General Director, Michael Volpe, has been busy in the kitchen, making fresh pasta and recreating his mother’s recipe for lasagne for you to try at home.
As the child of an Italian family, cooking – particularly the southern Italian kind – was always at the centre of family life and I absorbed a great deal of it whilst helping Mum, especially the hours of pasta making. Nowadays, I often only have time in the evening for the briefest visits to the more elaborate culinary repertoire of my youth but, since the quarantine, I have made fresh pasta almost daily. I have dredged my memory for dishes that were a frequent part of life at home when Mum ruled the kitchen or when we visited Italy for summers with family.
There is one dish that has real relevance to Opera Holland Park because for many years, there has been one Saturday during the season when I have made substantial quantities of it and brought it into the theatre for staff to enjoy once the show goes up. It is known as ‘Lasagne day’. This dish is a robust and indulgent one that Mum would have been taught by her mother, who in turn would have been taught by her mother, and so on. They were all born and raised in a mountain village in southern Italy in the province of Salerno. Much of the cuisine there is what you might call “peasant” food; earthy, rich, a concoction of whatever ingredients they could muster. Today there is something luxurious about it.
This is an operatic dish; deep, full of complexity, melodramatic and grand. True to say it was often a dish prepared for celebratory occasions, and I learned how to make it from watching Mum do it a thousand or more times.This lasagne is “dry” and has no bechamel sauce. The critical difference that people first notice is the presence of salami and sliced egg. It is moist without being wet, the ragu is rich and smokey. It is impossibly moreish.
Traditionally, the meat would be a blend of whatever was available – rabbit, pork, horse et al. You can make the ragu with a mixture of pork and beef mince, both of which should be as lean and of the highest possible quality. You don’t want the meat to reduce in the way poor mince does, becoming a grainy mash. The sauce must have a solid structure. But it is beef shin that I would advise – and bone-in beef shin if you can get it, because that marrow will ooze out into the sauce during cooking, adding to its depth.
For a large lasagne for several people use about 1kg of meat, two 750 ml jars of good passata, and about six large fresh plum tomatoes. You can reduce the quantities depending on the numbers being fed. If dinner is for two, for example, one large beef shin (stinco di manzo) is sufficient. If you can source enough nice earthy tomatoes, use those instead of the mixture of passata and fresh tomatoes and fill the stockpot to the top. They will reduce as they cook. You then need a big handful of basil for the sauce and another for the construction of the lasagne. Other ingredients: sheets of lasagne pasta, mozzarella, salami, eggs, salt and pepper (to taste but don’t be meek), some oregano, sugar, cinnamon, paprika, red wine, olive oil, onios, garlic, and lots of time!
Gently cook the finely chopped onions in the olive oil and begin to add the meat, cooking it gently. You may know of ragus that require a soffrito (a mixture of onions, garlic, carrots, celery). I do not use this here, only onions and garlic. Add the chopped garlic when the onions have softened. Be generous. However much you might think you should use, double it. Turn up the heat, add a glug of red wine, and reduce the sauce.
Add the passata and chopped fresh tomatoes, the oregano, and season. Tear one handful of basil and chuck that in too. The cinnamon you need to take care with – just a pinch – and a bigger pinch of paprika. Sugar is often the missing secret ingredient of a good ragu so don’t be afraid to put a good heap of it in – about one large tablespoon or less if making a smaller batch of ragu. A good squirt of tomato puree can be used here but the reduction of this ragu will intensify it.
Let the fresh tomatoes begin to break down. Bring it all to the boil whilst stirring, then let it simmer slowly on a very low heat with the lid on. You want gentle bubbling. The longer you can do this the better. I generally give it about four hours but don’t let it dry out; you want a good level of liquid that before stirring, sits about an inch above the meat.
To test if your beef shin is ready, take it from the bone when it begins to fall away and put a small piece on a plate. Take the back of a spoon and gently press the meat – if it yields easily under the spoon, you are almost there. The point of the long cooking process is to reduce the sauce until it is dense and rich, so that when you stir the pot, the ragu is thick with the broken down meat – a process that takes a few minutes of stirring and pressing the meat chunks against the side of the pan until the shin is shredded and disintegrated. If you are using mince this part is obviously not necessary but the cooking time should be no less.
To put the lasagne together you need a six inch length of good salami and some sliced hard boiled eggs. How many eggs depends on how big the oven dish you are using – about one and a half to be scattered on each layer. The best salami is Cremona salami but if you can’t find that, Napoli is good. Slice the salami to about 2mm thickness and then chop into semi circles. You can use pre-sliced salami if you wish. Be lavish!
Smear some olive oil into the base of your roasting tin and put down your first layer of lasagne sheets. Cover with a good helping of the ragu – not too much juice – then scatter the sliced egg and salami evenly on top, tear some more fresh basil, put that in too and then add fresh mozzarella slices. Then lay another few sheets of pasta, gently pressing down the layer beneath. If a drizzle of sauce emerges at the edges, you have the right consistency! Repeat the process to the top of the tin with the last layer of sauce, salami, mozzarella, egg and basil. Cover with foil and place the dish in the oven at 190 degrees for between 45 minutes to an hour. Remove the foil for the last ten minutes to crisp the top.
Note; I always prepare the lasagne when the sauce is hot. I leave the constructed lasagne to stand for about fifteen minutes before putting it in the oven, allowing the pasta to soften – I don’t pre-soak or wet the pasta either. You want the layers to be al dente.