By JeanMarie Brownson • Chicago Tribune
A piping hot pan of lasagna takes the chill out of January. I fantasize about popping a tray of multi-layered goodness into a hot oven after an afternoon of cross-country skiing.
Sure, there are those of us on January diets (when are we ever not on a diet?), but lasagna needn’t be the gut bomb of its reputation. In fact, eaten in the appropriate portions (now, that’s the trick to everything), the dish proves ultimately satisfying. It’s perfectly delicious when meatless, vegetable-forward and moderate on dairy.
These days I make two smaller pans, each 8 or 9 inches square, rather than one 13-by-9-inch pan. That way, I have one to serve and one to freeze for later. The square pan makes six moderate-size pieces suitable for a main course. Leftovers reheat well.
On a recent visit to Giant restaurant in Chicago, the server bragged that the lasagna had more than 20 layers. It stood shy of 3 inches tall and tasted incredibly light and delicious. It contained just enough cheese to hold it all together, and the sauce had deep, rich tomato flavor. The pasta layers, as thin as paper, nearly melted.
This led me to think about the noodles I’ve been using. Store-bought lasagna noodles with the ruffled edge are simply too thick; they yield a pasta-heavy dish. Plus, boiling them makes extra work.
For a many-layered lasagna, I use the thinnest sheets of pasta I can find, such as the fresh lasagna noodles from the local Italian market. They are thin and moist, so no need to boil; they’ll be pleasantly al dente in the finished dish.
My second choice — very nearly as good — is no-boil pasta sheets found in the dried pasta aisle of most supermarkets. These thin, somewhat translucent, sheets soften perfectly from the moisture of the sauce and remain toothsome in the final dish. The only caution is to be sure they are coated with sauce to prevent dryness.
The no-boil sheets fit an 8-inch square baking pan beautifully. If you use a 9-inch pan there will be some edges not covered with pasta — no worries, the pasta expands as it absorbs moisture. Disposable foil pans come in handy when bringing the lasagna to parties.
Assembling lasagna does take time, but the ingredients are easy to procure and to handle. For the recipes that follow, the components are simply a quick-cooking sauce, pasta, ricotta mixture and shredded cheese. A spinach or mushroom layer is nice but optional.
You’ll vastly improve your finished dish if you take the time to shred the mozzarella. The anti-caking agents in pre-shredded cheese keep it from melting nicely. Whole-milk mozzarella and whole-milk ricotta yield superior mouthfeel and milky goodness.
Choose real Parmesan shreds or flakes for the best cheese flavor and appearance.
The following meatless lasagna is a touch sweet, with butternut added to the sauce; a layer of sauteed mushrooms adds texture. For meat lovers, choose the sausage-laced sauce version. Either way, each lasagna boasts 17 layers (most of them from the tomato sauce). You will have bragging rights.
BUTTERNUT, CARAMELIZED ONION AND MUSHROOM LASAGNA
Prep: 1 hour, 30 minutes; Cook: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Makes: Two 8-by 8-inch pans, each serving 6
Nutrition information per serving: 396 calories, 20 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 69 mg cholesterol, 31 g carbohydrates, 8 g sugar, 22 g protein, 1,065 mg sodium, 4 g fiber
1 bag (10 oz) frozen diced butternut squash (or 2 Cs diced fresh squash)
2 cans (28 oz each) Italian-style crushed tomatoes
2 tsp sugar or agave syrup
2 tsp dried basil
1⁄2 tsp dried thyme leaves
Salt, freshly ground black pepper
3 TBS olive oil
2 med onions, halved, thinly sliced
1 C (4oz) sliced button or cremini mushrooms
1 pkg (3.5 oz) fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded, caps thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 TBS chopped fresh basil leaves
1 TBS chopped fresh chives
1 lb (16 oz) mozzarella cheese, preferably whole milk
1 carton (16 oz) ricotta cheese
1 C shredded Parmesan cheese
1 lg egg, beaten
1 box (9 oz) no-boil, oven-ready lasagna noodles
1. Put squash, tomatoes, sugar, basil, thyme, 1⁄2 tsp salt and 1⁄4 tsp pepper into a medium saucepan. (If using fresh squash, first microwave until fork tender, 4 minutes.) Simmer over LOW heat, stirring often, until squash is fork tender and sauce is thick, about 20 minutes. Cool. Makes about 8 Cs.
2. Meanwhile, heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat until hot. Add 2 TBS oil and the onions. Cook, stirring often, until onions are golden and soft, about 10 minutes. Add mushrooms and garlic. Cook, stirring often, until mushrooms are golden, about 5 minutes. Season with 1⁄4 tsp each of salt and pepper. Cool. Stir in fresh basil and chives.
3. Use the large holes on a 4-sided grater to shred the mozzarella onto a plate. Mix ricotta, half of the Parmesan, remaining 1 TBS olive oil, egg, 1⁄2 tsp salt and 1⁄4 tsp pepper in medium bowl.
4. To assemble, have everything near the work surface. Lightly oil the bottom and sides of two 8-inch square metal or aluminum baking pans.
5. For each lasagna, pour about 1 C of the tomato sauce into bottom of 1 prepared pan. Top with 2 lasagna noodles. Use a small spatula to spread 1⁄2 C of the ricotta mixture over noodles. Top with a 1⁄2 C sauce and 2 pasta sheets. Top with 1⁄2 C sauce, 1⁄2 C of the mozzarella, half of the mushroom mixture and 1⁄2 C ricotta mixture. Add 1⁄2 C of the sauce and smooth with the spatula. Top with 2 noodles, then another 1⁄2 C sauce and 1⁄2 C mozzarella. Top with 2 pasta sheets, 1⁄2 C of the remaining sauce, 1 C of the remaining mozzarella and 1⁄4 C of the remaining Parmesan.
6. Repeat to make a second pan of lasagna.
7. To freeze, cover the pans with plastic wrap and then a double thickness of foil. Label and freeze solid. When ready to bake, thaw overnight in the refrigerator.
8. To bake, heat oven to 375 degrees. Remove the plastic wrap from the lasagna. Lightly oil the foil and place it oiled side down on the lasagna and wrap the foil tight to the pan. Bake, 25 minutes (35 if previously frozen). Uncover the pan and continue baking until the sauce bubbles at the edges of the pan and a knife inserted in the center comes out hot, about 30 minutes more.
9. Let stand 10 minutes before cutting into squares to serve.
SAUSAGE AND SPINACH LASAGNA
Prep: 45 minutes; Cook: 1 1⁄4 hours
Nutrition information per serving: 431 calories, 24 g fat, 12 g saturated fat, 80 mg cholesterol, 27 g carbohydrates, 6 g sugar, 25 g protein, 1,055 mg sodium, 3 g fiber
1 lb mild (or spicy or a combination) Italian sausage, removed from casings
1 med onion, finely chopped
1⁄2 C red wine
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tsp dried Italian seasoning
1 lb (16 oz) mozzarella (preferably whole milk)
16 oz ricotta cheese (preferably whole milk)
2 TBS olive oil
1 box (9 oz) oven-ready dried lasagna sheets
4 Cs (2 oz) loosely packed baby spinach leaves
1. Put sausage and onion into a large (12-inch) deep, nonstick skillet over medium heat until hot. Cook until sausage is golden and cooked through, about 10 minutes. Drain off excess fat. Return to heat. Add wine; simmer over high heat while scraping up browned bits from bottom of pan, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic; cook, 1 minute. Stir in tomatoes, Italian seasoning, 1⁄2 tsp salt and 1⁄4 tsp pepper. Simmer over low heat, stirring often, about 10 minutes. Cool. There will be about 8 Cs sauce.
2. Use the large holes on a four-sided grater to shred the mozzarella onto a plate. Put ricotta, 1⁄2 C Parmesan, egg, olive oil, 1⁄2 tsp salt and 1⁄4 tsp pepper into a medium bowl. Mix well.
3. To assemble, have everything near the work surface. Lightly oil the bottom and sides of two 8-inch square metal or aluminum baking pans.
4. For each lasagna, pour about 1 C of the tomato sauce into bottom of pan. Top with 2 lasagna noodles. Use a small spatula to spread 1⁄2 C ricotta mixture over noodles. Top with 1⁄2 C sauce and 2 pasta sheets. Top with 1⁄2 C sauce, 1⁄2 C mozzarella, 2 Cs spinach and 1⁄2 C ricotta mixture. Add 1⁄2 C sauce and smooth with the spatula. Top with 2 noodles, then another 1⁄2 C sauce and 1⁄2 C mozzarella. Top with 2 pasta sheets, 1⁄2 C sauce, 1 C mozzarella and 1⁄4 C Parmesan.
5. Repeat to make a second pan of lasagna.
6. To freeze, cover the pans with plastic wrap and then a double thickness of foil. Label and freeze solid. When ready to bake, thaw overnight in the refrigerator.
7. To bake, heat oven to 375 degrees. Remove the plastic wrap from the lasagna. Lightly oil the foil and place it oiled side down on the lasagna and wrap the foil tight to the pan. Bake for 25 minutes (35 if previously frozen). Uncover the pan and continue baking until the sauce bubbles at the edges of the pan and a knife inserted in the center comes out hot, about 30 minutes more.
8. Let stand 10 minutes before cutting into squares to serve.