Like you need another lasagna recipe, right? Well, maybe, maybe not. In point of fact, I’ve made a bazillion lasagnas over the years, and I don’t really have a recipe. But with the neighbors coming to dinner (that would be my daughter and her beautiful family), I wanted to make a better lasagna; one that I knew would hold together when sliced and would hit all the right flavor notes. And I decided I really did want a recipe. Like written down. With words, instructions, and measurements, and I would write this one myself.
In the past few years I’ve been inclined towards the lighter lasagna version (wafer thin, homemade pasta sheets layered with a silky béchamel sauce, cheese and spinach). But this time I was hankering for the old fashioned, hearty sort of lasagna with layers of lasagna noodles, sauce, ricotta cheese, Italian sausage, mozzarella, etc. As much as I love that ricotta layer in lasagnas, I also love a béchamel layer, and most lasagnas usually have one or the other. So after pondering which to use, I decided on both. Yep, I mean what’s a good lasagna without a bit of excess?!
So I decided to make a bechamel sauce and mix some ricotta cheese in with it. And I must say, people, it was lovely…. creamy, silky, cheesy – just what I was hoping to find between those layers of noodles and sauce.
But, alas, one of the potentially sad and tragic things about making a lasagna is that moment when you slice it, and as you serve it, all of those beautiful layers slide ever so un-cooly across the plate. In the interest of avoiding that moment at all costs, I decided I wanted to create a lasagna with structure that would hold together and stand tall when sliced. And I discovered that there are two crucial requirements to creating lasagna architecture, the first being not to overcook the noodles, and the second being to apply the ingredients of each layer sparingly.
Of course, a really good lasagna not only looks wonderful, but it must be moist and taste awesome. To that end, each component must be flavorful and tasty, and I do believe that we have accomplished that here. To amp up the sauce, I blended in some sun-dried tomatoes to give it an extra punch of flavor, and I used spicy Italian sausage and flavorful crimini mushrooms, which bring loads of flavor to the party.
Then there’s the whole lasagna noodle debate… boil or no-boil. I am definitely a member of the old school party where we buy our noodles dry and boil them to al dente perfection before assemblage. If you like the oven-ready variety, go ahead and use them… wait, no don’t. Really, I just can’t go there. I tried. I know, lasagna is a rather labor-intensive proposition, but if you’re going to commit to it, just do it. Boil your noodles… your lasagna will thank you. Is it OK that I said that?
Yes, people, making a good lasagna is going to take you a little while. But if you have the time set aside, it can be lots of fun. Yes, fun… I find that plugging my Ipod into the sound system and throwing some tunes into the room creates the perfect ambiance for lasagna-making . Yes, people, we must sing, we must dance while we make lasagna. Maroon5, Mama Mia, the Black-Eyed Peas, it doesn’t matter…. just pour yourself a glass of wine, turn up the volume and get it done.
LASAGNA WITH MUSHROOMS AND ITALIAN SAUSAGE
This lasagna has been designed to create a nice sturdy, yet moist slice that will stand up when sliced. To achieve that structure, it's important not to overcook the noodles and to add each layer of ingredients sparingly. As with most baked dishes, this lasagna tastes better the longer it sits and reheats beautifully.
1 lb of lasagna noodles (not the no-boil or oven-ready kind)
1 lb of bulk spicy Italian sausage (I use turkey Italian sausage. You might have to buy this in links and remove the casings)
1 lb crimini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1 lb grated mozzarella cheese or an Italian cheese blend (or a mix of the two; I use Trader Joe's Quattro Formaggio)
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
For the Sauce:
3 tablespoons of olive oil
2 large cans of whole or crushed tomatoes
1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil (about 4-5)
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes (if not using spicy Italian sausage)
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried marjoram
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp salt and 1 tsp black pepper
For the Bechamel
2 cups whole milk, warmed in the microwave
1 1/2 tablespoons each flour and butter
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 tsp salt
1 tsp white pepper
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
12 ounces of ricotta cheese
To make the sauce, place the canned and sun-dried tomatoes in blender, food processor (or use a stick blender) to puree to a fairly smooth sauce. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan and add the onion. Saute for about 5-6 minutes until soft and add the garlic and dried herbs, sauteing for another 3 minutes or so. Add the blended tomatoes, salt, pepper, sugar and parsley, stir to combine and let simmer slowly while you assemble the rest of the lasagna ingredients.
Cook the noodles for 8 minutes in a large pot of boiling, salted water. Pull the noodles from the water and place in a large bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Drain the noodles on clean kitchen towels and cover until ready to assemble the lasagna. You can give the noodles a little squirt of cooking oil spray to keep them from sticking to the towels.
Heat a large saute pan, and if using turkey Italian sausage, lightly coat the bottom of the pan with olive oil. If using pork sausage, eliminate the olive oil. Brown the sausage, breaking it up into small pieces until it is cooked through. Remove to a bowl and set aside.
In the same pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil and add the sliced mushrooms. Saute until the mushroom are just beginning to give off their liquid, but are still fairly firm. Remove from the heat and season with salt and pepper.
For the Bechamel, melt the butter in a saucepan and add the flour, whisking until combined. Cook until bubbling and then slowly add the warmed milk, whisking until fully incorporated and smooth. Continue stirring until the mixture is thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and season with salt, white pepper and a few gratings of nutmeg. When the bechamel has cooled somewhat, stir in the ricotta cheese and the grated parmesan cheese. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Spray a deep 9x12-inch baking dish (mine was 9x11) with cooking spray and spoon enough of the sauce in to thinly cover the bottom and layer as follows: a layer of noodles over the sauce and then a thin layer of the bechamel, sprinkled with the grated cheeses; a sprinkling of the mushrooms; sauce; a layer of noodles, bechamel, grated cheeses, sausage, sauce, noodles, bechamel, grated cheeses, mushrooms, sauce, noodles, bechamel, sauce and topped with grated cheeses. Depending on how deep your baking dish is, you should end up with 4 layers of noodles, 2 layers of mushrooms and 2 layers of sausage.
Cover with foil that's been sprayed with Pam to keep it from sticking, and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking for another 15 to 20 minutes or until the lasagna is bubbling and browned on the top.
Let the lasagna sit for at least 20 minutes before slicing. Note: the lasagna can be assembled a day or two ahead and refrigerated until ready to bake. Just be sure to bring it to room temperature before baking, or cook for an extra 15 to 20 minutes before removing the foil.