steps with the second half of ingredients.  Cover the entire dish with the entire pot of white sauce.

 Place in the oven and bake for 45 minutes.

When done, remove from oven and allow to rest for 5 minutes. Serve with rocket (arugula) and parmesan salad by mixing 1 bag of rocket, ¼ cup shaved parmesan, 2 tablespoons pine nuts, 3 tablespoons olive oil and 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar.

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10 Comments on “I used to love Olive Garden…then I learned the truth”

  1. Mom says:

    So proud of you.

  2. Mira says:

    Hey Seneca, I am sold, buying my tickets to Italy today!! All your recepies sound so yummy I can’t help it but think I will be trying them real soon..thank you for giving my day such a great start every time I read your blog:)

  3. Bruce Geary says:

    Hi Seneca,
    Sharon and I have the fried chicken recipe and now we have this wonderful lasagna recipe. We are looking forward to trying it. Thank you for sharing this.
    Bruce & Sharon (Back in the States).

  4. Bruce & Sharon says:

    Hi Seneca,
    Sharon & I have the fried chicken recipe and now we have this wonderful lasagna recipe to add to our collection. Thank you for sharing this and we are very proud of you.
    Your description of Italy almost makes me want to travel there (ALMOST).
    Bruce & Sharon (Back in the states).

  5. Tiana says:

    Seneca, I am definitely excited to try this new lasagna recipe. Sounds delicious! Can’t wait to taste an authentic Italian meal. Thanks for sharing!

    Tiana Walker

  6. srmfvt says:

    Hi Seneca, this is the first post of yours I have read. And I gotta say I’m impressed. Your photos and clear explanation give me the confidence to try this (albeit more complicated than my usual) recipe. I look forward not only to visiting Rome and trying the carbonara, but also to reading your other posts. Cheers, Sarah

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