Category Archives: Pancetta

Spiced Lasagna with Spinach and Ricotta

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I love a good lasagna. To eat that is. Well, let’s say that unless J is at home and can help me with lifting the heavy pans I don’t enjoy it. What I also don’t enjoy is the washing up of all those pots and pans. Even now as I’m writing this, my wrists are not happy and every time I write one word I have to stop and wish my carpal tunnel away. My frustration could also be a result of taking loads of pictures with this one and in my kitchen cooking and carrying a heavy-ish camera don’t always go together.

Look, not all cooking is a breeze and sometimes a challenge is good for the soul. Not to sound too dramatic, this is an easy dish, but it takes some time to prepare. You might be asking me “is there anything you like here?” Of course there is. I have extra portions for the next day, and it will taste even better tomorrow. Just give yourself a couple of hours for prep time and assembly and you’ll be OK. I admit I don’t make this as often as I would like, but when I do I remind myself that I should, and what better way to welcome the winter months! And the kitchen is smelling lovely! I also have a vegetarian one lurking in my files which I must not forget…

Please be aware there are quite a few photos in this post. I just thought they would be of help. Thank you for being ever so patient with me as always.

For the sauce:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • ¼ teaspoon paprika
  • ¼ teaspoon garam masala or mixed spice
  • ¼ chilli flakes (optional)
  • ¼ curry powder (optional)
  • 250g bacon, chopped
  • 2 shots red vermouth
  • 500g minced beef, preferably lean
  • 500g passata di pomodoro
  • 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
  • around 250ml water

For the ricotta mixture:

  • 500g ricotta
  • 500g frozen spinach, thawed; you could also steam fresh baby spinach, and set it aside to cool
  • 100g fresh parsley or basil, roughly chopped
  • around 6 tablespoons milk, or enough just to thin the mixture a little bit
  • salt and pepper, to taste*
  • 2 large eggs, beaten

For the bechamel sauce:

  • 25g butter
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons plain flour
  • 1 litre semi-skimmed milk

You also need around 700g to 900g lasagna sheets (around 30 sheets), depending on the size of the dish you want to use.

To prepare the sauce place a large pan preferably with a heavy base on medium heat and pour in the olive oil. Chop the onion, crush the garlic and tip in the pan, together with the spices, and stir occasionally. Once the onions have softened and turned opaque add the bacon and the vermouth and let it cook through.

Add the lean minced beef and cook until brown. Pour the passata and sugar in with the beef mixture, stir, add the water, give everything a good stir once more, cover and let it simmer for around 30 minutes. Turn off the heat and set aside.

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For the ricotta mixture, I would advise you to remove as much of the spinach water as you can. To do this, simply thaw on a sieve on top of a bowl and squash the spinach downwards with your hands or a spoon.

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Place the spinach in a medium mixing bowl, together with the ricotta, fresh parsley, milk, add salt and pepper, give everything a good mix and now is the time to taste. When you’re happy with the seasoning, add the beaten eggs, stir and set aside.

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To assemble the lasagne, pour a thin layer of sauce, enough to cover the bottom of the dish. Then build the lasagna alternating as many lasagna sheets as you can fit in one layer (I can fit 6 in mine), then a layer of sauce, another layer of lasagna sheets, a layer of ricotta mixture, a layer of lasagna sheets and start the process again, until you get almost to the top.

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Preheat the oven to 180ºC and set everything aside to prepare the bechamel. In a small heavy-based saucepan make a roux, by melting the butter, adding the flour and stir vigorously until you get a golden paste, around 6 minutes will do the trick. As you whisk, gradually add the milk, a little at a time. Whisk to avoid any lumps and once in a while scrape the bottom sides of the pan so that nothing sticks to it. Whisk in all the milk until you get a nice velvety sauce. Add salt and pepper and some grated nutmeg.

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Pour over the top of the assembled lasagna and bake for 1 hour.

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Leave to stand for 15 minutes and serve to 6-8 hungry people! Enjoy with a glass of red.

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I hope you enjoyed the recipe and the photos. If you decide to try this over the holidays let me know! I always appreciate feedback.

Happy Holidays!

Rob x

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Guest blog: on Carbonara.

My brother-in-law J2 has just returned to London for a long-ish study stint from la bellissima Roma. We met yesterday for an afternoon coffee in la charming Guildford for a chat. The main topic of discussion is obvious. He also reminded me of a piece he sent me for il mio bel blog. He is biased of course, but hey it still was nice of him to say. So this is his contribution, for which I am truly grateful.

Food. Italians can talk about passionately and heartily about it for hours on end, discussing the ins and out of it, and the best of local ingredients. So, picture the situation: sitting down at table at lake’s edge in Bracciano, some miles north of Italy, on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, over a plate of Carbonara we had just cooked, and some local red wine to wash it all down. I was there with a few good friends, all from the Lazio region, and lo and behold, we had to discuss … pasta carbonara.

You see, many eateries in Rome, especially with a tourist bent, are likely to sell anything under that name. Not to say anything about what happens in other cities and countries which, to the Roman tastes, feels like complete anathema. Carbonara is, after all, a typical Roman dish … so I guess those from Rome and the region can best give advice.

I discovered that Carbonara can create a hearty debate too. Little about is not discussed. To start with its origin and its name. Apparently, it only figures in cookbooks on Roman cuisine after World War II. Maybe, the simple ingredients made it more of a country dish that came to the city in times of poverty, but one theory about its origin goes that it was an ingenious way the Roman made use of the supplies brought by the liberating American armies: bacon, and dehydrated eggs in powder. Supply these to a Roman mother, and here’s what she comes up with.

Ingredients:

  • pasta: penne or rigatoni (100g per person)
  • bacon (actually, I’d go for guanciale, if available)
  • eggs (one per person)
  • cheese (pecorino Romano)
  • ground black pepper
  • extra-virgin olive oil

The dish itself is very easy to prepare. Fry some bacon in olive oil, on low heat, being careful not to overcook (it should not be brown and crisp!). In the meantime, cook the pasta – be careful to leave it really al dente. Drain the pasta, and leaving the pan on low heat, add it to the bacon and oil, mixing the whole lot together, and allowing it to cook just slightly, for the pasta to absorb some of the taste of the bacon.

In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and add the pecorino and the pepper. Take the pan off the heat, and mix in the eggs, cheese and pepper into the pasta and bacon. Serve immediately, and be sure not to leave it to cook any further as you’ll end up with scrambled eggs on pasta.

Simple. Of course. But then, we debated almost every ingredient. To start with the bacon. Although some prefer using pancetta, which is generally more readily available, a Roman would tend to argue for guanciale (a more delicate and tasty kind, made from the pig’s cheek, rather than its belly). Guanciale is certainly the kind you’d use for an Amatriciana, for instance, but opinions on the Carbonara vary. Some actually argue that the original Carbonara used pancetta, from the American soldiers’ supplies. Of course, some debate also reigns on whether the bacon should be fried on it’s own, or rather after having sautéed some garlic or onion (not both, that’s anathema!).

Then there’s the cheese. Typical Roman is the Pecorino Romano, a hard mature cheese made from ewe’s milk. Internationally, of course, the Parmiggiano-Reggiano is better known but, as the name betrays, this cheese is more typical of the Emilia-Romagna than Lazio. If you want to go for the more regional taste, I’d vote for Pecorino. But then, both are very tasty, and salty, which is why one often replaces the other, as the effect is quite similar.

Oh the eggs. I tend to love simpler preparation, so I’d tend to add the whole egg. Some argue, though, that it’s better to use just the egg yolk. Then, there’s all the shades of opinion in between!

Finally, the pasta. Usually, I’ve seen it served in restaurants with spaghetti. My local advisers consider it a no-no. Better go for pasta corta (short pasta, like penne or rigatoni, not spaghetti or linguine), as the bacon, cheese and egg stick better to it.

I had said finally. Yes, no Roman would add anything else. Forget cream or besciamella. And of course, you may add peas, broccoli, mushrooms, or other vegetables as some cooks do outside Italy … but then, just don’t call it Carbonara.

Lentils and Ham

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During the first weeks of summer I read somewhere that Rick Stein was publishing a book about the food of Spain, to accompany his series by the same name on BBC2. What a treat! Excellent. I bought it and then…ta-da…I read that he was going to do a book signing in Guildford. Even more…excellent! So I did a thorough read of most of the recipes in the book and counted the days. In the meantime J and I moved to a new place and J’s dad flew in to help us with this move. In all the excitement I got sick. Typical. Not even the flu jab worked. As I resigned myself to the fact that I was only in possession of a mere unsigned copy, J offered to go to the town centre and get it signed for me. So sweet. So as I lay on the couch, fever going up and down driving me crazy, J was having all the fun, standing in a long queue/line, clutching my precious book. Mr. Stein kindly signed my book, commenting to J that it was heavily annotated or something like that. I like Rick’s simple but creative approach to food. Pity I didn’t get to meet him.

So inspired by Rick’s book Spain, I tried an accompaniment – not the usual first recipe to try from a new publication, but it appeared good on paper and I decided to give it a go. It’s not a main meal I think, but it makes a good snack for a BBQ or a picnic – hot or cold, your choice. A very simple but very tasty dish, with some variations peppered here and there. You could leave the pancetta out if you’re vegetarian, but for me it would have that something missing, if you know what I mean. And it’s one way of making J eat more veg! Here it goes.

  • 230g green lentils, cooked as per packet instructions. (Don’t throw away the cooking liquid.)
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 whole head of garlic, peeled and sliced
  • 2 smallish onions, peeled and chopped
  • 200g carrot, peeled and finely chopped
  • 100g pancetta or back bacon
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 2 large tomatoes, chopped
  • 120ml white wine
  • 1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Cook the lentils, use a sieve on a bowl to reserve the cooking liquid, and set them aside. Pour the olive oil into a wide and shallow pan and warm it through. Add the chopped garlic, onions and carrots and cook over medium heat for around 15 to 20 minutes, when the vegetables are softened.

Add the pancetta or bacon and toss it with the vegetables for 5 minutes. Time to add the paprika, tomatoes and wine, and let everything simmer happily until the liquid is reduced and slightly thickened.

Topple the cooked lentils and 150ml of the reserved liquid into the pan. Add the parsley, some salt and pepper to taste, let these simmer for 5 minutes and serve. Serves 6-8 people easily.

Enjoy!

Rob x