Saturday, September 6, 2008

Lasagna, Bachelor Style

It has been way too long since I have cooked my own lasagna at home. I did it today, with terrific results. But how I did it is worth telling.

The immediate problem confronting a bachelor like me is that the typical recipe for lasagna - and the quantities in which the ingredients are packaged - result in enough piping-hot food to fill a deep-dish, 9-by-13-inch pan. This presents a practical difficulty: I simply can't eat that much lasagna! Most of it will end up becoming leftovers.

If I ate it for dinner every night, it would take me a week to finish it all. I could cut the time down by eating it at every meal, but that's no way to balance one's diet. I would be so sick of the stuff after days of eating nothing else - especially as it grows tough and rubbery - that I might end up throwing some away. Best-case scenario, I freeze portions to heat up in the microwave at a later date - though, in my opinion, frozen-reheated lasagna is never all one hopes it will be. So, unless I hold off on making lasagna for when I have company (which is less than once a year), I have to weigh my love of the dish against the waste. That's what comes of cooking enough for 4-6 people when you're dining alone.

Bottom line, I haven't made lasagna in years. When I really have a jones on, I go to some restaurant that serves it and try theirs. Even if I like the way I make it better than most restaurants' version, I live in the right neighborhood to explore the possibilities - the Hill, where there are more Italian flags than American ones.

While shopping for groceries on Thursday, I decided to make lasagna again. But this time, I made plans to avoid the horror of a refrigerator full of moldering lasagna.

I started by buying ingredients for another dish altogether: the Cedric Adams hotdish I have described on this blog. I bought a head of cabbage, a Vidalia onion, a can of tomato soup, and a 2-pound package of ground beef - neither the leanest nor the fattest kind on offer. But then I also tossed in some lasagna ingredients - the type of lasagne noodles you don't have to boil; a 15-ounce tub of ricotta cheese; a carton of 8 eggs; some already-shredded mozarella; and a 26.5-ounce can of the store brand pasta sauce (smooth, traditional flavor). Knowing that I was going to cut down both recipes, I made up my mind to stretch the onion and hamburger between them.

Thursday night, I cut the cabbage into three portions. I stored two of the portions in the fridge against a near-future repeat of this experiment; the remaining third I sliced up and blanched for 2 minutes in boiling water, then drained. While the ground beef was browning in a saucepan with some olive oil, a little anchovy paste, a clove of minced roasted garlic, and a tint of marjoram, I chopped up the onion and set it aside. This turns out to be a critical step.

Conventional wisdom seems to have it that the onion should be browned with the hamburger. This may be true in dishes like chile, which are mostly done when the meat is browned, but not (I find) when you are going to bake the meat and onions afterward. Overcooking causes onions to become limp and flavorless - or even worse, to dissolve altogether. To ensure that I ended up with onions I could sink my teeth into, onions that profoundly influenced the flavor of the dish, I simply chopped them and set them aside, blending the fully-browned meat with them afterward.

Then I combined my blanched cabbage with half of the meat and onion mixture in a 7-by-10-inch pan (!), spread the contents of a tin of tomato soup over the top, covered it with foil, and baked in a 350-degree oven for half an hour. I sealed up the remaining browned hamburger and uncooked unions and refrigerated them for another day. The Cedric Adams hotdish came out nicely, with plenty of tender onion and cabbage mixed with the meat in a moist, sweet glaze. It wasn't exactly "food channel" material, but it went down well and yielded only enough leftovers for an enjoyable lunch on Friday.

This morning, I sneaked a little of the onion-and-beef mixture and used it in an omelette. That was quite good too. But in the afternoon, I decided to combine lunch with dinner and make the lasagna I had been pining for all along. The meat was already browned. The onion was already chopped. I had only to mix two eggs, the ricotta, half a cup of parmesan, and half the package of shredded mozarella. I added some ground black pepper and some crushed mint leaves, though those are only strictly necessary when you're making manicotti. I covered the bottom of the 7-by-10 with red sauce, then fitted most of 3 flat, ready-to-bake lasagne noodles on the bottom. I had to break a little off the short end each one, plus a bit off the long side of one of them, to make them fit in the pan. What did I tell you about a 9-by-13 being assumed?

I spread a good 1/3 of the ricotta mixture on the noodles, then half the meat and onion, then half of the remaining mozarella, then another helping of sauce. I broke the ends off two more noodles, laid them on top, and fitted the broken pieces into the space a third noodle would have occupied. Then I put on another 1/3 of the ricotta, the remaining meat and onion, a goodly amount of sauce, and the rest of the mozarella. The dish being shallower than the 9-by-13 in which it typically nests, that was as many layers as I could fit in it. It was a seriously abridged recipe, but it would have to do. I put the rest of the noodles (better than half the package) back in the cupboard; I sealed up the leftover ricotta mixture and threw it in the freezer; and while the covered dish was baking at 375 degrees, I poured what remained of the pasta sauce over two pieces of toast and ate them with a sprinkling of parmesan.

A little over an hour later, I pulled the lasagna out of the oven and let it cool for a while. Then I dug in. It was delicious! The part that pleased me most was the consistency and flavor of the onions, which would never have amounted to anything if I had browned them with the meat. For a store-brand canned sauce, the "smooth, traditional" red stuff contributed a good flavor. I didn't miss the heaps of basil, oregano, and other stereotypically Italian herbs that I could have added, though I believe the mint made a subtle improvement.

I didn't spend hours slaving over this lasagna. It took two minutes to make the cheese mixture. Everything else was ready to go except building the thing, and that didn't take as long as preheating the oven. Best of all, by the time I didn't feel like eating any more, half of the lasagna was gone. I was able to squeeze all the leftovers into one sealable storage container, from which I will probably nibble a little later. If I don't finish the leftovers at lunch tomorrow, I may have just enough for another late-night snack, then no more worries about crummy, rubberized lasagna stinking up my fridge.

So for quick, easy, cheap, bachelor-sized lasagna that packs some outstanding flavor highlights, I recommend (a) using a smaller, shallower pan; (b) saving half the meat, onion, and ricotta mixture for other things; (c) breaking the ready-to-bake noodles to fit the pan, and saving some of them as well; (d) browning the meat with olive oil, anchovy paste, minced garlic, and a pinch of marjoram; (e) flavoring the ricotta mixture with a little mint and black pepper; (f) baking raw chopped onions, rather than browning them with the meat; and (g) snacking on toast with the remaining red sauce that you don't use in the dish. Everything can be "store brand" except the pasta itself, for which I recommend the Barilla brand. Of course you can season yours any way you like. You can go to much more trouble, if you feel you must. But at least assembled-by-hand (if not completely home-made) can be better than the stuff you buy in the frozen aisle, and gives you the chance to fix whatever the restaurants don't do right.

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