If you had told me that putting Mario Batali, Carla Hall, Michael Symon and Clinton Kelly in a room together would turn out any way other than freakin’ fabulous, I wouldn’t have believed you.
If you then told me that they wouldn’t just be chatting, they’d be cooking? I’d be even more excited.
So last week, each evening after work, I settled in with my ABC app and watched The Chew.
And dear readers? I didn’t hate it. Everything I read online said I should. People are complaining that the show is rushed, that the hosts compete for attention, and that the show’s concept is too broad. And I agree with most all of that. Except I also agree that when you have a party, everyone does convene in the kitchen. And that making dinner doesn’t have to be a giant pain. And that if a show has Carla Hall, it can’t be terrible. Can I get a hootie hoo?
As I watched Joy Behar share her recipe for “the lasagna that crashed a website” on Wednesday’s episode, I started mentally cataloging our pantry and realized we had almost everything necessary to make the dish.
Upon further inspection, I couldn’t quite figure out what was so different about Joy’s lasagna. Her recipe seems pretty standard. But she spoke so lovingly about it, and knew her stuff when it came to putting it together. So when the temperatures dropped below 50 this weekend (and my football team lost a game we always win), I knew what would get me through.
The best and worst thing about lasagna is that everyone has their own recipe. Everyone thinks their way is the only way. But as someone who has eaten her fair share of pasta casseroles, let me tell you that as long as you follow the basic process, you’re not going to go wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever layered a lasagna the same way twice, and I’m no worse for the wear. Of course, I don’t have the threat of an Italian grandmother breathing down my neck, so I can be devious. I followed Joy’s process, if not her exact recipe, and wound up with the best way I can think of to greet the fall head on. And a killer Sunday dinner.
Below is not so much a recipe, as a beginners guide to lasagna. Though I’ll share any recipe for tomato sauce that makes me close my eyes and say “mmmm,” I’ll never tell you yours is wrong. And my meat preference when it comes to lasagna changes depending on what I’ve been eating lately, so I’m not going to weigh in on the turkey vs. ground beef/veal/pork vs. sausage debate. Fresh mozzarella or the plasticky store bought pre-shredded stuff? I used the latter this time around because it’s what was within reach. Lasagna is a dinner that’s meant to draw you closer to the ones you share it with, it’s not in the details.
To make a weighty lasagna that will feed a crowd, you will need:
- Wine. Not so much for cooking, though sometimes I’ll splash some red in with my tomato sauce, but for drinking as you go.
- 4 C tomato sauce of your choosing
- 12 oz. meat of your choosing
- 2 T olive oil
- 1 lb. ricotta (I’m in love with this fresh, snooty brand from Whole Foods lately)
- 1 egg
- a metric ton of Parmesan cheese (at least 3/4 C)
- at least half a package of lasagna noodles (either cooked according to package directions, soaked for 20 minutes in the hottest water you can find, or the ones that say no-cook on the packaging)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
In a skillet with a small amount of olive oil, brown the meat. If you’re using sausage, remove the links from their casings, and break them up as you cook. For ground meat, also break things up as you go. I use a wooden spoon. If your skillet is hot enough you might have some brown bits on the bottom of the pan. In that case, I add a glug of red wine to get those back in the mix, and cook the alcohol off for 2-3 minutes. Then, add the tomato sauce and stir till incorporated.
In a medium bowl, lightly beat egg. Stir in ricotta, half Parmesan cheese, and salt and pepper to taste till incorporated.
Get ready to stack.
Layer 1/3 sauce on the bottom of a 13×9 pan (or your favorite casserole dish).
Place a layer of noodles on top of the sauce.
Spread the ricotta mixture on top of that.
Then add a layer of mozzarella cheese, be it sliced or shredded.
Repeat…sauce, noodles, ricotta, mozzarella.
One more go-round with sauce.
And the last of the Parmesan.
Or thereabouts. Like I said, I’ve never done this the same way twice.
Place in the oven and kiss it goodbye for 45 minutes. When I use no-cook noodles, I keep the pan covered with foil for the first 25 minutes of cooking so the steam gets trapped and helps cook them.
When it’s done, the cheese will be golden and bubbling and you’ll want to stick a fork in the center of the pan and have at it. But don’t. The lasagna will be entirely to hot for human consumption. Pour yourself another glass of wine and wait 10 minutes. I promise, you’ll still see steam rising from your dinner.