And now for the food of Carnival, as interpreted by cooks in what is now Italy. (See previous post on Carnival for more history.)
Greasy, fatty, protein-rich, oozing with cheese or sugar, the dishes created for Martedi Grasso (Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday) served a higher purpose than merely feeding hungry stomachs: the severe Lenten proscriptions of the Roman Catholic Church meant that the ingredients — meat, cheese, butter, sugar, fat, eggs — couldn’t be touched until the Gloria rang out on Easter Sunday.
Forty days of eating gruel and coarse bread.* Starvation rations. Wild greens, white beans. Maybe.
But think about it for minute.
Lent begins in winter, almost halfway between the harvest of autumn and the first greens of spring. By restricting food intake, people practicing subsistence agriculture could make do until food production increased in the springtime.
Elizabeth Romer, writing as late as 1984, captured the cycle of Tuscan rural life in her meditative book, The Tuscan Year: Life and Food in an Italian Valley. A description of each month’s food, truly a locavore scenario, brings understanding: people ate what they had and did without. Romer says of her neighbor,
Although the farmland is waking from the dreary winter’s trance and drifts of violent green appear where grain sown in November tentatively feathers the fields, Silvana still has little choice of vegetables in the kitchen garden, and the walled area is practically bare. … One vegetable that Silvana does have in her garden at this time of year is the fresh and delicate Broccoletti di Rape, Brassica Napus …
What to do with the food sitting in the root cellar or hanging from the rafters?
Make lasagne, that’s what.
A contemporary of Marco Polo’s, the poet Iacopone da Todi, refers to lasagne in a moral tale. The word comes from the Greek for chamber pot (lasanon) which is probably more than you’d like to know. The Romans no doubt giggled as they borrowed the word and used it to refer to a special type of pot used for cooking. The first English-language cookbook, The Forme of Cury, contains a recipe referring to loseyns (pronounced lasan). And an early Italian cookbook, Liber de coquina (Book for Cook), mentions lasagne and so the conclusion to draw remains that somehow someone from Italy taught Richard II’s cooks how to make pasta and bake it with cheese.
Today it seems like everybody writing about Italian food throws in a recipe for lasagne. Like Richard’s cooks, there’s no excuse not to make first-class lasagna for the upcoming Carnival celebrations.
Finding a recipe for Carnival Lasagne is not difficult — the difficulty lies in picking which one to include. Clifford Wright, in his Lasagne: More Than 75 Traditional Italian Recipes, lists the following types of lasagna served at Carnival in Naples alone:
Lasagne Partenopea (old name for Naples and also the “Siren of legend”)
Lasagne imbottite (stuffed lasagne)
Lasagne napoletane (Neapolitan-style lasagne)
Lasagne antiche (old-style lasagne)
Lasagne pasticciate (lasagne pie-style)
Many Italian-Americans simply use their “Sunday Gravy” recipe for lasagna. (Sunday Gravy is the catch-all word for the ubiquitous “red sauce” found in most Italian-American homes.)
I’m including the following recipe because I like the fact that it comes first-hand from a source close to the culture. That said, it is not really what most Americans think of when they contemplate lasagne. For that, I send you to Kyle Phillips, a true expert on Italian cooking. Kyle lives in Florence, is married to an Italian, and is the About.com guide for Italian Food and translator of Pellegrino Artusi’s Art of Eating Well. Here’s Kyle’s recipe: “Grande Lasagna di Carnevale.”
(after Samuel Chamberlain, Italian Bouquet: An Epicurean Tour of Italy, 1958)
On pages 413-414, Mr. Chamberlain says that Signor Ciro, the owner of Da Ciro, a restaurant then extant in Naples, “generously supplied us with the recipe that is such a Neapolitan favorite at carnival time. Here is a translation”:
Boil 1 pound of lasagna, a few at a time, in plentiful boiling, salted water, leaving them slightly firm. Drain them out as done and remove to a bowl of cold water. Drain again and spread them on damp towels. Butter a 15-inch, shallow [Ed. note: should be DEEP] baking dish and cover the bottom with a single layer of lasagna, allowing the ends to turn up to line the sides of the dish. Mix 1 pound of ricotta cheese with 1 large beaten egg and ½ cup grated Parmesan. Spread half the ricotta mixture over the lasagna and cover with ½ to ¾ pound of thinly slices mozzarella cheese and 1 cup of diced ham. Add another layer of lasagne, spread on the remaining ricotta mixture, and over this spread about ½ pound of tiny meatballs that have been cooked briefly in a little butter. (See recipe for polpette in the index [Ed. note: See recipe below.] or use finely ground lean beef seasoned with salt and pepper and grated onion. Form balls the size of hazelnuts.) Over this pour 1 ½ to 2 cups meat juices or sauce. (See stewed beef Florentine or meat sauce Florentine, or ragù Bolognese II in the index. [Ed note: See recipe below.]) Add your last layer of lasagne, another 1 ½ to 2 cups meat juices or sauce, and sprinkle the surface lavishly with Parmesan. Bake in 350 F oven for 20 – 30 minutes. [Ed. note: You will have to let the lasagne bake for 45 minutes or so. Let the dish rest about 15 minutes before cutting.]
The term polpette describes various combinations of chopped meat formed into meatballs or cakes. The following combination is typical of Naples.
Grind together ¾ pound lean beef, ¼ pound lean pork, and ¼ pound veal. Add 1 tablespoon minced parsley, ½ cup bread crumbs, salt and pepper, and 2 tablespoons seedless raisins that have been soaked in warm water until they are soft, then drained and coarsely chopped. Stir in a lightly beaten small egg, form the mixture into small balls or flattened cakes, and sauté them in hot butter about 2 minutes on each side. The meatballs may be coated with fine bread crumbs before they are cooked, if desired. Serves 4 to 6.
Bolognese Meat Sauce II
(Al Pappagallo, Bologna-Emilia-Romagna)
[Ed. note: You will want to double or triple this recipe to follow Chamberlain’s directions for traditional carnival lasagna.]
This simpler version of Bologna meat sauce may be used with baked green lasagne, cannelloni, spaghetti, or any other dish requiring a meat sauce.
In 2 tablespoons butter, sauté over low heat 1 medium-sized onion, 1 small carrot, and 1 small stalk of celery, all finely chopped. When they are softened, add ¾ pound beef and ¼ pound lean pork, both ground. Cook the meat over low heat for 10 to 15 minutes. Add pepper to taste, ½ teaspoon salt, ¼ cup fresh tomato sauce or tomato paste, ½ cup white wine, and ¼ cup water or stock. Simmer the mixture slowly for about 1 ¼ hours, adding another ¾ cup stock little by little. This sauce should be rather thick. Makes about 2 ½ cups.
*Unless you got a dispensation from the priest or bishop by making a donation, as in the case of the “Butter Tower” of Rouen Cathedral. Martin Luther, no fan of the hierarchy had this to say about this practice in 1520: “For at Rome they themselves laugh at the fasts, making us foreigners eat the oil with which they would not grease their shoes, and afterwards selling us liberty to eat butter ….”
© 2009 C. Bertelsen