Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Art of Lasagna

My painting techniques -layering, using products that take a long time between steps- apparently go much deeper than just art.  Every year in February, I undertake The Lasagna Process for Ron's birthday.  For those who have been asking for YEARS, here are my "guidelines" for making my famous-to-those-who-have-eaten-it lasagna sauce and casserole.  I have a hard time calling this a recipe because it changes each time I make it.  If you're OCD and need a measured recipe, I highly recommend that you NOT read this!

Use the freshest ingredients you can find. I purchase all of my canned goods, cheese (high-test ricotta and mozzarella - the super squishy balls--no "low fat" junk) and pasta at Mama Ann's Deli in El Dorado Hills, CA, but there are plenty of great supermarkets and Italian groceries/delis around these days.  This is not a cheap endeavor - one of the reasons it only gets done once a year.

Perhaps only one ingredient is a bit of a surprise, but the real secret to this whole production is patience.  It's a two day event to cook the sauce--plus another 24 hours to get a Krissified lasagna, but it's so worth it. (I always make more sauce than I need since it makes a great companion to any kind of pasta, chicken, etc. and freezes well.)

MY 2-day sauce:
  • Use whole, peeled Italian tomatoes (and get rid of as many seeds as you can while preserving the juice). Blend to chunky consistency with a hand blender.  
  • Add fresh garlic & basil (Ron prefers it without onion, but you can add it) and dried organic oregano & a spicy Italian herb mix
  • My biggest "secret:" Guinness. In years past I used wine, but it's too acidic when mixed with the tomatoes. I tried other beers, but the stout gives the sauce a certain body and "heft" you can't get with ale or lighter beers. Depending on the size of the batch, I use 1 to 2 bottles (about a bottle per big-ass lasagna).
  • Cook the sauce down at a simmer, stirring regularly, for about 2 days (allowing it to cool/refrigerating overnight) until it has a nice thick, pizza sauce consistency. 
  • Let sauce cool before assembling.
  • Add salt to taste about an hour or two before assembling the lasagna.
Annual lasagna production
Ready, set, ASSEMBLE!

Lasagna filling: 
  • Combine 3 Cups of ricotta cheese and add 2 beaten eggs, some dried parsley (a Tbsp or so) and a handful of freshly grated parmesan/romano blend.  I purchase mine from the local Nugget grocery, cut them into chunks and blend them in my food processor.  
  • Slice, crumble or chop (I chop/crumble) about three fist-sized fresh mozzarella balls.  If you're not using fresh, the water content will be lower and you may want to reduce the amount of cheese.  Or not.
  • Prepare the noodles in a well salted pot of boiling water with olive oil. Don't overcook the pasta - leave it a little more than al dente (just cooked enough to be flexible) since it will finish cooking and soak up extra liquid in the sauce when you bake it. For pasta that calls for 9 min, I usually cook it for 6.  Lay the noodles on paper towels or tea towels to prevent sticking and to absorb the extra water.
Assembly:
  • Layer noodles, ricotta filling, sauce, mozzarella and sprinkling of hard cheese blend and repeat.  I do two layers in one pan that is wide and shallow and three layers in a pan that is deeper and narrower.  
Lasagna #1 ready for the oven!
My 2-layer lasagna - ready to go into the oven!
Bake
  • Another one of my secrets: assemble and bake @ 375 for about 30 minutes the day BEFORE you want to serve. Cool, wrap loosely in foil & refrigerate for about 24 hours. 
  • Bake 30 min @ 375 with foil. Remove foil and bake 25-40 minutes until top has achieved your desired crispiness.
  • Allow casserole to rest for about 15 minutes before cutting.
  • Oh, and watch out for the inevitable carb coma