I Can Make A Lasagna Better Than That
My adventure in lasagna making really started last fall when a good friend of mine asked for a last-minute girlfriend get together on the same day she reached out to me and our other friend. She requested takeout from a pretty well known Italian restaurant in our neighborhood too.
I'd eaten there before, but had a lackluster experience. Long story short, I got the same dish as 2 other people, but mine was poorly made and disappointing.
But this particular girls night in, my friend wanted this for dinner, and so I decided to give it another try, this time ordering two entrees in case one wasn't good. One of the things I ordered was the lasagna because:
(1) I heard it was good,
(2) It normally sells out by 8pm, and
(3) I was doing a take-out order at 6pm and that would be early enough to try it.
When my friends came over to my house for the girlfriend get together, we dug into the dishes, and the first pasta dish I ordered (a truffle tagliatelle) was flavorless. It was time to try the lasagna. I said a prayer before my first bite, hoping it would be delicious. Not just because I was starving, and not only because it was nearly $16 for a slice, but because it was the only thing left I had to eat!
When I tell you this lasagna was perfection, you have to believe me. Rich meat sauce. Not overly tomato-ey. And what I loved most about it--no mozzarella cheese drowning out all the flavor. I know that last statement is going to make me a lot of enemies.
I grew up with a mom that made lasagna all the time, and even then, I was never a big fan. I realized in my adulthood that I just wasn't a big fan of excessive mozzarella cheese and overly boiled lasagna noodles. And as any southerner of a certain age will tell you, many of our parents come from the cooking tradition of overboiling and over-cheesing everything.
But let me get back to this lasagna perfection. There were layers of creaminess in the lasagna that didn't come from mozzarella; it came from a lovely bechamel sauce, which is a sauce made from milk that has been thickened by flour. (e.g. a roux).
One thing you should know about me is I come from a family that learned to pinch a penny. My mom's nickname was Melva Bargain because she loved a deal and loved to save, and my dad is the same way--he still has clothing he owned before I was born. So for me to spend $16 on a slice of lasagna got me thinking... "Surely I could make an entire batch of lasagna, just as good, for the cost of 2 slices from this restaurant?"
This became a personal challenge.
After testing 2 bolognese recipes that I had used from my private chef days, my tried and true bechamel recipe, and testing three "no-boil" lasagna noodles, and after having 6 taste-testers approve the deliciousness of this recipe, I'm happy to share my recipe below.
Here in Los Angeles, as I write this blog, we are still in a Covid-19 lockdown. That means I, like many others, am getting groceries more infrequently than we did prior to March 2020. And it means that we are cooking in what I've been calling #QuarantineKitchen, where recipe substitutions are the new normal.
Last week I did an inventory of my refrigerator and realized I had about 3 cups of milk I needed to use up, ground turkey and ground beef in need of a purpose, a bag of baby carrots past their prime, and finally, a very sad onion. I decided the milk could be cooked into a bechamel sauce, and the meats and vegetables would be perfect for a bolognese. And so I decided that Sunday, May 3rd would be a lasagna baking day.
It happened to be a total coincidence that on the same day I decided to make my lasagna, the New York Times Cooking Section had partnered with incredibly funny and endearing chef Samin Nosrat for a virtual event called the Big Lasagna Party.
While my recipe is coming too late for that, I hope that you'll be able to make this lasagna for the ones you love, whether its a virtual dinner party, a dinner with your family while on lockdown, or an intimate dinner (and lunch and leftovers for days) for one like it was for me.
Chrysta's Bolognese and Bechamel Lasagna Recipe
This recipe is broken into three parts:
1) The Bolognese Recipe
2) The Bechamel Recipe
3) The Lasagna Assembly Instructions
1) The Bolognese Recipe
NOTE: I didn't have all of the ingredients for my regular bolognese recipe, so I'm sharing the recipe I made on 5/3/2020. The original recipe is below as well.
Quarantine Kitchen Edition Bolognese Sauce
½ cup extra virgin olive oil ½ cup butter, cubed 1 1/3 cup onions, chopped (about 1 small onion) 1/2 cup carrots, chopped 1 pound ground beef (85/15) 1 pound ground turkey 1 cup white wine 6oz tomato paste (1 can) ½ cup chicken or beef broth
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup extra virgin olive oil ½ cup butter, cubed 1 1/3 cup onions, chopped small (about 1 small onion) 1/2 cup celery, chopped small 1/3 cup carrots, chopped small 1 ½ pound ground beef (85/15) 1 pound ground pork 1 cup white wine 6oz tomato paste (1 can) ½ cup chicken or beef broth Salt and pepper to taste
Directions: 1. In a Dutch oven or large saucepan, heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat.
2. Add the onions, celery, and carrots and cook until they become soft and begin to brown.
3. Add the meat to the pan and cook until it begins to brown.
4. Add the wine and broth to the meat. Cook until most of the liquid is evaporated.
5. Add the tomato paste and stir into the meat until well combined.
6. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 2 hours. I like to come back and stir every 20-30 minute to make sure it's not burning on the bottom. Note: I’ve also put the mixture into a crockpot at this stage and cooked at med-low for 2-3 hours.
2) The Bechamel Recipe
I wrote an entire blog post on Béchamel sauce, including a video so you can see when it's too thin and when it's thickened to perfection!
3) The Lasagna Assembly
1 box of “no-boil” noodles. (You won't use the whole box).
1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese (optional)
A Word On No-Boil Noodles
I fell in love with an Italian Brand of no-boil lasagna noodles called Granoro. They gave the best texture, however, I recognize they may be hard to find. I'm lucky that I live near an Italian-owned family market.
I tested two commercially available brands of no-boil lasagna noodles: Barilla and Trader Joe's "Trader Giotto" just for you!
center: Granoro Italian lasagne noodle
right: Barilla lasagne noodle
Hands down, the Trader Joe's Brand was very close in taste and texture (85% close!) to the Italian Brand. You can tell from the picture.
I did not like the lack of flavor or texture of the Barilla noodles.
My dinner party guests liked all of my lasagna versions, but I think it's because the bolognese and bechamel are so good.
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Take a 9x9 baking dish and spread a layer of Bolognese on the bottom.
Add a layer of no-boil noodles on top of the bolognese. You will have to break noodles to create a solid layer of dry noodles that fit the dimensions of the dish.
Add béchamel on top of the dry noodles.
Sprinkle parmesan on top of the béchamel. (if you wish).
Add another layer o noodles.
Add another layer of Bolognese.
Keep alternating as you build the lasagna: noodles, then béchamel, then parmesan, then noodles, then bolognese. Keep doing this until you reach the top of the baking dish.
On the very top of the dish, after you add the last layer of noodles, I add a layer of béchamel and parmesan.
Bake for 40 minutes, or until the edges are browned.
Let sit for 10 minutes before serving so the sauce can firm up.