Lasagna's many layers of delight Popular pasta dish has changed with the times

May 19, 1993|By Dotty Griffith | Dotty Griffith,Dallas Morning News Universal Press Syndicate

At a time when cooks clamor for quick, easy recipes that ar low in fat and calories, lasagna -- time-consuming and rich, with layers of noodles, cheese, meat and sauce -- remains popular.

It's second only to spaghetti and meat sauce in the affection of pasta lovers, according to a National Pasta Association survey. Nearly a fourth of the respondents picked lasagna as their family's favorite pasta dish.

Once, lasagna was mainly white noodles, tomato sauce with meat, ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. That's the Southern Italian or Neapolitan version that first became popular in this country, according to Nancy Verde Barr. Her cookbook, "We Called It Macaroni" (Alfred A. Knopf, $21.95), tracks the Americanization of Italian food.

Another classic version is made with bechamel sauce. That's the Northern Italian version, says Ms. Barr,who lives in Providence, R.I.

Lasagna is a traditional Italian feast dish, she explains. In Italy, Easter and Christmas dinners wouldn't be complete without lasagna as the first or pasta course, she says.

Southern Italian immigrants brought lasagna to America before the turn of the century. In restaurants, it was served as a main course.

"It came to be served American-style," says Ms. Barr, partly in response to the nutrition wisdom of the time. Meats and starches had to be eaten together to maximize the nutritional benefit, or so the thinking went.

"That's why lasagna is so different here.

There's so much more in it -- more sauce, more meat, more cheese," she says.

But over the years, new versions have expanded lasagna options.

Vegetables such as squash, broccoli and spinach have sneaked into the layers; some versions are meatless. All kinds of mushrooms show up in lasagna, and exotic cheeses give it variety without disturbing the familiarity that makes the dish a classic.

"People know what it's supposed to look, feel and taste like," says Susan Johnson, a cooking teacher.

Cooks rely on lasagna for home entertaining or for make-ahead family meals because it's a virtually goof-proof dish that can be frozen and reheated or baked and kept warm.

Lasagna doesn't suffer from the casserole stigma. Even though it is similar to a spaghetti casserole, says Ms. Johnson, "people think of it as more dressed up than spaghetti."

About the only thing that can go wrong with lasagna, says Donna Chowning Reid of the National Pasta Association, is runny sauce, more likely to occur when lasagna has been frozen.

The solution is to cook the sauce until it is thick before assembling the layers.

In keeping with popular demands for streamlined preparation, some recipes eliminate the need to cook the noodles before layering. That seems to be the step that lasagna cooks dread most. There's also a no-cook lasagna noodle on the market. Recipes on the box are designed for the product.

Layer by layer, no matter what's between, it's the people's choice.

Lasagna tips

* Place cooked and drained lasagna noodles on clean, dry dish towels to soak up excess water.

* Cook down tomato-based sauces until very thick to minimize excess moisture, especially in make-ahead, frozen lasagna.

* To freeze lasagna, assemble and freeze, unbaked, in a pan such as aluminum that can safely go from freezer to hot stove. Bake an additional 30 minutes or until top is browned and lasagna bubbles. Cover during the first 30 minutes of baking time.

* Frozen lasagna may be thawed overnight in the refrigerator before baking. If a glass baking dish is used, bring casserole to room temperature before placing in hot oven.

*

Skip-a-step lasagna

Makes 8 servings.

1/2 pound turkey sausage

1 large onion, diced

2 (16-ounce) cans low-salt tomato sauce (4 cups)

1 cup water

3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil or 1 teaspoon dried

1 pound lasagna noodles, uncooked

1 pound part-skim ricotta cheese

2 cups grated mozzarella cheese

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Brown sausage in large skillet over medium-high heat. Drain; add onion. Cook over low heat until onion is soft. Stir in tomato sauce, water and basil. Remove from heat.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spoon some sauce over the bottom of a 9-by-13-by-2-inch baking dish. Cover with uncooked noodles. Spread a layer of ricotta over the noodles along with mozzarella, Parmesan and sauce. Repeat, ending with sauce.

Sprinkle with mozzarella and Parmesan. Bake, covered, for 45 minutes and then uncovered for another 25 to 30 minutes until brown and bubbling. (Freezing before baking is not recommended.)

*

White lasagna with Canadian bacon

Makes 8 servings.

1 pound lasagna noodles, uncooked

2 teaspoons vegetable oil

1 large onion

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 pound mushrooms, sliced

1 (14-ounce) can artichoke hearts, drained

3 cups part-skim ricotta cheese

1 cup skim milk

3 ounces crumbled blue cheese

6 ounces Canadian bacon or lean ham, diced

3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Cook noodles according to package directions; drain.

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