Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The best food on earth... Lasagna

Many people might disagree with me but in my opinion there is no better, more delicious, more comforting food in the whole world than Lasagna. Of course being half Italian I might be biased. Lasagna was one of the first meals I ever learned how to prepare and it was considered a staple in my childhood home. Mind you, over the years the standard family recipe has undergone many transformations. Here is how I make it today.

Lionel's Lasagna

Italian Meat Sauce
• 1 lb. Italian sausage (or ground beef)
• ½ cup chopped onion (Red or Vidalia)
• 2 cloves of garlic, minced
• 1 28 oz. can tomatoes (diced or crushed)
• 1 10 oz. can tomato paste
• 1 tbsp dried basil
• 1 tbsp dried oregano
• ½ tsp sea salt
• ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
• tomato juice (to thin the sauce)

• 10 fresh uncooked spinach lasagna noodles
• 1 cup firm ricotta cheese
• 1 cup 2% cottage cheese
• 2 cups shredded mozzarella or provolone
• 1 cup Parmesan or Romano cheese

• 9 x 13 x 2 pan or casserole dish
• large non-stick frying pan
• large pot for meat sauce
• large glass/ceramic bowl
• heat resistant spatula
• cheese grater

Italian Meat Sauce
Heat the frying pan and add a little olive oil. Sauté the chopped onion and minced garlic in the hot oil until the onion becomes transparent but before the garlic turns brown. Remove the Italian sausage from their casing (skin) and add to the pan, breaking up the meat as it cooks (about 15 minutes on medium-high). You want the pieces to be as small as possible so the sauce will spread easily.

Once the meat is cooked transfer it to the large pot (be sure to deglaze the pan and add that as well). Add the canned tomatoes (you can use fresh but be sure to remove the skin and crush the tomatoes thoroughly), tomato paste and the spices. Reduce the heat to a simmer and allow to cook for at least one hour. Stir occasionally to prevent burning or sticking.

If you do not have (or can not make) fresh lasagna noodles feel free to substitute dry store-bought noodles. I don't recommend no-bake noodles - I've never liked the results. Be sure to prepare the dry store-bought noodles as directed on the package. You might also want to add a layer of spinach (unless you can find dry store-bought spinach noodles). The spinach adds a nice flavour and a splash of colour. If you are using fresh or hand-made noodles proceed to the next step. (Note: if enough of you are interested in learning how to create your owtn lasagna noodles by hand leave me a post, I could probably be persuaded.)

Some people like to use ricotta cheese and others like to use cottage cheese in their lasagna. After much experimenting I found that I prefer a combination of the two. Here's what I do. In a large bowl add 1 cup of 2% cottage cheese and 1 cup of firm ricotta, which should be in the form of a firm block and should be rather dry. Using a fork break up the ricotta into small pieces and mix into the cottage cheese. You can use a softer ricotta but I really like the firmer cheese. To this mixture add a little water until the combination is spreadable (only a couple of tablespoons worth).

Take your 9 x 13 x 2 inch pan (you can use another size but this recipe fits this size of pan) and put in just enough sauce (mostly liquid) to cover the bottom of the dish. This will help to discourage the noodles from sticking to the bottom. Now place the pre-cooked or hand-made noodles in the dish, side by side, being sure to fill the entire space without overlapping the noodles significantly. A little overlap can help to hold the lasagna together but I don't find it necessary. I usually cut down the fresh noodles to fit.

Next add a layer of the meat sauce, about ¼ of the batch you made earlier. Spread this around with the spatula being sure to spread it all the way to the edges of the pan, sealing in the first layer of noodles. If you particularly like the taste of basil or oregano you could sprinkle a little onto the meat sauce at this point. It is important that if you are using fresh, uncooked noodles that you keep a moist layer on top of them as this will help them cook. If you are unsure that your sauce is moist enough feel free to add just a little tomato juice.

Using the cheese grater, preferably one that makes smaller slivers, grate the mozzarella or provolone cheese. You can even mix a couple of cheeses if you want. As you can see in the photo I am using mozzarella and a little medium cheddar. Be sure to reserve enough cheese for the top of the lasagna (either slices or grated cheese). Sprinkle about 1/3 of the cheese on the meat sauce, trying to cover as much of the surface as possible. At this point you can also add a little Parmesan as well.

On top of the cheese add a layer of the ricotta/cottage cheese mix, about one third. Drop tablespoon sized scoops evenly and then spread the mixture out as much as possible. Sprinkle a little salt and pepper on top. I like to add the salt and pepper here because I think it enhances the ricotta. Now add another layer of noodles (I usually rotate the noodles 90 degrees each layer) and repeat the above steps twice more. This should fill the pan completely.

Now top with the last of the meat sauce being sure that all the noodles have been covered. I am not fond of crunchy edges on my lasagna so I usually make certain that all the noodles have been covered with sauce. Tuck any stray noodles back into the pan.

Sprinkle on some Parmesan cheese (just a little) and put the pan into a pre-heated 350° oven. Lasagna is notorious for overflowing the pan so I would recommend either putting the pan on a larger cookie tray or put down some aluminum foil. Cook for 45 minutes. Note: You can cover the dish with aluminum foil if desired but be sure to remove it at least 10 minutes before you take the dish out.

After 45 minutes remove the lasagna from the oven and add the remaining cheese (slices or shredded) to the top of the dish. Put the lasagna back in the oven for 3 minutes until the cheese melts.

Take the lasagna back out of the oven and put it on a heat resistant board, letting it stand for at least 15 minutes BEFORE cutting. Lasagna needs a resting period so as tempting as it may be do not dive right in.

Once it has rested cut the lasagna into squares (6 - 8 squares are typical for this size of pan) and serve with your favourite vegetable and perhaps a little garlic bread. Make salt, pepper and the Parmesan cheese available at the table.

A couple of words about cheese.
Not all cheese is the same. You can most likely get your cheese from any supermarket (many carry quality brands) but if you have never tried cheese from a cheese monger you should give it a try. After all lasagna is a fair amount of work to make so why use inferior cheeses. Ask your local cheese monger what they would use in a lasagna. They should have a wide selection of domestic and imported cheeses that will work wonders. Why not try goat cheese or feta, asiago or maybe a little fontinella. Each cheese will give your lasagna a new and distinctive flavour. Mix and match, see what you like. And please, please, don't under any circumstance, use the dried-out Parmesan cheese-like products you can find in the round paper shaker tubes available at most supermarkets. Parmesan and Romano cheeses should be freshly grated and slightly moist. The stuff that comes in a shaker is a far cry from the real thing.

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