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Mario Pei's Classic Lasagne
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“Lasagna: the world's most perfect food.”
~ Garfield

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Lasagne Linguist
He knew words, and he knew pasta
Saveur No. 52 Jul/Aug 2001

Saveur - One Year Subscription 

“It was an outlandish summer event for Martha’s Vineyard in the late 1940s –
a lasagne dinner. In those days, lasagne was a cosmopolitan, adventurous food,
and the Vineyard was hardly the sophisticated venue that it is now. Yet each
July, Mario Pei, Italian-born scholar, Columbia University professor of romance philology, author of books like ‘The Story of the English Language’ and ‘The Families of Words’, and eater par excellence, would arrive for a week’s vacation
at my parents’ cottage in East Chop. He would be followed by a shipment from Manganaro’s on New York’s Ninth Avenue. In the carton that we would open
in awed silence lay mozzarella, ricotta, fat green and black olives, anchovies,
tuna, sweet Italian sausage, and sheets of lasagne with ripply edges.
Professor Pei would spend one full day preparing the dinner with flair in our
old-fashioned New England kitchen. A tall man of impressive girth, he would
fill the little room, giving imperious orders for pots and pans, then browning
the sausage over too high a heat so that it splattered the walls. He would plop
the tomato paste into the sizzling meat, onion and garlic, add water, and stir
with grand abandon. This often produced red splotches that decorated the
ceiling for a day or so until the mess could be discreetly removed while the
professor was at the beach.
Dinner would start with a sizable antipasto. Then the lasagne would appear,
still bubbling from the oven, to applause and Professor Pei’s appreciative nods.
Finally, he would rise and serve his creation. It was boldly galicky, meaty, and pillowed with cheese, a strange and wonderful food. Afterward, we’d have a
salad of greens and tomatoes from our backyard victory garden, a leftover from
the war. Before dessert (usually one of my grandmother’s pies), Professor Pei
would urge his guests to get a spot of exercise, and they’d dutifully rise and
follow him to the lighthouse, then march back to the table.
Recently I found Pei’s handwritten recipe in my grandmother’s scrapbook –
and again in Ada Boni’s ‘The Talisman Italian Cook Book (Crown, 1950), for which he wrote the introduction. In it he mentions an eighth-century work by
Hesychius, a Greek lexicographer, in which a dish of dough in sauce is called ‘makaria’, food of the blessed. Those were surely blessed lasagne parties that
we enjoyed decades ago.”

~ Phyllis Méras


Mario Pei’s Lasagne

Serves 6-8

“In the 1940s, lasagne was still exotic – and Pei’s version was all
the more memorable for the panache involved in its preparation.”

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 1/2 pounds sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
One 32-ounce can peeled Italian plum tomatoes
One 6-ounce can tomato paste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1 pound fresh ricotta
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 pound dried lasagne, preferably curly edged
1 pound fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced

1. Heat oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add onions
and garlic and cook, stirring often, until soft, about 5 minutes. Add
sausage and cook, breaking up meat with the back of a spoon, until
no longer pink, 10-15 minutes. Add parsley and cook until meat is
browned, 5-10 minutes more. Stir in tomatoes, tomato paste, and
2 cups water [or beef stock] and season to taste with salt and pep-
per. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally,
until sauce thickens, about 1 1/2 hours. Stir in basil and set sauce
2. Meanwhile, combine ricotta, egg, and 1/4 cup of the Parmigiano in
a medium bowl and set aside.
3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling
salted water over high heat, stirring often, until just tender, 8 - 11
minutes. Drain, then lay pasta sheets, nut touching, between damp
kitchen towels.
4. Spread a thin layer of sauce in a medium deep baking dish, then
cover with several sheets of the pasta. Spread one-third of the
ricotta mixture over pasta, cover with more pasta, spread one-
third of the sauce over the pasta, and arrange one-third of the
mozzarella over sauce. Repeat layers, ending with ricotta, sauce,
then mozzarella. Sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup Parmigiano.
Bake until sauce is bubbling, about 30 minutes. Let lasagne rest
15 minutes before serving.

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