Food form: Lasagna

I flunk recipes, but I cook regularly.  What works for me is to understand the principle behind something and what can be varied, so I can make it with ingredients at hand without referring to a recipe.  So this launches a new approach for documenting food prep:  summarize a food form (with typical ingredients and possible substitutions, options for cooking, important proportions, etc).  Then when I go to make that item, if I don’t remember quite the right proportions or oven temp or whatever, I can come look it up.

So:  Lasagna

I don’t know why it took me so long to start making lasagna.  It’s one of my husband’s favorites, and I love it too.  I think I thought it was complex and difficult.  But… really, not.

Lasagna is simply a layered casserole.  The real key is moisture balance – you want enough moisture to cook the noodles, but not enough to make it soupy.  You’ll see in the photo above that there was still a bit of runny red sauce in the experiment above; usually I try to end up a bit less juicy.  So:

INGREDIENTS

Prepare roughly equal volumes of each of the following layers:

REQUIRED Layer:  Noodles, of course.  Classic lasagna uses those wide flat noodles with a bit of curl along the edges.  In a pinch you could use a variety of other thing – for example, you could put a layer of small macaroni-shaped noodles like a pastitsio.  With the regular lasagna noodles, many recipes call for pre-cooking them but as far as I can tell that’s not necessary.  I just put them in surrounded by liquid, and they’re fully cooked by the time the thing is baked.  You might want to pre-bake macaroni or thicker noodles. 

Amounts – it takes between one and two boxes of noodles to make three or four bread-pan lasagnas.  I try to just over-buy since extras will keep indefinitely until the next time I make it.

To try someday:  Some recipes try to make the lasagna lower-calorie and lower-carb by substituting in thinly-sliced vegetables such as zucchini instead of noodles.  If you do that, you’ll want to be very careful about moisture levels.  Noodles absorb fluid as they cook; vegetables release fluid.   So if using a vegetable “noodle” layer, you may want to balance that by adding some other dried ingredient to absorb the extra liquid.  Dried onions, garlic, and/or mushrooms might be nice.

REQUIRED Layer:  Sauce.  A classic lasagna sauce is tomato based, seasoned with onion, garlic, basil, oregano, and contains ground meat and onion.  You can add/substitute practically anything in there as long as it’s chopped pretty small – remember that you’re spreading this stuff out in fairly thin layers without air pockets, so you don’t want big chunks of meat or veggies sticking up out of your sauce layer.   You’ll want to pre-brown your meat so you can de-fat it, then mix with the tomato sauce (canned spaghetti sauce is a quick easy option) and seasonings.  You may want to simmer your sauce for a while to cook off some excess moisture; the ideal sauce will offer up just enough moisture to cook the noodles and then serve up nice and thick.

To give your sauce a bit of an exotic flavor, try varying the spices.  “Warm” spices like cinnamon, cloves, or cardamom go beautifully with tomato and cheese.  Or try a bit of curry (garam masala?) for an unexpected but yummy twist. 

Amounts – more than you expect.  For four bread pans worth of lasagna, I like to use maybe three pounds of meat, one of the BIG cans of tomato sauce, an onion, and bunches of garlic and herbs. 

OPTIONAL Layer:  Extra veggies.  You can add in a layer of extra veggies in addition to the sauce layer.  This adds moisture, so be careful with moisture balance – probably you will want to pre-cook your veggies a bit to get rid of excess moisture.  Spinach or other greens, mushrooms, broccoli, etc… it’s all good.  Just chop it finely so it’ll spread in an even layer.  Amounts are negotiable but in general if I do this, I try to have a volume about equal to the volume of sauce.

REQUIRED Layer:  Cheese/egg mixture.  The classic lasagna cheese is ricotta.  However, cottage cheese is cheaper, available in low-fat or fat-free varieties, and virtually indistinguishable in the final dish.  People also sometimes mix in parmesan or other strongly-flavored “hard” cheeses for extra flavor, or add mozzarella for a bit of stretchy goodness.  You take your cheese mix of choice and blend it with a couple of eggs (or egg whites); the eggs help stiffen up the cheese a bit so the final dish will have a proper texture.  Also I think the egg helps keep the cheese a bit fluffy?  You can also blend other stuff into your cheese mixture – for example, green herbs (parsley, oregano, basil) and garlic.  I like to blend up everything but the mozzarella – I end up sprinkling the grated mozzarella over the other cheese layer to create a think stretchy “seal” over the whole thing.

Amounts – I buy the largest size tub of cottage cheese (the one that’s about 8 inches tall), a tub of ricotta that’s about half that, and a 1-2 pounds of mozzarella.  This amount of cheese calls for 3-4 eggs; I use egg whites from a carton.

PREP

So start by prepping the layers:  brown your meat or veggie sauce ingredients, add the tomato, and let that simmer while you prep everything else.  Throw your cheese and egg and other flavorings into the food processor to mix.  Grate the mozzarella if not pre-grated already.  Chop and pre-cook any optional extra ingredients.  

Lasagna gets layered in casserole.  The key is to choose a container with sides that are high enough to accomodate many layers – the photo above was made in a bread pan with four inch tall sides.  I love making lasagna in bread pans since that means each pan provides four generous servings (again, see picture).  Prepare several at once, freeze the extras, and you can enjoy lasagna for quite a while after one good prep session.

Preparation simply involves creating layers. You want your wettest layer (the sauce) right above the noodle layer so the juice will coat the noodles, which then absorb the liquid as they cook.  Start at the bottom of the pan with a layer of sauce plus a layer of any “extras” you’ve added.  Then gently spread a layer of cheese mixture over the sauce. Then a layer of noodles, laid out so as to get full coverage but no double-coverage.  Then  repeat the sequence. Keep going for as many layers as you can fit.  The top layer should be cheese, which nicely seals off the sauce and noodles below it so the moisture will all go into cooking the noodles.  On top of that final cheese layer, you can add a layer of grated mozzarella and a sprinkle of parmesan to get a nice browned cheesy top. 

COOKING

While I’ve seen recipes for crockpot lasagna or microwave lasagna, I generally pop it in the oven.  I’ve found that in my oven, it does well at about 375-400 degrees (Fahrenheit) for 45-60 minutes – check periodically.  It’s cooked when you slide a knife into the center and all the noodles are clearly softened.  Since most ingredients were cooked before you baked it, the baking is really just to cook the noodles and meld the flavors a bit. You can cover the lasagna as it bakes, but you’ll want the cover off at least at the end to let the cheese on top brown a little. 

PRESERVING AND SERVING

Once the lasagna is cooked, you can freeze it.  I just freeze it directly in the bread pans, covering the pan with a layer of saran and then wrapping the thing in aluminum foil.  As an alternative, cut into individual servings and freeze those in appropriately sized microwave and freezer safe containers, and you can pop them into a lunch bag very easily.

To reheat – you could pop the whole thing in the oven at low to medium heat until it warmed through, but I usually just cut out servings onto a plate and warm it in the microwave.

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE?

Prepping the ingredients generally takes a half-hour to an hour for me, depending on how many fresh ingredients I include.  Chopping onions, peeling and chopping garlic, etc, take time.  You can throw things together really quickly if you start with a jar of spaghetti sauce, and buy pre-chopped and pre-grated ingredients and bottled/dried herbs.  Laying out the layers is fast – maybe 10-15 minutes if you’ve got everything prepped ahead of time.  Then of course you can be doing something else while it bakes.  I do BIG batches so I get many meals out of one cooking session. 

So that’s lasagna as a food form rather than a recipe.  What did I forget to mention?

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