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Practicing the basics: lasagna

I wish I could tell you that this is a quick and easy lasagna recipe, but there is no such thing. Lasagna is, by its very nature a complicated thing that must be built in layers, and that means preparing the ingredients for its various layers before assembling it all together.

Nevertheless, this is a very tasty recipe that takes some time and work to put together, but doesn’t require much in the way of special skills; it’s all pretty straightforward.

There are four parts to this lasagna recipe. We prepare all four parts separately, then assemble them all into the final result.

  • A tomato and meat sauce;
  • A ricotta cheese mix;
  • Shredded mozzarella cheese;
  • Sheets of pasta.

It turns out the most complicated of the four is the pasta sheets. The most common pasta used for this is the dried lasagna sheets available in every grocery store’s pasta aisle; but they also require the most work because they need to be cooked (i.e. boiled) in advance before you start assembling. Here are three other options that work just as well, if not better, and require no work other than buying them:

  • Fresh lasagna sheets, which can often (but not always) be found in the fresh pasta section of your grocery store (look for it near the deli counter).
  • “oven-ready” lasagna sheets in the dried pasta aisle.
  • Fresh egg roll wrappers. Most large grocery stores carry these, though they vary as to which refrigerated section they put them in. It sounds weird, but they work beautifully for making lasagna. They are also thinner than classic lasagna sheets, which makes the end result more about the tasty fillings and less about the bland pasta. This is my preferred option.
Oven-ready lasagna sheets

Suggested reading:

Makes about 8 servings. Time required:

  • Pasta prep: 15 minutes if using dried pasta
  • Ricotta cheese mix: 10 minutes
  • Tomato sauce: 20-25 minutes
  • Assembling the lasagna: 10 minutes
  • Baking the lasagna: 45 minutes

Ingredients

Pasta:

  • 1 lb. lasagna sheets (fresh or dried)

Cheese:

  • 8 oz. mozzarella cheese, coarsely shredded

Ricotta cheese mix:

  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 cups ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped

Tomato sauce:

  • 1 lb. ground beef, chicken or turkey
  • 1/2 lb. Italian sausage (hot or mild)
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 28-oz. can crushed Italian tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 6 large basil leaves, cut into thin strips (i.e. chiffenade)
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano
  • salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Grease the inside of a 13×9 baking pan, and place it in the center of a half-sheet baking pan. Lasagna has a habit of bubbling over the side of its pan, so the half-sheet pan will catch any spillover and keep it off your oven.

If using dried pasta, prepare it for baking following the instructions on the package. Set aside.

Ricotta cheese mix:

  • In a medium bowl, beat the eggs for 1 minute.
  • Add in the ricotta cheese, grated parmesan cheese, and parsley and stir with a fork until well combined and an even consistency throughout. Set aside.

Tomato sauce:

  • In a large frying pan, cook the ground meat, sausage and garlic over medium-high heat until the meat is no longer pink. We’re making a tomato sauce where the only aromatic vegetable is garlic, and even then there’s so little of it and it cooks so fast that there’s really no point in cooking it separately from the meat. Use a slotted spoon to break up the meat into tiny pieces; clumps of meat make it difficult to make even layers when we assemble the lasagna.
  • Add the wine and cook until half of it has boiled off (about 3 minutes).
  • Add tomatoes, chicken stock, bay leaf, basil and oregano. Bring mixture to boil, then simmer on medium-low for about 10 minutes. The simmer time is to break down the tomatoes a bit and to let the flavors of all the ingredients intermix. Don’t let the sauce reduce much, or you won’t have enough sauce to assemble the lasagna. The sauce is done when you run a spoon through it and it takes a couple of seconds to fill in behind the spoon.
  • Remove and discard bay leaf. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from heat.

Assembling the lasagna:

  • Spread about 1/2 cup of tomato sauce over the bottom of the baking pan. Cover with a layer of pasta, then about 1/4 of the ricotta cheese mixture. Then another layer of noodles, and then a layer of tomato sauce (another 1/2 cup or so) and mozzarella cheese. Keep alternating layers of ricotta and tomato sauce+mozzarella, with pasta sandwiched in between. The top layer should be tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese.
  • Cover with aluminum foil, making a tent if necessary so that the foil doesn’t touch the top layer.
  • Place the lasagna dish (still on the half-sheet pan) on the center rack of your oven. Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes.
  • Remove the aluminum foil and bake an additional 10-15 minutes until the top is bubbly.
  • Remove from oven and let stand for ten minutes before serving.

Tips and suggestions:

  • It’s a tomato sauce, it’s not rocket science. Try other combinations of aromatic vegetables — just dice them finely so that they disappear into the sauce. You can also vary the herbs (and the garlic!) to your liking.
  • Cover the top layer of pasta completely with tomato sauce to keep it from drying out and turning brittle.
  • Please don’t use use Kraft grated parmesan cheese in this recipe; the stuff is nasty and you won’t like the result. Either buy a block of parmesan or reggiano cheese and grate it yourself, or buy pre-grated fresh parmesan cheese in the deli section of your grocery store.