I'VE ALWAYS LIKED lasagna. But until recently I never liked to make lasagna.
Either I didn't have the time or energy to do the lasagna dough from scratch or I was beset with having to cope with the dried lasagna noodles from the supermarket, which, once cooked, often tear and stick to one another before you finally layer them in the pan. Also, dried lasagna has always seemed unappetizingly thick and pasty.
Another drawback was that I had thought a real tomato sauce had to be made from fresh tomatoes and simmered for hours.
All that has changed.
First off, there is a relatively new product on the market called No-Boil Lasagna -- wafer-thin, wavy, precooked dried lasagna sheets that contain half the calories of boiled regular dried lasagna. The precooked lasagna sheets -- there are 14 to 15 in each eight-ounce box -- are made from enriched durum semolina wheat flour and water. No eggs or additives. And they're certified kosher and pareve. We purchased our easy-to-spot red, white and green No-Boil boxes for $1.29.
For more information about No-Boil, call 1-800-662-6451. The noodles are available locally at several stores including Safeway, Shoppers Warehouse and Farm Fresh.
Regular lasagna, cooked al dente, can be substituted for the No-Boil noodles.
Second, there are a number of bottled tomato-based spaghetti sauces on the market that are convenient and perfectly adequate substitutes for home-cooked numbers. If this strikes you as heresy, there are tasty sauces that can be made from canned tomatoes. Either way, one simply does not have to wait for fresh summer tomatoes to make a decent sauce.
Another bonus is the discovery that lasagna cooks beautifully in either a conventional oven or a microwave. It can be made ahead and either refrigerated (up to three days) or frozen without losing anything in the translation. However, if it is frozen, we recommend at least partially defrosting the lasagna in the refrigerator or microwave before cooking.
Finally, lasagna is an extremely forgiving dish. It makes little difference if you decide you want to substitute, add or leave out an ingredient. Within reason, that is. For instance, there's no need to use mushrooms if you don't like mushrooms. On the other hand, if you want to "beef up" your sauce, try adding cooked sliced mushrooms or sauteed ground meat. And just because a recipe calls for beef, sausage or pork doesn't mean you can't use leaner ground turkey instead.
Feel free to substitute cottage cheese for part of the ricotta generally called for. Part-skim mozzarella and ricotta work just as well as their regular counterparts. (Do not, however, try low-fat or fat cottage cheese, which tend to impart a bitter taste.) No mozzarella on hand? Try substituting shredded Swiss or havarti cheeses. Even goat cheese, although you would probably want to use it more for an accent. Want a sharper taste? Use fresh grated Romano instead of Parmesan.
Easy Tomato Sauce
1 (15 1/2 -ounce) jar prepared spaghetti sauce of choice
1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
Basic Lasagna White Sauce
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
7 tablespoons flour
3 cups milk or other liquid
1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
1/2 teaspoon pepper or to taste
Melt butter in heavy saucepan over low heat and add the flour all at once. Stir constantly with a whisk until all the flour has been absorbed and the mixture is smooth. Cook for an additional minute. Add about one-half cup of the milk or other liquid slowly, still stirring with the whisk. Increase heat to medium and continue to add remaining milk slowly, cooking until sauce becomes thickish. Add salt and pepper to taste. Makes about four cups.
Spinach Artichoke Lasagna
1 cup minced onion
1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons vegetable oil or butter
1 1/2 pounds mushrooms, sliced
3 to 4 cups white sauce (recipe below)
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 (9-ounce) packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained
1 (10-ounce) package frozen artichoke hearts, thawed and chopped, or 1 (14-ounce) can artichoke hearts, drained and chopped (reserve four to five artichoke halves for decorating)
1 pound small-curd cottage cheese
8 ounces shredded mozzarella
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
9 to 12 dry precooked lasagna noodles or 1 pound regular lasagna, cooked and drained
Saute onion and garlic in oil or butter until soft. Add mushrooms and continue cooking until mushrooms give off juices and are fairly limp. Add mixture to white sauce along with the nutmeg. Taste for seasoning, adding more nutmeg if desired.