Saturday, November 19, 2005

Lasagna Mama

Pasta has received a bad rap recently. This is especially true when we discuss lasagna because it can be high in carbs, contains dairy, and is quite heavy. But pasta in some form probably receives note on most peoples' top ten food list. We must be honest with ourselves though: Lasagna peaks the pasta pyramid. It is simple to make. It can be created in a slew of different ways. It is very tasty. In complete, if made properly, it is a satisfying meal in itself. With Atkins now passé, and research declaring that dairy 3 times a day actually maintains a healthy motabalism why not make a lasagna to keep you warm and happy in the cooling weather?

As many people now know, pasta was invented in China. Brought west, it was soon taken on as a favorite in many lands. The dish, lasagna, as we know it might even be Chinese in origin (cookbooks have been found pre-dating any Greek or Italian description of a very similar dish). But the word Lasagna itself may be Latin in origin, "lasania,", "cooking pot" or classical Greek "lagana," "a type of unleavened bread not unlike pasta". In today's vernacular, "lasagne" is plural for the singular slice of "lasagna", which is how most Brits and N. Americans now refer to the dish. You call it lasagne, I call it lasagna-- either way, eat it up.

Lasagna can be made many ways: Traditional, with pasta and meat or vegetarian. One can also substitute the pasta for eggplant, zucchini, or a combination of both (meat or no). One easy shortcut to keep in mind when using pasta is that there is no need to cook the noodles before you assemble your lasagna: Put a thin layer of sauce on the bottom, cover with pasta, and continue as normal. The water from the sauce will cook the pasta perfectly in the oven. It is also great because the pasta will not fall apart as easily and you can break the pieces to size.

I made my lasagna with zucchini and meat. I put my basil plant to use and made fresh basil sauce-- okay, I bought plain, no salt/ no flavor tomato cans and added my own flavors (it is less salty this way and I know exactly what is going into the lasagna). But I have made it before from fresh tomatoes and this too is a great treat. I used fresh mozzarella, fresh ricotta and good parmesan. Using good, fresh cheese is a little more work but really adds to the flavor. This recipe is an Atkins lover dream (or for someone, like me, who ran out of pasta noodles). The best part is that there is plenty leftover for the rest of the week or to cut it up, wrap it in foil and freeze for a needy day or working lunch.

1 cup fresh ricotta, grated (you can buy 1/4 lb of the cheese and use all or save some for other dishes)
1 cup fresh good parmesan, grated (not that Kraft stuff)
1 good size fresh buffalo mozzarella, sliced
1- 15 oz can no salt/ no flavors added tomato sauce
1- 8oz can no salt/ no flavors added tomatoes, chopped
1- 6oz can no salt/ no flavors added tomato paste
1 lb good beef, ground (you can buy good meat at the butcher and have them grind it fresh for you)
1 medium onion, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, pressed
6 white button mushrooms, chopped
6-8 sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
10 leaves fresh basil, chopped + some whole
5-6 kalamato olives, pitted and chopped
salt/pepper to taste
5 medium zucchinis, ends cut off and sliced long about 1/4 inch thick

The Sauce:
1) In a good sized pot, over medium heat, add beef (you do not need to add any butter/ oil. The fat from the meat will be enough), onions, mushrooms and garlic. Cook about 10-15 min until the meat and mushrooms are browned and the onion is clear and soft, stirring occasionally.
2) Add sun-dried tomatoes, olives and 10 chopped basil leaves. Cook about 3 min, stirring.
3) Add the tomato sauces.
4) Bring sauce to a light boil then turn down heat and allow to simmer about 10min (more if you want a thicker sauce)

Lasagna Assemblage:
1) Preheat oven to 350F. Ladle a thin layer of sauce into the bottom of 11 x 9 x 3 inch pyrex (or other non reactive pan). Cover bottom of pan with a layer of zucchini, a thin layer of the parmesan and thin layer of the ricotta.
2) Add layer of sauce, zucchini and cheeses again. Continue until layers reach top of dish. Finish off with one last layer of sauce and zucchini if you have any left. Then lay out the sliced mozzarella and place one basil leaf on each piece of mozzarella.
3) Create a foil dome using 3-4 toothpicks poking out of the mozzarella. Put in oven on the center rack for 30 min. (You may want to place a cookie sheet below to catch drippings.) Remove toothpicks and tinfoil and bake another 10-15 min until mozzarella is lightly browned on the edges (it will look like roasted marshmallow).

Eaten with a salad this is a fabulous feast. As you can see from the results, this was an excellent lasagna that kept its' form very well. It tasted even better than it looks.

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