"The only real stumbling block is the fear of failure. In cooking, you have got to have a what-the-hell attitude." ~ Julia Child

The complete idiot’s guide to making lasagna

by Julie Tilsner on August 22, 2009

in Dinner, Kid Food, Meat!, Minor Miracles

Chefboyardie “Lasagna,” I texted Debbie.

“Not veggie!” she texted back.

Debbie was my guinea pig the last time I tried to make this most basic of dishes. I tried a “light” vegetarian version on her three years ago. She still remembers the “watery sauce” and “non-lasagna taste” of that little experiment.

The previous time before that, years earlier, my first attempt at lasagna had underperformed in the opposite direction: After carefully following a recipe, my carefully-crafted lasagna spilled out of the pan and was so cheesy and rich it gave instant artery blockage to all who dared try it. Nobody could finish a piece, not even the hungriest men folk.

So lasagna and me. We don’t have the best history. It’s another example of an outwardly simple dish that everyone can whip up except for me. Little wonder: When I was a kid my mom bought Stouffer’s and we ate that unquestioningly.

This time however, my previous defeats long faded into the murk, I vowed I would not be defeated.

Debbie was coming for dinner again. And if this didn’t turn out, I was altogether prepared to call out for Chinese to save face.

The heat was on.

First, I read up on the topic on the Internets; the food blogs, the recipe forums, the Food Network. I realized there are more versions of Lasagna than there are Italians, and that following a specific recipe isn’t necessary. As long as I layered sauce between two sheets of pasta, that’s technically a lasagna.  A consultation with the owner of my local pizza joint also confirmed that I didn’t have to go with three cheeses, I could just use two.

And so I went out on my own. No recipe.

Here’s what I did: For the meat sauce:

1 pound ground meat

4 sweet Italian sausages, chopped

1 medium onion, chopped

crushed garlic, to taste (I used two teaspoons of crushed garlic)

1 28-ounce can of diced tomatoes, with juice

1 16-ounce can of tomato sauce

1/4 cup grated carrots

5 or 6 whole basil leaves

For the cheesy stuff:

2 small tubs of ricotta cheese

1 cup of Parmesan

two eggs

sea salt and ground pepper to taste

chopped Italian parsley

One package of no-boil lasagna noodles.

3/4 cup Mozzarella cheese

Decently chop onion and saute in large skillet or dutch oven until translucent but not brown. Add garlic. Take care not to burn.

Crumble your meat (ground beef and sausage) into a medium bowl and season it liberally with an Italian seasoning mix (Trader Joe’s has a nice one, of course), salt and pepper. Add to the pot and stir.

When lightly brown, add the diced tomatoes and tomato sauce. Heat to a simmer, then add your shredded carrots. Cover the pot and simmer this mixture for an hour to an hour and a half. Stir every so often so it doesn’t stick to the bottom, and taste. Adjust seasoning as necessary.

Meanwhile, heat oven to 350 degrees. Scoop the ricotta cheese out of the tubs into a bowl. Add two eggs and mix. Add salt and pepper and chopped parsley. Mix well.

Sauce the bottom of a 9 X 12 pan, lay the first layer of lasagna noodles on, then follow this sequence:

Meat sauce

Ricotta cheese

Parmesan cheese,

a little meat sauce

Next layer of noodles.

Repeat sequence until you have three layers. Top with meat sauce and a little mozzarella cheese.

Cover with Tinfoil and bake for 20 minutes, uncover, bake for another 10-15.

IMPORTANT: The secret to better lasagna, I have learned, is to let it rest for half an hour before you touch it, and preferably longer. This lets everything set so you don’t have a goopy mess.

Mine sat long enough for me to have to microwave it when Debbie showed up. But the results caused tremendous gratitude and overwhelming relief.

“This is more like it, Jules,” said Debbie, shoveling more into her mouth. “Delicious.” This woman, probably my oldest non-relative friend, would not hesitate to tell me if it sucked. She has in the past. So that felt good.

Then the Drama Tween had her plate. “Yummy.” was the verdict. Followed by dancing and the eventual finishing of her entire portion. Good. Good.

Now that I’ve made one successful lasagna, you’d think I’d be heartened to retry several other failed attempts at Italian cookery, including the pasta dish with pepper.

Nope. God, I can’t even come up with a clever kicker.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

ATriana August 24, 2009 at 9:34 am

..Pasta dish with pepper?? You mean the one with ‘cheese globules’ about two years ago?? Oh, what the heck…I’ll bring the calcium carbonate and you can give it another try…

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