Friday, April 26, 2019

Cooking for a Holiday - Christmas, Part V - Lasagna

Before Prozac, there was lasagna.

Lasagna.  Lasagne (n., pl.).  Italian turkey.  The baked spaghetti.

I never heard the word lasagna come out of my grandmother's mouth.  It was always "the baked spaghetti".  And, yes, it was the main attraction on holidays, always with - never instead of - turkey (Thanksgiving, Christmas) and/or ham (Easter).  We had it on the Fourth of July, too, if I correctly remember.  And my grandmother's freezer was always full of mini-lasagne, made with any leftovers from the main event.

Before I begin, let me give you a word of warning:  This lasagna, for all its fabulousness, will be a little watery/oily when you take it out of the oven.  I hear this is a common situation.  I read somewhere that the water hides in the lasagna noodles.  I have also read that this can be remedied by either using "no-cook" noodles, or to let your cooked noodles dry out before you use them.  The first recommendation is an infamia, so I won't even discuss it.  As for the second recommendation, I promise you that if you let your noodles dry out they will be impossibly sticky.  Myself, I pour off the extra water until the whole lasagna threatens to fall into the sink, and then I suck the rest out with a turkey baster.  Whatever works.

The transformation of a gazillion ingredients into a ten-pound tray of organized layers is, to put it mildly, a challenge.  The way to wrap your mind around it is to think in components.  Baby steps.  This is the secret to dealing with any overwhelming situation in life, not just lasagna.  In fact, if we want to get philosophical about it, we can call it "The Zen of Lasagna", which could be the title of my next book.

Here are the components of lasagna:
  1. Sauce.
  2. Lasagna noodles.
  3. Ricotta.
  4. Ground meat.
  5. Mozzarella cheese.
  6. Parmesan cheese.
Now, we'll go through each of them, one-by-one.

The Sauce
Use your Christmas Sauce, the recipe for which is in the previous post.  If you've been paying attention and taking me seriously, you've already made this, so it's all ready to go.  Just have it handy.  Even if you're making lasagna for some other occasion than Christmas, I do not recommend same-day sauce.  You'll be up until two in the morning.

Lasagna Noodles
Follow the package directions, but cook the noodles only long enough until you can poke a fork through them.  Keep them waiting in a pot of water, so they don't stick together.  You'll need about 20 noodles for the whole lasagna, but make extra because you never know.  Sometimes they tear.

Buy four pounds of ricotta from a deli counter.  Do not buy the pre-packaged stuff, because I don't know what that is, but it's not ricotta.  Drain off the water.  Serve 1 pound of the ricotta as a topping for the pasta on Christmas Eve, and use the other 3 pounds for the lasagna.  Put the three pounds of the ricotta in a big bowl with 2 eggs, 1/2 cup of parmesan cheese, 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley, a teaspoon of salt, and a teaspoon of pepper.  Beat with an electric beater until it's fluffy and then put it in the fridge until it's showtime.

Ground Meat
I use about 2 1/2 pounds of ground sirloin.  Other people use a "meatloaf mix" of ground beef, pork, and/or veal.  I like sirloin.  Brown it real good with some salt, pepper, and parsley.  Drain on a plate lined with some paper towels.  Do this step last because you don't want it sitting out too long. 

Mozzarella Cheese
Buy four pounds of packaged shredded mozzarella.  Who's gonna know?  You probably won't use all of it, but you might.

Parmesan Cheese
I buy a big container of  fresh grated parmesan, also from the deli counter.  Because there's no bigger pain in the ass than grating cheese.

Get all that stuff ready, and you're in the home stretch.

Pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees.

Use a giant rectangular aluminum roasting pan.  In fact, use two, one nested inside the other.  If you've been watching the weight of the ingredients, you'll agree this is a good idea.  Don't use a "lasagna" pan, even if it says "extra-large".  It won't be deep enough.

Now we layer:
  1. Spread some sauce (about a cup) on the bottom of the pan, so the lasagna won't stick.
  2. Layer about five noodles on top of the sauce.  They should overlap a little.  Depending on how big your pan is, you may have to tear up a few noodles to cover it all.  Like patchwork.
  3. Sprinkle the noodles with some shredded mozzarella.  How much?  How much do you like mozzarella?
  4. Cover the mozzarella with half of the ground beef.
  5. Cover the beef with half of the ricotta.  This is tricky, because the meat will stick to the ricotta, so use a very light touch. 
  6. Cover the ricotta with a thin layer of sauce.
  7. Noodles.
  8. Mozzarella.
  9. The other half of the beef.
  10. The other half of the ricotta.
  11. Sauce.
  12. Noodles.
  13. Sauce.
  14. Mozzarella.
  15. Sprinkle with parmesan.
Bake about 45 minutes, or until the whole thing is bubbling and the mozzarella on top starts to get a little puffy and golden.  

Take the lasagna out of the oven and let it sit for about 10 to 15 minutes.  When the pan is cool enough to touch, tip it (carefully!!) to see if there's any excess water to get rid of.  I really do recommend a turkey baster, because this sucker's heavy.

Serve the lasagna with whatever's left of the sauce.

You have now harnessed the power of lasagna.  Use it wisely.  Random, and maybe unscrupulous, men will want to marry you.  You will begin receiving an unusual number of invitations to potluck dinners.  Your children will never want to leave you.

Personally, I'd use that power to have a glass of wine and a nap.  

In fact, I think I'll go do that right now. 

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