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Love, Tuscany and the best family holiday lasagna recipe ever

What are your favorite holiday foods? In this NewsMD column, a local chef demonstrates his mother's amazing Christmas lasagna. And Viv Williams explores how holiday food traditions can be good for your health.

Lasagna
Concetta's Christmas lasagna fresh out of the oven.
Viv Wiliams / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — Every year during the month of December, my husband, Dave, puts on a kitchen apron (spotted like a Holstein cow), dusts off special cooking tools and makes Norwegian lefse.

For those of you who haven't had lefse, it's sort of like a tortilla made with potatoes. Making it is quite a process and takes time. You have to peel and boil potatoes, mash them and mix them with other ingredients. Then you roll the dough into disks and fry them on a special griddle. Even though the cooking event can take several hours, lefse-making day has become a beloved family tradition nobody wants to miss.

Sheryl Ness, author of "Love in a Tuscan Kitchen" and her husband, Chef Vincenzo Giangiordano, based in Rochester, understand my family's attachment to food-related holiday traditions. They, too, have a recipe that's become a large and meaningful part of their seasonal celebration — Concetta's Christmas Lasagna.

"My feeling is that people love holiday food traditions because they connect them to family memories," says Ness. "Often, these special foods are only made during the holidays. Recipes are passed down to each generation and considered sacred and treasured. I think we all look forward to gathering and sharing family favorites. Concetta's lasagna always brings back memories of our first Christmas together."

Concetta is Giangiordano's mother, who lives in Italy. Her lasagna recipe has come to represent a lot more than just a yummy family meal. It's a reminder of how being connected to others is a foundation for one's well-being. And the lasagna has also become symbolic of the love that Ness and Giangiordano share.

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Before getting into some research about the health benefits of family holiday traditions, I'll offer some background info about how Ness and Giangiordano met. It all started in a small Tuscan village at Chef Giangiordano's restaurant. After indulging in a piece of decadent chocolate cake, Ness asked the chef for the recipe. That was it. Bam! Love at first sight, as they say. Ness's book details the experience, and includes recipes, such as Concetta's Christmas Lasagna.

Results of an article from Harvard University published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research show that family traditions boost feelings of well-being by increasing feelings of closeness and strengthening family identity. Traditions help you enjoy holidays more. Rituals that are repeated year after year — no matter your religion, the activity or your reason for doing them — make you feel as if you belong and you are part of the community (family). The study authors describe family rituals as "symbolic consumption," which, in my view, means that participation in the tradition brings individual family members together to make a stronger, more supportive and happier whole.

Cooking up a batch or two of Concetta's Christmas lasagna is not only a well-being booster, but also it's a heart healthy meal. A tomato-based sauce, lean meat and low-fat cheese make for a meal you can feel good about eating during the holidays or any time.

Concetta's Christmas Lasagne Recipe from the Love in a Tuscan Kitchen website.

For the layers, you will need:

  • Ragu sauce – see below
  • Fresh or dried pasta (12-16 sheets)
  • 6 to 8 ounces of chopped ham (optional)
  • 16 to 24 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese
  • ½ pound grated Parmesan cheese (reserve ½ cup to sprinkle over top just prior to serving)

9-by-13 inch baking pan with deep sides (we like to use disposable aluminum pans for no-fuss clean up)
Ragu Sauce

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1-2 stalks of celery (chopped fine)
  • 1-2 carrots (chopped fine)
  • 1 small onion (chopped fine)
  • 1 clove garlic (minced)
  • 1 pound ground veal
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 4 ounces pancetta (similar to bacon, cube into small pieces)
  • 1 cup of red wine
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 3 (28-ounce) cans tomatoes (crushed with your hands). You can also use 2 cans of San tomatoes and one container or can of tomato sauce
  • 1 cup water (rinse out the tomato cans with water and add to the sauce pot to get all of the great sauce!)
  • 1 bouillon cube (vegetable)
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 2 to 3 rinds of Parmesan cheese (these are the hard ends of the parmesan cheese)
  • Salt to taste

Directions
In a large sauce pot, sauté the celery, carrot, onion, and garlic with the olive oil until tender. Add the veal, beef, and pancetta to the pan, breaking up the ground meat into small pieces with a wooden spoon as it browns. Cook together until all of the meat is cooked well and browned. Add red wine to the meat and when it has evaporated, add the flour, tomato paste, tomatoes (plus water), bay leaves, bouillon, and parmesan cheese rinds, and salt. If needed, add one small tsp. of sugar to sweeten.

Simmer on low heat for 2-3 hours (stir every 15 minutes). Retrieve the remains of the cheese rinds and bay leaves prior to assembling the lasagna.

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When you're ready to assemble the lasagna, boil the noodles til done.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Assembling the Lasagna

  • Spray the bottom and sides of baking pan well with spray oil.
  • Start with a thin layer of ragu sauce on the bottom of the pan.
  • Layer 2 to 3 single pasta noodles over the top of the ragu sauce.
  • Spoon a thick layer of sauce over the pasta.
  • Sprinkle ¼ of the mozzarella cheese on top of the sauce, followed by ¼ of the grated Parmesan cheese.
  • Sprinkle 1/4 of the chopped ham over the cheese.
  • Continue with another layer of pasta noodles, sauce, cheese, and ham, until you have reached near the top of the pan (plan for 3 to 4 layers of pasta).
  • The top of the lasagna should be sauce, covered with mozzarella and Parmesan cheese.

*You may want to place the lasagna baking pan on top of a large cookie or baking sheet to catch any sauce that bubbles over.
Bake for 1 hour.

Take out of oven and let sit for 10 minutes prior to serving.

Finish with extra sauce and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.

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Follow the  Health Fusion podcast on  Apple,   Spotify and  Google podcasts. For comments or other podcast episode ideas, email Viv Williams at  vwilliams@newsmd.com. Or on Twitter/Instagram/FB @vivwilliamstv.

MORE HEALTH FUSION:
Many cultures ring in the new year by eating a special meal that's supposed to bring good luck. Viv Williams shares a family tradition that may not make you lucky, but it may boost your health.

Related Topics: HEALTH FUSIONFOOD
Opinion by Viv Williams
Viv Williams hosts the NewsMD podcast and column, "Health Fusion." She is an Emmy (and other) award-winning health and medical reporter whose stories have run on TV, digital and newspaper outlets nationwide. Viv is passionate about boosting people's health and happiness by helping them access credible, reliable and research-based health information from top experts. She regularly interviews experts and patients from leading medical institutions, such as Mayo Clinic.
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