published Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

Side Orders: Lasagna recipe is a keeper

It may sound hard to believe, but I didn't have my first taste of lasagna until I left home for college. Other Italian favorites -- spaghetti and pizza -- were often on the table, but never lasagna.

It's not because it's a labor-intensive dish to prepare. My mother never shied away from dishes that involved extra steps. She loved to cook. It's just that my father hated it. He explained why, but it still made no sense whatsoever. He loved the tomato sauce, ground beef and pasta that goes into a good dish of lasagna, but he abhorred ricotta cheese.

He adored good cheeses, but he likened ricotta cheese to cottage cheese, for which he had developed a distaste in childhood.

"Grandma used to make her own cottage cheese," he once told me, "and it makes me sick just to think about it."

His grandparents had a big farm in Virginia with plenty of dairy cows, so milk was always available. And his grandmother would make her own cottage cheese by leaving milk out on the counter for days until it soured and curdled. Once done, she'd dip into it with a spoon and enjoy every last bite. But my dad said the sight and smell were just too much for him to stomach, and it turned him against cottage cheese for the rest of his almost 86 years.

I told him cottage cheese and ricotta were different cheeses, but I might as well have been talking to the wind.

"Some people make lasagna with cottage cheese," he told me. There was just no convincing him.

Once I had my own kitchen, I made lasagna for the first time. It was horrible -- tasteless and runny. Through the years, I've made annual attempts at creating really good lasagna. I've made the no-cook noodle kind and many other recipes, but they've all amounted to very forgettable lasagnas. I end up throwing the recipes away along with the leftovers.

Recently, I made my annual attempt after finding a recipe described as "world's best lasagna" at mylasagnarecipe.com. I made the sauce one day, then assembled the dish the next, allowing plenty of time for the sauce ingredients to come to full flavor. I made a couple of other changes to the recipe (see the notes following the recipe). My dinner guests all raved about it. My husband, knowing my past attempts, was skeptical until he took his first bite.

"This is it," he said. "You've finally made a good lasagna."

Number One Lasagna

1 pound sweet Italian sausage, chopped (see note)

1 pound ground beef

1/2 cup chopped onions

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes

2 (8 ounce) cans tomato sauce

2 (6 ounce) cans tomato paste

1/2 cup water

2 tablespoons white sugar

1 teaspoon fennel seed

2 teaspoons fresh basil leaves, chopped

4 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley, chopped, divided (see note)

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

1/2 teaspoon ground pepper

23 ounces ricotta cheese

1/2 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg (see note)

1 egg

1 pound shredded mozzarella cheese

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

12 lasagna noodles (see note)

Start with the following in a pot: Italian sausage, ground beef, chopped onions and chopped garlic; cook until meats are browned and onions are tender, 6-9 minutes. Strain grease. Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato pasta and water, stirring to combine. Gently stir in the sugar, fennel, basil, 2 tablespoons parsley, salt, Italian seasoning and pepper. Cover the pot and let the meat sauce simmer for 11/2 hours. Sauce may be prepared a day in advance.

To prepare lasagna: Soak lasagna noodles in hot tap water for 15 minutes. While they are soaking, make the cheese filling.

Put the ricotta cheese in a bowl, and stir in nutmeg and egg.

In a 9- by 13-inch pan, spread 2 cups meat sauce on bottom. Shake water off noodles and lay six noodles across the meat sauce. Spread half of the ricotta cheese mixture over the layer of noodles. Spread half of the mozzarella cheese over the ricotta layer. Sprinkle half of the Parmesan cheese over the mozzarella layer. Spread 2 cups of meat sauce over the cheese layer

Lay down the next layer of noodles. Spread the remaining ricotta mixture over noodles. Spread the mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, saving some cheese for the top of the lasagna. Put the last layer of meat sauce on the cheeses. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top. Cover with foil that has been sprayed with nonstick cooking spray. Bake in preheated 350 F oven for 25 minutes. Remove foil and bake uncovered for another 25 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool for about 15 minutes.

Notes: I do not like big chunks of meat in my lasagna, so I put the sausage links through my Vidalia onion chopper so it is "ground" into very tiny chunks. Excellent decision. I also did not have fresh parsley or nutmeg, so I used the dried variety with excellent success, though I would recommend fresh if you have it on hand. The recipe did not state in what direction to place the noodles. I placed them lengthwise and ended up using only eight lasagna noodles. The recipe may mean for to place them widthwise, thereby "wrapping" the lasagna layers with noodles.

Email Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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