I think all of us have that “one” (OK, 25) dish(es) that we just can’t seem to make correctly. We try and try, but each time the dish’s simplicity mocks us, and we just can’t do it. Lasagna was like that, for me, for a long time.
Then, one fine day, my friend Sherri’s grandma, “Gigi,” showed me how to make lasagna. She is one of those classy ladies who is as beautiful on the inside, as she is on the outside. She was an excellent teacher, showing me step by step how she does it, and encouraging me along the way. Thanks to her, I have successfully made lasagna many times, since. I have since changed the recipe to suit my family’s favorite tastes, but the technique and inspiration belong to Gigi 🙂 So thanks, Gigi, for taking time to show a clueless young girl how to make lasagna– every Valentine’s Day, I think of you when I make it 🙂
What are we waiting for? Let’s do this!
(based on Gigi’s original “lesson” that day, in the kitchen, and changed for my own favorite tastes)
2 lbs. ground beef
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
1 onion, finely chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
3 tbsp. red wine
2 jars spaghetti sauce
1 tbsp. Italian seasoning
4 sun-dried tomatoes, finely chopped
1 8 oz. package of mushrooms, washed and chopped
1 tbsp. sugar
1 15 oz. container Ricotta cheese
1 tbsp. Italian seasoning
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. onion powder
1 5 oz. container shredded Parmesan cheese
2 (4 cups each) bags shredded mozzarella cheese
1 lb. sliced provolone cheese
1/2 cup fresh basil, roughly chopped
1 box oven ready lasagna noodles
Start by making your lasagna sauce. Brown the hamburger, chopped onion, salt, and pepper in a medium Dutch oven until the meat is cooked and the onions are see-through and tender. Drain the grease from the meat and return meat to pan. Add garlic and sun-dried tomatoes and sauté until the garlic is fragrant. Add red wine and scrape browned bits up from the bottom of the pan. Add the spaghetti sauce, Italian seasoning, chopped mushrooms, and sugar to the sauce. Cover and simmer for about an hour on low, until the flavors have melded and the mushrooms are cooked and tender. In a separate bowl, mix your ricotta cheese, eggs, Italian seasoning, garlic and onion powders, and shredded parmesan cheese. Assemble lasagna (more on this in a minute) and bake at 325, covered, for 1 hour, and then uncovered for 35-45 minutes, until cheese is golden. Allow to sit 20 minutes after cooking before cutting into lasagna.
Now, in pictures! 🙂
The basis of a really good lasagna is a really great sauce. The best sauces have deep, full-bodied flavor that is best accomplished by slow simmering the ingredients, together, until they combine into one great big taste of greatness. To start, brown your hamburger, salt, pepper, and onions, together, in a medium Dutch Oven. You don’t want your heat super high– we don’t want to scorch anything– just brown the meat over a nice, even heat. Periodically flip the meat and scrape off the brown part. With your wooden spoon, gently chop the cooked meat, as you go, so that it is in nice, bite-sized crumbles.
When your meat is completely browned and the onions are nice and translucent, go ahead and drain the meat in a colander. Catch the grease in a bowl so that it doesn’t go down your sink and clog it (yuck!). Don’t wash the pan– we still want some of the juice and a teeny bit of grease in there, to keep everything from sticking. Add in your minced garlic and stir. Mmm. Doesn’t that smell awesome? Start singing “O Solo Mio,” if you want. I won’t judge. It’s starting to smell like Italy in here!
When your garlic has simmered for a few minutes, and you can really smell that “garlic” scent, go ahead and add your red wine. You can substitute beef broth for the wine, if you want, but the wine adds such an amazing, deep flavor, that try to use it if you have some. Cooking sherry works great here, too. All the alcohol will evaporate out, leaving only amazing flavor behind, so don’t worry about serving it to kids 😉 Use the steam from the wine to scrape the browned bits off the bottom of the pan. YUM. This smells incredible!
The next part is really easy– add your spaghetti sauces . . .
Italian seasoning . . .
Chopped mushrooms . . .
And sugar, and stir. Cover the Dutch Oven and let it simmer slowly, on low, for several hours, until the flavors have melded into yummy deliciousness. If you have time, let the sauce sit in the fridge, overnight. You know how spaghetti tastes even better the second day? Lasagna sauce is the same way. If you don’t have time to let it go, overnight, just allowing it to simmer on low for an hour or two will work fine, too.
Now, at last . . . the moment we have been waiting for . . . assembling the lasagna! I like to use a nice, deep 13×9 aluminum pan. That way, nothing will boil over. Yuck. I get these at the dollar store, and they are just great for lasagna, because you can just crumple them up and toss them when you’re done, with zero mess. They are also great to drop off delicious lasagna to others– I love to do this after someone has a new baby, or when a mom has been sick or a family has lost someone. When a family’s routine is thrown out of whack, mealtimes often get forgotten, and it is a thoughtful gesture to bring someone a nice, ready-to-eat meal to fulfill that need, without the expectation of getting a dish back. Let them toss it . . . one less thing for them to worry about, during a tough time.
So, anyway, spray your deep 13×9 with cooking spray and place the whole thing on a baking sheet so that the bottom will be supported while it bakes. Place a single layer of meat sauce on the bottom. This should be a thin layer– just enough to cover the bottom.
Now, let me show you a super time saving trick . . . meet Oven Ready Lasagna noodles. In the old days you had to boil lasagna noodles, grab the hot and slimy things from the boiling water, and try to get them into the pan without ripping them. The great thing about oven ready noodles is that you can put them, DRY, into the pan. Yes. Soooo much easier.
So go ahead and place a layer of oven ready noodles, dry, over the layer of meat sauce. As you can see, it doesn’t really matter if it looks super neat. Broken pieces work fine, too– just kind of patch it up and get the noodles as close to a single layer, as you can.
Spread another layer of meat sauce over the noodles– use about 1/2 of what you have left, since there is only 1 layer to do, after this. Sprinkle half of your fresh basil, roughly chopped, over top of the sauce. If you don’t have fresh basil you can sprinkle a little dried basil on there, or just leave it out completely. It will taste great any way you do it. It just so happened that I had a bumper crop of basil in my garden, so I’m using it up.
Now, go ahead and get your ricotta mixture going. Mix your ricotta cheese, 2 eggs, Italian seasoning, garlic and onion powders, and shredded parmesan cheese. Stir them together until everything is nice and mixed.
Place little blobs of ricotta over the meat sauce. Use about 1/2 of your ricotta mixture, since we have to make 2 layers with it, total. Use the back of a spoon to kind of smear the sauce around to cover more evenly. It’s OK if it doesn’t get spread perfectly or if you mix a little red sauce in, by mistake. Just do the best you can.
This part is fun. Take your provolone cheese slices and layer about 12 of them overtop of the white sauce. You can use just the mozzarella cheese, if you don’t like provolone, but provolone has such a nice, ooey-gooey cheesiness about it, that it gives you those “cheese strings” you love when eating Italian food. The deli slices really make it easy to make this layer.
Next, open a bag of shredded mozzarella cheese (4 cups) and spread it around on top of the provolone. Sheesh. No wonder this stuff is good. Look at that cheese! Repeat the layers. To recap, here are your layers, from the bottom to the top:
- Thin layer of sauce in greased deep aluminum 13×9
- Layer of dry, oven-ready lasagna noodles
- Layer of 1/2 remaining meat sauce (add basil to top if desired)
- Layer of 1/2 ricotta mixture
- Layer of thin provolone slices
- Layer of 1 bag (4 cups) shredded mozzarella cheese
- Layer of noodles
- Layer of meat sauce (with basil if desired)
- Layer of ricotta
- Layer of provolone
- Layer of mozzarella
Whew. Now you see why we needed a deep pan 😉 Sprinkle with a little dried parsley, if you have it, for color, and cover with foil. Bake, covered, at 325 for 1 hour. Then take your foil off and bake for another 40 minutes or so, until the cheese is golden brown. Allow the finished lasagna to sit for 20 minutes before cutting into it, so all your layers stay together, all nice and pretty, after all that work we did putting those suckers together.
It’s cruelty, itself, to take this golden, bubbling beauty out of the oven and let it rest for 20 minutes. But trust me . . . if you don’t want it slipping and sliding all over the place, when you cut into it, let it rest. Just . . . let it rest.
But once you cut that first, perfect slice . . . you’ll be glad you waited. Light some candles, put on Italian opera, and dim the lights. There is something so beautiful and romantic about lasagna– perhaps that is why it’s always a favorite at Valentine’s day. The fact that it’s adorably red is just a bonus 😉
You did it. And I’m just so proud of you.
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