Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Lasagna Rolls!

I had a group of girlfriends over for dinner last weekend, and wanted to make a fantastic entree that was delicious, fun and elegant, without being too heavy. With this group I am known for my Italian comfort food- I always make some kind of Italian treat for our dinner parties- and this year was no different. I went for lasagna rolls, and they were perfect. The rolls made for an elegant presentation, and the light spinach and prosciutto filling was delicious without being too heavy. The dish was extra special because of the two sauces, a bechemel on the bottom and homemade marinara on top. If you don't want to make the bechemel sauce then you could definitely put marinara on the bottom instead, but the bechemel does give it an extra creamy texture and fancy presentation. To increase the easy factor feel free to use jarred marinara sauce. I made a double batch and my family enjoyed this dish all weekend! These lasagna rolls are amazing, and perfect to serve for any occassion!

Lasagna Rolls
A perfect dish for any occassion- fancy and flavorful!
Serves 6, easily doubled

Bechemel Sauce:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 teaspoons all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups whole milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
Pinch ground nutmeg

1 (15-ounce) container ricotta cheese
1 (10-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed, squeezed dry
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan
3 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, chopped
1 large egg, beaten to blend
3/4 teaspoon salt, plus more for salting water
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
12 uncooked lasagna noodles
2 cups marinara sauce
1 cup shredded mozzarella (about 4 ounces)

To make the sauce: Melt the butter in a heavy medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the flour and whisk for 3 minutes. Whisk in the milk. Increase the heat to medium-high. Whisk the sauce until it comes to a simmer and is thick and smooth, about 3 minutes. Whisk the salt, pepper, and nutmeg into the bechamel sauce.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Whisk the ricotta, spinach, 1 cup Parmesan, prosciutto, egg, salt, and pepper in a medium bowl to blend.

Add a tablespoon or 2 of oil to a large pot of boiling salted water. Boil the noodles until just tender but still firm to bite. Drain. Arrange the noodles in a single layer on a baking sheet to prevent them from sticking.

Butter a 13-by-9-by-2-inch glass baking dish. Pour the bechamel sauce over the bottom of the prepared dish. Lay out 4 lasagna noodles on a work surface, then spread about 3 tablespoons of ricotta mixture evenly over each noodle. Starting at 1 end, roll each noodle like a jelly roll. Lay the lasagna rolls seam side down, without touching, atop the bechamel sauce in the dish. Repeat with the remaining noodles and ricotta mixture. Spoon 1 cup of marinara sauce over the lasagna rolls. Sprinkle the mozzarella and remaining 2 tablespoons of Parmesan over the lasagna rolls. Cover tightly with foil. Bake until heated through and the sauce bubbles, about 20 minutes. Uncover and bake until the cheese on top becomes golden, about 15 minutes longer. Let stand for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the remaining marinara sauce in a heavy small saucepan over medium heat until hot, and serve alongside.

Recipe courtesy of Giada Delaurentis

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Restaurant Review: Carmella's Italian Bistro, Appleton WI

Carmella's Italian Bistro
An intimate and authentic Italian ristorante in Appleton, WI!

Date of Visit: 12/4/10
Diners: Sarah, Natalie, Zach, Stefan, Matt & Kevin

You know when you walk into a restaurant and you immediately know there is something special about it? That’s how I felt when I entered Carmella’s in Appleton last weekend. The restaurant was nearly impossible to find and was sandwiched between a fabric and a battery store in a strip mall, yet it was completely packed. Hmmm, I thought, these clearly aren’t drive-by diners.
Our waiter Anthony came over to greet us and our table instantly liked him. You could tell he knew his stuff, describing the specials in detail with a passion, along with a slight Italian accent that only made him more believable. We later found out that Carmella is his grandmother, and she started the restaurant 75 years ago in New York City. They moved the restaurant to Appleton a couple years ago after her passing, and her children and grandchildren now run the shop.

We cozied up at a table and ordered a bottle of Sass Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley) and the special Napoleon to start the meal. It was divine, a unique spin on caprese salad, with more flavor. Juicy yellow tomatoes were layered with fresh mozzarella and crispy prosciutto, drizzled with basil oil and balsamic. It was a perfect example of Italian cooking at its best due to the careful use of the finest ingredients.

I started with an arugula salad, and there was nothing ordinary about it. Baby arugula was lightly dressed in sherry vinaigrette and tossed with roasted figs, candied walnuts and crumbled gorgonzola. This is everything I love about a salad, delicate lettuce enhanced- not smothered- in a flavorful dressing, with a sweet, salty and crunchy component. Fantastic!

I am a sucker for housemade pasta. I see those words, and I gravitate toward it, no matter what. I ordered a simple and classic housemade ricotta ravioli in a fresh tomato sauce with basil. Yes, this is a dish you can find on menus all over the country, but what a joy to eat it when made authentically Italian, with homemade pasta, ricotta, sauce and fresh basil. It literally melted in my mouth.

My dining companion Natalie ordered the Saltimbocca, the dish that Anthony said was the best on the menu. A light marsala sauce enhanced the chicken breast that was smothered in wilted spinach, fontina and prosciutto. Natalie was in heaven while enjoying this dish, and said it was one of the most amazing meals she’s ever had. I took a bite and the saltiness of the prosciutto blended perfectly with the creamy fontina, tender chicken and earthy spinach. Heavenly to be sure.

For dessert, authentic Italian espresso with a seasonal treat- pumpkin gelato over homemade chocolate cake with crème anglais and toasted pecans. It was heartwarming and cozy, bursting with the flavors of the season.

After finishing our meal, Natalie and I were so enamored over our food that we asked to meet the chef, Carmella’s son Larry. Chef Larry came over to our table looking a little unsure, but after a big hug from Natalie he was the happiest guy in the room! We thanked him for an unforgettable meal and he went back the kitchen with a smile on his face. His daughter came up to us afterward and said we made his night, and he couldn’t stop bragging to the boys in the kitchen!

Carmella’s was a meal that I will remember. The delicious food and family ambience immediately made me feel at home, like it was my long-last Italian family and grandmother’s treasured recipes. If you are ever near Appleton, Wisconsin, be sure and pay it a visit, enjoy an unforgettable authentic Italian meal, and thank Chef Larry for his fantastic cuisine. It may be hard to find, but it is worth every effort, as restaurants like this are a rarity and a treasure.