Q: I have a wonderful lasagna recipe about which I have several questions. The recipe calls for hard salami. What kind of sausage is this? How necessary is it to cut the mozzarella into cubes? And, is the six-hour cooking of the sauce necessary or desirable?
A. First, the recipe:
LASAGNA (8 to 10 servings)
2 pounds lasagna noodles
1 1/4 tablespoons salt dissolved in 6 quarts water
Tomato sauce (recipe follows)
2 pounds ricotta
2 pounds mozzarella, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 pounds Italian sausage
1 pound hard salami, sliced thick, then cut into 1/2-inch squares
1/4 pound grated romano or parmesan
Boil lasagna noodles in salted water until pliable enough to bend easily but not yet fully cooked. Add cold water to stop cooking. Spread tomato sauce over the bottom of a 2- to 3-inch-deep baking dish. Arrange partially cooked lasagna noodles over sauce to cover bottom. Spoon ricotta over the noodles and sprinkle generously with mozzarella, sausage and salami pieces. Cover with another layer of sauce, sprinkle with grated cheese and repeat the layering of ingredients until the pan is full. Top with tomato sauce and a generous sprinkling of grated cheese. Cook approximately 30 to 45 minutes at 375 degrees.
TOMATO SAUCE (Enough for 1 lasagna recipe)
1 1/2 pounds ground round
1/4 cup olive oil
4 whole cloves garlic
2 cups diced onion (about 3 medium onions)
3 6-ounce cans tomato paste
16-ounce can whole, pear-type tomatoes
2 cups water
1 cup white wine (optional)
4 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon anise seed, crushed
1 tablespoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
4 tablespoons sugar (optional)
1/4 teaspoon celery seed (optional)
1 tablespoon chopped, fresh parsley
1 teaspoon oregano
1 tablespoon dried, sweet basil
Brown beef over high heat in a heavy skillet. Remove beef, add olive oil and brown garlic cloves lightly. Add onions and cook slowly until they start to brown. Add tomato paste, the whole tomatoes, the browned meat, water, wine, bay leaves, anise seed, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and simmer for 1 hour before using. About 5 minutes before removing the sauce from the heat, add the herbs.
To answer your questions:
Hard salami is a fermented sausage obtainable from virtually any supermarket butcher. It is more a deli item than a lunch sandwich filler and therefore not always found in the lunch-meat section of the meat counter. The most usual form of salami is called "Genoa salami"; it is firm and dry and has a wonderfully tangy flavor perfect for Italian dishes.
It doesn't matter how you cut the mozzarella. Shredded mozzarella is just fine. For the best flavor and texture, use the 1-pound cubes found in the dairy case or the handmade mozarella sold in Italian delicatessens.
Your original tomato sauce recipe required cooking for 6 hours. Such a long simmering does nothing positive for the flavor. Tomato sauces simmered for only 30 minutes are as tasty as those simmered for 3 hours. The point is to add good ingredients, to avoid scorching the sauce and to evaporate the excess water until the sauce has thickened. The notion that good tomato sauces need long simmering at the back of the stove is just one of the many culinary myths.
And now a few observations about the recipe:
Sugar is really unnecessary to the success or flavor of a tomato sauce. Onions do a fine job of sweetening the sauce.
Celery seed is a distraction, not a desirable flavor, especially if you already add basil, oregano, bay leaves and garlic.
Wine is utterly useless in this recipe. Most of its flavor evaporates and the delicate flavor of the grape is blown away by the heartiness of tomato.
Use fresh parsley, oregano and basil if possible. Do not add the herbs to the sauce until 5 minutes before using it. The very delicate essential herbal oils evaporate quickly and are lost to the surrounding atmosphere.
Instead of using tomato paste, which has a slight scorched flavor due to the concentration it undergoes in the processing plant, use canned tomato pure'e. It thickens more quickly and there is no need to add water, then evaporate it back off.