Wednesday, June 6, 2012

My All-Time Favorite Lasagna

I often stroll by the grocer’s freezer case and wonder: “Can any factory-made Lasagna be even half as good as mine?” Sometimes, I actually pause, eyeing the packages and thinking of the foil bake-from-frozen cartons behind the brightly colored wrappers. And then I give the freezer case a pass, thinking “Uh-uh.”
There’s a place for false modesty, but this ain’t it. My Lasagna is the best I’ve ever tasted, outside Italy. It’s true that I use canned tomatoes, and canned tomato paste. It’s true that I use dried herbs instead of lovingly growing them in my patio garden. It’s true that I don’t use freshly made Lasagna noodles. I am an everyday cook! I’m not Martha Stewart (and that, Dollinks, is a good thing).
But it’s also true that I use three distinctly different types of cheese instead of one of those packages containing a grated blend. That, and the slow-simmered meat sauce in this recipe add to its superlative blend of flavors. I drink red wine when I make this. And sometimes throw some in, though not today. I play a little Verdi. And cry, as one does with Italian operas. 

Cook at work: Sip as the pot simmers!
I must caution you that this recipe is not a penny pincher. It’s moderately expensive. It takes four hours - maybe five. But my, oh, my, is it good! I made it this week in honor of my former editor’s birthday. Save this recipe for when you have the time, money, and inclination to make it, Dollinks.  I guarantee you won’t regret it! 
The measurements below are approximate. The mathematicians among you will note that one pound does not equal 500 grams; the quantity should be 454 grams. A pound works well, but countries that use metric tend to sell prepackaged noodles, cheeses, and meats in 500-gram lots, so thats the equivalent Ive used. Feel free to be a little loosey-goosey with this recipe. 
I promise that everything will work just fine whether you use a pound, 500 grams, or the somewhat smaller 454 grams, but whichever measurement you use, stick with it throughout this recipe. I generally make what “feels right,” and that usually results in a huge batch. You be the judge: The photo of the finished product shows how much I made with the ingredient amounts stated below. 
My All-Time Favorite Lasagna:
To Prepare the Meat Sauce:
2 tsp. canola oil
1 c. chopped onions
4 garlic cloves, chopped fine
1 lb. (500 g) lean ground beef
28 oz. (796 mL) can diced tomatoes with juice
Two 5.5-oz. (156 mL) cans tomato paste
1 tsp. salt
1-½ tsp. oregano
1-½ tsp. basil
¼ tsp. coarsely ground pepper
1 tsp. onion salt
Heat oil in large, heavy saucepan on medium-low. Add onions and garlic, frying until tender and onions are translucent. Add ground beef, cooking until no pink remains. Transfer to bowl and set aside. In the same unwashed saucepan, begin simmering tomatoes, tomato paste, salt, oregano, basil, pepper, and onion salt. Return meat mixture to pot. Cover and simmer on low heat for 2-½ hr., stirring every 10 min. or so. And now you have a real Italian meat sauce! I usually make it one day ahead, allowing the flavors to deepen and blend.

This starts with onions - as everything good usually does!

Transfer cooked meat, onions, and garlic to bowl

Begin simmering tomatoes, tomato paste, salt, and herbs

Return meat mixture to pot

Simmer 2-1/2 hr., stirring every 10 min.
To Prepare the Noodles:
One 1 lb. (500 g) pkg. lasagna noodles 
Boiling, salted water, as required
Noodles, schnoodles! Cook them as the package directs. Don’t worry if a few break … use them, anyway. You will have a few extra, “just in case.” Rinse noodles with cold water to prevent them from sticking together as they cool, making their handling easier. 
Selecting the Cheeses:
Two - 1 lb. (500 g) packages ricotta cheese or dry curd cottage cheese
1 lb. (500 g) sliced Swiss cheese (see Note)
¾ c. grated Parmesan cheese (see Further Note
Note: I use packaged Swiss sandwich slices!
Further Note: For the very best flavor, grate it fresh.

Shave or grate the Parmesan, putting some on the Lasagna ...

And serving some at the table

Here's the Swiss cheese I used - everyday sandwich slices!

Dry curd cottage cheese is cheaper and goes further than the
equivalent weight of ricotta: It is delicious in this dish!
To Layer the Noodles and Cheeses:
Preheat oven to 350 deg. F. Place one-third sauce in greased 4 qt. (4 L) baking dish. Cover with half noodles, placing them criss-cross. Top with half ricotta or cottage cheese, half Swiss cheese, and one-third Parmesan, being sure to take the fillings right to the edge of the casserole. Repeat, ending with sauce and topping with Parmesan. Bake, uncovered, 40 min., on the middle rack of your oven. This recipe serves 10-to-12. 

Boil and rinse Lasagna noodles in small quantities

In goes another batch! These require only 4 min. in boiling
water, with the rest of the cooking done in the oven

Spread ⅓ meat sauce into greased casserole

Top with criss-crossed Lasagna noodles

Add dry curd cottage cheese

Layer with slices of Swiss cheese and Parmesan

Repeat layering: Meat sauce ...

Noodles, cheeses ...

Ready for the table!
Tomorrow, Im going to talk about the start to any great Italian meal: Antipasti! Im also going to talk about setting the mood and setting the table. Ciao, Dollinks!

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