Sunday, January 29, 2017

Easy (Relatively Speaking) Lasagna

Although it's been a pretty mild winter so far (knock wood), I've still been enjoying cold-weather comfort food. And one of my favorites is lasagna. I like making lasagna because although it's somewhat labor-intensive, I usually have most of the ingredients already on hand. I've experimented with a few different recipes, but the one shown below is the base I like to start with. I monkey around with the ingredients, depending on what I have on hand, but this is a good starting place. The wonderful thing about cooking (as opposed to baking) is that you can adjust a lot of things depending on your own taste and what's in your pantry.

Here's the basic list of ingredients: sausage, ground beef, garlic, onion, parsley, sugar, basil, salt, whole OR diced canned tomatoes, canned tomato sauce OR paste, ricotta, egg, Parmesan, mozzarella, oregano, and lasagna noodles. 

I usually have frozen ground beef on hand because I buy the bulk packages at Costco and freeze it in 1 to 1-1/2 pound bags. The original recipe calls for 1/2 pound of ground beef, but I like a very meaty sauce so I throw in a whole pound. I thaw it in the microwave at 30% power, flipping it over every couple of minutes and pulling off the thawed portions as they get warm.

While the beef is thawing, I chop up a whole onion. I chop it fairly fine, but you can leave it larger if you prefer a chunkier texture to your sauce. You can also use a cup of frozen onion, no need to thaw it first.

 Once the beef is thawed, break it up into chunks.

Pull the casing off the sausage and pull the meat into chunks. I slice it end-to-end with a sharp knife and peel the skin like you'd peel a banana. Again, the recipe calls for a 1/2 pound but I like the sauce meatier, so I use a whole pound. I find that using half sausage and half ground beef adds a nice hint of spiciness and added flavor, but you can use all beef or all sausage if you prefer.

If I happen to have fresh garlic on hand, I'll chop that up finely, but I always have a big jar of minced garlic in the fridge. The recipe calls for three cloves, so about 3 teaspoons of minced. My family loves garlic so I measure rather generously.

  

I put the beef and sausage into a large frypan and add the garlic and onion on top, so it cooks in the fat of the meat. Cook and stir until well-browned, and drain off the fat.






Once drained, add 2 tablespoons of dried parsley, 1 teaspoon of sugar (if you're using tomato paste instead of tomato sauce, add a little extra), 1/2 teaspoon salt (again, add a bit extra if using tomato paste) the can of tomatoes (undrained!), and the tomato paste or sauce. If using tomato paste, add 2/3 to 1 cup water. I like to add the 2/3 cup and let it simmer for a while, then add additional water if it looks a little thick. Also, you can use either plain canned tomatoes or the kind with added herbs/onion/garlic/whatever.

Bring to a boil and simmer on low (uncovered) for at least 45 minutes. Stir occasionally and add a little water if needed to keep your preferred consistency.

 

 

 
While the sauce is simmering, in a medium bowl, mix together one egg, 16 oz. of Ricotta (I buy a 32-oz. container and eyeball the halfway mark), 1/4 cup grated (or shredded) Parmesan, a tablespoon of parsley, and 1-1/2 teaspoons of oregano. Be sure there are no streaks of egg and that the herbs are evenly distributed.

 Get ready to layer everything together in an ungreased 9x13" baking dish!


Start by spreading 1 cup of sauce in the bottom of the dish. I like to use a 1/4-cup measure as a convenient scoop, then spread the sauce around with a large spoon.

Lay out 4 lasagna noodles on top of the sauce. Every lasagna recipe I've ever seen uses a 9x13" pan, so I have no idea why lasagna noodles are not the proper length, but I just break one noodle short and lay it across the end of the pan. You can pre-cook the noodles if you prefer, but I find they're a really nice consistency if you leave them uncooked.


 Next, scoop half of the ricotta mixture onto the noodles and spread it out a little with a spoon.

 Cover that with another cup of sauce.

Top with mozzarella. How much? Eh, however much you like. Probably about 2/3 of a cup or so.

Top with another layer of noodles, the rest of the ricotta mixture, another cup of sauce, and another 2/3 cup of mozzarella. a third layer of noodles, the rest of the sauce, a last 2/3 cup of mozzarella, and 1/4 cup of Parmesan. In other words, the layers from bottom to top are: sauce, noodles, ricotta, sauce, mozzarella, noodles, ricotta, sauce, mozzarella, noodles, sauce, mozzarella, Parmesan.


 Look at that glorious thing! Bake it, uncovered, at 350 for 45 minutes.

When it comes out of the oven, DO NOT CUT IT UNTIL IT HAS RESTED FOR AT LEAST 15 MINUTES! Once the cheese cools and sets a bit, it will be much easier to cut and serve. As a matter of fact, this time I made and baked the lasagna earlier in the day, let it cool for half an hour, cut it, then threw it in the fridge. I took it out for half an hour to bring it up to room temperature then baked it again at 350 for about 15-20 minutes.

This lasagna is relatively dry, without a lot of extra sauce. If you like a "wetter" sauce, feel free to throw in additional tomato sauce (or paste and water) and increase the seasonings slightly. (The sauce will also be much wetter if you use less meat.) Again, this is really a base recipe which is a good jumping-off point to adjust however you prefer. You can substitute fresh herbs for dried, change or adjust the seasonings to suit your taste, use more or less garlic or onion or cheese.

Here's the recipe I started with, along with my notes on the changes I made:

EASY LASAGNA

½ lb. Italian sweet sausage, removed from casing and crumbled (I use a full pound)
½ lb. ground beef (I use a full pound)
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine (or 3 tsp minced garlic)
1 medium onion, chopped (or about 1 cup frozen onion)
2 tbsp parsley
1 tsp sugar (increase slightly if using tomato paste)
1 tsp basil
½ tsp salt (increase slightly if using tomato paste)
1 (16 oz.) can whole or diced tomatoes, undrained (plain or with added garlic/onion/herbs)
1 (15 oz.) can tomato sauce (or use a small can of tomato paste and 2/3-1 cup water)
16 oz. ricotta
1 egg (optional)
¼ c. grated (or shredded) Parmesan
1 tbsp parsley
1-1/2 tsp oregano
2 c. shredded mozzarella
¼ c. Parmesan
12 lasagna noodles, cooked or uncooked


Cook sausage, beef, garlic and onion till browned; drain fat. Stir in parsley, sugar, basil, salt, tomatoes, and tomato sauce (or tomato paste and water). Break up tomatoes if needed. Heat to boiling, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat and simmer 45 minutes. Combine ricotta, egg, Parmesan, parsley, and oregano in a large bowl. Spread 1 c. sauce in ungreased 9x13” pan, top with 4 noodles. Spread with 1 c. ricotta mixture and 1 c. sauce. Cover with 2/3 c. mozzarella and 4 more noodles, then the rest of the ricotta mixture, 1 c. sauce, 2/3 c. mozzarella, and 4 more noodles. Finish with the rest of the sauce, the rest of the mozzarella, and Parmesan. Bake uncovered at 350 for 45 minutes. Let sit for 15 minutes before cutting.

It's especially good served with fresh crusty bread, a green salad, and a nice hearty red wine. 

Mangia!!


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