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Upping the lasagna ante. October 17, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. Lasagna isn’t typically the first thing that springs to mind when you’re thinking about healthy eating. But it’s actually easy to make a lasagna that’s as good for you as it is good (without sacrificing cheese or olive oil). And the results are so delicious, you may find that lasagna is your go-to healthy meal!

It all starts with a rich, luscious spaghetti sauce. My go-to sauce includes lots of sweet onion, garlic, mushrooms, green peppers and diced zucchini sauteed in olive oil, with crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, and diced fresh tomatoes (any I have on hand, including cherry tomatoes), tons of herbs (basil, oregano, thyme, etc.), salt (we like RealSalt or sea salt), and chipotle hot sauce, plus dry red wine to finish, cooked over low heat for a long, long time until it’s rich, thick, and practically caramelized.

This sauce is packed with veggies, nutrients, fiber, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatories. And it’s the richest, most delicious spaghetti sauce I’ve ever eaten. (Type “spaghetti sauce” in our search bar at upper right for the full recipe.) It also makes the perfect base sauce for lasagna and pizza, so when I make it, I make sure to make plenty so I’ll have lots left over.

So you’re already starting with a super-healthy sauce for your lasagna. How else can you up the health ante? One way is to use plain Greek yogurt instead of ricotta cheese. I discovered this when I’d promised our friend Ben I’d make lasagna for supper, then discovered when I was ready to put it together that I didn’t have any ricotta, but I did have plain Greek yogurt. I decided to take a chance, and it really paid off. The yogurt was thick and creamy, not grainy like ricotta, you don’t need to add an egg, and of course the yogurt has all those good-for-you live cultures. I’ve never looked back.

I’ve also found that you can add an additional layer of veggies for an even healthier lasagna. I’ve added sauteed eggplant or blanched kale or spinach with fantastically flavorful results. Even kale-haters like OFB wolf down their servings and ask for more.

I still use plenty of shredded mozzarella and some grated Parmesan in my lasagna, and yes—I’ll admit it—“oven-ready” lasagna noodles. We don’t have a dishwasher here, and saving a big pot really makes a difference when it comes to cleanup. After a number of very disappointing tries with “quick” lasagna noodles, I’ve found that San Giorgio’s “oven-ready” lasagna pasta really holds up well. It has body, stretchiness, and some chew, just like real lasagna noodles, rather than disintegrating into the sauce during baking. (Eeeew. That’s not lasagna!)

No doubt you could make this lasagna even healthier by using multigrain or whole-wheat pasta. But frankly, my version’s healthy enough for us, and I love that the flavor and texture are so authentic and delicious. We love our lasagna with a big, crunchy salad. If OFB is craving bread with the meal, I’ll thinly slice a fresh multigrain baguette and serve it with a bowl of dipping oil made from extra-virgin olive oil, lots of fresh minced garlic, and an Italian herb mix. Yum!

‘Til next time,

Silence

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My funny valentine. February 14, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I exchanged Valentine’s gifts and cards this morning: for him, a board game, German Shepherdopoly (our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, also signed his card); for me, a copy of Tony Bourdain’s latest collection of kitchen-themed essays, Medium Raw. We were both not just pleased with our own gifts but eager to read/play the other’s, so I’d rank this as a successful Valentine’s Day.

All was not bliss, however, and not just because OFB forgot to clean the litterbox (as I recently discovered). We’d decided to postpone our Valentine dinner until Thursday, when we’ll go to Wild Rice, a favorite Japanese/Chinese/Thai restaurant. Tonight we’re going to celebrate with our Friday Night Supper Club friends.

I’d made a batch of my luscious spaghetti sauce this weekend (you can search for the recipe by typing “spaghetti sauce” in our search bar at upper right) and had plenty left over, so I volunteered to make and bring lasagna* and a yummy loaf of bread; our friends would provide salad and wine.

Not exactly stress-inducing, right? Wrong. Suddenly two extra guests were added to the list, bringing the total to seven. And unlike so many dishes—soups, sauces, chili, stir-fries, you name it—lasagna won’t expand to feed additional mouths.

In a normal home, this wouldn’t be a problem: You’d just make either a bigger pan of lasagna or two pans. But ours is not a normal home. We have a vintage Caloric (yes, that really is its unfortunate name) gas stove, and its oven stopped working several years ago. I’m convinced that all it needs is a good cleaning, but finding someone who can still work on Caloric stoves is difficult and finding the money to pay them, or replace the venerable and much-loved stove with even a used model (it’s extra-wide), is impossible. As a stop-gap, we bought a countertop convection/toaster oven, which is usually ample for me and OFB. It is not ample enough, however, for either a large pan or two pans of lasagna. I’ve had to restrict my baking, roasting, broiling and etc. to pans, trays and the like that would fit into the toaster oven.

Big deal, you might think, just make two pans. But I only have one pan that would work for lasagna. It would be a huge pain to have to cook two pans one at a time anyway. And then there’s the issue of the ingredients. My homemade spaghetti sauce is rich, thick, chunky, incredible. But what if I don’t have enough for two pans? Will some diners get a luscious piece of lasagna made of premium sauce, and others get a boring serving made with store-bought? Aaaarrgghhh!!!

So of course I was roaming the house screaming and wringing my hands over this, much to poor OFB’s dismay. (I’m sure he would have loved to say “And happy Valentine’s Day to you, too!” but fortunately he resisted.) And I need to buy birthday presents for a good friend I’m seeing tomorrow and for our neighbor, whose birthday happens to fall on Valentine’s Day. Pressure!!! The day already seems far too short, and of course, the money far too tight.

I decided to focus instead—for a minute or two, anyway—on the pleasant, stress-free prospect of our Thursday supper at Wild Rice. OFB has a bag of clothes to give to Goodwill, which is just down from the restaurant, so I wanted to remind him to be sure to bring it.

Wait—Goodwill! Last time we went over there, I’d found a square Corning casserole dish and top that I knew would fit in our toaster oven, yet be big enough to make a good-size lasagna. I’d snapped it up, but hadn’t yet used it and had forgotten about it. Whoa, problem solved! Surely I can get eight squares of lasagna out of that dish without having to even try to make a second one. And one lucky person can have seconds!

What a relief. Looks like Valentine’s Day is going to be a success after all.

Wishing each and every one of you lots of love and joy today and every day!

               ‘Til next time,

                             Silence 

* I’ve been struggling with the lasagna/lasagne issue for several years, but have finally come up with a solution that satisfies me. In Italian, in this case, “a” indicates singular and “e” indicates plural. There are several pieces of lasagna pasta used to make the dish, so the pasta would be lasagne. But there is only one dish: lasagna.

No-cook lasagna noodles. December 7, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I love lasagna, but until last year, I’d never tried to make it. All of you who know me as an enthusiastic from-scratch cook who loves not only creating homemade dishes—in many of which pasta features prominently—but is fearless about improvising may be shocked by this. But there was something about lasagna that intimidated me.

Then a friend told me about no-cook lasagna noodles. These aren’t, obviously, really “no-cook.” Instead, they save the extra step of cooking the pasta before assembling the lasagna and putting it in the oven to bake, hopefully to greatness. Okay, I thought, I can do this.

Heading to the grocery, I found Barilla no-cook lasagna noodles and bought a box. (Technically “Barilla Lasagne No Boiling.”)* Returning home with the pasta, ricotta, and mozzarella, I made a batch of my yummy homemade spaghetti sauce and got down to business. But I was in for a shock. The “pasta” in the box looked more like paste: flat, white rectangles of pasty cardboard, bearing no resemblance to lasagna noodles. Yikes! Still, I soldiered on. Surely these people knew what they were doing, and somehow the end result would really be lasagna.

Fat chance. All that time, money and effort resulted in a “lasagna” that bore about as much resemblance to real lasagna as those refrigerator tubes of “crescent rolls” bear to fresh-from-scratch croissants. How terribly disappointing.

Fine, so much for that. Not one to be beaten by a mere disaster, the next time I found myself craving lasagna, I marched into the store, bought traditional must-cook lasagna noodles, boiled them, and put together my lasagna. Yum!!! It was a pain, but the results were perfect. So good! Okay, I thought, too bad, but at least now I can make a great lasagna.

So this past Saturday, I was at the grocery, knowing that I had a big vat of wonderful homemade spaghetti sauce, a container of ricotta cheese, and two packs of shredded mozzarella at home in the fridge. All I needed were the lasagna noodles, and our friend Ben and I could look forward to a yummy hot lasagna, a huge winter-themed tossed salad, and even broccoli rabe sauteed with sweet onion and mushrooms. (I’d decided to go all out.)

As I reached for a box of lasagna noodles, a woman came up and asked me if I knew where the “instant” lasagna noodles were and if I’d tried them. No, I didn’t know where they were. Yes, I’d tried them and thought they were awful. “Oh, no, I love them!!!” Well, we can’t all have any sense of taste. “What kind did you try?” she continued. “I once bought some that were flat and pasty and were just awful.” Oh, wait a minute. “Then I found these and they’re just great!” Grabbing a few boxes, she moved off.

Hmmm. She’d picked up boxes of San Giorgio no-cook lasagna, billed as “Oven Ready Lasagna.” I could see through the cello window that this pasta was the golden color of real pasta and was rippled like actual lasagna noodles. It bore no resemblance to the flat, pallid “pasta” I’d tried before. Seduced yet again, I put the boil-first lasagna noodles back on the shelf and picked up a couple of boxes of the new, improved no-cook kind. Maybe this one would do the trick!

Nope. To me, what makes a great lasagna is the combination of a richly flavored tomato sauce, plenty of ricotta and mozzarella, and the chewy contrast of the pasta itself. (This is why I tend to avoid “vegetarian” lasagna, since they make it with a white sauce and pretty much with no cheese of any kind. What the hell’s that?!! That’s not lasagna!) So you can imagine my disappointment when I sliced into my serving and couldn’t detect any pasta at all. Yes, of course it was in there, I’d layered it myself. But no, it disappeared in terms of adding textural contrast, its sole purpose in the dish as far as I’m concerned. I might as well have been eating a bowl of spaghetti sauce with ricotta and mozzarella cheese on top.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. From now on, I’ll go the extra mile and cook the damned pasta before I compose the lasagna and put it in the oven. Then I’ll be assured of a wonderful meal for my effort. But I’ll say one good thing about the no-cook pasta: It gave me the courage to try to make lasagna on my own.

If your experience with no-cook lasagna noodles has been different from mine, please, please let me know. I’d still like to skip that extra step. But not at the cost of the dish itself!

          ‘Til next time,

                     Silence

* Oh. In case you’re wondering what the deal is with “lasagne” versus “lasagna,” let me share what little I remember from my Italian classes. That “e” ending is plural for the feminine “a” ending. Thus, one lasagna noodle, but a box of lasagne noodles. The dish, however, is a single entity and should still be called lasagna, whatever you choose to call the pasta pieces.—Silence

Winning the lasagna wars. February 16, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. As faithful readers know, I love to cook. And one of the things I really love to cook is pasta. But for some reason, lasagna always intimidated me. It seemed so complicated. And I’d been served so much really bad lasagna—watery, gummy, too much cheese, not enough cheese, not enough sauce, bad sauce, bad ingredients, you name it. (I love spinach, but keep it out of my lasagna, please. And that goes double for weird veggies and white sauce. Eeeewwww!!!)

Anyway, much as I love lasagna, I’ve never dared to make it. I guess I have fear of lasagna the way people have fear of heights or fear of flying. But boy, do I love to eat it! So when my friend Dolores invited me over for a “Girls’ Night In” and volunteered to cook, then asked what I’d like, I said “Lasagna, please!” Dolores makes the best Caesar salad ever (even rubbing the salad bowl with a cut garlic clove). Her Caesar salad and homemade lasagna seemed like a pairing made in Heaven.

“I don’t know how to make lasagna,” Dolores told me. “How about stuffed shells?” Well, I love stuffed shells, too, so it took me a nanosecond to agree. But I was thinking, maybe it wasn’t just me. Maybe other people were intimidated by lasagna, too! It was clearly time to face my fears head-on. The lasagna wars had begun!

To make things as easy on myself as possible, I began by buying a box of the kind of lasagna pasta that you don’t have to pre-boil before assembling the lasagna. I chose Barilla, and noted that the box said “lasagne,” not “lasagna.” Now, if I remember my Italian classes, the plural of a noun that ends in “a” ends in “e”. So I’m assuming that “lasagne” refers to the sheets of pasta and “lasagna” refers to the dish unless informed otherwise.

Anyway, the Barilla box not only had a recipe on the back, but it had directions for assembling the lasagna. However, I was damned and determined to make a mushroom lasagna of my own devising, and it was clear that the folks at Barilla weren’t exactly thinking of my 9-by-13-inch Pyrex baking pan when they wrote those directions. As usual, I decided to use their recipe as a guideline and forge ahead on my own.

Since I’m posting it, you’ll probably have guessed that my lasagna recipe was a huge success!  I’d decided to invite a crowd for the initial tasting (at least, a crowd for our little kitchen table)—our friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders, his girlfriend Bridget, and our friend Rudy were going to join our friend Ben and me for the repast (which included cooked spinach as a side dish and a big, colorful salad). I figured if it turned out to be horrible, I could always send OFB out for an emergency pizza.

As it happened, everyone loved the lasagna and it vanished in a flurry of second helpings. So I’m going to post the recipe in case you need to win the lasagna wars, too. If you’re an accomplished lasagna master and have a favorite recipe to share, I’d love to hear about it, and I’m sure other readers would, too!

One thing I’ll say about this lasagna: I wasn’t totally pleased with the no-cook pasta. It didn’t strike me as assertive enough. (Though, when I repeatedly asked everyone else, they all said it was great, so decide for yourselves.) I want a bit more fight in my lasagna pasta, I guess. I want it to stand up and be counted as an ingredient. So next time I make this, I guess I’ll break down and buy the sort of lasagna pasta that you have to boil to al dente before layering in the dish. I suspect it’ll be worth the extra step.

Finally, here’s the recipe. Try it, you’ll like it!

                 Mushroom Lasagna a la Silence

For the sauce:

2 large onions, diced

2-4 cloves garlic, minced

2 large cartons of mushrooms, sliced

1 large can tomato paste

1 large can crushed tomatoes

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon dried basil

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon dried marjoram

1 teaspoon lemon pepper, or black pepper of your choice

1 tablespoon Trocamare, Real Salt, or salt of your choice

1 tablespoon Pickapeppa, Tabasco Chipotle, or hot sauce of your choice

1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 cup red wine (Chianti, Burgundy, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot, whatever you have on hand)

Extra-virgin olive oil

Saute the onions and garlic in ample olive oil until clarified. Add the herbs, spices, and hot sauce. Add the mushrooms and cook until soft. (I had hoped to use a mix of mushrooms, and recommend that you do—I plan to next time I make this—but I only had button mushrooms on hand. They were just fine.) Add the tomato paste and crushed tomatoes, stirring well to blend. Add the sugar and wine. Continue cooking on low heat until quite thick and fragrant.

For the filling:

1 carton (15 ounces) Ricotta cheese

2 large eggs

2 cups shredded Mozarella cheese

2/3 cup shredded Parmesan and Asiago cheeses, mixed

1 teaspoon Trocamare, Real Salt, or salt of your choice

Beat eggs with a wooden or bamboo spoon. Add Ricotta cheese and beat well to blend. Add salt and shredded cheeses, again beating well until thoroughly incorporated. The filling will be quite thick.

To assemble the lasagna:

Pour a layer of sauce in the bottom of a 9-by-13″ ovenproof pan. Top it with six sheets of lasagna, overlapping them as needed to fit them in. Top the sheets with the Ricotta mixture, spreading to coat the pasta sheets evenly. Add another layer of tomato-mushroom sauce, another layer of overlapped pasta sheets, another layer of sauce, and a final layer of shredded Mozarella to cover. Cover with aluminum foil, place on a cookie sheet (also covered with a sheet of foil in case of spills during baking), and bake at 375 degrees F. for an hour. Uncover for the last five minutes.

Remove lasagna from the oven and allow to set for 15 minutes before cutting it into portion-sized squares and serving. Serves six if most of them want second helpings, or more if they can manage to eat a single portion. Keeps and reheats well.

Okay, I’ll admit it: When I was dishing this up, I hid a couple of servings so our friend Ben and I could have it for supper later in the week. I’m already looking forward to it!

                ‘Til next time,

                            Silence