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
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
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
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
3 cups Ricotta cheese
¼ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
Preheat oven to 375(180C)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.