Lots of things can go wrong in the kitchen. Anyone who has spent any time cooking has burnt a finger, added too much salt to the sauce, or maybe even dropped an entire pan of food on the floor. Accidents are common and unavoidable and even those competitive souls on Top Chef can completely blow it every once in a while (which really helps ratings). Yet errors can also be illuminating. A few years ago when I added too much salt to a tomato pasta sauce I threw in some leftover mashed potatoes to help soak up the salt. Normally I would never (ever) add mashed potatoes to a pasta sauce, but was desperate. So I was surprised to find that those potatoes gave the dish a uniquely creamy and lustrous texture. It was an enlightening moment.
I was confronted with a similar situation last Saturday. My friend Christina decided it would be fun to have a ravioli-making party with the Italian ladies in her life. What a great idea. So on Saturday morning at 10:00 a.m., Christina, her friend Laura and I congregated in Christina's kitchen to make homemade pasta dough. After comparing methods, we set to work using Laura's grandmother's tried and true pasta recipe (use one egg per person plus a half egg shell of water for each two people and then add semolina and flour "l'occhio" (by eye) -- brilliant!). Laura had also brought over her Kitchen Aid pasta-making attachment, which had Christina and me oohing and aahing as those strips of pasta beautifully rolled through the press, perfect every time.
Once all the dough was made and laid out on the counter, one of us looked at the clock to discover it was noon. Laura had to take her two-year old home for a nap, Christina had to take her son to a friend's house, and I had to dash off to my daughters' soccer game nearby. After a few kisses on the cheeks and promises to be back by four, we all rushed out the door -- our morning's labor deserted.
After a few hours, we met up again to fill those raviolis, but were horrified to find none of us had actually covered the pasta -- which was still sitting on the counter, most of it dry as crackers and not fit to shape around a filling to make raviolis. After staring in horror at the pasta, we laughed at our mistake. I mean, honestly, what else could we do? Thankfully Christina's husband Marhsall is handy with a shaker and he made us some Manhattans to ease the pain while we put our heads together to find a solution.
Although some of the dough was still pliable enough to make raviolis, most wouldn't make the cut. We quickly used the most supple pasta pieces to make a butternut squash ravioli, but it seemed obvious we would need to abandon our meat ravioli plans as we quickly ran out of dough that could be shaped. The most logical and natural answer was to just make lasagna out of the dry pieces.
Now the three of us are all from Neapolitan or Sicilian families, so are used to preparing lasagna with fresh ricotta cheese and mozzarella (two ingredients we did not have on hand). The situation, however, demanded that we abandon those traditions. So instead of creating the usual cheesy lasagna, we decided to make the most of the perfectly seasoned and slow-roasted short rib ragù Christina had cooked and then pureed the night before as a ravioli filling, along with the light marinara sauce Laura had made earlier that day. We also chose to make a béchamel sauce to round out the flavors and finally added some aged Parmesan cheese. That’s it.
So there we were, making béchamel, lining the dish with sauce and dried pasta, grating cheese, and drinking Manhattans. The lasagna went into the oven and we all sighed, wishing those ingredients had become raviolis instead. When the lasagna came out of the oven a while later, we set the table for the feast and then sat down with the other diners, laughing again about our pasta dough disaster.
But once we started cutting into the lasagna we knew something wonderful had happened in the kitchen that day. We had thought the butternut squash raviolis in a brown butter sauce with fresh sage would be the highlight of the meal, and although they were lovely, they were no match for the cobbled together and impromptu lasagna. Those once-dried noodles, ragù, marinara sauce and béchamel had melded themselves perfectly together. The raviolis were ignored as each person first smelled and then tasted the lasagna. Very few words were spoken -- mostly "Wow!" and "Oh!" interspersed with the noise of forks touching plates. Finally one of the husbands said "Boy I'm glad you guys messed up the ravioli dough." And so was I.
Never in my life had I experienced such perfect lasagna. The once-forgotten dough that had languished on the counter all day was transformed into a thing of beauty when combined with the meat filling and sauces. And that ragù! If we had used ricotta and mozzarella with it, the cheeses would have blanketed our taste buds with their creamy flavors and textures. Without them, the ragù was the diva of the dish -- capturing our attention and mesmerizing us.
So remember that although some kitchen disasters lead to burned fingers, others lead to superlative lasagna.
Makes: One 9x13 pan
Ingredients: Homemade pasta dough rolled out into sheets
Christina’s Short Rib Ragù (recipe below)
Béchamel sauce (recipe below)
Marinara sauce (here is Mario Batali's Marinara recipe if you don't have a favorite of your own)
Parmesan cheese (enough to thinly coat each layer of the lasagna, about 1 cup)
1. Make and short ribs and marinara sauce ahead of time and then refrigerate. You can do this the morning you'll make the lasagna or the day before.
2. Make the pasta dough. You can make it a couple of hours ahead of time, but should cover it with waxed paper or dish towels to avoid curling.
3. When ready to assemble the lasagna, make the béchamel sauce.
4. In a large 9 x 13 pan, assemble your lasagna by lightly layering the bottom of the pan with marinara sauce, followed by a layer each of pasta, ragù, béchamel sauce and grated Parmesan cheese.
5. Continue layering until you are out of ingredients, being sure to leave enough marinara sauce to coat the top of the lasagna. Sprinkle on a final coating of Parmesan cheese.
6. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30-40 minutes or until cooked through.
Makes: 1 1/2 cups
1 stick unsalted butter
3/4 cup all purpose flour (or enough to create a thick roux with the flour)
3 cups whole milk
Salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste
1. In a medium sauce pan, melt the butter on medium low heat.
2. Once the butter is melted, slowly whisk in the flour until the sauce has a smooth consistency.
3. Slowly add in the milk, whisking to avoid lumps.
4. Simmer sauce for a few minutes and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste (I only use a sprinkling of nutmeg, but you can add more of you like a heartier nutmeg flavor).
Christina’s Short Rib Ragù
Adapted from: Faux Babbo Ravioli recipe; Originally published with THE CHEAT; So You Still Can't Get a Reservation at Babbo? By Sam Sifton, May 8, 2005
Makes: Enough ragù for one lasagna
2 lbs short ribs
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion chopped
2 celery stalks chopped
2 carrots chopped
2 1/2 cup red wine
1 cup tomatoes diced drained
2 Tbsp chopped fresh rosemary or oregano
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
2. Heat a large ovenproof skillet (such as a cast-iron pan) on medium-high heat.
3. Add the oil and then mix in the chopped onion, celery and carrots and sauté for five minutes.
4. Remove the vegetables and turn the heat up to medium-high heat. Brown the short ribs (being sure not to crowd the pan.
5. Remove the meat and deglaze the pan with the wine; add in the tomatoes and herbs as well as salt and pepper to taste.
6. Add in the meat and vegetables and then bring mixture to a boil.
7. Set the pan in the oven and bake for 2 hours or until the short ribs are falling apart.
8. Let mixture cool and then refrigerate overnight or at least two hours. Puree or chop until mixture is fairly smooth.