There are no bad lasagnas, only good and better lasagnas. This, and the fact that lasagna freezes well, keeps Stouffer’s in business. While each step of building a lasagna is not particularly difficult there are a lot of steps to the process. I use the term building, rather than making, because unlike most dishes where you put all of the ingredients in and stir, good lasagna is build layer by flavorful layer. While very delicious, lasagna should not be mistaken for a health food, even my low fat version is relatively high fat (lots of cheese and meat) and high in carbohydrates.
This is one of those dishes from my youth. Lasagna was a dish that my mother would make very occasionally, because while being good it is also very labor intensive. In addition to everything you have to do today, in my mother’s day you had to boil and cool the noodles enough so you could handle them (but not over boil or break them). With the introduction of no-boil noodles the process is slightly easier.
I never made lasagna myself until Cook’s Illustrated printed “Faster Lasagna” in their Sept.-Oct. 2002 issue, where they passed a favorable judgment on no-boil noodles. Since that time I have used their recipe as a guide, but as usual I had some standard changes to what they consider perfect (lower fat and lower salt and with all that cheese why would you add cream?). When Myr asked for lasagna last week I decided to write up my changes to the C.I. recipe.
For me this is a dish usually I make for friends who are having a medical crisis. At my age, this has happened with uncomfortable regularity. After it has cooled I divide the lasagna into two person portions and freeze them. The sick friend and their caretaker then have 8, quick, ready-to eat meals to pop in the microwave and lighten their load. For someone who’s going through chemo the high fat and carbohydrates is actually tempting and sustaining if the nausea only allows you to take a few bites. I also make it once a year for my wife to take on her knitting retreats (8-10 women rent a place somewhere nice and knit and natter for 2-3 days, sans kids and men).
Normally when I would make this dish I would use a 24 oz. jar of Sweet Basil Spaghetti Sauce instead of adding to the already complex process (what can I say I’m sometimes an impatient guy). When my wife discovered this she was up in arms wanting a homemade tomato sauce. I happen to have a quart of tomatoes that I canned myself and I rewrote the recipe to include a homemade sauce.
Adapted from a Cook’s Illustrated recipe
Note: If you wish to make this as a vegetarian recipe, leave out the Italian sausage and move the Portobello mushrooms to the second layer of the lasagna.
- 2 Tbs. Olive oil
- 2 Portobello mushrooms, sliced
- ½ – ¾ lb. Sweet Italian sausage
- 1 cup Onion, diced
- ½ stalk Celery, minced
- ¼ cup Green bell pepper, minced
- 6 cloves Garlic, crushed
- 6-8 Fresh tomatoes, crushed
- 1 tsp. Anchovy paste
- 1 tsp. Fresh oregano
- Pinch Red pepper flakes, crushed
- 1 tsp. Black pepper (separate uses)
- 1½ cup Water
- 20 Fresh basil leaves, chiffonade (separate uses)
- 1 lb. Baby spinach, frozen
- 16 oz. Mozzarella cheese, low fat, shredded
- 16 oz. Ricotta cheese
- 1¼ cup Parmesan cheese (separate uses)
- 1 – 2 Eggs
- ¼ tsp. Salt
- 18 No-boil lasagna noodles (Brilla comes 16 to a box.)
1. Deseed and crush the tomatoes. Sieve the seeds to retain the tomato jelly. Sprinkle a pinch of salt on the tomatoes and let them sit while you are preparing the rest of the ingredients.
2. Pre all sauce ingredients before starting. Then add the olive oil to a large pan and sauté the Portobello mushroom slices (you may need to do it in two batches). You are trying to just get a little color, not cook them completely. Set them on a plate and refrigerate until you are ready to assemble the lasagna.
3. Without cleaning the pan, add the Italian sausage and brown it, breaking it up into small pieces. Remove to a small bowl and refrigerate until you are ready to assemble the lasagna.
4. Again without cleaning the pan, add the onions and sauté until they begin to pick up some color.
5. Add the Celery and Green bell pepper and sauté for 5 minutes.
6. Add the garlic and sauté 2 minutes more.
7. Drained the tomato liquid into a separate bowl (this may be up to a pint, if it is not add water or tomato juice to make a pint). Add the tomatoes to the pan and stir to mix. (If you do not have the time to make a fresh sauce, you may substitute a 24 oz. jar of Sweet Basil Spaghetti Sauce.)
8. Add the Anchovy paste, oregano, pepper flakes and ½ tsp. black pepper to the pan and cook the sauce down until it has started to caramelize well, 20-45 minutes. The sauce in the pan will become fairly dry, stir frequently and do not let it scorch.
9. When the sauce has taken on a dark rich color, remove the pan from the heat and put 2/3 of the sauce into a blender. Add 1 cup of the tomato juice to the blender and blend on high for 30 seconds. Pour this into the pan and return it to the heat. Rinse the blender with the rest of the tomato juice and add it to the pan. You may use this sauce immediately or continue simmering on low it for up to 2 hours.
10. Preheat oven to 375°.
11. While the sauce is cooking, bring a large pot of water to a boil and place a bowl of ice water in the sink. Blanch the spinach for 1 minute and then place it in the ice water to stop it from over cooking. Drain the water and taking a fist full of spinach squeeze as much water out as you can. Repeat until all of the spinach is dry and you have several ‘sausages’ of spinach. Slice the spinach ‘sausages,’ fluff the spinach slightly and return it to the bowl. Refrigerate until you are ready to assemble the lasagna.
12. Shredded the Mozzarella cheese and refrigerate until you are ready to assemble the lasagna.
13. Place the Ricotta cheese, ½ cup Parmesan cheese, the egg, rest of the basil leaves, ½ tsp. black pepper and the salt into a bowl and mix into a smooth paste. Refrigerate until you are ready to assemble the lasagna.
14. When you are ready to assemble the lasagna, add half of the chiffonade basil leaves and 1-1½ cups of water to the pan to cool and thin to the sauce. You will want about three and a half to four cups of watery sauce when you are done. The no-boil noodles will absorb most of the excess fluid.
15. To assemble the lasagna:
a. Spread ½ cup of sauce in the bottom of a 9×13 inch baking pan.
b. Arrange 5 overlapping noodles crosswise over the sauce. (Barilla no-boil noodles are only 8 inches long, so I usually split one lengthwise and lay them lengthwise to fill the gap that remains on one side of the pan. I also alternate the side of this filler for each layer of the lasagna.)
c. Gently spread half of the Ricotta mixture over the noodles. The mixture does not need to cover every inch.
d. Scatter the spinach over the ricotta mixture.
e. Arrange the Portobello mushrooms evenly over the spinach. (If making vegetarian version, hold the mushrooms until the next layer.)
f. Set aside ¾ cup of the Mozzarella. Scatter ½ of the remaining cheese over the spinach and mushrooms.
g. Sprinkle ¼ cup Parmesan cheese over the Mozzarella cheese.
h. Pour 1 cup of the sauce evenly over the cheese.
i. Repeat steps b & c.
j. Scatter the Italian sausage over the Ricotta mixture. (If making vegetarian version, hold the Italian sausage and arrange the Portobello mushrooms evenly over the Ricotta mixture.)
k. Scatter remaining ½ of the Mozzarella cheese over the Italian sausage
l. Repeat steps g, h and b (in that order).
m. Pour the remaining sauce over the top layer of noodles. (If there does not look like there will be enough sauce to cover all of the noodles add a little water.)
n. Note: you should have ¾ cup of Mozzarella cheese and ¼ cup of Parmesan cheese remaining.
16. Cover the baking pan with foil and place on the middle rack of a 375° oven for 25 minutes. (Note: It is a good idea to have a large lipped baking pan on the rack under the lasagna, because it tends to bubbles over and drip.)
17. Remove the foil and sprinkle the remaining cheeses over the lasagna. Continue baking for about 25 minutes, until the cheese is spotty and brown and the sauce is bubbling.
18. Cool uncovered for 15 minutes before serving with a green salad and Steamed Artichokes with Lime, Chive and Dill Sauce on the side.