Casseroles make some of the most practical and delicious all-in-one meals. When you have a dish like lasagna, you really don't need sides, the lasagna takes all the attention. The thing that makes lasagna so popular is its ability to bring joy to everyone who eats it. I've never met a person who didn't like lasagna. It has to be all that cheese and sauce melted together between layers and layers of pasta. Most people would agree that lasagna is Italy's answer to comfort food. Not to mention it's practically a sanctified Italian-American specialty.
This recipe is based on a traditional Northern Italian lasagne alla Bolognese named after the gastronomic hub of Bologna. The lasagna features two important ingredients: the ragù, a slow-cooked meat sauce, and a béchamel, a white sauce made of butter, flour, milk, and a touch of nutmeg. Italian-American lasagna replaces béchamel sauce with ricotta. It's mostly a time-saving step, but I'd like to think we Americans prefer the flavor of the cheese to the white sauce. My recipe fuses both traditional and modern by combining the ragù and the ricotta filling to create a classic Italian-American lasagna.
Except for the pasta, this lasagna is made almost from scratch. The sauce starts with sofrito (onion, garlic, carrot, and celery), tomato paste, red wine, and crushed tomatoes. Cooked slowly for about an hour, it makes the most simple and versatile sauce. Without the meat, it could easily function as a flavorful marinara. The sauce can be made a day in advance and rewarmed before assembling the lasagna. Once it's baked, bubbling, and brown, be sure to let the lasagna cool so it doesn't ooze into a puddle, though it's still highly enjoyable either way. This lasagna would make the most perfect Sunday family supper. Just think how easy it will be to get everyone to the table when they hear what's for dinner.
for the Bolognese sauce:
1 large yellow onion, cubed
2 celery stalks, cubed
2 carrots, cubed
2 garlic cloves
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork
fine sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup dry red wine
2 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
1 large bay leaf
for the ricotta filling:
1 32-ounce container ricotta cheese
1 large egg
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup chopped parsley
for the assembly:
14 sheets dried lasagna pasta
1 pound mozzarella, sliced
8 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated
Make the Bolognese sauce: Add onion, celery, carrots, and garlic to the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until finely chopped.
Warm a splash of oil in a large pot or Dutch oven set over medium-high heat. Add the ground meats and cook, breaking up bits, until no longer pink, about 8 minutes. Remove to a bowl and drain off fat.
Refresh the pot with oil and add chopped vegetables. Sauté until very soft, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in tomato paste. Pour in wine and bring to a boil. Simmer vigorously for 5 minutes to cook off alcohol. Return cooked meats to the pot. Add tomatoes, Italian seasoning, and bay leaf. Bring back to a simmer and reduce heat to low. Cook, uncovered, until thickened, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Check seasoning once cooked. Remove bay leaf.
Make the ricotta filling: Combine ricotta, egg, milk and parsley in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper.
Boil the pasta in liberally salted water until just short of al dente. Drain into a colander, return to pot, and toss with oil to prevent sticking. Brush the bottom and sides of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with oil.
Assemble the lasagna: Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Add a ladleful of sauce to bottom of pan and spread evenly. Layer over crosswise with 4 sheets of pasta, allowing ends to turn up sides of baking dish. Line each end of baking dish with a sheet of pasta to form a collar. Spread about half the sauce in the bottom. Top with half the ricotta filling and spread evenly. Top with a third of the mozzarella and a third of the Parmesan. Repeat with another layer of 4 sheets of pasta, almost all the remaining sauce (reserve 1 ladleful), the remaining ricotta filling, half the remaining mozzarella, and half the remaining Parmesan. Top with the remaining pasta. Spread with remaining ladleful sauce. Top with remaining mozzarella and Parmesan. Tuck the ends of the pasta into the baking dish using a spatula. Place the baking dish on a sheet of foil to catch any drips and bake lasagna until bubbling and brown, about 45 minutes. Let rest for 45 minutes before serving. Yield: 8 servings.