Lasagna: Layer by Layer
January 24, 2008
After my sister, Ali, upped the ante last week with her dinner pick (which she was forced to make in the wake of her Biggest Loser Bowl loss), I knew I had to come up with something pretty good when one of my teams got booted next. And if there’s a dinner that’s only too happy to one-up all the other dinners, it’s lasagna. A couple reasons for my choice …
(Click “more” for the rest of the story, more photos & a layer-by-layer recipe of sorts.)
First, I really like making lasagna. I confess: I love any dish that requires an assembly line. Call it my inner Henry Ford, but there’s something just plain fun about a line-up of delicious ingredients marching across the counter, ready to be put to use.
Second, I’ve made lasagnas laden with meat and lasagnas that were very pared down: just pasta, tomatoes and cheese. The former was always too heavy and the latter a little too plain. I knew that I could find a happy medium, even if it required me to break free of recipes and invent one myself.
Third, it’s bone-chillingly cold here in Chicago. And nothing is quite so warming as a bubbling, oozy pan of goodness, straight from the oven. Especially when it’s accompanied by a glass of spicy red wine and a blazing fire.
In the end, this lasagna satisfied all of the reasons for which I chose it. I got to make an assembly line of beautiful ingredients and work my way through it several times, as I built the lasagna. And, because the assembly line included not just the plain Jane noodles-tomatoes-and-cheese, but also spinach and roasted zucchini and yellow squash, I also satisfied my desire to make a “happy medium lasagna.” And not only did it warm us up the night we ate it, but the next day too; a whole pan’s worth makes for some happy lunches, folks. Finally, and obviously most importantly, it totally out-did my sister’s pick. Beef Bourguignon Schmourguignon.
Because I think of this as much more of a method than a recipe, I thought we could take it step-by-step. Or layer-by-layer, if you will. I’ll suggest variations along the way, but I’m sure that more creative culinary minds could go nuts. First, make your sauce. I went with a basic tomato sauce: saute onions (one medium), minced garlic (two cloves’ worth), fennel seeds (1 teaspoon) and chile flakes (as many as you can handle) in olive oil and a sliver of butter for a touch of richness; add two 28-ounce cans of whole tomatoes—one fire roasted and one not; simmer and puree. If tomatoes aren’t your thing, go for a bechamel or another pureed veggie (like, say, butternut squash). Spoon a thin layer of your sauce in the bottom of a buttered 9-by-13 pan, like so:
Next comes the lasagna sheets. You might make them from scratch, like so, or buy fresh pasta, like so. And you might boil, par-boil or not boil them at all. I par-boiled mine (layer them in another 9-by-13 pan and cover them with boiling water; let them sit until they are slightly pliable and drain). But when I make this lasagna again, I will use dry sheets instead, as I think there was plenty of moisture in the fillings to soften them up and they got a bit too un-al-dente for my liking. However you prep your pasta, take several of the sheets and create a bed of them on top of the sauce:
Next, whip up a ricotta mixture of sorts (mine contained half a container of regular ricotta and a whole container of fat free ricotta; one medium bag of frozen spinach, thawed and drained very, very well; and a sprinkle of salt and freshly-grated nutmeg). You can of course depart at this point to any filling you can dream up, but I think ricotta provides a great “glue” at this stage. Slather the ricotta mixture on the bed of pasta:
Moving right down the assembly line, a layer of roasted vegetables would be lovely here. I went with long, slender slices of zucchini and yellow squash (3 medium-sized versions of each), roasted in olive oil, salt, pepper, chile flakes and dried herbs at 400° for about 30 minutes. I’ll mention a couple additions or substitutions—fennel, mushrooms, eggplant, leeks—but my list could never be exhaustive. Take your roasted produce, whatever it may be, and create the next tier of your lasagna:
On the next step, I’ll be brief. Slice fresh, great quality mozzarella into rounds and pile those on next. After all that spinach and those veggies, we wouldn’t want this to get too healthy, now would we? A sprinkle of Parmesan won’t hurt either. Don’t be stingy:
From here, head directly back to the beginning of the assembly line (sauce) and start it all over again. Repeat—sauce, pasta, ricotta, veggies, cheese—as many times as you can until you are dangerously close to the top of the pan. Stop at whatever layer you’re at (I got through the whole line-up three times) and spread the top with tomato sauce and create a final lid of mozzarella for your lasagna:
Preheat the oven to 425° and, while you wait, take a minute to gaze admiringly at your nearly-finished product. Or, in my case, snap countless photos:
Bake your lasagna at 425° for 35 to 45 minutes, or until the top is browned and bubbly and completely, totally irresistible. The last step—the very, very hardest step—is to let the lasagna sit for at least 20 minutes, so it can firm up. Good luck:
Enjoy a square of the lasagna with a heap of mixed greens. And enjoy it the next day too. And the next, and the next …