Lasagna, Comfort Food, and Friends

With the onset of Fall and colder weather, I’ve had big pots of warm, filling food on my mind. The kind of food that just makes you relax and revel in the moment as soon as it hits your tongue. You sit back, you chew, you take a deep breath, and you feel like winter can’t be all that bad.

Lasagna Baking

Will Castellucci

I will be singing a different tune by February.

Or tomorrow.

For now, though, I am sated. We literally ate lasagna from Wednesday to about Sunday. The leftover are finally, sadly, finished, but the season of big, hot, satisfying meals is not.

I made this lasagna because our good friend Will Castellucci was coming out to visit us. What better way to welcome a friend to your home than a plate of lasagna and a pot full of assorted meat in tomato gravy?

Especially if you’re tricking them into being your guest photographer.

Lasagna Noodle

Will Castellucci

He’s a talented man.

It also happened to be a beautiful day when he came out. We went to a couple of beaches, played with Zepp in the backyard, and got to to make the most of the area before winter really set in.

Liz and Zepp at Beach

Will Castellucci

(By the way, it snowed here today, so maybe I am done with cold weather.)

For dinner the second night, we ate leftovers before heading out to our favorite dive bar to play some pool and drink some cheap Bud.

Hopefully I can tempt Will back to the area sometime soon with the promise of more homey goodness. He did say eating this lasagna felt like a meal one should eat upon returning from war.

I’m glad he’s never returning from war when he comes here, though.

He also got to eat the model slice since he so thoroughly photographed it.

Lasagna Bite

 

Favorite comfort foods, dear readers? I’m always looking to try something new.

***

RECIPE
Serves 10-12, or you will just have leftovers for awhile. Lasagna also freezes really well. You can portion it out, wrap it in plastic wrap and tuck it in the freezer and have meals ready to go.

I also realize this recipe is really long, but I really love talking about food.

SAUCE
There was enough sauce from this recipe to layer the lasagna (and I like a saucy lasagna) and then reheat all of the meat in. So there was a lot of sauce. If you don’t use as much meat, you can always freeze some of the sauce in a Tupperware container or freezer bags for future use.

lasagna sauce

Will Castellucci

Sauce can be a production or it can be the easiest part of making a lasagna. If you’re short on time or don’t want to go through the hassle of making your own sauce, open up a jar. I would suggest making your own sauce at least once. Even if you think it’s going to be a big, complicated to-do, give it a try. You’ll see that it’s really not hard and it can come together in 30-40 minutes instead of 3-4 hours.

What I love about sauce is that it is completely, utterly personal. Every family has their own version, every cook has their own special ingredients that they add. In Italian cooking, someone’s gravy is like their calling card. Oh yeah, and my family always calls this sauce gravy because it’s so thick and hearty.

The point is, tomato sauce is the epitome of improvisational cooking. Embrace it and make it 100% yours. Use what I lay out below as a guideline.

Switch out veggies for meat if you want a vegetarian version and leave out the cheese to make it vegan. The trick, though, is building up layers of flavor. I wouldn’t skip the beginning steps because it lays the foundation for the rest of the sauce.

I also made the sauce the night before because it will saves so much time when you’re actually making the lasagna. I meant to make the whole lasagna the night before and pre-bake it, but I went to the supermarket and forgot to buy the cheese. Seriously. I looked in my basket and said, “Yep, this is everything you need for lasagna.” Got home, had everything on the counter, and just let my shoulders drop and sighed, “Looks like Will and I will stop on the way home from the train station…”

INGREDIENTS

3 Tbs Olive Oil
I generally eyeball this, but most recipes will call for 2-3 Tbs of oil when browning meat. I always use olive oil because I don’t buy other kinds of  oil. That may be flawed, but I really don’t like the word “canola”. Regardless, when browning meat, especially the first batch, you want to have enough oil coating the pan so that nothing sticks. More about this later.
Meat
Any kind you want. Seriously. I went for ground beef (about 1 lb), sweet Italian sausage (I would have included spicy if I knew half of my crowd wasn’t on the picky side), and pork spareribs (my friend B. – a rib connoisseur – was doubtful of how delicious ribs would be in tomato sauce; he now rescinds all doubts). I bought a package of each, it certainly doesn’t go to waste. I was also eying some cuts of lamb, which I think would be fantastic in this sauce. But really, whatever you want, go for it. You could even make a seafood version if you wanted.

Lasagna Meat

Will Castellucci

1 Onion – finely diced
I used red, you could also use shallots.
6 Cloves Garlic – minced or pressed
It sounds like a lot, but in this sauce, it really isn’t. I could easily see throwing in almost an entire bulb OR roasting it beforehand in the oven for an hour and then mixing it in. Next time, I’m doing that. To roast garlic all you do is cut about 1/4″ of the top off, just so you can peek in at the cloves, drizzle it with extra virgin olive oil, and pop it in the oven at 350 for about an hour or so. Let it cool, and then squeeze the roasted garlic cloves out of their papery little pouches.
Red Wine – Dry
Merlot or maybe a Cabernet Sauvignon. Don’t use sweet, it would be weird. Or if you do and you have success, please tell me about it. I used 1 cup. I think I would use as much as 2 cups next time since there is so much sauce. Also, buy the cheapest one you can because when you’re cooking with it, it does not pay to throw a lot of money into the pot. I really like Barefoot wines, they taste really good and they’re really affordable – a big bottle of merlot is about $10. DO NOT BUY COOKING WINES. They have a ton of salt added to them and do not taste nearly as good as the real thing.
4 Cans Crushed or Diced Tomatoes
If all you have are whole tomatoes in the can, just throw them in the blender. Four cans was an ideal number for this recipe because while it won’t fill your pot up completely (we’re going to use a big, stock pot), but you have to take into consideration the displacement of the liquid after you put about 3-4 lbs. of meat back in the sauce. I’m not really going to address using fresh tomatoes in this post because it’s an entirely different animal and involves a few extra steps (especially if you want to get really fussy about it).
Freshly Grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano Cheese – or mix both! – about 1/2 cup, finely grated
You could also use the Kraft stuff, I won’t tell. I really like to use pecorino because it’s sharper than Parmesan and combines well with the other cheeses in the lasagna. Blend the two together if you don’t want such a distinctive flavor or just stick with Parmesan. Kraft sells a Parmesan and Pecorino blend that will do the trick if you don’t want to grate your own cheese (and you’ll also save some money, but I really like fresh cheese).
Cheese is what separates this kind of tomato sauce from marinara sauce. But leave it out if you don’t eat cheese, it will still be delicious.

Fresh or Dry Basil, Parlsey, and OreganoTo Taste

I used dried parsley and a tube of basil stuff that they have with the fresh herbs in the supermarket. There was literally no fresh basil. I was talking to myself, standing there, looking at the herbs, willing some basil to appear out of nowhere. My loathing of my local supermarket will become apparent. I also didn’t use any oregano because Dan hates oregano. I love it and it adds a nice zing to the sauce.
Salt and Pepper – To Taste

I used a shorter, wide-mouthed pot to brown the meats in because it would have been too much of a hassle to do it in my big stock pot. Ideally I would have done it in the same pan so all the brown bits would get into the sauce, but there is so much meat that it’s not a catastrophe to use separate pots.

  • Heat the oil in a large, wide pot over medium heat (kudos if you can fit all of your sauce in there as well). Flick a few drops of water into the oil, if it sizzles right up you’re good to go.
  • Brown the meat in batches. The trick to browning, especially if you’re using spareribs and sausages, is to not touch them at all for a few minutes and really let that crust develop. Then turn it over, brown it for 1-2 more minutes, and remove from the pan.
  • If you’re using the same pot, you probably won’t need to add more oil (because I did this the night before I was able to chill the sauce completely and then skim off all the extra fat the next day when it was a solid layer on top of the sauce. If you’re not going to chill it, I would drain all of the grease and restart with some fresh olive oil.). Heat another tablespoon of oil if you are using a different pot and add the onions and sprinkle them with some salt. Cook for about 7-8 minutes until they are translucent and starting to get golden.
  • Add your garlic and stir. Cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds to one minute. Any longer and garlic will burn.
  • Add the wine. Allow wine to cook off for a couple of minutes.
  • Add the ground beef back in with all the accumulated drippings. Cook for 2 minutes.
  • Add the tomatoes and cheese.
  • Add the rest of the meats.
  • Kick the heat up to high and bring the sauce to a slow boil.
  • Drop the heat down to low or medium low – kind of depends on how hot your oven runs, you want it on the lower end of the spectrum.
  • Let cook for anywhere from 40 minutes to 2 hours. If I’m using spareribs I like to let it cook longer because the meat will get really tender.
  • If you’re using dried herbs, add them about 10 minutes before the sauce is done cooking. If using fresh herbs, add right at the very end. Though for lasagna it doesn’t really matter since the sauce is going to get cooked again.

Let the sauce cool on the stove top for as long as possible before putting in the fridge. It doesn’t have to be completely cooled to refrigerate. When it’s time to go in the fridge, cover with plastic wrap and poke some holes in it with a sharp knife. The next morning, if you didn’t drain the grease you’ll have about 1/4″ of yellow fat on the top. Just use a spoon and scoop it out – it will be nice and easy.

LASAGNA

Lasagna is a magical food that is just as good, if not better the next day. It’s so good the next day, in fact, that there is nothing wrong with making it entirely the day before! Then you can throw an amazing dinner party and you can have fun with your friends and everyone will be super impressed when you whip a beautiful lasagna out of the oven and there’s no mess in your kitchen and you’re wearing your party dress and high heels. “How does she do it?!”

We were going to serve salad with this, but everyone was way too enamored of the lasagna to even think about adding anything else to their plates. Salad is the only thing I would even think to serve with lasagna. You’re going to be full as it is, get your vegetables in with a light salad instead of a heavy veggie side.

INGREDIENTS

Sauce
1 Box Lasagna Noodles – parboiled
I buy the kind you have to boil first. I do not use no-bake, I don’t trust them. Granted, I have never used them (And America’s Test Kitchen swears by them), but it feels like cheating so I do not. If you have good experiences with no-bake, please let me know, I’m interested to hear someone who isn’t a TV show tell me about it.
Ricotta – 1/2 a big container
Mozzarella or a Mixed Italian Bag of Cheese – 1 Bag
I used the latter and it was very nice. It was a mix of Mozzarella, Provolone, and Parmesan. This was mostly out of laziness because I didn’t feel like  cutting up my own mozzarella. It also saves some money. I would love nothing more, though, then to use real mozzarella every time I make lasagna. If you have the time and energy, give it a whirl.
2 Eggs
Super important! Don’t skip this, it’s worth it.
OK, it’s not a catastrophe if you skip it, but it’s a nice touch.
It holds the cheese filling together and also makes it lighter and airier.
Basil – Fresh, Dry, or Tubed – To Taste.
Like I said, I bought the tube, which I will really try to avoid in the future. It tasted nice and I think was a better option than dried basil, though, it might not have been and it has a lot of extra salt. So. Yeah. Tasted fine, but fresh or dried is what I would use next time.

  • Bring a big pot of salted water to a boil. I added a little bit of olive oil also to prevent the noodles from getting completely stuck together while I was assembling.
  • While the water is boiling, mix the ricotta, 3/4 bag of shredded cheese, eggs, and some basil together in a big bowl.

    lasagna cheese

    Will Castellucci

  • Preheat oven to 350° F.
  • Add the lasagna noodles and cook for a couple of minutes.
  • Drain them when they begin to soften. You don’t want to cook them all the way because they will finish cooking in the oven.

    lasagna noodles

    Will Castellucci

  • In a big tray (I think mine was 9″x13″) put a light layer of sauce to prevent sticking – if your sauce was in the fridge don’t worry about heating it or anything, it would be unnecessary.
  • My first layer of noodles I use twice the amount so I can construct a little wall. This makes it easier to scoop out those first few pieces.

    lasagna first layer

    Will Castellucci

  • Then add the cheese – about one heaping tablespoon, and maybe a little more per noodle. If you want an extra cheesy lasagna, I would double the amount of cheese in the recipe and then you might only need half a box of noodles.
  • Then add a layer of sauce. I like to completely cover it and go really crazy with the sauce. I love sauce.

    lasagna layering

    Will Castellucci

  • Repeat until you get to the top layer.
  • Before you put your last layers of noodles down, take the edges of your wall noodles and pat them into the cheese and sauce. You might need to use a little bit of cheese to get them to stay down. Lay your last layer of noodles on top of these and everything will be nicely tucked in.
  • Thoroughly cover this layer in sauce and make sure to get down the sides as well. Anything not covered in sauce will be at risk of burning in the oven.
  • Sprinkle your last 1/4 of a bag of cheese on top. There is no ricotta mixture on this layer.

    lasagna top layer cheese

    Will Castellucci

  • Cover the pan with aluminum foil and place in the oven.
  • Bake for about an hour – if you use a glass baking dish, when you see the sauce start to bubble you can go on to the next step. It’s a bit harder in a foil pan, but an hour is pretty safe.
  • Remove foil, turn on your broiler, and let cook another 5 minutes or so – until the cheese on top starts to brown.

    Lasagna Baking

    Will Castellucci

  • Remove from oven and let sit for 15 minutes or so. Slice and serve.
lasagna plated

Will Castellucci

While your lasagna is in the oven, put the rest of the sauce and the meat in a pot. Bring to a boil over high heat and then drop the temperature to low. Everything will stay nice and warm until you’re ready to serve it.

It sounds like a lot of work, and while there are a lot of steps they are all really simple steps – even when you make the sauce from scratch. It’s totally worth it and incredibly delicious.

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4 responses to “Lasagna, Comfort Food, and Friends

  1. MmmmMMMmmm this looks fantastic! Now im hungry for lasagna at 9 am

  2. Now I’m wishing for some lasagna. You’re so right – it’s a perfect fall/winter comfort food that we adore, but I never think to make it in the warmer months.
    I also want to say thanks for the nice comments on my blog!
    ~ Michelle

    • I tend to only pull it out when I have company – I have to remember that I do possess the ability to make things in smaller portions. 😛 And I never want to turn the oven on in the warmer months – I just want to eat a lot of salads and cold pasta.

      Thanks for coming by here, it was good to hear from you!

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