When it comes to the perfect casserole dish, baked lasagna tops my list. This dish of alternating layers of pasta sheets, topped with a flavorful sauce and cheese, is easy to assemble, tastes delicious and is always a crowd-pleaser.
There are a number of theories on where the popular name was born, but most references agree the word originated in the Greek language for flat, unleavened bread or pasta dough cut in sheets. The Romans used a similar word lasanum, the Latin word for “cooking pot,” to describe the pan in which the dish is made. Later, the name was adopted for the food itself.Different regions in Italy serve lasagna in various ways. In Northern Italy, a typical lasagna recipe has a Béchamel sauce as its base, with the addition of vegetables such as spinach, eggplant or mushrooms. I prefer the Southern Italian version with its hallmark use of ricotta cheese and a traditional Bolognese sauce that can include ground beef, pork sausage or veal.
I serve my lasagna with red wine and a crusty Italian bread. Add a fresh green salad of escarole and romaine lettuces dressed with balsamic vinaigrette and dinner is served.
Lasagna Bolognese with Basil Ricotta
Makes 6-8 Servings
12 lasagna sheets
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
3/4 pound Italian sausage
3/4 pound lean ground beef
6½ cups prepared tomato sauce, or Maria’s Marinara Sauce (see recipe below)
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 cups ricotta cheese, divided
¼ cup fresh basil, finely chopped
1 cup grated parmesan cheese, divided
3 cups shredded Mozzarella cheese, divided
Step one: Cook lasagna noodles according to package directions. Drain and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of olive oil to prevent noodles from sticking together.
Step two: Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large saucepan. Brown Italian sausage and ground beef until cooked through. Remove from heat and drain any excess oil.
Step three: Add tomato sauce to the meat mixture. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
Step four: Combine ricotta and basil in a medium bowl.
Step five: To assemble the lasagna, coat the bottom of a baking dish with 2 tablespoons olive oil and a ladle of meat sauce. Layer 4 noodles lengthwise, slightly overlapping on top of the sauce. Then line each end of the pan with a lasagna noodle to form a square (trim edges to fit). Spread a layer of meat sauce over the noodles. Sprinkle 1/2 cup parmesan evenly over the sauce. In small increments, dollop half of the ricotta mixture on top of the meat sauce with your fingers. Sprinkle 1½ cups mozzarella evenly over the top of the ricotta. Repeat this process for a total of two layers.
Step six: Bake in the center of the oven at 375 degrees for 1 hour or until lasagna is hot and bubbly. (When the cheese starts to brown, tent with foil). Allow lasagna to rest for about 10 minutes before serving.
Maria’s Marinara Sauce
Makes 8-10 servings
12 medium-size ripe tomatoes, roasted (directions follow)
2 6-ounce cans tomato paste
Red wine (optional)
3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
Chicken seasoning powder (Knorr recommended), to taste
1 teaspoon sugar
6 bay leaves
3 tablespoons dried basil
3 tablespoons dried parsley flakes
1 tablespoon fennel seeds (optional)
Pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.
Arrange the tomatoes on the sheet pan and roast for 30 to 35 minutes. When tomatoes have cooled, remove peel, core and purée in small batches in a blender.
Transfer tomato purée to a large saucepan. Bring to a slow boil and add tomato paste. Using a whisk, add water until you reach desired consistency. (I like to substitute a bit of red wine for some of the water). Add remaining ingredients. Simmer over low heat covered for about 25 to 30 minutes.
*This story by Maria Desiderata Montana first appeared in the U-T San Diego.