I have a friend, Gina, who prepares amazing Italian dishes. Because she has been cooking since she was a young girl, she feels very comfortable in the kitchen. In fact, Gina barely needs to consult her recipes. Like any good Italian cook, she can “taste” when the sauce needs just a touch more basil.
So when I decided to make lasagna for an upcoming party, I checked my DinnerTime Recipe Box, found some great choices, and called Gina for advice. She said the first ingredient is love, and the first step is to pour myself a glass of wine! “A happy cook makes a better lasagna.” She said the rest is all about the layers.
I get it. The layers make lasagna unique. Other pasta dishes are tossed, not layered. Not only are there layers of different ingredients, but then each tier is repeated multiple times. Lasagna is visually exciting. My taste buds anticipate the delicious blend of flavors as my fork slices through the beautiful layers.
Not only do I love to eat lasagna, I love that I can make it ahead and, in one pan, serve so many guests. It takes up-front effort, but the ease on the day I serve it is worth it. Usually I make more than one pan at a time, and will freeze the extra pan or separate it into smaller dishes, and share with friends.
DinnerTime has recipes that are quicker versions of a classic lasagna for time-sensitive days, but purists, like Gina, enjoy dedicating several hours to create lasagna. Gina describes the experience as a connection with her family. She makes the sauce from scratch that she learned from her grandmother. She blends the cheeses with the herbs and spices her family has always used. Gina loves that the lasagna she learned to make as a child is a favorite with her own children.
No two pans of lasagna are exactly alike. It all comes down to what you put in your layers. You can even use different ingredients in the layers from pan to pan. My favorite is this Hearty Vegetable Lasagna, which includes mushrooms, peppers and onions. Gina makes a classic meat lasagna. You can follow the basic principles of her tips, and use whatever layers and sauce that suit your taste.
Gina’s key tips for lasagna layers:
- Sauce: First and last layer is the sauce. Gina does make her own sauce, but freely admits that a jar of good-quality marinara sauce is a great starting point. She adds browned ground beef, Italian sausage and mushrooms for a thick and hearty sauce, perfect for layering. She often uses ground turkey instead of ground beef, but cook your preference.
- Noodles: Gina’s tip is to undercook the noodles so they are just softened. She adds a little olive oil to the water so they don’t stick together. After they have cooked, she lays them between sheets of plastic wrap or parchment paper so they don’t stick. She suggests spraying with olive oil to make them easier to use.
- Cheese: Ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan — or as Gina says “rrrigut, mootz and Parm!” (She’s third-generation Italian, and that’s the way her family says it!) She uses block mozzarella, but says the shredded works well too. She liberally adds her herbs and spices to this layer, including parsley, garlic powder and basil.
- Love: Gina said the most important ingredient was the love she pours into making lasagna. As she prepares her lasagna, she feels the connection with her family, past and future. Sharing so much of herself through the food makes gatherings with friends and family feel more meaningful.
Gina and I think the hardest part of making lasagna occurs after we remove the tray from the oven. The aroma wafts through the house signaling a delicious meal, but it’s still not ready. Lasagna should “set” for at least 10 minutes before slicing and serving. The wait is worth it!