Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Good Lasagne? It's the Sauce!

Lasagne, being a dish I adore, is something I have eaten in many restaurants and friend's homes in various cities and countries without ever having a truly bad version.  Therefore it pains me to admit that my own had always let me down; no matter what I did, whether if I made my own sauce, or if I upped the ante and made my own sauce with my own garden Romas, or if I used herbs fresh from my garden, or if I boosted the  Béchamel with Parmesan--nothing worked, at least not to my taste buds.  


We would dutifully eat it and not say much; oh, but did we discuss all the other lasagnes!  The lasagne at that restaurant, at that friend's party, what did they have that mine didn't, how did they get their oomph?  I didn't want to take the easy way out--some refuse to ask directions, while others refuse to ask what's in a recipe.  Though in general, I am not this obstinate about seeking culinary assistance.

After some time and various fine-tunings, it was when I substituted Toulouse sausage for the ground beef and put a lot of fresh basil and then put in some more basil, and then even more--it was alarming to see all those green bits floating hither thither in the pot--that suddenly it became a good lasagne.  Though there are many versions as delicious, I prefer mine because I know first hand the determined, unrelenting stubbornness that went into its creation.


Tomato/Sausage Sauce
makes about 3 quarts--sauce freezes well

  • Tomatoes, fresh Romas/plum or canned plum tomatoes (best brand you can get)--60 fresh/frozen Romas or about three 16 oz cans
  • Garlic, at least 3-5 fat cloves
  • Bay Leaf, one or two
  • Basil, around 1/4 cup* packed fresh leaves, or a heaping T dried
  • Parmesan rind, several small ones
  • Sausages, Sweet Italian or Toulouse, 10-12
  • Any tomato juice leftover from using fresh tomatoes
  • Tomato paste, several tablespoons up to a half of a tube
  • Olive oil, extra virgin, a T or two
  • Carrot, peeled, small, grated very fine
  • Salt to taste, I use about 1 T.
  • Freshly ground black pepper, about 1/8-1/4 tsp  

Since the tomato sauce is an ocean of flavour in which all the other ingredients are submerged, it's the key to a good lasagne.  The sauce of course can be made in advance and frozen--just remember to thaw it before the day you make the lasagne!  Choose the best Sweet Italian (or even better, Toulouse) sausages you can find.


Spilt the casings and in a heavy bottom saucepan (enamelled iron Dutch oven for example) saute in a bit of olive oil till lightly browned.


Remove the browned sausage bits and drain most of the fat out of the pan, leaving a scant tablespoon.  Smash lightly several fat cloves of garlic, peel them, and then put them in a garlic press.


Wash the Romas.

Yes, that is a lonely beefsteak tomato on the upper right! 

Remove any stems and cut the Romas in half.  If using canned Romas, then coarsely chop them either in a food processor or by hand.  Make sure you add all their juice/sauce into the pot.

That's the fat drained from the sausages in the glass!

Put the crushed garlic in the heavy-bottomed pot and saute in the remaining fat for a minute or two.  Then add the tomatoes, tomato paste (start with a few tablespoons and increase to get the thickness you want), basil, bay leaf, any leftover tomato juice, grated carrot (it will eventually completely dissolve, giving the sauce a bit of sweetness and body) and the Parmesan rinds.

Note the frozen tomato juice and basil.

Cover and simmer for about four hours.  Pick out the skins as they roll off the simmering tomatoes (not necessary of course if using canned tomatoes)


When finished, the sauce will be thick and redolent with a spicy flavour.  Remove the bay leaf and Parmesan rinds which can be eaten--they are quite delicious! Add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.


Lasagne

  • Lasagne noodles, egg-based ones with rough texture are the best, 12
  • Tomato sauce, see above, 4 cups*
  • Mozzarella, sliced about an 1/8th inch, 18 slices
  • Parmesan, grated, 1 cup*
  • Parmesan Bechamel (see below)

Parmesan Bechamel

  • Parmesan, grated, 1/4 cup*
  • milk, 1.5 cups*
  • Butter, 4 T
  • flour, 5 T
  • nutmeg, 1/8 tsp
  • salt to taste 
* American measure, that is, 8 oz

Using a large-enough, shallow pan or dish that can be covered, soak the lasagne noodles in boiling water for about five minutes.  Carefully remove them by sliding a thin spatula under each and place in a large bowl of cold water.  I work in batches of two, layering them in an oven dish as I assemble the lasagne.


Grate the Parmesan (make 4 equal piles), slice the mozzarella (3 piles of 6 slices each for a total of 18).  Spread a few tablespoons of sauce on the bottom of a suitable oven dish.  Place a layer of three overlapping noodles.  Spread about 6 tablespoons of sauce, then layer with 6 mozzarella slices and sprinkle with one pile of Parmesan.


Repeat for a total of three layers of cheese and sauce.  Finish with a fourth layer of noodles.


Top with the remaining of the sauce (if more than 6 T are left, then save the rest as the lasagne should not be too soupy) and spread evenly.


Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F.  Gather ingredients for the Parmesan Béchamel.


Melt the butter over low heat and add the flour, stirring for a minute or so.



Slowly add the milk, stirring all the while still sauce is smooth.  Any lumps can be beaten out with a wire whisk.  Add the Parmesan and nutmeg.


Stir until all the cheese is melted and sauce is very smooth.  Salt to taste.


Pour ribbons of the sauce--you may need to whisk it just before pouring to increase liquidity--on the layered noodles and sprinkle the remaining pile of Parmesan on top to encourage browning.


Bake for about a half an hour at 350 degrees F if a creamy, custard-like texture is the goal. Bake longer if a crispier topping is desired.

Baked for about an hour

Wait for about five-ten minutes for the lasagne to solidify before serving.   This lasagne is shot through with a vividly flavoured, meaty tomato sauce and topped with a luscious, cheesy Béchamel resembling a savoury custard in texture.  It's quite good!

Bon appétit!

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How to freeze fresh basil
Freezing Roma tomatoes