Lasagne, as everyone knows, is a dish of wide flat noodles, sometimes green from spinach (lasagne Verdi), sometimes with ruffled edges (lasagne ricce). The classic, austere version from Bologna alternates layers of lasagne with meat sauce (ragu) and bechamel. I am giving a more exuberant example below. There are many others, including the lasagne di vigilia, Christmas Eve lasagne, involving very wide noodles that remind the faithful of the baby Jesus's swaddling clothes. Lasagne (Lasagne is the singular but it is almost never use. Ditto for other pasta types: who would ever lapse into speaking of a single spaghetto, except in humor) is first and foremost a noodle, not a specific dish, It may be the primordial Italian pasta noodle, or at least the oldest known word in the modern pasta vocabulary. In one way or another, lasagne seems to derive from the classical Latin laganum. But what was laganum? Something made of flour and oil, a cake. The word itself derived from a Greek word for chamber pot, which was humorously applied to cooking pots. And like many other, better-known cases of synecdochical food names, the container came to stand for the thing it contained. And eventually, by a process no one knows with any certainly, laganum emerged as a word for a flat noodle in very early modern, southern Italy. If you are persuaded by all the evidence collected by Clifford A. Wright, you will be ready to believe that in Sicily, an Arab noodle cuisine collided with the Italian kitchen vocabulary and co-opted laganum and its variant lasanon to describe the new "cakes" coming in from North Africa. Would you be happier about this theory if you had evidence of a survival of an "oriental" Arab pasta in Sicily? Mary Taylor Simeti provides one in Pomp and Sustenance, Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Food. Sciabbo, a Christmas noodle dish eaten in Enna in central Sicily, combines ruffled lasagna (sciabbo-jabot, French for a ruffled shirtfront) with cinnamon and sugar, typical Near Eastern spices then and now.
In a mixing bowl, stir together the beef, milk, parsley, salt, and pepper. Form into balls the size of olives. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet and brown the meatballs in small batches. Remove from the pan as they brown and drain on paper towels. Set aside.
In the same skillet, add the onion and garlic and saute until the onion is lightly browned. Then stir in the tomato puree and tomato paste. Simmer for 15 minutes.
Bring 6 quarts of water to boil in a large pot.
Add the meatballs to the tomato mixture and continue cooking for another 30 minutes. Meanwhile, liberally salt the boiling water and add the lasagna. Cook until al dente, about 10 minutes. Drain in colander.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
In a shallow ovenproof pan, roughly 13 by 9 by 2 inches, spread a thin layer of the sauce (no meatballs). Then spread a layer of overlapping lasagna 1 strip thick (don't let the strips run up the side of the dish). Cover that with mozzarella slices and then 5 tablespoons ricotta. Sprinkle with the Parmesan and then spread on 1/4 of the sauce and meatballs. Begin again with a layer of lasagna and continue as above until all the ingredients are used up, ending with the Parmesan.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes. If the cheese on top hasn't melted, run under the broiler briefly. Then let the dish rest at room temperature for a few minutes before serving.
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Recipe courtesy of Raymond Sokolov, The Cook's Canon: 101 Classic Recipes Everyone Should Know, HarperCollins, 2003
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