Tuesday, August 7, 2012

My Homemade Lasagna


If I had to choose one dish that most clearly demonstrates the link between food and love, it might be homemade lasagna. This is a meal that dirties so many pans, tools, spoons and bowls that my sink and dishwasher overflow. What with all the precooking, grating, mixing and slicing, I'm usually busy for a solid hour. And there are a lot of ingredients, each one crucial to the recipe's success. Odds are good that there will be emergency trips to the store during this preparation.

In other words, making a big hearty pan of lasagna is a lot of work. But oh, is it ever worth it. There is nothing so appetizing, comforting, and just plain pretty as a nice square bit of lasagna on my plate and based on the reactions of my diners whenever lasagna is served, I think that feeling is universal.

For the record, store-bought pans of frozen lasagna are acceptable in cases of emergency. They are decent. But in no way do they compare to the glory of a homemade lasagna. 'Nuff said.

I don't really have a recipe for lasagna. I've made it enough times that the ingredients and proportions just flow from me, and it almost makes itself. This is a good and satisfying feeling, and the secret to this success is in buying the right sized ingredients.


This is what I picked up at the store to make yesterday's pan of lasagna happen:

a package of ground beef
a box of lasagna noodles
a pint container of ricotta cheese
a big block of Mozzarella cheese
a big can of tomato sauce
a big can of crushed tomatoes
a container of grated Parmesan cheese

I already had the following ingredients on hand:

olive oil
an onion
about 4 cloves of garlic
basil and oregano
2 eggs 

My tasks begin about 2 1/2 hours before dinner time. The lasagna begins, as good meals often do, with the ceremonial browning of the meat. A warm pan, nice little dollop of olive oil to keep things unsticky and a chunk of ground beef always get the party started.

I remember that my mom often began a meal by setting a pan of ground beef on to brown, before she even knew what she was going to make. She could take that basic ingredient in a million different directions and while it was cooking, she would figure out what other ingredients she had on hand, and set her course for the meal. That is some bold cooking.


Break down that brick of beef with your spatula, and then chop up an onion in between stirs.


Once the meat is about half brown, toss in the onion.


Now peel and mince a few cloves of garlic. Personal preference rules the day here - my family has worked its way up to a four-clove tolerance. I can never get enough garlic but they keep me from losing my head.


Add the garlic to the meat and onions, keep stirring things up till the meat looks completely brown.


Well, truthfully, cooked meat turns sort of a weird brownish-grey color. That always confused me when I was a child, watching my mom cook. Chefs refer to this process as "browning" the meat, which I suppose sounds better than "greying" the meat, but I would argue that the term is misleading.

So to be perfectly clear: keep stirring things up till the meal looks completely un-pink. 

Add your cans of tomatoes. Oh, now it looks red. And very pretty.


Immediately turn your heat down to low, and prepare for the inevitable onslaught of tiny red dots that splatter around your cooking surface. This messiness is just an unavoidable part of cooking red sauces; embrace it.

Now it's time to season the sauce. 

Fresh herbs are ideal; dried ones won't kill you. I like basil and oregano. They are my tried-and-trues.



I always add my spices with an unmeasured flourish. If you wanna get technical, I suppose I add about a tablespoon of each, but I prefer to leave some aspects of cooking as a mystery.


Alright, now the sauce is ready to sit quietly in its pan over the low heat and behave itself while I turn my attention to other matters.

That block of mozzarella cheese needs to be grated. 

Here is an artsy shot of the grated cheese, taken by sliding my camera lens into the top opening of the grater. Whoa now.


Here's a more conventional shot of grated mozzarella. Protect it from passersby. They will try to steal this glory and that is not acceptable.


And in a separate bowl, whip up the two eggs and add the whole carton of ricotta. Give 'em a good stir and set them aside as well.


Now you have some wiggle room. The sauce can simmer away for another full hour, if that fits with your schedule. Feel free to wander off. However, if the dinner hour is fast approaching, you can jump right in to the construction phase of this project without further ado. 

I use my largest casserole for lasagna; it's bigger than a 13 x 9 pan but let's not get technical. Just use something big, flat and open, and it will all work out fine in the end.

Start with a few spoons full of sauce in the bottom. This is a nonstick precautionary technique and I guarantee your lasagna will glide effortlessly out of the pan.


Next, either physically or mentally, divide your ingredients as follows:

Sort the noodles into three equal piles.
Split the ricotta mixture in half.
Divide the mozzarella cheese in thirds.

Don't worry about the tomato sauce; you'll have plenty of that.


This step ensures that there will be enough of everything to build all the layers that a good lasagna needs. Working from the bottom of the dish, it'll go like this:

tomato sauce

noodles
ricotta mixture
mozzarella
tomato sauce

noodles
ricotta mixture
mozzarella
tomato sauce 

noodles
tomato sauce 
mozzarella
parmesan

Over the years, I've worked out this sequence as the easiest way to add one layer over the next, and the strongest way to weave the layers together so everything stays in place when portions are served.

Here are a few tips to help with the construction phase:

Overlap the noodles ever so slightly, and feel free to snap off bits to make them fit in the pan. 


The ricotta mixture can be tricky to spread around. Don't worry; once this pup goes into the oven, the heat will help it spread around and even itself out.


Add enough tomato sauce to cover the previous layer, but an overabundance of sauce will make a lasagna that is soupy and slide-y. Experience is the best teacher, but this photo might give you a starting place.


Any good bricklayer would remind you that changing the direction of the rectangular ingredients will strengthen the design. So while the bottom row of noodles ran portrait style in my pan, the middle layer  runs landscape. Well, except for that one bit on the side. It can't be helped. And yes, the top layer of noodles will be portrait again. 

For my pan size, I really could use a few more noodles. I often buy two boxes, and use just a few from the second box to fill in these tomato-y gaps. Not completely necessary, but I like to be thorough.


Sometimes I add Parmesan to the ricotta mix, as well as to the top layer.
Sometimes I leave out the Parmesan altogether. 
Sometimes I spring for the expensive tub of fresh grated Parmesan.

I love that life is full of options.


Now, into the oven it goes. No foil on top. Just 350 degrees for sixty minutes.

That gives you another hour to while away. Plenty of time for some Mario Kart. Or perhaps a walk. Ranger votes for the latter.



The telltale signs of a well-baked lasagna are:
  • a golden, crispy top layer
  • tomato juices gently bubbling on the side of the pan
  • delicious aromas filling the house
  • people wandering into the kitchen, asking, "So when are we going to eat?"


Yes, this one is definitely done.

I hate to say this, but let it cool for at least 15 minutes before serving. It's torture to wait, I know, but the cooling process helps the layers firm up and makes serving a dream. 

Now, finally, cut up some big golden chunks of yummy and serve it with a quiet smile. 

No need to tell your diners that you love them enough to go through all this work, just to please them.

With one bite, they can taste the love.



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For more stories about my homemade favorites, read:

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