Layers of Love

Lasagne is just one of those universally comforting foods. Everyone likes it, and no matter who makes it, lasagne is nearly always at least good, if not phenominal.

Even bad lasagne manages to be pretty tasty.

I have no idea of the derivation or history of lasagne, nor do I know when it became such a part of American cookery that everyone’s mother, whether of Italian descent or not, has a recipe for it that is beloved among friends and family.

What I do know is that if you make it, people will come to the table in droves, and feast until they are filled with noodles, sauce and cheesey lusciousness, almost to the point of bursting.

I enjoy making lasagne, and I seldom make it the same way twice. My ignorance of the original provenance of the dish gives me license to be creative and to work with whatever seasonal produce is at hand to create any number of variations on the dish, all of which are quite flavorful. Lasagne is an empty canvas upon which I can project my own imagination and culinary creativity.

The problem usually comes when people ask for the recipe.

At which point, I am usually stuck with going, “Uh–yeah. I don’t have one. I just make it.”

This is frustrating to a lot of folks, but, well, I have never bothered to write any of it down, and since I change fillings every time, it is rather foolish to try and write down the quintessential “Barbara” version of lasagne.

Because, there is no quintessential “Barbara” version of lasagne.

Would I count the pans of lasagne I made and froze for my sister in law while she was pregnant with her first child, so she could reheat them for a quick supper after the baby was born? (That one had roasted red peppers, fried zucchini and sauteed mushroom filling in a chunky bolognaise sauce.) Would it be the version I made in culinary school filled with roasted vegetables and sauced with a gorgonzola bechemel? Or what about the version I made to wish Heather a bon voyage when she went to Indonesia for the summer? (Homemade beef Italian sausage, pesto ricotta filling and mushroom-wine sauce.)

I do know it wouldn’t be the vegan version I made with luscious faux bechemel and beautiful fresh tomato marinara and roasted vegetables that was utterly ruined by the tofu-cheese crap that my clients insisted I put on it. The stuff turned to rubber and smelled funny and made a perfectly respectable lasagne utterly repulsive. I had even managed to make a divine version of “ricotta”-spinach filling using silken tofu, spinach, sauteed mushrooms and a dab of shiro miso to give it a bit of a cheesy flavor. (White miso, when used judiciously and sneakily, can oddly enough manage to taste rather akin to parmesan cheese. That is a weird, but true food fact that I learned through much trial and error.)

Actually, if I had been allowed to make and serve it without the tofucheez, the vegan lasagne was quite flavorful, and would have been a decent addition to my own cooking resume.

But, I digress. The point is, that with the exception of the funky foot-stinky rubberized tofu, all of my versions of lasagne are good, even if I never repeat them more than twice in my life.

Since I don’t feel constrained by tradition, I can change lasagne to suit the temperment or dietary restrictions of those who are eating it; each layered pan of noodles, sauces and fillings is a labor of love. I like to think of the wide, long noodles as comfy sheets and the fillings as pillows that I am tucking into bed as I construct the dish; there is something inherently nurturing about a dish that is put together the way a mother tucks in her children at night.

I like the flavors of my lasagne to be distinct and separate and to wrap and enfold themselves around the diner’s tastebuds in a dancing embrace. I like to think of those eating my lasagne as being wrapped in patchwork quilts made up as many flavors, textures and colors that I stitch together into one cohesive dish.

When I determined to make lasagne yesterday, I had a crisper drawer full of roma tomatoes from the CSA–heavy with juice and sugar from the long, hot dry summer. Zak’s Dad and Grandpa were coming to visit, and I had fresh mushrooms, peppers and a wedding-bouquet sized bunch of basil.

I could have made any number of pasta dishes for them, but lasagne never fails to please anyone. Besides, I seldom make the dish unless we have guests or we are going to a potluck–it is quite simply too difficult to make only a small amount of it.

The sauce started with the peeled and seeded fresh tomatoes: this task sounds more difficult than it is. You simply score an “X” on the pointed end of the tomato, and plunge it into boiling water. Tongs are good for this operation; bare hands, not so much. I usually blanch them for about forty to sixty seconds, then pluck them out and dunk them into a bowl of ice water. While
I blanch the rest of the tomatoes, I leave the first ones in the ice water bath.
When they are finished with the spa treatment, the tomatoes a cinch to peel. Just go to where you scored them, pick up a flap of skin and pull. They slither out of thier skins like shimmying strippers slipping off crimson spandex. The next step is to core them–the tip of a paring knife makes short work of that operation.

Finally, I seed them by cutting the tomatoes in half across the middle, and scooping out the seeds with my fingers.

At this point, I cut them into large chunks and they are ready to go.

Of course, they are more work than just opening up a can of tomatoes, already peeled, seeded and diced. But they taste wonderful when they are perfectly ripe and fresh. It is well worth the small amount of extra effort to start with perfect roma tomatoes.

I had no Italian sausage, so I made some out of Bluescreek Farms’ ground pork and a melange of Italian seasonings–I used a combination of fresh and dried fennel seeds, fennel leaves, basil, salt, pepper, oregano, thyme garlic and rosemary, with just a tiny hint of chile pepper. (This is out of deference to Grandpa who cannot handle hot spices anymore.) I decided to cook the sausage filling with a caramelized onion, some garlic, of course, sliced portabello mushrooms, red wine and shredded fresh lacinato kale. (The kale adds a bitter complexity to the mixture that complements the slightly sweet spices of the pork beautifully.)

And then, Morganna and I made the ricotta filling together.

Ricotta is a wonderful, soft fresh farmer’s cheese–and contrary to some people’s belief, it is cheese. It is just not pressed into a form, nor left to age, but it is a cheese nonetheless. It is made with milk, rennet and salt, just as other cheeses are. I love the classic ricotta filling with egg, spinach and parmesan cheese, and used that filling for many years. But when you have a wedding-bouquet sized bunch of basil in the house, you -have- to do something with it. Besides, just like everyone loves lasagne, everyone loves pesto, too.

So, Morganna made pesto and then stirred it, along with chopped spinach and egg, into the ricotta cheese, and there was the filling.

With that, we come to the noodles.

I have always used the traditional wavy-edged, classic American “you-gotta-cook-em-before-you-layer-em” noodles. But Morganna and Zak brought home Rossi Pasta “no-bake-em” noodles, so I felt honor-bound to try them.

Putting the lasagne together was less like tucking the fillings into bed and more like layering planks over pillows, but true to Rossi’s instructions, the dish turned out very tasty. The texture of the noodles after they have cooked (you add a mere 3/4 cup of water to the dish to cook the pasta while the lasagne bakes) was fantastic with one exception: the first layer was crisp and browned excessively on the bottom. I think that the next time I make the dish using these noodles, I will put water into the bottom of the dish and a heavier layer of sauce.

So, I guess by now, you all want the recipe.

I hate to say it–but too bad.

I have no real idea quite how I put it all together, except as I described it to you.

So, here is the deal–make a nice sauce from fresh tomatoes, or if it is winter, used canned tomatoes. Use a lot of caramelized onions and sweet bell peppers in it. Make two kinds of filling: one of some combination of roasted or sauteed vegetables, with or without meat-and one based on something creamy like ricotta cheese. (Or if you are vegan–tofu with veggies and a dab of miso.)

Have some good quality Italian cheese like parmesan, which is nice and nutty, and good melting cheeses like mozzerella and provolone, and shred them up.

And either cook up some noodles, make some fresh, or use the “no-bake-ems.”

Layer it all together lovingly in a pan, starting with a spray of olive oil and a splash of sauce, then the first noodles, and ending with a big blanket of melty cheese. Then bake it for about an hour. For about half of that time, leave the pan tightly covered with foil. Then uncover it so the cheese can brown into that wonderful chewy crust that certain people fight over.

When it is mostly done baking, mince up a double handful of fresh herbs like basil and oregano, and sprinkle them over the gooey cheese, then bake it for ten more minutes.

Turn the oven down to 170 degrees, and let it sit for as long as you can manage. Ten minutes in the oven and then ten minutes out will ensure that you are more likely to serve it without it falling apart into a puddle of weirdness.

Ten minutes out of the oven will make it so that the mess that happens when you serve it is at least somewhat appetizing looking.

Serving it straight out of the oven results in absolute glop, and burnt mouths.

But, even when glop and burnt mouths are in the offing, for some reason the folks eating it are happy.

That is because lasagne is nothing more than love made manifest.

5 Comments

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  1. Ha ha! I love it that you still didn’t give us a traditional recipe. It preserves the improvisational character of your dish. Thanks also for sharing the innovative tip about using a touch of white miso with soft tofu to imitate cheese for vegan lasagne.

    Comment by Brett — September 21, 2005 #

  2. Hey, Brett–good to see you here!

    Yeah, I tried typing up the recipe, and it was huge–long and complicated. It is really five recipes in one: a chunky tomato-based sauce, homemade sausage, the sausage, mushroom and kale saute, the ricotta/pesto filling and then the whole lasagne thing. I got about a third of the way through it and was like, “Oh, good grief! No one who reads this will even try to make this.”

    So, in just describing how it was done, I hope I can entice some folks to loosen up and cook sans recipes. It really is fun.

    As for the miso–I learned a lot while cooking for my vegan clients. I found out why miso is used in a lot of European or American regional based vegan dishes–it is because it is full of the “umami” meaty-savory flavor that meat and cheese have that most vegetables lack.

    I ended up slipping it into a huge number of dishes–and I am generally a bit of a food purist, and don’t like to use foods out of their cultural context.

    But damned if I was going to serve people bland food, either.

    Dried shiitake mushrooms–also known as Chinese black mushrooms–were another secret weapon in my fight to put “umami” into vegan dishes.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — September 21, 2005 #

  3. Lasagna is one of my favorite ever dishes. It is one of the first dishes Heather ever cooked for me, and is still my favorite dish that she makes, (even though she has expanded her repitoire considerably in our 4 years together.

    Speaking of, that reminds me. Heather promised me lasagna a couple weeks ago. Time I collected on that ;-)

    I agree. I think it’s the love that makes it stand out! ;-)

    Comment by Dan Trout — September 21, 2005 #

  4. I swear, lasagne is one of those dishes that everyone adores. No one that I know of dislikes it. No one.

    Even my Asian friends in culinary school loved lasagne. Neewee in particular, loved it when I made lasagne and if I was making dinner and asked him what he wanted, it was either Thai green curry or lasagne.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — September 22, 2005 #

  5. Hi Barbara
    Just found your site while looking for “vegan spinach lasagne silken tofu”. So I’m going to give it a bash. Being non-vegan, but having a vegan aupair has forced me to change our reportoire and look for interesting things to make daily. Will let you know how it worked out.

    Comment by Jenne — September 20, 2006 #

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