I’m Bringing Lasagna Back

I don’t think I’ve tried to make lasagna once in the past ten years, if not more.  What I can tell you is this – at some point since moving into our house, I did pick up a box of lasagna that has sat in our pantry ever since.  It’s on a shelf with the other, more convenient forms of pasta, like fettucine and linguini, but whenever I’m in a pasta-making mood, my hand naturally gravitates away from the lasagna.  I guess I’ve always thought of lasagna as such a high production dish to make, what with the boiling of the noodles, the cooling, the assembly of not only the lasagna itself but also all of the other components, then the baking – it all seemed to be antithetical to the quick and easy boil-sauce-serve nature that is the hallmark of pasta dishes.

I was close to throwing away the ancient box of lasagna (it was taking up a lot of room) when I happened upon the ideal lasagna-making environment – a lazy Sunday, with nowhere to go and nothing to do, with the imminent threat of a snowstorm that would surely ground us for the entire day on Monday.  So, I dug out the box of lasagna, picked up the rest of the ingredients, and set out to overcome my trepidation about this classic casserole.

Now, I’m not sure why I was even hesitant about making lasagna in the first place.  I mean, I spent one dinner this past summer making fresh pasta, which is surely a bigger and more involved endeavor than working with dried sheets.  But I can tell you this – I am over my reluctance, and you can surely expect more lasagna variations to appear here in the near future.  Lasagna is freaking awesome.

This recipe is actually a mishmash of various recipes and preparations culled from pasta boxes, cookbooks, and the internet.  It also happens to be meatless, because I didn’t happen to have any suitable meats on hand.  You can basically break this particular lasagna recipe down into three components – the sauce, the ricotta filling, and the pasta.

You’ve seen the sauce here before.  Actually, part of the reason why I decided to make lasagna was because I needed to make a tomato sauce, and the reason why I was compelled to make a tomato sauce was because I recently realized that, thundersnow notwithstanding, the weather is starting to get gradually warmer, and I’ve been overly conservative about digging into my underground cache of wonderful canned tomatoes from last August.  So, to save you the trouble of bouncing from page to page on this site, I’ll throw together a quick recipe here for the tomato sauce.  It may vary from my original recipe because this is the dead of winter, so it uses dried herbs instead of fresh.

Basic Tomato Sauce

1 quart canned tomatoes (or use a 28oz can of crushed tomatoes, store bought)
Bunch of garlic, peeled and minced (more or less to your liking, at least 4 cloves)
About a tablespoon of dried oregano
Half a tablespoon of dried thyme
Half of an onion, chopped
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Tomato paste (optional)

Place the chopped garlic into a cold saucepan and coat liberally with olive oil, then place over medium heat.  Once the oil warms and the garlic begins to sizzle, give it a few stirs now and then, making sure not to burn the garlic.  Once the garlic is lightly golden, add the onion and stir occasionally until the onion has wilted and started to brown around the edges.  Add the dried herbs and let saute for about a minute.

Add the tomatoes and bring to a simmer.  Let the whole thing cook down, at least 20 minutes but probably longer is better, then season with salt and pepper.  Especially when you are making lasagna, it’s important to make sure that your sauce is not too watery, or it will make the overall dish soggy or overcooked.  In my case, I had packed this particular quart of tomatoes in water, so I needed to simmer the sauce until most of the water evaporated, and even then I added a little bit of tomato paste to make it thicken up.  When you are ready to assemble the lasagna, the sauce should have a very quick consistency, but take care to stir it often so that it does not stick and burn.

The other major component to lasagna is what I’ll call the white part.  I call it that because some recipes will use a bechamel sauce as the filling, which is made from flour, milk, and butter, while other recipes use ricotta cheese.  Since I wasn’t sure of my lasagna-crafting skills in the first place, and also because it was easier, I opted for ricotta.  While you could just pop open any tub of ricotta cheese and start dolloping away, I did find a few recipes that performed a few tricks on the ricotta filling before assembly, and I’ve adopted them here.

I like the idea of beating an egg or two into the ricotta, which helps it firm up as it cooks, and also the addition of a bit of nutmeg, which adds a hit of sweetness overall.  I had mentioned earlier that this was a vegetarian lasagna, so this is where I decided to add some thawed frozen spinach to the mix.  Parmesan is always a plus, but with the massive amounts of mozzarella, it’s not really necessary.

Ricotta Filling for Lasagna (Spinach Edition)

1 15 oz tub of ricotta cheese
1 egg, beaten
10oz package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 cup of grated parmesan cheese (or grana padano, or romano)
Fresh ground pepper

Mix everything together until uniform and set aside.

This all leads us to the grand performance, the lasagna itself.  From this point on, anyone who’s made lasagna before will find this recipe quite familiar.

Spinach Lasagna from The Best Food Blog Ever

1 box dried lasagna noodles
Basic Tomato Sauce
Ricotta Filling for Lasagna (Spinach Edition)
1 small block of mozzarella cheese, grated

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the lasagna noodles according to the directions on the package.  While the noodles are cooking, lay a large sheet of parchment paper on a work surface (kitchen island, kitchen table, counter – remember to lock the cat up) and get a bunch of paper towels ready.  When they are done cooking, drain the noodles, place them under running water, and lay each noodle down on the parchment, covering each layer of noodles with a paper towel before building a new layer.  Make sure the noodles don’t touch each other, or they’ll stick.  Noodles are done.  Set your oven to 375 degrees.

Take a 9 by 13 inch lasagna pan and give it a quick dose of Pam spray, or coat lightly with olive oil.  Using a ladle, coat the bottom of the lasagna pan with Basic Tomato Sauce, then place a layer of noodles over it.  Use a spoon to dollop some ricotta filling evening over the noodles, followed by a sprinkling of grated mozzarella.  Another layer of sauce, and start over again, ultimately ending with a mozzarella strata.  If you’ve got it, grate some parmesan over the whole thing.

Cover the lasagna with foil and place the pan on a cookie sheet or other large tray, to catch any drips.  Bake the lasagna for 45 minutes, then remove the foil and continue baking for another 15 (keep an eye on it – you want it to brown lightly but not burn).  Let the lasagna rest for about fifteen minutes before cutting and serving.