Monday, April 1, 2013

Simple Lasagnas

I love the section of Italian menus headed by the phrase “al forno” meaning "baked in an oven."  For some that still means a wood-fired oven but even without a rustic touch, a baked pasta meal is pure comfort food. 

This week my husband was picturing an old fashioned meat lasagna while I was dreaming of spinach and mixed vegetables.  You might think a big heaping combo lasagna with ground beef, sausage, mushrooms, zucchini and eggplant would be the answer but for real variety two smaller, more pure lasagnas were just right.  I use 8” X 8” brownie pans or several small loaf pans to build these smaller, more manageable al forno dishes.  

Recipes can look daunting with up to fifteen ingredients but consider that a pure lasagna, meat or vegetable versions, can be broken down into 4 basic elements.  There will be cheese, sauce, wide flat noodles and filling.  Each of these elements can be prepared in advance and assembled and baked up to a day later. 

Formula for Pure Lasagna
Lasagna Noodles
I like the no-bake kind or fresh sheets but have also used regular uncooked noodles and added extra liquid to small lasagnas.  For the uncooked noodle version, you need to bake the dish 10-15 minutes more.  Cooking regular noodles takes a little extra time but if you lay drained noodles onto wax paper, is not too big a production.  Recipes ask for 8-12 noodles.  Cut or break the noodles to fit the pan.

Cheese
Ricotta, grated Parmesan cheese and sliced mozzarella are musts for me.  Cottage cheese makes a great substitute if you don’t have ricotta, especially the small curd type.  I mix a pint of ricotta with an egg, a ½ cup of grated Parmesan and some oregano and basil. I also like black pepper in the mixture and a nice handful of chopped fresh parsley. Sometimes I dice some mozzarella and add that but mostly I leave this mixture light and place the mozzarella as a layer on its own.  I always finish with a layer of mozzarella with some grated Parmesan over that. You will need 1-2 pints of ricotta depending on the size of your project. 

Filling
If it’s meat, my favorite is ground beef and some Italian pork sausage (out of the casing) cooked and drained and moistened with a little marinara sauce.  Use a 2:1 ratio for the meats, about 3 cups of meat is nice.

If its vegetable, either make a cooked mixture from steamed and drained spinach, sautéed mushrooms and assorted chopped vegetables that can be held together with a little ricotta or layer grilled or roasted vegetables over the ricotta layer as you would noodles.  (If you choose vegetable layers, you can skip a layer of noodles.) Sliced and cooked eggplant, zucchini and Portobello mushrooms make nice layers. 
You will want 2-3 cups of filling.

Sauce
Marinara sauce can be your homemade or use a pure brand out of a jar.  Some recipes, especially for vegetable lasagnas, add a béchamel sauce layer but I find this adds extra work and the ricotta layer has already provided a nice creamy contrast.  You will need about ½ cup of marinara sauce to coat the bottom of the baking dish and extra for serving is always nice so I try to have about 4 cups of sauce on hand for assembling and serving. 

Method
With your fillings ready, here is the layering and baking method:

  • Lightly oil the sides of your baking dish. This will make removing the noodles later and cleaning the pan a little easier.   
  • Spread ½ cup marina sauce on the bottom on the pan and lay noodles down to cover bottom.  
  • Cover noodles with filling, a little sauce and a second layer of noodles.  
  • Cover second layer of noodles with the ricotta cheese mixture and a little sauce, and any extra filling.  
  • Last place the top layer of noodles, a layer of sauce and if you have any little extras like sliced olives and roasted red pepper strips before covering it all with a layer of mozzarella and grated Parmesan. 
  • Bake your lasagna covered with tin foil at 350˚F for 35-45 minutes until the center reaches 145˚F. Remove the foil covering during the last 10 minutes of cooking. Remove form the oven and let the dish least at least 10 minutes to firm up before slicing.
Don’t miss out on making lasagna for a small family.  Leftover lasagna cut into individual portions is a freezer treat that can be reheated either as is --frozen-- or defrosted.