Love comes in many forms, and on Valentine’s Day, we have a habit of focusing on that butterfly-inducing, rom-com style of young love. The beautiful reality for most of us, though, is that we share love with lots of people in our lives, and Valentine’s Day is a celebration of love in every way we experience it, all of them great. And what better way to show people you love them than to cook for them?
I grew up in Veneto region of Italy, which you won’t be surprised to learn shaped my love of food. In that part of the country, polenta is king. In fact, my mother always claims she never had “spaghetti”—by which she means pasta with some kind of red sauce—until she got to the United States.
That doesn’t mean I don’t eat pasta, and when I think of the ultimate way to show love for the people in my life, pasta is key. Specifically, I’m talking about a classic Lasagna alla Bolognese, which is a fundamentally simple dish with four components: fresh egg pasta, a meat ragù, creamy bechamel sauce, and plenty of Parmesan.
It may be an understatement to say that lasagna is delicious, but that’s not the only reason I love to serve it. Despite the seemingly big components, this is a make-ahead dish that can be prepared solo, but even better together as a family. This means that on Valentine’s Day, even the cook can enjoy the celebration. After all, cooks feed others because they’re trying to share a part of themselves, and stress takes away from that experience. Sharing the meal is the best part
All of the lasagna parts can be made up to a few days ahead of time, and, in fact, you can assemble and bake the whole lasagna the day before. Like a lot of the most delicious foods, next-day lasagna may even be a little tastier and probably a bit easier to slice. The meat ragù is much easier to layer when it’s cold, so you don’t even need to reheat it.
If you’ve never made fresh pasta, there are a few things to keep in mind. The key to a truly excellent homemade pasta is the kneading. The finished dough should be very smooth, both to your eye and your touch. It will have a satiny appearance that can only be accomplished with plenty of kneading.
If you’re cooking as a group, pass the dough around to take turns, or you can use your pasta roller to help you get there. Roll the dough through the widest setting. Tri-fold it, then pass it through again before tri-folding and rolling again. Keep going until your dough is smooth and silky.
Once your dough is mixed and eventually rolled into sheets, you’ll need to boil it. Be sure that your water is nice and salty, since it’s the only opportunity to get that flavor into your pasta. Slightly undercook your pasta, since it will undergo a secondary cook with the other ingredients. “Al dente” can feel pretty subjective, so think about if you’re cooking a piece of spaghetti. When you cut it in half, you want to see a pin-size bit in the middle that still looks chalky. Same for your lasagna!
Drain your pasta, but remember not to rinse it or oil it. You want all of those natural starches to be available to mingle with the ragù and bechamel to help bind the lasagna components together for the perfect slice.
The most important tip is to enjoy the process, because on Valentine’s Day, the old cliché is true: the secret ingredient really is love (and cheese).
Chef Will Packwood ’96 is an instructor of Culinary Arts at the CIA in San Antonio, Texas.