I made a pan of lasagna yesterday to take to a recovering friend. She can’t tolerate garlic for now, so I of course left it out. I left out the sausage as well, using ground pork in the sauce instead, adding a little extra ground fennel seed and dried oregano, as well as a bit more dried chili, to add back the kick the garlic and sausage would usually contribute. It either worked like a charm, or garlic and seasoning don’t matter all that much when you layer the sauce in with a couple of pounds of whole-milk ricotta and provolone cheese, because the dish tasted exactly as its supposed to – rich, cheesy, chewy, meaty. As a cook, I’d insist it’s all in the seasoning; as an eater, I know it’s mostly about the crusty, molten cheese.
Although one note on the sauce, and I do believe this matters (almost) as much as the cheese. After years of experimenting with lasagna, I’ve determined that to achieve the real-deal, Italian-American classic, the sauce must be truly long-cooked – deep, thick, with very concentrated tomato. I’ve skimped on this step in the past and been disappointed with something a little thin tasting.
Actually, two notes on the sauce, the second being leave it a bit under-salted. The cheeses contribute quite a bit of saltiness to the completed dish, especially the Parmesan. I’ve made the mistake of seasoning a sauce to taste as is, forgetting about how much more saltiness was coming. Add bites of salty sausage and the whole can overwhelm.
While I’m making notes, here’s another, this time about the pasta. Like a lasagna-making Goldilocks, I’ve tried boiling the noodles (leave the dish too soft and watery), as well as the no-cook variety (leave the dish too dry), so I now soak the noodles in hot tap water (yep, just right).
And another note, this about the cheese. I’ve found that I don’t much like low-fat ricotta cheese, especially compared to traditional whole-milk ricotta, which is a completely different experience – smooth and creamy and not gritty at all (I buy it at Whole Foods). I’d rather have a smaller piece of real-ricotta lasagna than a large piece of the low-fat version, but that’s just me. Use what you like, of course. One ingredient you shouldn’t skip or substitute is freshly ground nutmeg (into the ricotta cheese) – the flavor is incomparable. If you don’t cook with whole nutmeg, lucky you, because you are about to discover an easy flavor explosion. Whole seeds are often available in grocery store spice racks, next to ground nutmeg. You just grind a bit at a time with a cheese grater/plane, nothing to it. And one more note (last one!) on my cheese preferences – I use provolone cheese instead of mozzarella. To me, provolone’s more assertive flavor stands up nicely to all that tomato and meat and seasoning. But that’s just my opinion too, and of course mozzarella cheese is completely delicious in lasagna.
I think that about covers it. Invite a dozen people over – because that’s how many this dish feeds, if not more – or make a batch and freeze in individual pieces (that’s what we do, it reheats beautifully on hungry, late evenings).
1 lb. ground beef
1 lb. ground pork
1 medium onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 Tbsp. fennel seeds, lightly crushed in a mortar & pestle
1 Tbsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. dried marjoram
1 tsp. dried red pepper flakes
salt & pepper
1-28 oz. can of crushed tomatoes with basil
1-16 oz. can tomato sauce
2-6 oz. cans tomato paste
1 c. red wine
1 Tbsp. sugar
12 lasagna noodles
32 oz. traditional whole-milk ricotta cheese
1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1 lb. provolone or mozzarella cheese, shredded or sliced thinly
3/4 c. grated Parmesan cheese
In a Dutch oven, saute the ground beef and ground pork with the onion, garlic, fennel seeds, oregano, marjoram, and dried red pepper flakes, until no longer pink. Season lightly with salt & pepper. Stir in the crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato paste, red wine, and sugar. Cover and simmer for 1-1 1/2 hours, stirring a few times, until very thick and dark red. Season lightly with salt & pepper (keeping in mind that more saltiness will come from the cheeses). Remove sauce from heat.
Soak the lasagna noodles in a large bowl of hot tap water for 15 minutes. Drain.
Meanwhile, put the ricotta cheese in a large mixing bowl. Grate the nutmeg over the ricotta, add the egg, and stir to combine.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
To assemble the lasagna – ladle about 1/3 of the meat sauce into the bottom of a 9×13 pan.Add a layer of noodles, covering all of the meat sauce (you might have to break a few in half to cover the whole pan, that’s fine). On top of the noodles, spread 1/2 of the ricotta mixture (spread it all the way to the edges, covering the edges of the noodles). On top of the ricotta, layer 1/3 of the provolone cheese. On top of the provolone, sprinkle 1/3 of the Parmesan. Keep going, adding another 1/3 of the meat sauce (making sure to cover the edges of the noodles), a layer of noodles, 1/2 ricotta, 1/3 of provolone and Parmesan. One more time with the remaining meat sauce, then the rest of the provolone and Parmesan. Cover the dish with foil (spritz the foil with nonstick spray). Place the dish on a baking sheet to catch the inevitable drips, then put the whole in the oven. Bake for 30 minutes, then uncover and bake for another 25-30 minutes, until the cheese is browning in spots. Remove from the oven and let stand for 15-20 minutes. Serve hot.
A couple of notes : 1) you can assemble up to the point of baking one day ahead; cover and chill, bake as directed allowing an extra 10 minutes covered and 5-10 minutes uncovered, and 2) once baked, you can freeze individual pieces (cool or chill first to make cutting into neat pieces easier), wrapped in plastic and placed in freezer bags. Unwrap and reheat in the microwave – works like a charm.