THE MENU%Antipasto Lasagna with Tiny Meatballs Green Salad and Fresh Gorgonzola Cheese Vanilla Ice Cream with Chestnuts in Cognac Syrup
THIS nostalgic Sunday supper recalls student days and primitive attempts to replicate the real or imagined delights of a favorite local Italian restaurant. The earthiness of the past is retained along with the built-in convenience of an easily prepared meal whose recipes can be doubled for a buffet for 16. The difference between then and now is a refinement that satisfies the soul while the palate is unassaulted by clutter.
The meal begins with a loaf of peasant bread, carafes of red jug wine and the purity and beauty of a traditional antipasto made with honest ingredients. Next is a lush lasagna, rescued from the graininess that afflicts meat sauces. Layers of wide strips of pasta alternate with scores of tiny meatballs, aromatic tomato sauce and ricotta cheese kept free of lumps by the addition of beaten eggs. The dish is topped with thin slices of mozzarella to dispense with the unpleasantness of internal stringiness, topped with more sauce and baked until bubbly. A crunchy green salad and gorgonzola cheese, fresh and therefore creamy and mild, follow the lasagna. Dessert consists of scoops of quality vanilla ice cream topped with a homemade sauce of imported, shelled chestnuts in a cognac-impermeated syrup.
The antipasto, in this case an Italian hors d'oeuvres varie's, makes a handsome and appetizing presentation with its contrasts in colors and shapes. Its goodness, however, relies on the quality of its several parts. The meats--Genoa salami and prosciutto--are best when bought from Italian or other specialty stores with a rapid turnover in quality-brand cold cuts. The green peppers and mushrooms are marinated at home a night or two before, although the artichoke hearts come already prepared in jars from the supermarket. The platter also contains tuna fish, with the Italian kind packed in olive oil most compatible here, along with egg wedges, tender celery hearts, ripe cherry tomato halves (or regular tomatoes, but only in season), anchovy fillets, little Italian peppers packed in vinegar, good black and green olives, a sprinkling of capers and a drizzle of good olive oil and red wine vinegar. Fresh fennel, when it is available, is an excellent addition.
Lasagna, a most accommodating dish, takes so little time to prepare that it could comfortably be made the morning of the party, or a day in advance or even a month earlier and frozen. The sauce and little meatballs will hold for a few days in the refrigerator and longer in the freezer. Leftover lasagna, should you be fortunate enough to have any, freezes extremely well. Imported Italian plum tomatoes make a worthwhile difference in the sauce. Pasta made with semolina, a flour milled from the hard part of wheat, has good body and flavor and is well worth the extra expense, so check the ingredient labeling. Ricotta should be the freshest possible, so read the pull date. Some Italian food stores manufacture their own fresh mozzarella, but if you are reduced to the supermarket variety, choose the whole-milk kind for its bit of extra creaminess. Mozzarella, which is a bit gummy, is most easily sliced with a wire. Fresh parmesan cheese has a smooth, soft bite and is sold by the piece. It can be grated in the processor and stored in the freezer. The lasagna is easier to cut into servings if it is allowed to set for 10 minutes after it is removed from the oven.
Any combination of plain greens would be appropriate for the salad. It needs no more embellishment than a vinaigrette to which a bit of mustard has been added. Fresh gorgonzola is usually available at cheese stores and specialty stores with an extensive stock of cheeses.
With chestnuts, I take the easy way out and buy those in a jar already shelled and cooked. Most specialty food stores carry the Minerva brand. The chestnuts in cognac syrup can be served not only over ice cream but also with puddings or any plain cake. The sauce keeps indefinitely in the refrigerator and takes very little time to prepare. I buy two quarts ( 1/2 gallon) of ice cream to serve eight. ANTIPASTO (8 servings) For the marinated peppers: 2 green bell peppers 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice 1 clove garlic, crushed For the marinated mushrooms: 16 small button mushrooms 2 tablespoons olive oil 2 teaspoons dry white wine 1 teaspoon lemon juice 4 coriander seeds For the antipasto: The marinated peppers and mushrooms, drained 8 slices Genoa salami 8 slices prosciutto, loosely rolled 2 3 1/2-ounce cans Italian tuna fish packed in olive oil 2-ounce can flat fillets of anchovies, drained and the fillets halved lengthwise 3 hard-cooked eggs, each cut into 6 wedges 8 cherry tomatoes, cored and halved 6-ounce jar marinated artichoke hearts, drained and the hearts quartered 4 celery hearts, halved lengthwise 8 pepperoncini (small green Italian peppers packed in vinegar), drained For the garnish: 4 teaspoons capers, drained 8 cracked green Greek olives, drained 16 small black ripe nicoise olives, drained For the dressing: 6 tablespoons olive oil 1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Prepare the peppers and mushrooms the day before. Broil the peppers until the skins are black, place them in a plastic bag for about 15 minutes, rub off the skins, core and seed and slice the peppers lengthwise into strips. Combine the lemon juice and crushed garlic and stir into the peppers. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Clean the mushrooms, remove the stems at the caps and reserve for stock. Combine the mushrooms with the olive oil in a small saute' or frying pan and heat, stirring the mushrooms to coat them with oil. Add the white wine, lemon juice and coriander seeds, bring just to the boil, stirring. Remove from heat and cool. Turn the mushrooms and the liquid into a bowl, cover and refrigerate overnight.
Arrange the antipasto ingredients in a pretty pattern on a large serving platter. Garnish by sprinkling the capers over all and placing the green and black olives around the edge. Mix the oil and vinegar and drizzle the dressing over the antipasto. LASAGNA WITH TINY MEATBALLS (8 servings) Olive oil to grease an 8-by-14-inch lasagna pan or a 9-by-13-inch rectangular baking pan, about 2 inches deep For the sauce: 1/2 cup minced onion 4 tablespoons olive oil 1 teaspoon dried basil 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano 1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds 2-pound, 3-ounce can imported plum tomatoes 2 8-ounce cans tomato sauce 6-ounce can tomato paste Salt and pepper to taste For the meatballs: 1 pound ground beef 1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano 2 tablespoons freshly grated parmesan cheese 2 eggs, lightly beaten 2 tablespoons butter 1 tablespoon peanut oil For the pasta: Salt for the water 1 pound lasagna, preferably made with semolina For the assembly: 1 pound ricotta 3 eggs, well beaten 1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese 8 ounces whole-milk mozzarella, sliced thinly Oil the lasagna or baking pan and set aside.
The sauce and meatballs can be made a day in advance, if desired. Saute' the onion in olive oil until transparent and soft, but do not let brown. Add the basil, oregano and fennel seeds and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Add the canned tomatoes with their liquid plus the tomato sauce, tomato paste, salt and pepper. Simmer, covered, 1/2 hour, stirring occasionally.
While the tomato sauce is cooking, make the meatballs. Thoroughly mix the ground beef, bread crumbs, oregano, parmesan cheese and eggs. Form into 1/2-inch balls. There will be about 100. Heat the butter and peanut oil in a heavy frying pan, such as heavy-duty carbon steel, and brown the meatballs, about 10 at a time, on all sides. Remove to a bowl as they are browned. Addthe browned meatballs, all at once, to the sauce and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes. Ladle off 1 cup of the sauce, without meatballs, and reserve to top the lasagna after it is assembled.
Bring a large pot of water to the boil, add salt and slip in the lasagna, one at a time, so that the water doesn't stop boiling. Cook, stirring occasionally, until just tender (I use the minimum cooking time indicated in the directions on the box.) Turn the lasagna into a colander, rinse with cold water and drain thoroughly.
Mix the ricotta with the beaten eggs and the parmesan cheese.
To assemble, place a layer of lasagna, slightly overlapping the strips of pasta, on the bottom of the pan. Ladle on layers of tomato sauce with meatballs evenly distributed and dollops of the ricotta mixture then a layer of lasagna. Repeat until all ingredients are used up, ending with a layer of pasta. Ladle 1/2 cup of the reserved sauce over the final layer of pasta. Cover the sauce with the slices of mozzarella and cover with remaining sauce.
Bake at 375 degrees for 40 minutes. The lasagna will be bubbling hot and the mozzarella will be melted. Let the lasagna stand for 10 minutes to set before cutting it. CHESTNUTS IN COGNAC SYRUP (Makes about 3 cups) 16 1/3-ounce jar roasted whole chestnuts (imported from France) 2 cups sugar 1 1/2 cups water 1/2 vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise and each piece halved 2/3 cup cognac
Turn the chestnuts into a colander, rinse under cold, running water, drain well and set aside. Combine the sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring. Lower heat, add the pieces of vanilla bean and simmer for 10 minutes without stirring. Add the drained chestnuts and cook for 1 minute after the syrup comes back to a boil. Remove from heat, cool and stir in the cognac. Serve the sauce over scoops of vanilla ice cream. (Refrigerated, the sauce keeps indefinitely.)