Lasagna a super choice for big game
By Tommy C. Simmons
|Homemade lasagna is a real crowd pleaser. The dish, layered with meat, cheese, tomato sauce and pasta, traces its roots to Naples, Italy.
That is what compels many cooks to pull out the pots to make lasagna by the book, at least once in a while. Perhaps this Saturday is the day make the lasagna, bake it Sunday and serve it at Super Bowl halftime.
The lasagna we know best is the version in which meat, cheese, tomato sauce and pasta are layered, which has its roots in Naples.
This is not a quick-fix dish; the sauce takes hours. And for maximum flavor development, it's best to put it together one day an d bake it the next. Aged like this, the seasonings have time to meld with the noodles.
There are two schools of thought about baking lasagna. Some cooks suggest covering the casserole dish with aluminum foil sprayed with cooking oil, baking for about 20 minutes and then removing the foil to brown the lasagna for about 10 more minutes or until it is bubbly and cooked through.
Others think the foil covering steams the dish, making the noodles too soft. They prefer baking the casserole uncovered for the entire cooking time.
I tried both methods and couldn't tell the difference.
Another point of difference in making lasagna is deciding which type of lasagna noodle to use. Normally, I use a standard dried supermarket noodle, but decided to give whole wheat pasta a try. I found the taste of the whole-wheat noodles perfectly acceptable and liked the idea of using whole grains. Other cooks prefer fresh pasta or no-boil variety pasta. These too work fine.
Soup to sauce
The key to making tasty lasagna is balancing the sauce and noodles. Too much sauce and the dish is soupy. Too little and the noodles don't have enough liquid to keep them moist as they bake; they dry out and get tough along the edges of the dish.
The balance is especially critical in using the no-boil variety of noodles because they rely on having enough liquid in the sauce to steam and soften them as the casserole bakes.
For good balance, use 2-4 cups of sauce between the layers of pasta and cheeses the thinner the sauce, the less you use. A very thick sauce must be spread evenly in order to keep noodles moist.
This recipe was adapted from recipes in "The Italian American Cookbook" (Harvard Common Press, 2000) by John Mariani and Galina Mariani, although it's been altered to suit my ideas.
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 8-ounce package whole-wheat lasagna noodles
- 4 to 6 cups Meat Sauce (recipe follows)
- 15-ounce container ricotta cheese
- 1 pound shredded mozzarella cheese
- 2 cups freshly grated or shredded Parmesan cheese
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add the salt and olive oil. Boil for a few seconds before adding the lasagna noodles. Cook lasagna noodles until soft but firm, al dente. Remove noodles and allow to drain and pat dry individually on a clean dish towel, spreading to keep them flat.
Preheat the oven to 325. Oil or butter a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish.
Spread 1 to 2 cups sauce over the bottom of the dish. Arrange 4 lasagna noodles over the sauce. Spread a third of the ricotta over the pasta, followed by a quarter of the mozzarella and a quarter of the Parmesan. Add another layer of the sauce over the cheeses.
Repeat the layers of pasta and cheeses two times. For the final layer, scatter mozzarella, Parmesan and the remaining sauce over the pasta. For best flavor, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours.
Remove from refrigerator 1 hour before baking. Remove the plastic wrap. Bake in the 325-degree oven until bubbly and hot, 25 to 30 minutes. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.
Makes 8 servings.
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 large yellow onions, chopped
- 2 large carrots, peeled and chopped
- 2 celery stalks, chopped
- 6 garlic cloves, chopped
- 3 teaspoons salt
- 3 teaspoons black pepper
- 2 pounds ground beef chuck
- 3 bay leaves
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 1 cup water
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- Three 14 1/2-ounce cans whole or chopped tomatoes, with juices
- Three 14 1/2-ounce cans Italian recipe stewed tomatoes (includes Italian seasoning)
- 6-ounce can tomato paste
In a large stockpot, heat 1/2 cup olive oil over medium heat. When it is hot, add the onions, carrots and celery. Cook the vegetables, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Push the vegetables to the side a bit, add the garlic, season the vegetables with salt and pepper, and cook for another 2 minutes.
While the vegetables are cooking, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large saute pan over high heat. When it is very hot, add half of the meat and cook, breaking up the clumps, until browned, about 8 minutes. Drain off the fat. Transfer the meat to the pot with the cooked vegetables. Repeat with the other half of the meat.
Add the bay leaves, oregano, 1 cup water, sugar, tomatoes and their liquid, and tomato paste to the meat and vegetables. Mix well and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low or medium-low and cook for 45 minutes. Adjust seasonings if necessary. .
Note: Freeze extra meat sauce to use in making other pasta dishes.
Tommy C. Simmons is food editor of the Baton Rouge (La.) Advocate.