Christmas Eve Lasagna

The house is decorated, the gifts are purchased, and it is still early in the month. I need to wrap everything and sort, but I am ahead of the game this year. This is new for me. But I wanted to leave myself plenty of time to plan my baking. For me, the highlight of the Christmas season is not the shopping but the cooking and the baking, and sharing it with family and friends.

Christmas Eve is my favorite night of the year. Since my grandparents were all from southern Italy, Christmas Eve was the big holiday rather than Christmas Day. When I was a child, we spent Christmas Eve morning baking, then the rest of the day was devoted to visiting relatives, bringing them whatever we had baked that morning. We spent the evening at my Uncle Frank and Aunt Fran’s with lots of cousins and great food. All of my mother’s brothers and sisters that lived in New Jersey were there and contributed to the evening meal. It was buffet-style because there were about 30 of us for dinner. My Uncle Bill and Aunt Mildred always brought roast beef, my Aunt Marge would sometimes make tripe in tomato sauce, mussels, or fresh calamari salad. Aunt Fran, a terrific cook, made the most delicious breaded and fried wild cardoons that a neighbor foraged and brought from upstate New York each year. My Uncle Frank grilled Italian sausage outside, no matter how cold it was. We ate pasta, meatballs, bracciole, chicken, salad, vegetables. For dessert there were cakes, cannolis, cheesecake, and cookies (I am probably leaving out a few things). I sometimes walked to church for midnight mass with my cousins. For me it was a magical night filled with the love of family and delicious food. As a child I expected to spend the rest of my life attending Christmas Eve with the relatives in New Jersey. But then I married and moved away and the traditions changed a bit. Even though it has been more than 20 years since I celebrated a Christmas holiday in New Jersey, I still get a twinge of homesickness and miss my relatives on Christmas Eve. There are a few tears and then I get over it.

We now celebrate Christmas Eve at my mother’s apartment with my siblings and their children, and it is no longer a buffet-style meal. We eat in courses for 4 or 5 hours and, yes, I usually wear loose-fitting clothes. We begin with a fish course, traditional for Southern Italian families. We usually have shrimp, crab, mussels (see my first post for that recipe), scallops, and for the non-fish eaters, my brother and sister-in-law make delicious arancini (Sicilian rice balls) set in a bed of garlicky marinara sauce and a generous pool of fine extra virgin olive oil. Then we take a break and open gifts and digest a bit before we go on to the pasta course. The pasta changes from year to year, but I will sometimes get requests for this lasagna. We then have a meat and salad course, followed by dessert. Desserts include cannolis, cheesecake, homemade cookies, and maybe something chocolate.

I have been making lasagna for years, but this is a recipe that I have developed based on my own personal preferences and is not as authentically Italian as some may prefer. (Don’t get worried; there is no cottage cheese, sour cream or cheddar cheese in it. I dislike ricotta cheese in lasagna because I do not enjoy a paste-like consistency against the tender noodles. I also find bechamel sauce too rich.) This version has mozzarella, Parmesan, and tender pieces of pork.

If you are looking for a vegetarian option, eliminate the pork in the sauce and make straight marinara. Roast portobello mushrooms and onions together until tender and use it as a filling with the cheese. It is equally delicious.

This recipe is plenty for a 15×11 lasagna pan. I usually make the sauce the day before I need it. It makes assembling the lasagna quite easy. Use pork blade chops if you can; they stay more moist.

Pork Sauce for Lasagna
1/2 c. olive oil
2 large pork blade chops with bone (1-1/2 lbs. roughly)
1 large onion, thinly sliced
3-4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 (28 oz.) cans diced tomatoes with juice (I like Muir Glen organic)
2 tsp. or more dried basil
2-4 Tbsp. sugar depending on the tomatoes sweetness
Salt and pepper to taste

Remaining Ingredients
2 (1lb.) boxes no-boil lasagna noodles
1 (5 lb.) pkg. shredded mozzarella cheese (you will have some leftover)
3/4 c. grated Parmesan cheese
1 Tbsp. dried Greek oregano

In a 6-quart stockpot heat olive oil on medium heat. When hot add 1 pork chop, a little salt and pepper, and brown on both sides. Remove from pan and repeat with second pork chop. Set aside. In the same pot add onions and sauté for 7-10 minutes until the onions are soft and golden. While the chops are frying put the tomatoes in a blender to purée and run through a food mill to remove seeds. Then add tomatoes to the pot once the chops are browned and removed from the stockpot. Add basil and sugar to the tomatoes and salt and pepper to taste. Add the browned pork to the tomatoes. Cover and bring to a boil. Then reduce heat and simmer for 2-1/2 to 3 hours until the pork is fall-off-the-bone tender. Remove meat and shred.

To Assemble Lasagna: Place several ladles full of warm sauce on the bottom of your lasagna pan, spreading it all over to keep the noodles from sticking. Place 6 lasagna sheets on top of the sauce. (You may need to break another sheet up to fill in the edges.) Sprinkle the noodles with 2 cups or more of shredded mozzarella. You want a nice, evenly-spread layer of cheese over the noodles. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup of Parmesan and 1 tsp. oregano. Spread roughly 2 cups of shredded pork over the cheese. Add 1 to 1-1/2 cups sauce to moisten the meat and cheese. Repeat with noodles, 2 c. mozzarella, 1/4 c. Parmesan, 1 tsp. oregano and 2 cups shredded pork and sauce. The third layer is the final layer with just noodles, 2 c. Mozzarella, the remaining Parmesan, oregano, and sauce, but not the pork. Cover tightly with foil.

Bake at 375 degrees for 45-60 minutes, or until bubbly and hot in the center. Remove foil and poke the center with a fork. If tender, remove from oven. Replace the cover and let sit 15-20 minutes. Serves 15-20.

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