14 January 2011

a tale of two lasagnas (with recipe)

Have you seen those lasagna noodles that you don't have to boil before cooking, like these from Barilla?
Though I make lasagna perhaps once a year (so much work, so much mess, so many calories), I happen to love these noodles. Generally, I think that dry pasta can go into lots of dishes unboiled, so long as there is lots of liquid for it to absorb and adequate cooking time. Baked ziti, for example (or penne or rigatoni, etc.). Just use dry pasta to fill half the volume you eventually want it to fill, add enough sauce for the recipe plus some extra water if the sauce is really thick, top it with cheese, bake and enjoy. So easy. (Another easy proportion if you're going with storebought everything: half a pound of pasta, one can of pasta sauce, half a small bag of mozzarella on top. Comfort food doesn't get easier.)

But, Mark happens to completely disagree with me on this, and thinks its virtual sacrilege to make a lasagna with no boil noodles. So I decided to do a test.

Unfortunately, it didn't work out exactly as I'd planned.

I thought I'd make two lasagnas, one with boiled noodles and one with no boil noodles, and then do a blind taste test and see if he could really tell the difference. But, um, as you can see, they kinda came out looking really different. That's because, of course, the no boil noodles need to cook longer, resulting in more oven time and thus more browning. A bit of a dead giveaway, eh? (Next time perhaps I will cover it with foil to make it less obvious.)

The good news: both were still delicious.

I took the messy first slices...

So that Mark could have the prettier ones.

(That green background tinge is the plastic sheeting covering nearly everything in the kitchen. No major kitchen renovation is going to stop me from making my lovely husband a lasagna or two!)

In the end, though my blind taste test didn't quite work out, it actually worked out great. I love crispier cheese while Mark likes it less browned, so he got a whole lasagna with boiled noodles and soft cheese...

...and I got my no boil noodles and a crispy cheese top. Yum.

If you've come looking for an exact recipe, this ain't the right place. Lasagna is more of an improvisational art form (I say, having cooked like ten of them in my whole life). But here's what I did. (And note, this is a somewhat healthier version than the usual, though still not exactly an everyday food. Don't tell Mark!)

Note: If you want to see a more step-by-step approach to making the sauce (albeit through a more labor intensive process than this one) check out this post from way back.

Ever-So-Slightly-Healthier Lasagna

Make a sauce:
Do all of this in a big dutch oven, either aluminum or enameled cast iron, so you don't get any bad effects from the tomatoes. Saute an onion in a little olive oil until it's gone translucent and then started to caramelize a little. If you want to add meat, add three chicken or turkey sweet Italian sausages, derobed of their casings and broken up a bit, to the pan, chopping them up more as they cook, and continuing until they are just cooked through. Add four or five chopped or pressed cloves of garlic and saute for one minute longer, stirring often. Then add the rest of the ingredients to the same pot. Along with the onions and garlic (and optional sausage), simmer two big cans of diced or whole peeled tomatoes (San Marzano are said to be the best, but I used Trader Joe's brand because they cost a lot less) along with 8 ounces of the hearty red wine of your choice, and a handful of Italian herbs like basil, oregano and parsley. Fresh is great, dried is fine. It's a big sauce, so you can go big on the seasonings. Also add at least a teaspoon of salt at this stage, but save the real salting until the end. Cover with the lid, and cook for 30-45 minutes, until the tomatoes are nice and soft. Turn off the heat. After it has cooled a little, carefully use a potato masher to break down any larger chunks of tomato or sausage. At this point, salt it to taste, knowing that you'll probably use what seems like a lot since it's a BIG sauce which will make a lot of lasagna. Let the sauce hang out while you do the rest.

Make a filling:
Mix together one tub (16 oz) of regular ricotta cheese and one tub of fat-free ricotta cheese (they sell the fat-free version at TJ's) until smooth. Mix in two whole eggs and stir until it's all well-incorporated. Add a few pinches of kosher salt and a few shavings of fresh nutmeg. (You can leave out the nutmeg, but it adds a special little something.)

Start building:
You can start with either the ricotta mixture or the sauce mixture, but I'm partial to starting with sauce. Spread a thin layer of sauce on the bottom of your chosen pan. Then add a layer of noodles (if you use parboiled noodles, overlap them slightly and bring them all the way to the edge of the pan; but if you use no boil noodles, lay them so they adjoin but don't overlap and leave a 1/4 inch gap all the way around between the noodles and the edge of the pan). Follow with a layer of the ricotta mixture (use your hands -- it's easier). Add enough sauce on top to lightly cover. Repeat the process with noodles, ricotta and sauce until you've almost reached the rim of the pan. Finish layering with noodles, then sauce, and then a good covering of grated mozzarella. (I like to buy a big block of part-skim mozz and grate it myself in the food processor... saves several dollars over buying shredded cheese.)

If you don't leave room for your noodles to expand, it will come out looking like this

Cook it:
If you were using pre-boiled noodles, you only need 20-25 minutes of bake time, but for no boil, it's closer to 40. Baking between 350 and 360 degrees, bake uncovered for the appropriate time and keep an eye on it. The size and shape of the pan will make a difference, as will the number of layers you built up. If you like your cheese on top to stay soft and not crispy, cover with foil for the first 15-20 minutes and then remove it before finishing the baking.

After pulling 'er out of the oven, let the lasagna rest for at least 20 minutes, preferably more like 45. It's so dense that it will stay warm, and the rest time will ensure that it holds together better and that nobody burns their mouth on the tomato sauce.

After that, pour yourself and your dining companions a nice glass of Chianti or Barolo, and enjoy!

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  1. Well, firstly I'm thinking, if you made 2 lasagnas for 2 people, there must be leftovers, right? So if you could just go ahead and Fedex them my way, that would be swell ;)
    Seriously, I'm just totally impressed that you're cooking anything, with your kitchen in disarray. I hate to think about anything domestic when there's DIY going on.

  2. How Cute! You took the "messy slices" so hubby could have the nice and neat ones. That's exactly what I do as well. Love your comparison blog! Great idea.

  3. Thanks, ladies! Pauline -- be on the lookout for that FedEx package tomorrow! ;-)


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