There's an art to creating the perfect menu for a television event that looms large. For some people, their Superbowl menu is the crowning achievement of their own version of television-dinner theatre. For others, it's Oscar night, and the menu they'll create for an Oscar party.
At our house, it's dinner á deux with the Sopranos. For weeks, I rack my imagination to find the menu that will be just right for the season finale -- or, like tonight, for the new season's first episode. Tonight is a special case, of course. We and the rest of the Sopranos-addicted world have been waiting for, count 'em, twenty-one months. No surviving television program has ever made an audience wait that long between seasons. And sadly, this is probably what we love about this show. Like its main character, the show can get away with its own arrogance. The Sopranos know that even if we try to get out, they'll pull us back in.
Back to dinner; what to make? Fortunately, the show is rife with meals both eaten and described. I've long toyed with the idea of making either Carmela's famous baked ziti or her lasagna, lovingly described in several episodes. When G weighed in on the question, lasagna was the clear winner, since it's a favorite of his. The Sopranos industry has come out with a new cookbook, Entertaining With The Sopranos, a follow-up to their best-selling The Sopranos Family Cookbook. I don't own either of these, since from the samples available, the recipes appear to be fairly mainstream and similar to others that could be easily obtained through other sources. However, in the interest of being faithful to my obsession, I did some searching and found reprints of "Carmela's Lasagna." Honestly, I wasn't impressed with the recipe. I have a feeling that Carmela would do better than that, so I set out to create my own version.
The problem is that I'm a big fan of Lasagna Bolognese, which uses a bolognese-style meat sauce, besciamella (or bechamel) sauce, and Parmesan cheese layered with lasagna sheets. G, however, favors the more popular American-style lasagna, based on Lasagna Napoletana, with layers of ricotta, mozzarella and sauce al ragú, a long-simmered "Sunday Gravy" style red sauce. This, admittedly, would be closer to Carmela's lasagna, since the family is originally from Avellino, near Naples. Carmela's version of the dish is described by Bobby Bacala in Season Four, Episode Five: Bobby raves to Uncle Junior about what a good cook Janice (who's putting the make on the recently widowed Bobby) is. Junior, having known what a manipulator Janice is since she used to steal from his wallet as a little girl, tries to disabuse Bobby of his illusions. He tells him that the lasagna Janice is serving him is clearly Carmela's doing, since it has her signature "sweet sausage and the basil leaves under the cheese." Bobby won't hear it, since Junior "always thinks the worst of everyone."
Meditating on Carmela's lasagna led me to wonder exactly how Janice got the pan of lasagna (and whether or not, if I lived in an alternate television-based universe, I could get one too). I'm not sure that Carmela would cooperate with Janice's scheme to win Bobby over by making a pan of lasagna for her. Carmela might, however, have made it as part of being on "Ziti Patrol", which is when the wives take turns feeding the household of someone who's had a recent loss -- a fairly frequent occurrence in their circle, of course. In that scenario, she would have given it to Janice to take over to Bobby's. Janice would then have palmed it off as her own, which is not at all unlikely. Another possibility is that Janice might simply have stolen a tray of lasagna out of Carmela's freezer. I wouldn't put that past her, either. After all, we're talking about a woman who stole someone's prosthetic leg.
I finally decided to create a hybrid. I 've made my own sauce Bolognese instead of ragú, but with sweet sausage in addition to the beef and prosciutto. I'm going to forego my beloved béchamel, and use the many kinds of cheese so dear to G's heart, along with some fresh basil tucked into the layers. And although I don't have a pasta machine, I did search out fresh lasagna sheets, so the result should be good. I'll let you know what "the boss" thinks later on, when I serve it up with garlic bread and salad, and later on, cannolis. Let's hope it's a dinner as well as an episode worth waiting 21 months for.
Season Six Premiere Lasagna
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 chopped onions
2 finely chopped peeled carrots
6 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 oz. prosciutto or pancetta, finely chopped
1/2 tsp. rubbed sage, or several fresh sage leaves, chopped
1/2 cup dry vermouth or 1 cup dry white wine
1 lb. lean ground beef
8 ounces sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
Salt and pepper to taste
1 26-ounce box Pomi chopped tomatoes with added puree
1 6-oz can tomato paste
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon golden brown sugar
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
1 lb. fresh lasagna sheets
2 15-ounce containers ricotta cheese (or 2 lbs fresh ricotta from a dairy)
1 generous cup mixed grated Parmigiano- Reggiano and Locatelli Romano cheeses (about 3 ounces)
1 10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach, thawed, drained, squeezed dry
1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 large eggs
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 - 1 cup finely chopped fresh basil
4 3/4 cups grated mozzarella cheese (about 1 1/4 pounds)
Heat oil in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion, carrots and garlic; sauté until softened, about 10 minutes. Add prosciutto or pancetta and sage; sauté for a few more minutes. Break up sausage and saute with other ingredients until browned. Add ground beef to the pan and sauté until cooked through, breaking up meat with back of spoon, about 5 minutes. Add vermouth or wine, and cook until the liquid boils away. Add remaining ingredients. Cover and simmer until flavors blend, stirring occasionally, about 1 hour. Discard bay leaf. Cool.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Cook noodles in large pot of boiling salted water until almost tender, about 3 minutes. Drain; lay out on lint-free dishtowels to absorb as much moisture as possible.
Combine ricotta and 3/4 cup Parmesan cheese in medium bowl. Mix in spinach, parsley and nutmeg. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Mix in eggs.
Spread 1/2 cup sauce over bottom of 13x9-inch glass baking dish. Place a layer of noodles over sauce, overlapping to fit. Spread half of ricotta-spinach mixture evenly over noodles. Sprinkle chopped basil evenly over ricotta-spinach mixture, and then top with 2 cups mozzarella cheese . Spoon 1 1/2 cups sauce over cheese, spreading with spatula to cover (sauce will be thick). Repeat layering with 5 noodles, remaining ricotta-spinach mixture, basil, 2 cups mozzarella and 1 1/2 cups sauce. Arrange remaining 5 noodles over sauce. Spread remaining sauce over noodles. Sprinkle remaining 3/4 cup mozzarella cheese and 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese evenly over lasagna. Cover baking dish with aluminum foil. Bake lasagna 30 minutes; uncover and bake until hot and bubbly, about 30 minutes more. Let lasagna stand 15 minutes before serving.
Serves 8-12, depending on appetites.
Postscript: This was absolutely sumptuous, but made far too much for a 13x9 inch baking dish. Either you'll need a much larger lasagna pan, or else you can do as I did and make another smaller dish of lasagna for the freezer.