Friday, November 11, 2011
First corn flakes? Probably not. I'll bet that most of those "firsts" that you remember came as an adult. Your first experience with some exotic food at a special event, perhaps.
For me, my first lasagna was very memorable. And I was young - probably about eight years old. My experience with Italian food at that point was limited to my mother's version of spaghetti - which wasn't in any way "real" Italian, and my new love - the ravioli served at school. It was canned ravioli, but I was fascinated by it.
The great lasagna adventure began with Joe the butcher. No, he wasn't a mob guy - he owned a teeny grocery store and he and his dad - who everyone called "grampa" and who had a thick Italian accent - were the butchers.
Joe the butcher liked my mom's best friend and wanted to invite her over for dinner. But that wasn't proper. Oh, no, they couldn't be alone in his apartment. So mom and I were invited over for dinner, as well, to make it respectable.
The first amazing thing (to me) was that Joe was cooking. I thought that was what moms did. I mean, I was eight years old ... I wasn't eating out a lot.
When the lasagna came out, I was stunned. I'd never seen a layered pasta dish, and I'd never seen or tasted ricotta cheese before. It was all new to me, and I was absolutely in love. Lasagna became my favorite food, but it was a scarce one. My mother had no interest in making it, so my only chance to eat it was on the rare occasions when we went out for dinner and it was on the menu.
Before I made my first lasagna, I thought it was an incredibly complicated dish - all those layers! But really, it's not that hard. And you get a LOT of food. There's no sense in making a small lasagna.
The good news is that it freezes very well, so don't be worried about leftovers. Make extra, even. You can freeze in family-sized portions for nights when you don't have time to cook, or freeze in single portions for lunch or dinner. Reheat in the oven or microwave, adding a bit of water, if needed.
And ... I know I talk a lot about making things ahead, but lasagna cuts into much neater slices after it has cooled, so if you want to plate individual portions and have them look square and precise, make the lasagna ahead of time, chill it, and cut it while it's cold. Then reheat.
The salad I made to go with this looked unintentionally Christmas-like, particularly since I used romanesco cauliflower. Broken into florets, it looked like little trees, and the red of the peppers and the stark white of the feta added to the seasonal coloring. This would in fact be great for Christmas.
Check the next post for salad. First, you want to get going on that lasagna, since it takes longer.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 large onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
2 cups tomato juice (or 1 8-ounce can tomato sauce plus 1 cup water)
2 teaspoons Italian seasoning (or 1 teaspoon each, oregano and basil)
1 pound bulk Italian sausage
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ricotta cheese
1/4 cup grated parmesan, plus more as desired
3/4 pound mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced or grated
1/2 pound provolone cheese, thinly sliced or grated
Salt, to taste
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Choose the baking dish that you'll be using for the lasagna. I used a 9x13 Pyrex dish. Figure out how many pieces of lasagna noodle you will need to make 3 complete layers of noodles. Put the noodles you're using into the casserole dish and cover with hot water. Set aside while you're preparing everything else. Reserve the remaining noodles for another use.
Heat the olive oil in a heavy bottomed pan on medium heat. Add the onions and cook until they begin to soften, stirring as needed. Add the garlic and allow to cook for a few more minutes, stirring and adjusting the heat if anything is threatening to burn.
Add the tomato products, the Italian seasoning (or herbs of you choice) and 1 teaspoon salt. Stir to combine. Lower heat to a simmer and let this cook, stirring occasionally, while you work on the rest.
Heat a frying pan on medium and add the ground beef and sausage. Break up the meat as it cooks so you have smaller bits rather than large chunks. Cook until all the meat is cooked through, then take it off the heat. Drain off any grease.
In a small bowl, combine the ricotta, egg, and parmesan cheese. Stir to combine.
By this time, the noodles should have softened until they are pliable rather than brittle. They don't need to be as soft as fully-cooked noodles, but you should be able to cut them as needed without having them shatter. remove the noodles from the casserole dish and dump the water out.
Taste the tomato sauce for seasoning and add more salt (and/or herbs) as needed.
Put about 1/2 of the sauce on the bottom of the casserole - just enough for a thin layer covering the bottom. Add the first layer of noodles.
Top the noodles with the ricotta mixture, then 1/2 of the mozzarella. Place the second layer of noodles on top of the cheese layer.
Put about 1/2 of the tomato mixture on top of the noodles, then top with 2/3 to 3/4 of the meat. This doesn't have to be perfect - just eyeball the amount. Top with the remaining mozzarella and then the final layer of noodles.
Cover the casserole dish with aluminum foil and place it on a baking dish to catch any spillover. Bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes.
Uncover the lasagna, add the provolone cheese and bake, uncovered, until the cheese is melted and has begun to brown in spots - about another 15 minutes.
Remove the lasagna from the oven. You can serve immediately, or let it cool a while for easier slicing.
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