She calls herself a “truck-stop cook.” She isn’t what she would call a “chef.” She is a craftsman who has a few really good recipes.
Over the years, she’s cooked these few (these happy few), receiving raves from friends and family lucky enough to partake. Over the years, she’s tinkered with each concoction, improving and perfecting her enchiladas, banana bread, beef stew, spag-bol, quiche Lorraine, cinnamon rolls, cookies, fudge, and–notably–lasagna.
She’s been working on her lasagna recipe for 30 years. She measures by eye, always has sauce and cheese left over, always makes them two at a time–a large one for the feast, a smaller one to be frozen, uncooked, for later–and always, always it is wonderful, flavorful, and unlike any other lasagna I’ve ever tasted.
Last weekend, Ilene made her lasagna for a large gathering of friends and neighbors. The occasion was specifically to introduce her masterpiece to folks who’ve never had it before. Normally, I am her sous chef, doing all the chopping and grating, stirring and cleaning, while she swans in and casts her magic alchemy with handfuls of spice and multiple taste-tests. This time, however, I followed her around, noted her every move, measured every handful and pile she used, and weighed all the ingredients left behind. I calculated the mounds and pounds that went into each of the two mismatched pies, then got out my slide rule and conversion charts and constructed a single recipe for a 9×13″ lasagna.
Last night, I tried it myself, and got Ilene’s stamp of approval.
As with all recipes, I can think of things I want to try next time–a dash of this, a spoonful of that–but this is the radix, the omphalos, the groundwater source of Ilene’s wonderful, delectable, world-class lasagna.
Caveat: This is not a health-minded recipe. It’s a heart attack on a plate. We don’t have it every week, or even every month. For us, it’s a once-, maybe twice-a-year treat, usually bookended by days of low-calorie meals and exercise for preparation and recovery.
Trust me. It’s worth it.
Ilene’s World Class Lasagna
Makes 9 servings
- One large pot
- One 9×13″ glass baking dish
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 6 cloves garlic, minced and mashed
- 1 cup chopped mushrooms
- 1/2 lb mild Italian sausage, loose (or cut from casings)
- 1/2 lb hot Italian sausage, loose (or cut from casings)
- 14 oz can diced tomatoes
- 6 oz can tomato paste
- 14 oz warm water
- 1/2 tbsp thyme
- 3 tbsp Mexican oregano
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
- 12 sheets 3.5×7″ no-bake/oven-ready lasagna noodles
- 1 lb medium cheddar, grated coarsely
- 1 lb mozzarella, grated coarsely
- 6 oz Parmesan, grated finely
- 12 oz Ricotta
Make the Sauce (about 5 cups)
- In a large pot over a medium heat, warm the olive oil until it starts to shimmer
- Add the chopped onion and saute until barely translucent (about 3-4 minutes)
- Add the minced/mashed garlic and saute until golden (2-3 minutes), stirring constantly
- Add the chopped mushrooms and saute until cooked down (6-7 minutes)
- Reserve the sautéed veg to a bowl
- Reduce the heat to medium-low
- Add loose Italian sausage to the pot and brown without much stirring, letting it caramelize (about 15 minutes), breaking it up as it cooks; do this in batches if necessary to allow the water to evaporate
- Return onions, garlic, and mushrooms to pot; stir to mix
- Add diced tomatoes, tomato paste, and water to pot; stir to blend and thin out the paste
- Add thyme, oregano, bay leaves, cumin, and ground black pepper
- Reduce heat to low, partially cover the pot, and let it simmer until it cooks down and thickens (about 1.5-2 hours)
- Turn off the heat, let it cool, and refrigerate the sauce overnight to let the flavors meld (see Notes)
Assemble the Lasagna
- Grease the inside of a 9×13″ glass baking dish with some olive oil
- Take the sauce from the fridge and reheat it, just warming it back up to make it easier to ladle and spread out
- Coarsely grate the cheddar and mozzarella; put both in a large bowl and mix thoroughly
- Finely grate the Parmesan; add it and the ricotta to a medium-sized bowl and blend thoroughly
- Put three sheets of the oven-ready lasagna noodles in the bottom of the baking dish, crossing it on the short axis; leave a small amount of space between each noodle
- Ladle one-quarter of the sauce over the noodles and spread out evenly; keep the sauce on the noodles
- Take one-quarter of the Parmesan/ricotta mix and dot each lasagna noodle with 4-6 chunks of the mixture; gently press each dollop down into the warm sauce
- Take one-quarter of the cheddar/mozzarella mix and distribute it over the noodles; this mixture can cover the entire area of the dish, not just the noodles; gently press down to compress the layer a bit
- Repeat the previous four steps (noodles, sauce, Parmesan/ricotta, cheddar/mozzarella) three times, building a total of 4 layers
- When you’re done, the ingredients should fill the dish to the rim, but not be heaped too high; press down gently to compress it a little, if needed
- The lasagna can be refrigerated or frozen at this point (see Notes)
Bake the Lasagna
- If you’ve frozen or refrigerated the assembled lasagna, take it out and let it thaw/come to room temperature before baking
- Situate a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350°F
- Place the baking dish on a cookie sheet (it’s going to dribble as it cooks) and put them on the center rack
- Bake for 45-50 minutes; it should be bubbly and browned on top; if it’s not browned to your satisfaction, let it go for 5-10 minutes more (just keep an eye on it)
- Remove from the oven and let rest for 10 minutes; it will sink down a bit and will be easier to cut
- Cut in thirds crosswise (between the noodles) and then into thirds lengthwise, forming 9 pieces
- Give corner pieces to honored guests; serve with a Caesar salad and sourdough
- This is a killer sauce, and can be used all by itself. Double the recipe, use half in the lasagna, and parcel out/freeze the other half for use in pasta dishes
- Storing the sauce overnight is optional, but adds a lot to the depth and mellowness of the flavors
- Once we accidentally (okay, I accidentally) bought Monterey Jack instead of mozzarella and, though it wasn’t as good, it was still quite good; the secret is the sauce…get that right and you can screw up a lot of the rest.
- Do not use low-fat/non-fat cheese for this; it’s not the same.
- After assembling the lasagna (but before baking), the entire lasagna can be covered in cling-film and either refrigerated or frozen. They keep well in the freezer for a couple months. Just remember to take it out and let it thaw/come to room temperature before you bake it.
- Ilene tried for years to perfect this with boiled lasagna noodles, but they always tore during assembly, often came out mushy, and were always crunchy/chewy at the edges where they were exposed. Give it a go if you want, but the oven-ready/no-bake noodles cook to perfection in this lasagna, and are Ilene’s recommended method.