With the fall, suddenly one morning, you want a fire, and you find time to pull sweatshirts from the closet. And there's such a comfort in layering--the embracing bundling of sweaters, crawling into bed under a sheet, a duvet, a blanket, the dogs snuffling and hugging closely. Or wrapping yourself in an oversized afghan with a mug of fresh strong coffee in the morning, or a cuppa Darjeeling at night. There is so much good to be said for layering--even if some of us need, in later years, to spend much time, angst and money in trying to un-layer ourselves. When you think about it, though, 'tis the season for layering--from the clothes we wear to the complex celebrations with family and friends this time of year brings.
I'm given over to lots of soups and stews during this time, from rich bean concoctions to complex chilis and long-simmering stocks--vegetable, chicken, beef, fish--which will become the base for a thousand different things. I have a habit of making stock throughout the year and freezing unused portions, and some of the things I've liked best have started out as the blend of a half-dozen different stocks pulled from the freezer. The layering of flavors--and scents--can be extraordinary.
In the spirit of layering, one of my favorite fall dishes is not a soup, but a pasta dish--lasagna. Maybe 30 years ago, for a no-longer-remembered reason, I decided to teach myself to make a lasagna. Being considerably younger then and not so attuned to the wisdom of shortcuts, I found a complex recipe in a long-lost Italian cookbook and set about the task. Now, I'd had lots of lasagna prior to that time--from school cafeterias, family gatherings, neighborhood potlucks. All seemed to be a combination of five major ingredients: pasta strips, meat (often jumped-up ground beef), tomato sauce, cheese (from cottage to colby to cheddar, mozzarella to parmesan to ricotta and provolone) and then more cheese. I don't mean to disparage any of these--they became enshrined in memory as comfort food, and they will always have their place, as do the vegetable and seafood lasagnas I've had. But they were as distant to the lasagna I set myself to make as, say, a glass of Veuve Clicquot is to sparkling wine. Good in their place but ... different.
For starters, this particular recipe called for no more cheese than a dusting of parmesan on the top. Instead, the "cheese" layer was a wonderful thick and rich béchamel sauce--made carefully with butter, milk, flour, a little salt and freshly ground pepper. There was no layering of thick tomato sauce, but there was, in its place and that of the jumped-up ground round, a complex ragu Bolognese, composed of minced and olive oil-sautéed carrots, celery, onion and garlic, to which was then added minced beef, pork, veal and ... gasp! ... sautéed and minced chicken livers. The homemade stock was poured over this savory and time-consuming mess, and the whole thing was set to simmer for several hours until reduced to a thick, profoundly flavorful sauce. And, in between all this, cooking the pasta just so, rinsing and let it cool and dry out a bit. Then the layering began: a little ragu. then pasta, ragu, béchamel, pasta, ragu, béchamel--as many layers as possible, dusting the final coating of bechamel with the parmesan. Pop it into the oven for a bit, until the mix starts bubbling and the cheese gets golden-brown. Voilá!
Not voilá! There's nothing simple about it, and it's not a dish to decide to make at 5 in the afternoon (unless it's for the next day, of course). But, truly, it's an amazing and satisfying-in-almost-all-ways exercise. With a spinach and pine nut salad, some crusty, hot garlic bread and a bottle of Primitivo, it's friggin' memorable. I make it a couple of times a year.
Lasagna is one of those things that invites loyalties. Mama Louisa's on South Craycroft Road has legions of fans, and my brother's family loves Conti's on Oracle Road. If you are devoted to Caruso's on Fourth Avenue, no one, absolutely no one, will be able to change your mind. The late DaVinci's used to make a great dish, and that tradition is continued at Trattoria Pina on North Swan Road. I like FioRito's version, which includes portobello mushrooms. But the best of the lot, for my tastes, is what Massimo makes in his tiny kitchen at Tavolino at Oracle and Ina roads. He doesn't use chicken livers--no fear there if that idea troubles you--but he makes a lasagna which explodes with subtle flavors before melting in your mouth. It's worth every ounce you may gain.