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Friday, July 19

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Comfort food is different from person to person. Some people crave fish sticks and macaroni and cheese (from a box, no less), others crave polska kielbasa with potatoes and sauerkraut. Or, if you're someone who has an Italian mother, you just might crave lasagna.

As I kicked around the house, wanting something good for dinner but not sure what, I was delighted when Andrew said, "How do you feel about lasagna? I've got a craving." Delighted at the prospect of a hearty dinner and glad that I didn't have to make the final decision, I quickly agreed.

Lasagna is such a basic American dinner with strong Italian history, and it is amazingly easy to make and make well. If you can boil noodles, cook ground hamburger, and are willing to taste your tomato sauce you're going to be able to make this dish easily.

And the nice thing about this dish is that you make a large pan of it and have lots of portions either for sharing with friends or for putting into single-serve containers and refrigerating or freezing for future lunches or dinners.

The secret ingredients that I love in my lasagna is a very hearty tomato sauce with a lot of herbs and mixing the traditional ground beef or turkey with Italian sausage. We're going for comfort food, not necessarily diet food. But I can show you some alternatives to make the dish lower in fat and calories, but still hopefully rich in flavor.

Homemade Lasagna
3 tablespoons of olive oil
1/2 of a large onion, or 1 medium onion, or 2 small onions, chopped
1/2 pound of ground beef*
1/2 pound of ground Italian sausage*
1 26 oz. Package Pomi tomato sauce or marinara sauce
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon of dried sweet basil
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon of salt
Several grinds of fresh black pepper to taste
9 lasagna noodles (about 1/2 package)
1 8 ounce ball of mozzarella cheese (low-moisture from the dairy case), shredded*
1 16 ounce tub of ricotta cheese*

Preheat your oven to 375° Fahrenheit. Over medium-high heat, add the olive oil and chopped onion to a skillet and cook for 3-5 minutes, or until the onions are translucent. Now add the ground beef and sausage and using a wooden spoon, break up the meat into small crumbles as it cooks. This will take about 7-10 minutes depending on your stovetop. While this cooks, bring a large pot of water to a boil.

Once the meat is mostly cooked through, add the tomato sauce, minced garlic, herbs, salt and pepper. Stir thoroughly and cook for a few minutes. By now your water should be boiling, so you can add three noodles to the pot and cook them. Taste the sauce and add more salt and pepper as needed. Stir the noodles occasionally to keep them from sticking but don't let them overcook. In fact, you want them to be slightly undercooked, because they'll continue to cook as they bake in the oven. Carefully remove them from the pot with a pair of tongs and lay them on the bottom of a lightly oiled glass or ceramic casserole dish, then drop another batch of noodles into the pot.

Now begins the layering of the items. My preferred order is ricotta, meat sauce and then mozzarella. You're going to have three layers of each, so make sure you save enough of each item so your top layer isn't skimpy. Use a spoon and add dollops of ricotta cheese, spread the meat sauce out with a spoon, and then cover it all with one-third of the mozzarella. Remove the second batch of noodles and add to the top of your pile, and place the next three noodles in the boiling water. You'll want to let these cook most of the way through since there is less stuff on top of them to aid them as they bake. Repeat the toppings, add the final layer of noodles and top with the last layer of ingredients. Now place the dish in your piping hot oven. If you've got a super-packed cooking dish, place it on a cookie sheet — unless you like cleaning your oven. Let this bake for about 20-30 minutes, or until the cheese is a bit toasty in spots and you can see the liquid bubbling on the sides of the pan. This is why I prefer glass casserole dishes: they keep the sides and bottom from cooking faster than the top and you can see how done a casserole is. Stay away from aluminum pans when you're cooking acidic dishes. The acid in the tomato will react with the aluminum and the dish can take on a metallic flavor. You'll want to let the dish cool for about 10 minutes before cutting. This permits the cheese to solidify and help hold things together and it means that when you go to take your first bite you don't burn the roof of your mouth.

* Substitutes:
1/2 pound of ground beef can be substituted with 1/2 pound of ground turkey, or even 1/2 pound of meat substitute crumbles
1/2 pound of pork sausage can be substituted with 1/2 pound of richly flavored chicken or turkey sausage or a meat substitute sausage
Once the meat is cooked, taste it. If it doesn't seem richly flavored, add more onion, garlic, oregano, basil, marjoram, thyme, or mushroom powder. You can add it to the skillet and cook while tossing the herbs and spices. More herbs are better than too few.

There are mozzarella substitutes. Compare the label. You may find that you're only saving a few percentages of fat and replacing that with sugar.
Substitute for ricotta: Take one 16 ounce carton of low-fat cottage cheese and set it in a strainer over the sink. After about 10 minutes, most of the liquid should have drained from the curds. Add to a bowl (or back to the tub) and thoroughly mix in one raw egg. Ricotta cheese just isn't available everywhere, and this is what I thought ricotta cheese was until I moved to Chicago, the land of plentiful "ethnic" groceries.

While lasagna is good the night you have it, with some garlic bread and a simple green salad, its often better the night before. Why is that? The acids in the tomato sauce make it hard to draw flavor out of dried herbs. Even though tomato sauce is a liquid it takes a long time for dried herbs to rehydrate and open because of the tomato acid. Letting it rest overnight in the refrigerator gives the herbs more time to meld with the other flavors. But what really matters is that these leftovers won't go unwanted.

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About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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