When Tony and I met 24 years ago on a pier in Colon, Panama, I would have laughed at the thought that someday I would create my own lasagna recipe, much less one that would be featured in a weekly food column.
Aside from his big brown eyes and exotic Sicilian heritage, one of the qualities I found most attractive in Tony was the fact that he could cook. Back then, if you'd have asked me to boil a pot of water I would have needed instructions. Turns out, if you end up marrying an Italian, boiling a pot of water is a skill you're going to need to master pretty quickly.
Thankfully, after 22 years as an "Italian by Marriage," not only can I boil water with the best of them, I've even created a few specialties along the way, including my very own lasagna, a dish that Tony loves so much he named it Sarah's Lasagna Fantastico. Popular around the world, lasagna is a traditional Italian dish from Naples featuring layers of wide, flat pasta noodles with cheese and sauce (simple tomato, meaty ragu, béchamel).
Oven-baked for about an hour, lasagna is the ultimate hot dish and one of Tony's favorite comfort foods. It is also a great dish to make for large groups, and would be perfect for an upcoming Super Bowl party. For this recipe, I make a simple tomato sauce using canned whole tomatoes, garlic and onion, and enhance it with a little serrano pepper, some dry white wine if I have it and Italian sausage. I remove most of the seeds from the serrano so that it brings just a touch of heat to the sauce, and the white wine is used to add depth and flavor.
We prefer simple flavors in our lasagna and so shy away from a heavy dose of herbs, but if I have some fresh parsley or basil on hand I'll throw in a sprig or two as the sauce simmers and remove it when the sauce is ready. I prefer the fennel-based flavor of Italian sausage over ground beef for my lasagna, and have tried several different types over the years for this recipe. My local favorite is Hornbacher's mild Italian sausage, which I purchase fresh from the store's butcher.
I cook the sausage separately, and add it to the sauce to simmer gently for 30 to 60 minutes. The sauce can be made in advance and refrigerated for three to four days, or frozen for at least two months.
Just like meatloaf, nearly every family has its own version of lasagna, and my mother's recipe was passed down from her mother, who had originally received it from an Italian neighbor in suburban Minneapolis. Her version called for the use of sour cream instead of ricotta cheese, which probably wasn't easily available in 1950s Minnesota. I've also included this unique adjustment in my recipe because it just wouldn't be lasagna to me without it.
For the lasagna noodles, I prefer the Dakota Growers brand which is made with ridges that are designed to hold the sauce and cheese to the noodle, providing a superior eating experience. I have used the no-boil noodles on several occasions, but my last experience with them was such an epic failure (think lasagna mush) that I will stick to boiling my pasta before baking from now on. Thank goodness I can boil water.
Sarah's Lasagna Fantastico
Serves 6 to 8
Two 28-ounce cans whole peeled tomatoes, pureed
1 pound ground Italian sausage, mild or hot
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
Half a yellow onion, finely chopped
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
½ serrano pepper, seeded and minced
¼ cup dry white wine (optional)
One 16-ounce tub of sour cream
One 16-ounce box lasagna noodles
1 pound shredded mozzarella
1 cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
1 cup Romano cheese, freshly grated
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Use a food processor to puree the tomatoes until no lumps remain. Set aside.Brown the sausage over medium-low heat until fully cooked. Drain the fat and set aside.
Heat a large pot over medium-low heat for 1 minute, then add the extra-virgin olive oil and heat for an additional minute. Add minced garlic and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, then add the onion, red pepper flakes and serrano pepper and cook until onions are softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Add white wine and cook over medium-high heat until reduced, about 2 to 3 minutes.
Add pureed tomatoes and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a gentle simmer, add cooked sausage and cook for 30 to 60 minutes until desired consistency is reached. If sauce is too thick, add the reserved pasta water as needed. Refrigerate for up to 3 days, or freeze for up to 1 month.
As the sauce simmers, fill a large pot with water and 1 to 2 tablespoons kosher salt and bring to a boil. Cook lasagna noodles according to direction on package. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water, then drain and rinse noodles with cold water to prevent further cooking.
Assemble the lasagna as directed below, cover dish with aluminum foil and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour, until cheese is fully melted and bubbly. Remove foil and broil until top is golden brown. Remove and let rest for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.
To assemble the lasagna:
- Use a 9-by-13 glass baking dish and lightly coat bottom with sauce.
- Spread a light layer of sour cream over each lasagna noodle.
- Cover bottom of dish with a layer of noodles, slightly overlapping each other. Cover with a layer of sauce, followed by a generous layer of shredded mozzarella and a light sprinkling of Parmesan and Romano cheeses. Repeat for at least 3 layers.
- Cover with foil and bake immediately, or freeze for up to one month.
- For a spicier version, use hot Italian sausage and add seeds from serrano pepper.
- If you have fresh parsley or basil on hand, throw in a sprig or two as the sauce simmers, and remove once the sauce is ready.
- Look for lasagna noodles that have ridges, like Dakota Growers, as they will help hold the sauce and cheese to the noodle.