Monday, November 24, 2014

missionary cookbook // expat lasagna

Sweet Maggie Stewart, who is currently serving in Ukraine, requested this recipe to be next in this collection. This is for you, Maggie! 

Let me tell you something. There are some amazing ex-pat/missionary/whatever you call them people who can make anything from scratch. I'm talking making your own ricotta cheese kind of people. And yes, I've heard it's not that hard, but living as an expat in a developing country, there are some things I don't mind making from scratch and some things that I just say "forget it". And ricotta cheese is just one of those things. You don't have time to reinvent the wheel on everything you've ever made.

So let me introduce you to my version of "expat lasagna", or maybe better named "you-can-make-this with-the-stuff-you-already-keep-in-your-fridge lasagna", or even "won't-break-the-bank-in-imported-goods-prices-lasagna."

You pick which name you like best.

Though this recipe is for the less-terrified expat home cook, I personally feel like this recipe is one of the best ones I have to share because it marks the time where my overseas cooking really came full circle. I stopped feeling like I couldn't make anything, and started feeling like I could really make things that tasted like home and things that would wow my guests.

And to be honest, I don't even really miss the ricotta cheese! I didn't love it to begin with.

Step 1: Prepare the meat sauce. (Or pull some out of the freezer from a previous batch!) For this recipe, feel free to use your own meat/marinara/bolongese/red sauce recipe our change it to you or your family's liking. But for the purpose of this post, I will include my own. My husband is extremely partial to using meat sauce, but of course it changes a little every time because really what I do is just dump in spices until it looks good. So this recipe is truly just an estimate. Please note that when making sauce with only tomato paste as a base, using butter or margarine is extremely important, as well as a dash of sugar! A lesson I learned from my Honduran friends.

Meat Sauce:

1 lb ground beef, browned
1-2 tbsp oil (olive is best, but whatever you have access to)
4 tbsp margarine
1 medium to large onion, diced
1 green pepper, diced small
14 oz diced tomatoes, fresh or stewed
5-6 cloves of garlic (if using powder, 1/4 teaspoon is one clove)
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp basil
1 bay leaf (or 1/2 tsp powder)
1 tbsp parsley
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp black pepper
3 bags of tomato paste (mine are 4 oz each)
1- 1 1/2 cups water, to desired consistency
2 tbsp Worchestshire sauce (opt)

Brown ground beef ahead of time, set aside. In a large dutch oven, heat margarine and oil together. Saute the diced onion, green pepper, and your choice of garlic until soft and onions are translucent. Add tomatoes and cook for another 2-3 minutes. Add the remaining spices and ground beef and stir well. Next, add the tomato paste, stir in well, followed by the water until you reach your desired consistency of the sauce. Optionally, you can also add 2 tbsp of Worcestershire sauce (if you have access to it) to help cut back on the bitterness of the tomato paste. Allow the sauce to simmer for at least 30 minutes, during which you can prepare the other ingredients.

Step 2: Prepare noodles. At some point during your sauce preparation, bring water to a boil in a pot large enough for 8 (or however many depending on the size of your dish) lasagna noodles. Cook based on package directions. Do not overcook, or they will tear easily.

Step 3: Make a béchamel sauce, to replace the American-loved ricotta cheese. Does the name béchamel sound scary to you? Because it's really not. Make a roux first, by melting butter/margarine in a pan and then adding equal parts flour. For this recipe, I used 5 tablespoons of each, because my margarine sticks here are about that size (a bit smaller than the standard 8 tbsp sticks in the States). Whisk to remove a lumps, and then continue cooking and whisking the roux for two minutes, until it begins to look something like melty cookie dough or applesauce. (Hey, that's what it looks like to me!). Then, based on however much butter/flour, stir in 8 times as much milk; so if you used 5 tbsp of butter and flour like me, that's 2.5 cups of milk. Stir the milk in slowly while heating and stirring the mixture together until it thickens.

Step 4: Grate cheese(s) if necessary. For making this dish in Honduras, I am able to affordably purchase grated parmesan and mozzarella cheeses. I sprinkle a layers of parmesan evenly, and I use approximately one cup of shredded mozzarella cheese per layer.

Step 5: Arrange all of your ingredients closely together and build your lasagna. I used a square 9x9 baking dish, put you can use whatever size you have. Grease the dish first, then lay down enough noodles to cover the bottom of the pan. I my case, I put 4 noodles. Your layers should be as so: noodles, meat sauce, béchamel sauce, parmesan cheese, mozzarella cheese. Try your best not to mix the meat sauce and béchamel sauce together, because the béchamel will blend with the cheese(s) to make a wonderfully creamy layer. In my pan, I had two layers that included noodles, then of course you layer again ending with cheese on top. (You may not use all of the béchamel sauce, it's completely up to you.)

Step 6: Bake at 400 degrees F (204 C) for 25 to 45 minutes.

Missionary Tips:

1. I like to use a pre-seasoned tomato paste as one of my tomato pastes that are used in this recipe. (See picture.) That's basically because I tell myself that the flavors have been absorbing into the tomato paste for longer... but I have no idea if that's true.

2. Can't buy lasagna noodles where you are? Use zucchini strips instead! It's healthier too.

3. A tip for the béchamel sauce. You are supposed to slowly stir in the milk, but for some reason, with our ultra-pasteurized milk here in Honduras, I've found that it works better for me if I stir in the milk in thirds, each right after the other, and then stir all of it together well for a minute or two after I've quickly done this. I know, I'm breaking the rules. But it really works better for me! Make your own decisions based on whatever milk you have.

4. Tomatoes: you can diced fresh tomatoes and they will cook down in the sauce. Most people would discard the seeds for a pasta sauce, but I'm a little impatient when it comes to that and the seeds don't really bother me. Or, you could stew your own tomatoes, freeze them in batches and use them in place of canned tomatoes. It's pretty easy and directions are easily found online.

5.That cheese problem again. If you can buy grated parmesan, it's actually possible to make this dish with only that. You can also substitute mozzarella for a local variety of a similar soft cheese, like quesillo here in Latin America. Or you could get fancy and make your own mozzarella from milk!

Please share with us if you make and enjoy this recipe!

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