Sunday, October 26, 2008

Apples to Apples (and Lasagna, Too!)

WHOA! You blink, and it's two weeks later! Forgive me, friends. Midterm chaos has kept me from my blogging duties. But I have a little break today between seeing High School Musical 3 with my seven-year-old friend, K (but it was MY birthday wish!) and going to the new Thai food place in town for dinner with friends who wish to celebrate my agedness. Sidebar: for any Plattsburghers who have not yet tried Sawatdee, you are missing out! It is FABULOUS! It is also quite healthy, has many options for your vegetarian friends, and is inexpensive to boot. You MUST check it out. I myself am trying hard to refrain from eating there more than twice a week! ;-)

Anyway, I never finished reporting on my Columbus Day weekend adventures, so let me catch up on that. After my travels through the southern cantons of Quebec, I stopped at the big grocery store in Ormstown to pick up some things to make a lasagna. I had been watching a new show on Food Network called "Ask Aida," and she made a sausage and three-cheese version that looked wonderful. And she made it with those no-boil noodles, which I have always been afraid to try. But Aida says that the way to avoid a sloppy, slip-sliding lasagna is to use the no-boil noodles which wick up excess moisture. (By the way, why does everyone on Food Network have to look like a bobble-head, stick-figure supermodel these days? Oh well, at least this Aida person is authentically Italian, kinda like Giada. But that's about all I have to say that's positive about the gimmicky, internet-infused show.) Anyway, I found everything I needed in the Canadian IGA, but MAN, was it expensive! My blogger pal, Randi, who lives in Ontario has often complained about the cost of many food items, especially certain dairy products like cream cheese, and she wasn't kidding! They didn't even have ricotta in the regular dairy section, and the store employees seemed perplexed when I asked about it. I finally found it in the "gourmet" cheese section of the deli, and at a premium price. Ditto with the parmesan. But I figured I'd spend more in gas money to go all the way over to the Champlain (NY) Price Chopper, so I just sucked it up.

When I got home, I started the sauce, using my own home-canned whole tomatoes (one quart), plus one pint of seasoned tomato sauce, also homemade. This was mistake #1, as I really needed to use at least two quarts of tomatoes. Also, I had to use a combination of sweet Italian sausage and ground beef, because I didn't have any ground pork, and I was NOT going back (to another country) to the store! But that was okay--it was excellent with the combination of meats. Then I let the sauce simmer for more than an hour while I did some other things, and worked on layering the lasagna. That was mistake #2, because the sauce should be quite thin so that the no-boil noodles have plenty of liquid in which to cook. As I assembled the lasagna, I knew that I did not have enough sauce for all the layers, particularly for the top. Then, not having worked with the no-boil noodles before, I was frustrated that they didn't cover the whole 9x13 pan, so I took some scissors and tried to sort of cut and paste to fill in the gaps. That was mistake #3, as the no-boil noodles will expand as they cook (duh, Gina!). Mistake #4 was somewhat by choice. Aida says that she and her mom argue about how much ricotta to use. Aida says 24 oz. while her mom opts for just 16 oz. I would have preferred to use the greater amount, but given how expensive the ricotta was in the Canadian grocery, I bought some strange metric amount that looked to be about a pound. Then, when my back was turned in the kitchen for a split-second, Grady the PBGV, reached up to the counter, knocked down the ricotta container, and had gulped down a tablespoon or two before I could stop him (mistake #5)! So I ended up with quite a bit less ricotta than would have been ideal. Boo hiss.

Now I knew that this dish was really to be made for a crowd, or else I'd be eating it for a week (or two!) by myself. So I emailed by dear friend, June, who was hosting a friend and former colleague for the weekend, and I said if there were board games to be played, I would bring a lasagna and an apple pie (since I still have a TON of apples left over from my last canning class). She agreed, and a plan came together. My vision was the make the lasagna the night before, and then bake it off right before heading off for the dinner party. This may have been the one thing that I did right with this recipe! Making it ahead of time gives the no-boil noodles extra time to soften up. Still, that night, I was awake, tossing and turning, worrying that the dish would be dry and chewy or chalky or pasty due to the lack of sauce, the scant amount of ricotta, and the extra noodles. So the next morning, I proceeded to do some delicate surgery on my perfectly constructed lasagna, gently lifting up each quadrant of the top layer and spooning on another pint of homemade seasoned tomato sauce. I also spooned some down the sides and on each end. At this point, Cyd dubbed it the Franken-lasagna, but I was still hoping it would turn out. And guess what? It did! It really was delicious, and it held together beautifully without being either too dry or too sloppy with sauce. And I thought it had the perfect level of spiciness, too, as I added a couple of golden cayenne peppers from my garden to kick up the heat a bit. June's husband, Tom, a notoriously finicky eater, even requested that I leave some leftovers behind for him to lunch on. High praise indeed, from that curmudgeon! ;-)

After dinner, we enjoyed a homemade apple pie for dessert. It was quite beautiful (if I do say so myself!) and tasty, too, but sadly, I overbaked it and the apples were kind of mushy--oh well (sigh). Then we played a fun board game called Apples to Apples, so the Columbus Day weekend apple theme continued. Despite the nerve-racking lasagna and the mushy pie, it was a nice, cozy evening with friends, which is the best way to spend a day off, in my humble opinion.

Sweet Sausage and Three-Cheese Lasagna
(Source: "Ask Aida," Food Network)

For the sauce:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)

2 cayenne peppers, finely chopped, optional (I added these to kick up the spice!)
4 medium garlic cloves, thinly sliced
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound sweet Italian sausage, removed from casings and crumbled
1/2 pound lean ground pork (I used ground beef here)
1/3 cup dry white wine
2 (28-ounce) containers crushed tomatoes
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 medium dried bay leaves

For the lasagna:
1 (9-ounce) box no-boil lasagna noodles (I used Barilla brand)
24 ounces ricotta cheese (I only used 16 oz., but I would advise using the full amount)
1 pound mozzarella cheese, low-moisture or fresh, thinly sliced (I used shredded)
2 cups finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (about 2 ounces)

For the meat sauce:

Heat oil in a Dutch oven or a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. When it shimmers, add onion 9and peppers, if using) and garlic, season well with salt and freshly ground black pepper and cook until just softened. Add sausage and ground pork (or beef) and stir to break up meat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until meat starts to color, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add wine and cook, scraping bottom of pan to incorporate browned bits, until the alcohol smell is cooked off. Add tomatoes, one tablespoon salt, basil, oregano, bay leaf, and season well with freshly ground black pepper. Stir until well mixed and tomatoes start to simmer. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until flavors meld, at least 10 minutes and up to one hour. (Don't reduce it too much--you want it on the thin side so the no-boil noodles will have something to suck up!)

For the lasagna:
Heat oven to 375 degrees F and arrange rack in middle. Spread two cups sauce in a thin layer over the bottom of a 13 by 9-inch baking dish. Layer four noodles over sauce, top with two cups sauce and spread it evenly over the noodles. Evenly dollop 1/4 of the ricotta across the sauce, top with 1/4 of the mozzarella, and sprinkle evenly with 1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano. Repeat with remaining ingredients. Cover with foil and bake until liquids are bubbling and noodles are beginning to soften, about 40 minutes. Remove foil and continue baking until top is golden brown and noodles are completely tender, about 20 minutes more. Allow to rest 20 minutes before cutting.


Randi said...

Finally, I'm vindicated. Now you see why I shop in MI a few times a month. I refuse to pay 3.19 for a bar of philly cream cheese. You must try Ina Gartens turkey sausage lasagna. It uses the barilla no-boil noodles that you soak in hot water for 20 min. It works perfectly. Btw, you can't find those noodles in Canada : ). It kills me that the ricotta is not with the other cottage cheese, its always in the fancy dairy section. Robin says her mom never used ricotta when making lasagna, it was always cottage cheese. I make 1 lasagna( CI's spinach lasagna) that uses pureed cottage cheese, but I totally perfer ricotta.

I have to report back about NY, we had fun!! Btw, did you notice the butter prices? Ridiculous!!!!

Joy Bugaloo said...

I assure you that you CAN get the no-boil noodles in Canada, as that's where I got the ones I used for Aida's lasagna. But why would you want to pre-soak "no-boil" noodles?? May as well just boil them then! Silly, Ina!

Randi said...

When you soak them in hot water, they soften up a bit so you dont need as much sauce in the lasagna. Ina's version is not very saucy so maybe thats why. Its also not very thick.

I didnt mean you cant find no boil noodles in Canada, I meant you cant find the BARILLA brand. ( they look like sheets of fresh pasta, no curley edges) Sorry if I wasnt clear.

Joy Bugaloo said...

But I suspect when the noodles wick up the extra sauce, that also means extra flavor!

And the noodles I bought at the IGA in Ormstown, QC were indeed the Barilla brand egg pasta sheets! This must be an Ontario-based problem. ;-) But I can tell you, they were ridiculously EXPENSIVE! They might have been five dollars a box? So keep buying them in MI, my friend.

Randi said...

5.00?? Seriously? Wow, I got some at Wegmans in Buffalo for 1.86 and today in MI for 1.90. Wowzer, I can't believe you paid 5 bucks!!