The Lure of Lasagna
Why not make it easier, healthier and totally delicious?
Make no mistake, I love classic Italian lasagna. It's a dish I make at least once every year, a dish that requires hours of loving preparation. The meat sauce is made from scratch and needs time, lots and lots of time, to simmer to perfection. The layers are a juxtaposition of hearty sauce, tender pasta and a medley of five Italian cheeses. It is a delight. And a coronary nightmare. That is why, in this house, it only makes an appearance on Very Special Occasions.
The thing is, lasagna is a crowd pleaser. It's perfect to bring to a potluck dinner or to a friend in need. It's as good, or better, one or two days later. Many members of my extended family love it cold for breakfast, but that's another story entirely.
I wanted to figure out how to make my son's favorite meal in a way that wouldn't send him rushing to the doctor for statin medication. I also wanted to make it faster, easier, and healthier. My new version will likely set a thousand Italian grandmothers spinning in their graves. I apologize in advance to them and to food purists everywhere. Following is my 21st century take on the traditional pasta casserole.
Like most of my favorite family meals, this lasagna recipe is, well, loose - kind of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants deal. There's no real right or wrong when it comes to NAL (New Age Lasagna). Start with 4 jars of your favorite pasta sauce or marinara. (Sounds like a lot for one lasagna, but more about that later.) I happen to like Barilla but any will do. Put the sauce in a large stockpot on a medium-low flame. Swish a bit of red wine in each of the jars to get all the sauce out and dump that into the pot too. In a skillet, saute 1 large diced onion and 6-8 cloves of minced garlic in a bit of olive oil until they soften. Put that into the sauce. Throw in a handful of chopped fresh basil while you're at it. Then go looking in your refrigerator for veggies. Lots of veggies.
For this time around, I found a bag of julienned carrots and a zucchini, which I sliced fairly thin. I sauteed them until they softened and threw them into the sauce, which by now was starting to smell pretty fantastico, if you know what I mean. There was also an about-to-expire tray of hot Italian turkey sausage. Perfecto! Out of the casings they came, into the saute pan until nicely browned. The crispy, crumbly bits joined their veggie compatriots in the simmering sauce.
My son, home from grad school on spring break, found some cremini mushrooms, which he sauteed while I scouted the pantry. Voila! I scored a can of quartered artichoke hearts packed in water. After I drained them, I dropped them...you guessed it...into the sauce. Tim reminded me there was a bag of pre-washed baby spinach in the crisper. Into the pot it went. (Not the bag, just the spinach.) Finally I stripped two leftover chicken breasts, removed the skin, shredded the meat and made it the finale ingredient
While the sauce is simmering, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the lasagna noodles. You'll need 12 for a standard 9" x 13" pan. That's about 3/4 of a regular box. What do you do with the leftover noodles? Read to the end to find out. When the pasta and the sauce are done, get ready to layer.
Start with a layer of sauce, then pasta, then cheese. For this lighter, healthier version I use 1 bag of Cabot 50% Reduced Fat Shredded Cheddar, 1 bag of Cabot Part Skim Milk Shredded Mozzarella, 1 container of Cabot No-Fat Cottage Cheese, and 1 cup of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese reserved for the top layer. (For anyone groaning at the thought of using cheddar in lasagna, I implore you not to knock it 'til you've tried it. Really.) Spread a thin layer of the cottage cheese on the pasta, sprinkle the cheddar and the mozzarella on the cottage cheese and start again. Awesomesauce™, pasta, cottage cheese, cheddar and mozzarella. A deep pan will hold three layers. Top with sauce and sprinkle with remaining mozzarella, cheddar and finally the Parmesano-Reggiano.
This really is a wonderful, healthy take on an old favorite. Loaded with vegetables, lightened of fat, laden with flavor. It just might become your family's favorite.
Post Script: If you've made one pan of lasagna you likely have a fair amount of Awesomesauce™ left over. Whoohooo! That's at least one, and perhaps two meals you have ready to go in the coming weeks. This sauce freezes beautifully. And remember the leftover lasagna noodles? I break them up into small pieces and put them in a bag in the pantry. When I have enough, I declare it Smashed Pasta Sunday. Out of the freezer comes the Awesomesauce™ and dinner is practically served.
Post Post Script: Thank you Kate Byrne for the perfect descriptor for the perfect pasta sauce.