As someone who prides herself not only on her culinary skills but also on her Sicilian heritage, I’m embarrassed to admit to you that it took me years to finally get around to making lasagna. For one thing, my mother never made it. I don’t remember my grandmother doing so, either. That said, there was no time-honored recipe for me to inherit. And I’m enough of a cooking snob that I didn’t want to bother with the recipe on the back of the box of dried lasagna (or was it the intimidation factor?). All of this goes by way of saying that I waited not until I enjoyed this most fundamental recipe of Italian cuisine at someone’s home, but until I found a recipe that sounded to me as though it would reward all of my time and trouble by yielding a meal that could go down in the annals of cooking history as the greatest of all time.
Reader, I found it.
Trust me when I tell you that this lasagna is magnificent. Although it might appear complicated on a first-read, it really just requires some advance preparation and organization—and what recipe doesn’t? Plus, it doesn’t require a béchamel sauce, so that’s one step you can cross off your to-do list. This is fun to make, it will fill your home with mouth-watering aromatics, and it is so delicious as to qualify as a mortal sin. When I served this for company recently, one impressed guest remarked: “Well, I used to make lasagna. I won’t anymore. Not after this.”
This really will spoil you for any other lasagna recipe.
It comes from a terrific anthology cookbook called From Our House to Yours: Comfort Food to Give and Share, published by Chronicle Books. It’s a book for a good cause, too; sales benefit Meals on Wheels of San Francisco. I found it at a winery in Napa about 10 years ago, and everything I’ve ever made from it has been fabulous. Now, a word about the recipe itself. Foodwriter, chef, and culinary educator Julia della Croce is its creator. Julia is one of America’s foremost authorities on Italian food, and has published numerous books; you can find a list of her titles on her website. (The one containing this recipe is The Pasta Book.) Julia also writes a blog—wonderfully named—called “Forktales.” She graciously gave me permission to include her lasagna recipe on this blog. Julia, grazie mille!
Lasagna Casserole with Meat and Red Wine Sauce
1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium to large onion, finely chopped
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 large carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1 large stalk celery, including leaves, finely chopped
1/2 pound lean, sweet, fennel-flavored Italian pork sausages (about 3 links)
1 pound lean ground beef or pork
4 tablespoons tomato paste
3/4 cup good dry red wine
One 28-ounce can tomatoes in puree, drained and coarsely chopped, puree reserved
1-1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste, plus 2 tablespoons for cooking pasta (I use Kosher salt for the recipe, and regular Iodized salt for cooking the pasta)
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 pound dried lasagna or narrower lasagnette noodles
3 cups (24 ounces) ricotta cheese
Good pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1-1/2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese (I use Parmigiano Reggiano)
1/2 pound thinly sliced Italian salame such as soppressata, diced
1-1/2 pounds good-quality mozzarella cut into very thin slices, or shredded (shredding goes faster)
1. Soak the dried mushrooms in 1/4 cup warm water until softened, about 30 minutes. Strain the liquid through a fine sieve and reserve. Chop the mushrooms coarsely. Set aside.
2. Heat the olive oil and butter in a heavy saucepan. Add the onion, garlic, parsley, carrot, and celery. Sauté over medium heat until the vegetables are softened, about 10 minutes; do not let them brown. Remove the sausage meat from the casings. Add it and the ground meat to the pan. Sauté until lightly browned, about 8 minutes, breaking up the meat with a spoon and mixing it with the vegetables. Sauté gently another 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in the reserved mushrooms and their liquor, the tomato paste, and wine; simmer for 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their reserved puree; simmer gently, uncovered, until the sauce thickens, about 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 425°F. Place an oven rack in the upper half of the oven. Bring 5 to 6 quarts water to a rolling boil and add the 2 tablespoons salt, vegetable oil, and noodles. Stir immediately, continuing to stir frequently as the noodles cook. Drain when slightly underdone (they will continue to cook in the oven), reserving 1/3 cup of the cooking water. Immediately rinse the lasagne noodles well in cold water to prevent them from sticking together.
4. Combine the ricotta with the reserved pasta water, nutmeg, and 1/2 cup of the Parmesan cheese. Smear the bottom of a 10-by-14-inch baking pan with a little of the meat sauce. Then place a single solid layer of the noodles on top, without overlapping. Spread a layer of the ricotta mixture on the noodles, followed by a layer of sauce. Sprinkle with some of the salame, add a layer of mozzarella, then sprinkle with several teaspoons of the remaining Parmesan cheese. Repeat layering until all the ingredients are used up, ending with a layer of meat sauce strewn with mozzarella and Parmesan. Be sure to cover the pasta with sauce to prevent it from drying out in the oven.
5. Bake until the lasagne is heated through and bubbly, about 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and let settle for 10 to 15 minutes. Cut into squares before serving.
TO MAKE AHEAD: The lasagne can be assembled up to 4 days in advance. Once cooked, it will keep, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 5 days, or freeze for up to 6 months.
TO REHEAT: If frozen, let thaw in the refrigerator. Reheat in a preheated 350°F oven until heated through.