I grew up in an Italian family from New York. My grandfather, Carlos, claimed to be the King of Italy’s personal tailor. I’m still checking on whether or not there was a king of Italy in the late 1800’s as my grandfather claimed. All the men in my family cooked. Holidays and special occasions – Fridays before poker – found all my eight uncles in the kitchen, each making their own specialty. My aunts were ushered out to discuss “girl things,” which usually meant men things. The male children, my many cousins and I each had a favorite uncle, and we would be the sous chefs: chopping, dicing, and pretending we were an integral part of the process. My specialty was tomatoes, and since we were Sicilians, that was a pretty important part. My cousin Gary’s specialty was sausage. He had the better specialty – more masculine. Very important if you’re Sicilian! My favorite uncle was Eduardo “Eddy.” He was the oldest of my mother’s eight siblings. Uncle Eddy was – and still is – my hero. Uncle Eddy’s specialty was lasagna, and not just your ordinary lasagna. Uncle Eddy’s lasagnas were aromatic, pungent, gamey, woodsy, and memorable. They were true to his Sicilian heritage and my grandfather’s legacy as personal tailor to the King of Italy.
Uncle Eddy’s Marinara Ingredients
12 ripe Italian Roma tomatoes
3 28 oz. cans tomato puree.
1 8 oz. can tomato paste
2 yellow onions chopped
8 crushed garlic cloves.
1 cup red wine. I use Madera now, and limit it to a cup or so. Uncle Eddy’s recipe had no discernible limit.
½ cup olive oil. This can’t really be measured. When in doubt, use more.
8 bay leaves
4 oz. dried whole oregano
4 oz. dried basil
2 Tbsp dried fennel seeds
1 Tbsp ground sage
1 Tbsp dried rosemary
1 Tbsp dried marjoram
1 Tbsp dried thyme
1 tsp ground nutmeg
3 Tbsp sugar.
In an 8 quart heavy pot, cover the bottom with olive oil; add the chopped onion, crushed garlic, and sauté over medium heat—not too high. Sauté until onions and garlic start to brown. No need for a separate sauté pan. Uncle Eddy’s Marinara is a one pot product—start to finish.
Crush the tomatoes with your hands over the pot. Do not remove anything—seeds, stems, skins, or blemishes.
Add the tomato puree, the tomato paste, and the oregano, basil, rosemary, marjoram, sage, and fennel. Sage and fennel are the secret weapons in Uncle Eddy’s Marinara and Lasagna.
Heat (simmer is too high) for a minimum of several hours. Several days is better! Add the wine and sugar along the way. They balance each other, so you have to use taste as your guide. Uncle Eddy’s sauce is thick and perhaps a bit sweet, but we’ll be adding lemon juice during the assembly process to get the sweetness just right.
1 small roasting duck
4 Sicilian sausage links
1 pot Uncle Eddy’s marinara
6 sprigs fresh Sage
6 sprigs fresh Basil
6 sprigs fresh Oregano
2 tablespoons ground Nutmeg
1 tablespoon dried Red Chili Flakes
1 lemon. I use Meyer lemons. Uncle Eddy had a tree in the backyard
Uncle Eddy split the duck in half and grilled it. He stuffed half cloves of garlic into knife slits he made on each half of the bird. He left the skin on and placed each of the duck breast-side-down on a hot grill for about 15 minutes. He then turned each half over and lowered the heat. Uncle Eddy did this by removing about half the charcoal coals in his backyard red charcoal barbeque.
Cook for another 45 minutes or until the skin becomes golden brown. Uncle Eddy used a fork to tell when it was done.
Remove the duck and place it on a platter.
Now, take one large, heavy fry pan and cover the bottom with olive oil. Add the four Sicilian Sausages and brown over medium heat. Uncle Eddy’s Sicilian sausages were a mixture of pork, veal, basil, garlic, and red wine. Once browned, take a wooden spoon and break apart the sausages into pieces (not too small). Carve the duck into pieces, too, and add to the sausage. Use all of the duck. Uncle Eddy used the giblets and neck. I don’t.
Continue to cook the duck and sausage mixture over low heat. Do not drain.
Add the fresh basil leaves torn into pieces and turn off the heat. Leave the mix in the fry pan—don’t put it on a plate, or, God forbid, a bowl.
Assembling the Lasagna
I am showing the “open face” version, but you can make a more traditional lasagna by adding a final layer of noodles over the last layer of filling and covering with sauce and mozzarella—breadcrumbs optional. I like the open face version because it’s lighter and allows the diner to see filling and layers. Uncle Eddy always made it open face.
The Lasagna Noodles
Uncle Eddy rolled his own dough. He made the dough, kept it in a bowl overnight, and then rolled it into sheets using a rolling pin or Chianti bottle. Cut the noodles into 4 x 6 inch rectangles.
Put your cut noodles on a baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes at 250 degrees. I know—why did we go to all that trouble to make fresh pasta noodles if we’re going to dry them out in the oven. We’re not—we’re doing a little al dente so we can have our noodles stand up to the next steps.
In a ceramic or porcelain lasagna pan, spread a thin coating of olive oil and then an inch or so of Uncle Eddy’s Marinara. Next the noodles—do not overlap. Uncle Eddy’s open face lasagna is more like giant raviolis that are served individually rather than a casserole that’s cut into squares.
Next comes the fresh ricotta. Don’t buy it in a plastic tub, but try blocks from an Italian or Mediterranean market. Lay down a 3 inch square or so on each 4×6 noodle sheet – about a half inch thick.
Mound the duck and sausage mixture – about a handful (use your hands) over each ricotta slice.
Cut ½ inch slice of the fresh mozzarella (you can use buffalo mozzarella), and cross the pieces over the duck and sausage. Sprinkle a little ground nutmeg over each mound and a few generous squeezes of lemon.
Next place one or two wooden spoonful’s of Uncle Eddy’s Marinara over each mound (no touching), and put fresh sprigs of sage and oregano on each. If you want more fresh herbs, add marjoram–tarragon if you’re an adventurer.
Now, build another layer as above starting with a layer of noodle. Build as before and top with shaved parmesan—a pretty good amount.
Into the Oven
325 degrees for 45 minutes or until the lasagna is starting to turn golden. At this point, every pot, pans, and utensil in the kitchen has been used. Uncle Eddy didn’t believe in clean as you go. The Aunts cleaned up the kitchen after dinner while the Uncles set up the poker tables.
Place one section on each plate. Ladle on a couple of spoonful’s of marinara. Not too much; but not too little. You want to see the lasagna, not a plate of sauce. Garnish the plate with fresh thyme, and serve with a heated bowl of extra marinara and more shaved Parmesan.
Uncle Eddy’s Lasagna is a stand-alone dish. Warm crisped focaccia or olive bread is the only side dish required, but you can add a salad either before or after. Salad often comes after the entrée in Italian families. I like it with, but you can have it first.
Everyone always applauded Uncle Eddy at the end of the meal -you can too! It’s part of the tradition.