Family Favorite Lasagna with Basil Bechamel Sauce

It seems fitting that to debut the new FamilyStyle Food, I offer you one of our favorite family recipes.

I’ve made this lasagna over and over; for friends with new babies, family potlucks and my DinnerStyle clients alike. It’s a variation of a recipe from Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Family Style cookbook and it never fails to please.

Classic Italian Meatballs

Classic meatballs, Italian-American style
Meatballs are personal.

Let me rephrase that: Show me your meatball, and I’ll show you mine.

Oh, wait. No. Not that personal. That’s the sort of thing that goes on in other blogs, the after bedtime, Not Safe for Work kind.

What I meant was, meatballs for me are like Proust’s madeleine. Like any childhood comfort food, meatballs represent a time, place and taste that exists only in my memory. But when prepared in just the right way – today, right now- one bite into a really good meatball could transport me back to my parents’ Sunday afternoon dinner table.

My mother would set out a large platter of meat that had spent the better part of the day braising in thick, rich tomato sauce – the gravy. On it, there would usually be a beef chuck roast, a braciole (a rolled beef flank steak stuffed with cheese, breadcrumbs and fresh parsley), sweet and spicy pork sausages handmade by my grandfather, and meatballs. I always went straight for the meatballs.

Meatballs are so personal that even among family there can be great disappointment. My bias unfailingly (some might say stubbornly) swerved toward my mother’s meatballs. Even as much as I loved my grandmother’s Sunday gravy, I was ambivalent about her meatballs. And because each person’s meatball is as unique in form as their own fingerprint, it was always immediately apparent to me when someone other than my own mother or grandmother had shaped meatballs and surreptitiously slid them into the family gravy pot.

There was that one Sunday gravy which has traumatized me for life. I can’t remember the distant relative who’d prepared them, all I know is this: one hopeful bite of her meatball revealed something dark, chewy and slimy-sweet, an alien nugget that could only be… a raisin. A raisin.

Who would go and put a raisin in an innocent-looking meatball? Why?

Later, my mother explained to me in a stage whisper that it was because great aunt Carmella was Sicilian. Oh.

Needless to say, my family was spoiled by my mother’s stellar meatballs and as a result grew very particular. It was standard for us to rate the quality of the meatballs whenever we ate at a restaurant. We could spot inferior execution every time. Like meatballs made with stale, dried, seasoned breadcrumbs or those that were so firm and rubbery you could set one on a billiard table and smack it into the corner pocket.

Because I believe my mother made the very best meatballs, hers are the standard by which all others are judged. They were generously portioned – almost the size of a baseball; crusty on the outside, tender and almost fluffy within. They were strewn with flecks of fresh parsley, garlic and soft bits of milk-soaked Italian bread. They were sharp with the salty tang of Pecorino Romano cheese. They were big juicy spheres I couldn’t wait to stick my fork into.

My mother is no longer with us, and sadly, she took her meatball recipe with her. She’d told me her meatball secrets, probably more than once, but that was a while ago and the details are sketchy. Did she say to remove the crusts from the bread before soaking in milk? To squeeze out the milk thoroughly or to keep the bread dripping with liquid? To flatten the meatballs slightly while frying? Can’t remember. I didn’t write it down.

Unfortunately, I don’t seem to have inherited the gene for meatball mastery from my mother, and I’ve yet to work out her perfect ratio of meat-to-seasoning-to-filler. I hang my head in frustration, but I’m working on it.

I’ve turned to cookbooks lately, and recently found a recipe in Two Meatballs in an Italian Kitchen that seemed eerily familiar. I played with the recipe a bit and came up with this one. They are very close to my mother’s in method and taste, but just not as light as I’d like them to be. Back to the mixing bowl.

As always, I’ll keep you updated with breaking meatball-recipe news as it occurs.
Until then, what are your cherished food memories? Visit the comment section at the end of this post and share them with me.

You might also like Rigatoni with 20-Minute Sunday Gravy.

Classic Italian Meatballs

3 thick slices Italian-style bread, crust trimmed
1 ½ cups whole milk
1 pound ground beef chuck
½ pound ground pork
2 egg yolks
½ cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 tablespoon kosher salt or 1 ½ teaspoons table salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
½ cup fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
¼ cup olive oil

1. Tear the bread into small pieces and place in a medium bowl. Cover with the milk and soak 5 minutes. Squeeze the milk out of the bread until just moist.

2. In a large bowl, use your hands to combine bread, beef, pork, egg, cheese, salt, pepper, garlic and parsley until evenly mixed. Break off ¼-cup sized pieces of mixture and roll into balls. They don’t have to be perfect – craggy meatballs have character and hold the sauce better.

3. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add as many meatballs as will fit in the pan without crowding. They should sizzle as soon as they hit they pan or the pan isn’t hot enough.

4. Cook meatballs until browned on all sides and cooked through, 6 -8 minutes total.

5. Serve hot with your favorite tomato sauce.
Makes about 15 meatballs

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Copyright (c) 2008 FamilyStyle Food

Homemade Rosemary Potato Gnocchi

Leave the gun, take the gnocchi

We have just a few traditions in our house that we abide by with comforting regularity, and one of them is spending the holidays during the last few weeks of the year with my sister-in-law L, otherwise known as YaYa, and her husband S, The Old Man.

Because they teach at a university, they have the benefit of a long vacation break between semesters. Because we have a few children, we make them fly out of Logan Airport at holiday time to visit us. It’s a win-win situation, really.

When I tell people that we have relatives moving in for a few weeks over the holidays, they usually groan in sympathy. I know they’re probably imagining a scene out of a John Candy movie, where crazy Uncle Jack overstays his visit, starts drinking beer at lunch, terrorizes the children and stops up the toilet.

While we definitely start drinking lots more alcohol and we have actually called upon the services of Roto Rooter at least once this past month, to say that we look forward to the visit is putting it mildly. We live for it.

Who wouldn’t? For us, it’s all about celebrating and feasting; for two whole weeks we feel like we’re on vacation. By unplugging ourselves from our usual routine we can really get into the spirit of things. We cook together just about every night. We make multiple trips to the wine store to restock, and depending on our mood, stay up too late listening to music, talking or playing our favorite obscure board game, Who Killed Dr. Lucky.

We manage to keep up a fun spirit of camaraderie in the kitchen; everyone gravitates toward a job, depending on the menu. T and The Old Man team up for things like crabcakes and their famous pumpkin ravioli, while YaYa is mistress of salads and table setting. She also helps me plan our list of menus, because somebody needs to be in charge.

Although, this year, because I just finished reading Phoebe Damrosch’s book Service Included, we took to calling each other “chef” – with the just the right tone of irony, of course – because Thomas Keller runs his kitchen with a sense of democracy, that’s how all the employees at Per Se are instructed to communicate, apparently.

This was our Year of the Gnocchi. We used a recipe from chef Charlie Palmer’s cool waterproof book, the Practical Guide to the New American Kitchen. We all agreed that these were as light, tasty and fluffy as potato dumplings could be. I think that baking the potatoes (rather than boiling them) makes for lighter gnocchi; they don’t absorb all that water and can just merge gracefully with the flour and egg.

The lost art of gnocchi rolling

If you don’t have a neat ridged gnocchi board, you can use a fork to make distinctive grooves in each dumpling. However, you will miss out on the pleasure of feeling just like an Italian mama.

Potato Rosemary Gnocchi

Serves 6, generously
Adapted from a recipe by Charlie Palmer3 large baking potatoes, about 2 pounds total
2 egg yolks
2 – 3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
3 tablespoons olive oil (if sauteeing)

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Poke the potatoes a few times with a fork and place directly on the oven rack. Bake about 1 hour, or until fork-tender. When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, remove the skins and push them through a food mill or ricer into a large bowl.

Add the salt and egg yolk, and 2 cups of flour and mix together. Turn the mixture out onto a floured surface and knead, adding more flour if needed, until a soft (but not sticky), smooth dough forms.

Divide the dough into portions the size of your hand, and roll each into a rope about 1/2-inch thick. Cut into 1-inch lengths. If you’re inclined, roll each gnocchi firmly over a gnocchi board or the concave side of a fork. Arrange the gnocchi on a floured baking sheet as you go.

Bring a large stockpot of water to a boil; drop the gnocchi in batches into the water and boil until they bob to the surface, about 3 minutes.

At this point, you can sauce them up as you please, or lay them out on a tray and freeze them (transfer them to zippered bags when they’re solid) so that you have an emergency late-night gnocchi stash on hand .
If you want to sauté the gnocchi, set up an ice bath with a colander set into a large bowl of ice water. Remove the gnocchi from the boiling water with a slotted spoon and immediately drop them into the colander. Drain and toss with the olive oil.

Just before serving, sauté the gnocchi in melted butter, garlic and some spinach or dandelion greens. Pass the grated Parmesan.

Gnocchi getting a toss in the pan

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Copyright (c) 2007 FamilyStyle Food