Thursday, May 22, 2008

Lasagna - It isn't as hard as you think

The beauty of lasagna is that you cannot mess it up - it doesn't matter how you layer it or if each layer is fully coated. It doesn't need to look pretty or neat it just has to taste great. The most important thing is to have enough sauce and I personally prefer to make it with fresh pasta but no-boil lasagna noodles are a good alternative.

Fresh pasta can be purchased but you rely on the source not running out which sadly has occurred for me. So most of the time I just make my own pasta rather than wasting my time hunting it up. Fresh pasta is surprising easy to make and the biggest benefit is that your cooking time reduces to only 10 minutes! No-boil pasta is much more convenient but you have to cook the lasagna for about 45 minutes. Typically it takes me a bit over an hour to put a lasagna together (including making fresh pasta and marinara sauce). Therefore using no-boil lasagna noodles and canned pasta sauce should take you about 90 minutes to get the meal to the table.

My favorite lasagna uses a package of chicken silician sausage (about a pound), half a bag of fresh spinach, half a container of crimini mushrooms (about 4 oz), half a bag of shredded mozzarella cheese, 15 ounces of ricotta cheese, approximately 30 ounces of marinara pasta sauce and 1/4 cup parmesan/reggiano grated cheese. You can vary this recipe to make it vegetarian; if you hate vegetables keep it purely meat; and if you hate everything but cheese than you can simply remove everything but the cheese. (Another nice vegetarian option is to use basil leaves and a marinara sauce - simple but very flavorful. An alternative to using sausage is to simply use a meat sauce rather than a marinara.)

(Note if you are using no-boil noodles and already prepared pasta sauce skip the next two paragraphs.)
If I am making my own marinara sauce, I set that up to cook first since it has to simmer for 45 minutes. I use two 15 oz cans of chopped tomatoes and briefly puree in a blender. I pour this into a pan with deep sides and add a stick of butter (1/4 pound) - you could probably substitute olive oil for this; 1/2 medium onion peeled and halved keeping the root end intact; and a 1/4 teaspoon of sugar. I set is on a back burner with the flame very low and set the timer for 45 minutes.

If I am making my own pasta, I next make my dough using my food processor. Using a regular blade, I put 2 1/4 cups of all-purpose flour in the bowl and crack three whole eggs on top of the flour. I then place the lid on there and pulse until the mixture is very grainy - similar to couscous. Briefly, with the lid on and a few quick pulses to the processor, I drizzle about a tablespoon of olive oil just to give it a bit more "sticking" power. Remove the pasta from the processor bowl and carefully shape it a ball. It is like bringing hundreds of little pieces of clay together but you want it to be a solid piece. Slightly flatten the ball of pasta and cover with barely damp paper or cloth towels - you don't want the pasta to dry out but you also don't want to get the outer layer sticky.

I cut away the casings surrounding the chicken silician sausage so that I have a pile of raw seasoned meat. Under a small skillet, I set the burner to medium or just a bit warmer and add the sausage meat. I slowly brown this while I prep my other ingredients. I place the 15 oz of ricotta cheese into a medium-sized bowl and crack one egg over it, add 1/4 cup parmegan/reggiano grated cheese and a dash of hot sauce (alternatively I sometimes add a pinch of nutmeg). I whisk all these ingredients together and set aside.

Next I wash my mushrooms and slice thinly slice them. I typically don't cook my mushrooms but you can add them to the cooking sausage. When the sausage is mostly brown, I turn off the burner and set it aside with my other ingredients. Next I turn my oven onto 375 degrees to bake the lasagna when it is finally set up. I then take a 13 x 9 inch baking dish and carefully spray it with olive oil to prevent sticking.


I coat the bottom of the pan with a scant ladle of pasta sauce, add a layer of lasagna noodles (if I am using the pasta I made I roll out about three strips for each layer - details below); on top of the pasta I spread half my sausage and mushroom mix, cover with grated mozzarella cheese, and add another ladle of pasta sauce; I add another layer of lasagna noodles and on top of that I spread half of my ricotta mixture, cover with some fresh spinach and add another ladle of pasta sauce. I continue to alternate these layers until I run out of pasta. On top of my last layer of pasta, I will pour the remainder of my marinara sauce and sprinkle the whole thing with grated mozzarella cheese. Typically, I have a total of 8-10 layers - four or five of those being pasta.

My oven is pre-heated now. If using fresh pasta, just pop your creation in the oven and cook for 10 minutes or until the top layer of cheese is melted and browning. If using no-boil pasta, add a cup of water along the sides of your pan, tightly cover with aluminum foil and place in the oven for about 45 minutes. Check at 35 minutes and remove the foil for the last few moments to brown the cheese at the top.

My preference it to serve this for dinner parties because there isn't too much left over. If I am cooking it for just the two of us I tend to freeze half of it for another night. Even freezing half of it leaves enough for lunches for the next two days. If serving it for a dinner party you can either prep beforehand or have your guests help you with the assembly. It is always more fun to cook together and it leaves you more time to set up appetizers so they can nibble while working.

Rolling out fresh pasta dough isn't an exact science and takes practice but it is worth the effort. I have found this site that has the step-by-step process for rolling with an Imperia Pasta Machine, which is the type I have;

My mother swears by her electric attachment for her Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer. I believe she has the Pasta Excellence attachment set.

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