Lasagna is a soul-warming meal that’s got everything: savory layers of carbs, meat, cheese and even vegetables, if you count tomato sauce, and I do. No wonder so many people find this to be the ultimate comfort food. Who doesn’t like lasagna? If that person is out there, I hope we never become acquainted.
There are two lasagna dinners that stand out in my life. One was a memorable Valentine’s Day when I arrived home from a long day at work to find the table set with candles, a bottle of wine and my husband coming out of the kitchen wearing my flowery oven mitts and carrying a steaming tray of lasagna. I was so moved because he didn’t normally mess with cookery, except to poke buttons on the microwave, but he’d made this from scratch. Nothing says I love you like extra cheese.
The second stand-out lasagna was consumed during a glorious college summer in Italy, where I stayed with Italian families in Bergamo, Florence and Lido di Ostia on the Mediterranean coast southwest of Rome. I worked, for a few weeks, at a temporary office assignment in Bergamo, where I had a true, homemade-by-an-Italian-mamma Lasagna Experience. She labored in the kitchen for hours. My mouth was watering even before she set the bubbling casserole on the table and set a generous piece on my plate. I bit into it, richly meaty and cheesy and tomato-y, created with the freshest ingredients from the local market. I was astonished to discover peas.
Turns out that peas in lasagna is a Sicilian tradition, which makes sense because that Bergamasco family was originally from Sicily. I can’t recreate the exact pea-laden lasagna I enjoyed so many years ago, but I found a recipe that inspired me at asicilianpeasantstable.com. I’ve adapted it to make it slightly less labor intensive and possibly less expensive. Nevertheless, the dish still takes work, time and a measure of good humor.
First, the ricotta filling. Line a colander with a tea towel and place over a shallow bowl. Put two 16-ounce containers of ricotta (yes, 32 ounces! This lasagna means business) in the colander and allow to drain for two hours. If two hours is too long, wrap the ricotta in a tea towel, twist the top and wring out the excess liquid. Put the ricotta in a big bowl along with 1 1/2 cups mozzarella, 1/2 cup grated Parmesan, 3 eggs and 3 tablespoons parsley and combine until smooth. Salt to taste and set aside.
Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil on low heat in a large saucepot, along with 4 minced garlic cloves and a sprinkling of whatever Mediterranean herbs delight you — oregano, basil, thyme or rosemary. Add 1/2 diced large onion, 1 diced stalk celery and 1 finely chopped carrot. (This is mirepoix, sometimes irreverently called “the holy trinity” of Italian cooking, and it’s the indispensable vegetable trio at the heart of hundreds of sauces and stocks.) Cook until quite soft. Add a pound of ground beef and cook until browned. Stir in 1 6-ounce can tomato paste, 1 14.5-ounce can crushed tomatoes and one 15-ounce can of tomato sauce plus an 8-ounce can of tomato sauce. Add 8 large fresh basil leaves, chopped. Add 1 cup of frozen peas, salt to taste and set to simmer on low.
While the sauce is simmering and giving off a nose-tingling aroma, fill another large saucepot with well-salted water and a splash of olive oil and bring to a boil. Add 1 16-ounce package of lasagna noodles, spreading them out so they don’t stick together and cook them for 8 to 10 minutes, until they’re bendy but not too soft. This was the most exasperating part because the flat noodles clumped together anyway and tore when I tried to separate them or remove them from the pot with tongs. I ended up with a sticky stack of noodles. I painstakingly pried them apart, which was similar in difficulty to peeling a Band-Aid off another Band-Aid. I laid them out on a greased cookie sheet to keep them separate but the cookie sheet couldn’t hold them all so I just spread torn bits of noodles all over the kitchen’s flat surfaces to await assembly.
Now for the exciting part (I mean, besides the eating): Put a ladle full of sauce in the bottom of a deep casserole dish and spread it around. Line the dish with a single layer of slightly overlapping noodles (or noodle pieces, as the case may be), cutting to fit if necessary. Next, spread the noodles with a layer of ricotta. (Easier said than done, by the way. Those noodles are slippery.) Top with a layer of sauce, then add a generous layer of mozzarella and Parmesan; have jumbo-size bags of both cheeses at hand because you’re going to use a lot. Start over again with the noodles, ricotta, tomato sauce and cheese. Keep going until you have three or four layers, ending with tomato sauce and cheese. You’ll likely have sauce and noodles left; save them for dinner next week, or a food fight.
Set the oven to 350 degrees. Bake for an hour or 80 minutes, until the cheese starts to brown around the edges. (Mmmmm, I’m drooling just thinking about this.) Pull it out of the oven and let it cool for about 15 minutes before serving so people don’t burn their tongues and miss out on all that luscious lasagna flavor. Sprinkle with fresh basil and dream of Italian sunshine.
A final recommendation: get someone else to make this for you. It’s much more relaxing that way.