Classic Comfort

Homey, satisfying lasagna meant to please a crowd

September 22, 1999|By Janet Hazen | Janet Hazen,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

There are four main axioms to preparing homemade lasagna:

* Many steps are involved.

* It always takes a long time.

* It isn't exactly cheap.

* It's always worth it.

For me, and seemingly every child I know (regardless of ethnicity), lasagna is the quintessential comfort food. It's complex in flavor, yet homey and satisfying, and has great visual appeal. Depending on the ingredients, it can be a complete and very wholesome meal "in a square."

When I was a kid, there was only one way to make this multilayered, oven-baked pasta dish, and that was from scratch. First, the sauce was made, using onions and garlic, ground meat and canned tomato products. After it had simmered all day long, it was time to shred the cheeses and compose the ricotta mixture.

The noodles were cooked just before the dish was assembled. About an hour later, dinner was served, and family and friends -- not to mention the cook -- rejoiced.

Like virtually every other popular food, lasagna is now sold in the freezer at the grocery store. In light of the lengthy preparation time, I suppose this is a fairly reasonable substitute for the real deal, but true lasagna aficionados (and folks with time on their hands) would never settle for a prefab frozen version.

Here are three recipes for those who still regard lasagna as a classic, crowd-pleasing dish that must be made from scratch.

As one who cherishes free time, I recommend preparing the sauce and combining the ricotta mixture one day ahead. The lasagna will profit, and your time will be best spent if you cook the noodles just before putting together all the components and baking the dish. But be sure to bring the refrigerated sauce and ricotta mixture to room temperature before assembling the lasagna.

Deluxe Lasagna

Serves 8-10

SAUCE:

1 medium onion, finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

2 pounds bulk mild Italian sausage

1 tablespoon fennel seed

1 tablespoon crushed rosemary

1 (30-ounce) can tomato sauce

1 (14-ounce) can chopped tomatoes

1 cup water

RICOTTA:

1 pound mozzarella cheese, shredded

23 ounces low-fat ricotta cheese (1 1/2 containers)

1/4 pound Parmesan cheese, grated

1 1/2 cups finely chopped fresh basil

1 pound lasagna pasta noodles

To prepare sauce, in large, shallow pan, cook onion, garlic, sausage, fennel and rosemary over moderately high heat 10 to 12 minutes, breaking sausage apart as you stir mixture. Add tomato sauce, chopped tomatoes and water, and bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to moderate and simmer 40 minutes until thick and aromatic. Remove from heat. Cool to room temperature or store in tightly sealed container in refrigerator up to 2 days before using.

To prepare ricotta, place half of mozzarella cheese in medium bowl. Reserve other half to use on top of lasagna. To mozzarella, add ricotta and Parmesan cheeses and basil, and mix well.

Cook lasagna noodles according to package directions. You will only be using 15 noodles, but it's good to have a few extra. Cook until al dente and drain well in colander.

Lightly grease 9-inch-by-13-inch baking pan. Cover bottom with a little sauce. Make pasta layer using 5 noodles. Cover with more sauce. Top with half of ricotta mixture. Make another layer of pasta and cover with sauce. Add remaining ricotta. Make third and final pasta layer and cover with remaining sauce. Cover with foil.

Bake at 350 degrees 55 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle reserved mozzarella cheese over top. Return to oven without foil and bake 10 minutes longer until cheese is just melted. Remove from oven and let stand at room temperature 20 minutes before cutting into serving pieces.

Mushroom-and-Leek Lasagna With Bechamel Sauce

Serves 8-10

SAUCE:

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup flour

4 cups whole milk

2 cups chicken or vegetable broth (see note)

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

LEEKS:

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 pounds leeks, trimmed, halved and cut into 1/4 -inch-wide half-moons, thoroughly washed and drained

1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme

MUSHROOMS:

1/2 ounce dried morel mushrooms, coarsely chopped

1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms, coarsely chopped

1 1/2 cups hot water

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 pounds button mushrooms, cut into 1/4 -inch-thick pieces

1 1/2 pounds portobello mushrooms, quartered lengthwise and cut into 1/4 -inch-thick pieces

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 pound lasagna pasta noodles

1 pound mozzarella cheese, shredded

1/4 pound Parmesan cheese, grated

To prepare sauce, in heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt butter. Add flour and cook over moderate heat, stirring frequently, until pale golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Very slowly, add milk, whisking constantly with wire whisk to form smooth paste. Slowly add remaining milk, chicken broth and mustard, whisking constantly. Bring to boil over high heat, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to moderately low and cook 8 to 9 minutes until sauce is thick enough to coat back of spoon. Remove from heat. Let stand at room temperature until ready to use or cover tightly and refrigerate up to 2 days.

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