I haven’t cooked lasagna very many times, but it’s one of those great Italian dishes that allows for a lot of play. I tend to get screwed up with the order of the layering, which actually really doesn’t even matter that much. As long as you’ve got layers of saucy-goodness, ricotta-yumminess, cheesy-gooeyness, and noodle-um … noodleyness(?), you’re good to go. I always use oven-ready noodles (because I’m a big cheater), so the only important thing to remember with that is that your noodle layers have to be immersed in liquid (sauce) so that they cook properly.
Now, I believe that the key to a good lasagna is all in the sauce. It oozes into every layer, and gets cooked into the pasta, so it’s going to be the most over-powering element in your lasagna.
I started with some bulk Italian sausage meat and browned it up well. I used mild, but if you’re a spicy kind of gal or dude, by all means, go for the hot stuff! Break up the meat while it cooks—you don’t want big chunks—and make sure there’s no pink left:
I also tossed in just a touch of allspice. I almost always do this when I’m cooking with ground beef—I love that tiny hint of spice it gives. It works with sausage too. Once that’s done, use a slotted spoon to transfer that to a separate bowl. Add a little vegetable oil to the leftover juices in the pot, and then throw in lots of sliced mushrooms, some diced onion, shallot, and tons of minced garlic, then season with some salt and pepper. I sautéed this stuff until the onion and mushrooms just began to brown—don’t caramelize them. These are just about there:
Next, deglaze with some red wine, and let the wine simmer and reduce a couple of minutes. Now, we can get the sauce going! I love making sauces—can’t you tell? I love the whole process of simmering and tasting and seasoning until it’s just right.
Once the wine has cooked down a little, I threw in some jarred marinara sauce (it’s really important to use one that you like, but also, the more basic, the better, because it allows for you to season it the way you like), tomato sauce, dried oregano, basil, thyme, sugar, salt, and pepper. Mix it well, then stir the sausage back in. I let the sauce simmer for about thirty minutes or so, but that’s something you can really be loose about. The longer it simmers, the more the flavors intensify, so it’s really up to you. I would say it needs a minimum of about twenty minutes or so. Don’t forget to taste it along the way, and adjust the seasoning as needed. This is something I’m really working on doing well—it’s a great way to develop your palette. I really try to pick out precisely what flavors are working well in the sauce, and what I need more of. Or, possibly less of: you can’t exactly take stuff out of the sauce, but you can compensate to balance out the tastes. If it’s too spicy, a little sugar will even that out; if it’s too salty, more tomato sauce, or even a little water should do the trick.
Mmmm, looks good, doesn’t it?
The rest is really a cinch. I mixed my ricotta cheese with a beaten egg and some spinach. The spinach is something my Mom always does, and that I love. I use the frozen stuff—just thaw it in the microwave and mix it into the ricotta. You can really taste the spinach in the final product (though it’s not at all overpowering), not to mention that it’s hella-good for you. In fact, it’s a great way to get yourself to eat spinach if you normally don’t like it.
For the cheese, I used a mixture of mostly mozzarella, and some cheddar and Parmesan. Just grate it up, and mix it together!
Now, for our layering. This isn’t rocket science, people. Just remember to get a good layer of sauce on or under your pasta layers if you’re using the oven-ready noodles. I started with a layer of sauce:
Noodles (don’t forget to leave a little space for them to expand):
Then more sauce, then cheese:
Now, another layer of pasta, and then ricotta, sauce, cheese, pasta, sauce, cheese. Like I said, it won’t be the end of the world if you mix up some of the layers. Cheese on top is key, though. Lots and lots and lots of cheese.
You can kind of see the layering here:
Now, cover it and pop it in the oven and wait for your lasagna-licious meal to be complete!
Check out mine, fresh out of the oven:
Is your mouth watering? Mine is. Man, I can make some good food. Hey, I can’t help it if I make my own mouth water—it’s an involuntary physical reaction.
Now, go make a lasagna and make your own mouth water!
Makes one small (8x8x2) lasagna
1.5 lbs. bulk Italian sausage
Pinch of allspice
Approx 1 tbsp. vegetable oil
½ lb. mushrooms, sliced
1 medium onion, chopped
1 shallot, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper
1/3 cup dry red wine
1 ½ cups good jarred Marinara sauce
1 cup tomato sauce
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. each dried basil, oregano, thyme
Brown sausage meat in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in the allspice, and continue to cook until no longer pink.
Remove sausage meat from the pan with a slotted spoon and transfer to a separate dish. Add enough vegetable oil to the sausage drippings to equal about 2 tablespoons, and reduce heat to medium. Add the mushrooms, onion, shallot, and garlic to the pan and season with salt and pepper. Sautee until onions just begin to brown, then deglaze pan with red wine and allow to simmer 1-2 minutes.
Add the remainder of the ingredients, salt and pepper, and the sausage. Stir to combine. Bring up to a boil, then reduce to a gentle simmer. Continue to simmer uncovered for at least twenty minutes, tasting and adjusting seasoning occasionally.
1 ½ cups ricotta cheese
1 egg, beaten
1 box frozen spinach, thawed
Combine all the ingredients.
Approx 2 cups grated cheese, either all mozzarella, or a mixture
of mozzarella, cheddar, and Parmesan (mostly mozzarella)
6-8 oven-ready lasagna noodles
Preheat oven to 350 F
In an 8x8x2-inch baking pan, spread about ½-¾ cup of the sausage sauce—just enough to cover the bottom of the pan in a thick layer. Place two lasagna noodles over the sauce, leaving a bit of space at the sides to allow the noodles to expand. Spread about ½ cup of ricotta mixture evenly over the pasta. Cover the ricotta with a thick layer of sauce, being sure to cover the pasta completely. Sprinkle with about ¾ cup of grated cheese.
Then, another layer of lasagna noodles, then ricotta, sauce, cheese, noodles, sauce, cheese (lots and lots of cheesy goodness).
Cover with foil, and bake in the preheated oven 30 minutes. Remove the foil, and bake 10 to 15 minutes more, until the cheese is hot and bubbly. Let stand about 5 minutes before cutting.
Eat lots and lots of yummy sausage lasagna.