Feel-good Lasagna

Have a bad day? Or maybe a great day that needs celebrating? No matter the occasion (or for no occasion whatsoever) this lasagna is the answer. This is a no-frills, back to the basics lasagna because it’s a classic (and there’s a reason for that, so let’s keep it that way).

Lasagna is one comfort food that never ceases to disappoint. You can try to jazz it up with different spices or by subbing Alfredo for tomato sauce, but 9 times out of 10, it will never live up to the original, tried and tested lasagna. That said, this recipe isn’t going to stray very far from tradition (besides the addition of a few (VERY FEW) anchovies), but I can guarantee you that it will taste fantastic.

I found this recipe in another one of my quarantine-induced boredom online-shopping purchases (my bank account is not on speaking terms with me at the moment) called, Nothing Fancy, by Alison Roman. At first, I, too, was skeptical that there was nothing in this recipe with flashing lights saying, “Notice me! I’m different!” There was no special spice added or new-fangled sauce, it was just your basic lasagna recipe.

Love this book, but my bank account is hurting.

After cooking it, however, I realized that this lasagna is anything but basic. The sauce isn’t straight out of the jar, it’s made from scratch–cooked down for about an hour from two cans of tomatoes, a diced onion, some garlic, a couple of anchovies, salt and pepper, and a dash of basil. This sauce isn’t to be rushed; it’s a marathon, not a sprint. If you try to rush the sauce, it won’t be as thick as it needs to be in order to impart the intense tomatoey (is that even a word?), rich flavor typical of a memorable lasagna.

Is she memorable? I think so.

The anchovies, although optional, add yet another layer of flavor to the sauce; giving it a meaty taste without adding any ground beef to it (another sneaky attempt to get my dad to think there’s meat in a food when in reality, there’s not). I wasn’t completely sure if I was going to add the anchovies in or not; I went back and forth for a while, but at the last minute I decided just to go for it. I am so happy that I did because if I hadn’t added them, I don’t think that the sauce would have had that detectable umami flavor that made it seem almost meaty.

So, I’ve talked a lot about the sauce, now its on to the noodles. There’s not a whole lot to say here besides the fact that you only need to boil them for about 4 minutes. This short boiling time is because the noodles will continue to cook in the oven once the lasagna has been assembled. Ignore every voice in your head saying that the noodles need to cook for longer and just drain those bad boys after the 4 minutes of boiling. Just trust the system here.

This next part is for all those cheese lovers out there. Besides the sauce, what makes a great lasagna standout from its lesser counterparts is the cheese mixture. A lasagna wouldn’t be a lasagna without that creamy, cheesy ricotta layer breaking up the noodles and sauce, and this recipe is no exception. This is not for those unfortunate lactose intolerant souls out there, that’s for sure. Not only is there 2 cups of ricotta, but there’s 6 cups of shredded mozzarella, 1 cup of grated Parmesan and a little heavy cream in there to bind all those yummy cheeses together. Let me tell you, I honestly could sit there and just eat the cheese mixture all by itself, it’s that good.

Okay, one last thing. So, I don’t know if this is just an operator error (a solely just me problem) or if this happens to everyone, but whenever I’ve made lasagna in the past, it has never (not once!) all fit into a single glass dish. There’s always about three more layers that I have to throw into a smaller dish to freeze for a dinner later on down the road. While this isn’t a real issue (I can always use a quick freezer meal that’s all ready to go and just needs to be popped into the oven), it’s just annoying. All I want is to have all of those yummy layers to fit into one single dish (maybe I just need to buy myself a deeper dish, but that’s beside the point)! Anyway, if your dish is the same size as mine, you’ll run into the same problem, but that just means you have one more delicious lasagna ready to go to enjoy in a week or two.

I lied. Now this is the last thing I want to say, listen when the recipe says to bake the lasagna twice. The first bake goes in with a piece of aluminum foil on over the dish in order to melt all of those gorgeous cheeses and the second bake (with the foil off) is meant to make the lasagna all crispy and brown on top; just the way grandma used to make it. So, do not, for the love of god, skip the two bake process. What I said earlier for the sauce is apt for this situation too: it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Bake the shit out of that lasagna–the crispier and browner, the better.

That’s all I have to say about this lovely, lovely lasagna; except, please try this because I’m telling you, it’ll knock your socks off.

Where’d your socks go? Oh, right. They were knocked off.

Here’s the Feel-good Lasagna recipe:

Serves 6-10 (depending on peoples’ appetites) | Total time: 2 hrs 15 min

INGREDIENTS:

For the sauce:

  • 2 TBS olive oil
  • 1 large onion (yellow or whatever you have), chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 6 anchovy fillets (optional)
  • Salt, pepper, basil and Italian seasoning, to taste
  • 2 TBS tomato paste
  • 1, 28 oz. can of whole peeled tomatoes
  • 1, 28 oz. can of crushed tomatoes
  • A dash of hot sauce

For everything else:

  • 6 cups of shredded mozzarella
  • 2 cups (16 oz.) of ricotta cheese
  • 1 cup of grated Parmesan
  • ¼ cup of heavy cream
  • Salt, pepper, basil, and a dash of Cajun seasoning, to taste
  • 1 box (1 lb) of lasagna noodles

DIRECTIONS:

  • Step 1: To make the sauce, on medium heat and in a large pot, heat the olive oil. Then add the onion, garlic and anchovies. Season this with salt, pepper, a little basil and Italian seasoning. Cook until the onion is soft and translucent. This should take around 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Once translucent, add in the tomato paste and stir for about 2 minutes (the paste will turn a deep red color).
  • Step 2: Open the whole peeled tomato can and crush the whole tomatoes into smaller pieces (ones that are bite-sized) using your hands. Then add these and the can of crushed tomatoes to the pot. Fill one of the now empty tomato cans halfway with water and dump this into the pot too. Season with salt, pepper and basil. Bring the tomato sauce to a simmer and cook for about 45 minutes; until the sauce has thickened to the consistency of a jarred pasta sauce. During this time, stir the sauce occasionally.
  • Step 3: Preheat your oven to 425º F and bring a large pot of boiling water to a boil. Make sure this water is generously salted.
  • Step 4: To construct the lasagna, start out by combining all of the cheeses (the ricotta, only 5 of the 6 cups of mozzarella, and Parmesan) with the heavy cream. Season this with salt, pepper, a little basil and Cajun.
  • Step 5: Cook the lasagna noodles in the boiling water for only 4 minutes. By only cooking the noodles this short period of time means that they will not be all the way cooked through. The noodles will finish up cooking in the oven after the lasagna has been assembled. Drain the noodles and separate any noodles that are trying to stick together; this will make it easier when assembling the lasagna.
  • Step 6: This is when the real lasagna construction begins. First, spoon a little bit of sauce on the bottom of a 3 qt baking dish. Cover this with a layer of noodles (try not to overlap the noodles too much). Top the noodle layer with a good couple of ladles full of sauce, followed by a layer of the cheese mixture (use about a fourth of the mixture). Top with another layer of noodles and then repeat these steps three more times (or until you’ve reached the top of your dish). End with a layer of noodles followed by a dollop of sauce and then top this with the leftover 1 cup of mozzarella cheese and a little extra Parmesan.
  • Step 7: Cover your dish with aluminum foil and place this on top of a baking sheet (to catch any lasagna that might bubble over while the lasagna’s cooking). Then slide the whole thing in the oven and bake for about 30 minutes. Once these 30 minutes are up, the pasta should be completely cooked through and the sauce should be bubbling up around the edges. At this point, take off the aluminum foil from the top of the lasagna and continue to bake it for another 35 to 45 minutes (until its nice and brown and crispy on top). Make sure to let it cool slightly before digging in.

Happy cooking!:)

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