Monday, September 21, 2020
Sept. 21, 2020

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Lasagna essentials: Break it down into the component parts for best results

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Fear not if your first attempt (or your first several attempts) at lasagna making is not as glorious as you would hope. Everything can be improved with practice and repetition. (E.
Fear not if your first attempt (or your first several attempts) at lasagna making is not as glorious as you would hope. Everything can be improved with practice and repetition. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS) Photo Gallery

I’m of two minds about this whole “last meal” thing. You know, the one where you’ve been convicted (unjustly, of course) of a capital crime — espionage, for example, which is so crazy because you were just taking a selfie in front of the Kremlin — and now grim midnight approaches on the evening of your impending transfer to oblivion and there is but one final question to answer: What to eat?

On the one hand, I may want something so iconically horrific that death’s yawning maw would bring welcome relief. Orwell correctly observed that “worst thing in the world … varies from individual to individual,” and for me that would be the dreaded staple from my childhood: canned cubed beets in heavy syrup.

On the other hand, if there’s any edge to be taken off my own personal passage to oblivion, it might be done by a dipped Italian beef with both sweet and hot peppers.

Or lasagna, ooh. Honored guest at family gatherings, trusty savior — even cold — when the late-night munchies mount their attack.

Let’s take a gander.

Why you need to learn this

Well, it’s a new year, and, God help us, we’re not getting any younger. If you haven’t made lasagna by now, you’d best get on it, especially if you’re planning that trip to Moscow. I hear the chef at Lefortovo Prison has a very limited repertoire.

The steps you take

Before we begin, leave us recall that, as we’ve stated oft times before, there’s no accounting for taste: You may find off-putting a lasagna that is heralded by the hoi polloi as the apotheosis of that noodle concoction.

Add to that the fact that, for any given thing on our home planet (Earth), there are more bad examples than there are good. For every Mona Lisa, there are 10,000 inexpertly inked tattoos of “My Old Lady on Her Harley.” And how many meals have you approached with salivating anticipation only to swallow each successively dispiriting bite with an underwhelmed, “Meh.”

I mention this truth for its two subsequent corollaries: First, if we accept the inevitability of less-than-perfect lasagnas, then, whether you’re haunted by the shadow of the hangman’s noose or simply prepping for pangs of nocturnal cravings, you may as well learn how to make it yourself. And second, fear not if your first attempt (or your first several attempts) is not as glorious as you would hope. Everything can be improved with practice and repetition.

Also, take heart in the fact that lasagna really has only three components — the noodles, sauce and cheese. Well, four, if you’re counting ingredients like sausage (Yum!) or spinach (Blech!).

Noodles

The more fancy-pantsed among you probably make pasta from scratch. If you’re a home-noodler, though, you needn’t be wasting your time on this little primer. Besides, I’m sure they’re awaiting your presence down at the Slow Food Clubhouse.

For you lasagna tyros, just buy a box of noodles. Back in the day, the only ones on the market were the kind you had to boil first. They’d come out of the water all huge and flappy like something you’d see in a BBC documentary on alien dermoplasty. Then they’d stick together like lonely cultists and, well, it was a mighty pain.

Enter the modern age with its jet packs and robot chimp butlers and now, no-boil lasagna noodles you can use straight from the box. Could anything be easier?

Sauce

If you use jarred sauce for your lasagna, nobody with any sense of decency will complain. So, unless Zombie Joe McCarthy is back from the dead and coming over for supper, go ahead and use jarred.

Still, red sauces can be very easy. Some, of course, demand fresh tomatoes and most of your day, but, you can shorten your cooking time dramatically with a simple can of crushed tomatoes.

If I’m cramped for time, like, say, Zombie Joe is banging his cutlery like a Lefortovo prisoner whilst casting his gaze hungrily brainward, I’ll just heat the crushed tomatoes with Italian seasoning and salt.

Or, the late, great Marcella Hazan had that terrific and terrifically easy recipe where, essentially, you just sweat some onions in butter, then add the tomatoes and salt and simmer ’til it’s tasty.

Here’s my favorite, though:

Get some bulk Italian sausage whose flavors you really like. Personally, I’m partial to my local supermarket brand. Brown it in oil with some onion, garlic and bell pepper and, when it’s cooked through, add those crushed tomatoes. I use one 26-ounce can for every half-pound to pound of sausage. Then, stir in some boxed chicken stock and season with salt. You can also add Italian herbs or crushed red pepper, if you like. The sauce should be fairly thin because those no-boil noodles really soak up the liquid.

Simmer the sauce until the flavors blend together, maybe 20 to 30 minutes.

Listen, though: When I cook, I’m eyeballing amounts. That’s a skill I suggest you work on, although for now, if you prefer more precision, there’s a detailed recipe below.

Also, for lasagna, I usually make more sauce than I need. I’ve found that pert near nothing is sadder than running out of sauce before your lasagna is completed.

Lastly, some of your fancier lasagnas will alternate layers of bechamel (or its Italian version, balsamella) with the red sauce. Get crazy. I mean, it’s delicious and all, but, that’s a whole ‘nother level of complicated.

Cheese

I add ricotta and mozzarella separately to each layer. Some people combine the two cheeses. Also, some people whisk beaten egg into the ricotta. It adds protein and gives the cheese a bit more structure. Lastly, I’ll sprinkle Parmesan over the top layer.

Now, for the construction:

Spoon a bit of sauce over the bottom of a casserole dish. Lay down four or five no-boil noodles with their edges overlapping exactly one smidge. Spoon blobs of ricotta onto the noodles about every 2 inches, then sprinkle the whole lot with shredded mozzarella. Ladle sauce over it liberally, enough to cover the layer completely. Repeat layers until you reach the top of the casserole. My last layer is usually noodles topped with mozzarella, sauce and Parmesan. Cover the casserole in foil and throw it in a 350-degree oven for about 45 minutes, until the sauce is boiling on the sides and your no-boil noodles are cooked through. If you’re kicking it old school with pre-boiled noodles, everything’s already cooked anyway and all you have to do is heat it through, which will still take 30-45 minutes. Uncover it for the last 10 minutes of baking to brown the Parm.

One last awesome thing about lasagna, by the by, is, as good as it is right out of the oven, it’s also fantastic cold, straight from the fridge. I’m not saying this because marijuana is now legal. I’m just sayin’.

Lasagna

Prep: 30 minutes. Cook: 45 minutes. Makes: 8-10 servings

This recipe makes more sauce than you’ll need. Save the rest for another day. Also, no-boil noodles require a more watery sauce, hence the added chicken stock.

1 1/2 to 2 pounds bulk Italian sausage

Neutral oil, as needed

1 onion, small dice

1 bell pepper, medium dice (the color of your choice)

2 to 4 cloves garlic, minced

Salt to taste

2 cans (28 ounces each) crushed tomatoes

8 to 12 ounces chicken broth or water

1/2 tablespoon Italian seasoning, optional

1 teaspoon fennel seeds, optional

Crushed red pepper to taste, optional

1 package (9 ounces) no-boil lasagna noodles

1 pound ricotta cheese

1 pound mozzarella cheese

1 to 2 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated

For sauce: Place a heavy-bottomed pot over medium high heat, then add oil to coat the bottom. Add sausage; saute until cooked, stirring to break up chunks, 8-10 minutes. While sausage cooks, saute onion, bell pepper and garlic in a tablespoon or two of oil in a separate pan until soft, about 5 minutes. Season with salt. When sausage is cooked, drain and discard any accumulated fat. Stir in crushed tomatoes and cooked vegetables. Add chicken stock or water until sauce is somewhat liquidy. Season with salt and stir in optional Italian seasoning, fennel seeds and crushed red pepper; simmer to blend flavors, 20 to 30 minutes.

To construct lasagna: Ladle a thin layer of sauce over the bottom of a 13-by-9-inch casserole dish. Lay noodles over the sauce with edges overlapping. Spoon blobs of ricotta onto noodles every couple of inches, then sprinkle mozzarella over. Ladle more sauce to cover entire surface. Repeat with another layer. Cover top layer with noodles, then mozzarella. Add sauce until it’s coming up the sides, then sprinkle Parmesan over.

To bake, cover lasagna with foil and slide into a heated, 350-degree oven until sauce is boiling and noodles are cooked through, about 45 minutes. Uncover for last 10 minutes to brown. Let lasagna rest for 10-15 minutes before serving.

Nutrition information per serving (for 10 servings): 498 calories, 27 g fat, 13 g saturated fat, 82 mg cholesterol, 36 g carbohydrates, 10 g sugar, 29 g protein, 917 mg sodium, 4 g fiber

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