Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Cooking: Il Lasagna Perfetto

You should all know by now that I love to cook. No doubt about it. But what I do not love is cooking every day. In fact, if I have to cook two days in a row, I get a bit cranky and start taking out my frustrations on the unsuspecting Engineer by muttering things under my breath like, "Though I may look and occasionally act like a 1940's housewife, I am not a 1940's housewife, mister." * He usually grins and says, "Pizza, then? Where are my keys?"

This is why I love love L-O-V-E love making humungoid meals
one or two times a week that will feed us both for lunch and dinner over several days. Luckily, the Engineer and I are both fairly monogastronomic (yes, I made up that word) and don't require a lot of variety in our diet to keep us satisfied. Throw in a few meals of eggs n' toast and a coupla stir fries and we're happy clams.

Whenever I come across a new recipe that I think has potential for deliciousness, I immediately begin to consider of two things: 1) How can I double or triple the amount of servings in this Bad Larry, and 2) How can I make it healthier? (The answer to both questions, by the way, is usually "add more vegetables." Just don't forget to adjust the spices.) I typically follow the recipe exactly one time and then modify on subsequent repetitions.

I've been working on my lasagna for about two years now--how's that for tenacious? My family was staying in a rented cabin tucked into the woods somewhere near Lake Superior--a winter vacation tradition in my family. The cabin came equipped with hand sewn quilts, a gorgeous view of one of Minnesota's 10,000 lakes, and a little kitchen of its own. After we were settled into our various cozy nooks, my mother started making "I'm-cooking-who-wants-to-help?" noises in the kitchen and organizing the various ingredients for lasagna.
Lasagna was a regular meal in our house--in fact I think it was my all-time-favorite food for a good chunk of elementary school, much to my mother's delight and disbelief. But this was the first time I consciously helped my mother make lasagna and recognized it as a meal that I could replicate for myself. It was a light bulb kind of moment.

At this time, my mother had been on WeightWatchers for a few years, but I hadn't yet started. As we got everything together, my mom explained the various substitutions she made to make the lasagna WeightWatcher's friendly: substituting lo-fat cottage cheese for
ricotta, using only 10 lasagna noodles over two layers, fattening up those layers with lots of veggies, and using a tomato sauce like Healthy Choice. I was intrigued, if skeptical, and was incredibly surprised at how fabulous it turned out. This lasagna did not taste like the lo-cal, limp, healthy-shmealthy dish I was expecting, and I was very relieved to see that the servings were much larger than a postage stamp. Mom's technique of using dry lasagna noodles in the layers rendered noodles that were al dente and richly flavored with absorbed tomato juice. Every bite was full of perfectly cooked vegetables, a bit of meat, a bit of noodle, and a bit of cheese--chewy and moist and perfect.

When I went on WeightWatchers myself a little over a year ago, I made Mom's recipe for lasagna often, but somehow it
wasn't quite as good as I remembered it. And although it was already significantly healthier than regular lasagna, I still grumbled about how much of my daily food allowance a slice would use up. Did I really need to use tomato sauce, or would crushed tomatoes work just as well? Did I need to use a whole pound of hamburger, or could a smaller amount still give that same meaty flavor and chew in every bite? To the kitchen I scurried.

I didn't go completely bananas and make 10 batches of lasagna in a weekend, but I kept notes on each batch I made and tried new little tweaks and twiddles each time. Crushed tomatoes does indeed make a good substitute for tomato sauce, though the flavor was a bit metallic and acidic until Mom suggested sprinkling just a touch of sugar over each layer of tomatoes. You don't taste the sugar specifically in the finished lasagna, but the metallic flavor was gone. Turns out that you can also get away with less meat (or meat-substitute if you're a veggie)--about 3/4 of a pound was good, and if you were really gung ho, you could happy reduce that further
or even cut the meat out all together. Just veggies makes a terrific lasagna on its own. I also tried using non-fat ricotta cheese and decided that I liked that traditional Italian flavor and mouthfeel. These three changes, along with experiments on spices and amounts of spices, has given me a purty darn near perfect lasagna, which I've now happily eaten for two weeks straight. But hey, that's monogastronomic ol' me.
Il Lasagna Perfetto

10 dry lasagna noodles (not 'no boil')
1/2 - 3/4 lb of ground lean turkey, lean beef, or meat substitute
1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
2 1/2 tsp sugar
1 onion--diced
1 small eggplant, zucchini, or summer squash--diced
1 red bell pepper--diced
1 pkg baby bella mushrooms or portabella mushrooms--diced
1 c. non-fat ricotta cheese

1/2 c. low-fat cottage cheese
2 c. low-fat shredded cheese
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried thyme
1/8 cup of water or chicken broth

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

1. Mix all the chopped vegetables together in a large bowl and combine with all the spices. Taste a piece of eggplant or mushroom and adjust the spices if necessary--the mix should actually taste a bit too salty at this point.

2. Combine ricotta and cottage cheese together in a small bowl

3. In a 9x13 casserole dish or baking pan, spread a light layer of crushed tomatoes and sprinkle 1/2 tsp of the sugar over the top. Arrange a layer of 5 noodles--in my pan, I can fit 4 noodles length-wise and then have to break off about one inch on the fifth to fit it in along the side.

4. Spread half of the ricotta-cottage cheese mixture over the noodles. Then spread half of the veggies and half of the meat. Finally layer on about 1 cup of cheese and half the can of crushed tomatoes. Sprinkle 1 tsp of sugar over the tomatoes.

5. Add another layer of noodles and repeat step 4. Reserve a bit of cheese for the topping.

6. Swish the water or chicken broth (I prefer stock) in the empty can of tomatoes and dribble evenly over the top of the lasagna.

7. Cover the lasagna with a double layer of tinfoil and bake for 1 hour. After an hour, check the to see how done the noodles are and the onions are. I usually need to bake it covered for another 15 minutes. When the onions taste just a bit under done, uncover the lasagna and top with the reserved cheese. Bake uncovered for another 10-15 minutes or until the cheese is completely melted and a bit brown.

Let the lasagna cool for about 10 minutes and then cut into 12 portions.

WeightWatchers: If you made any substitutions or adjustments, I recommend tallying everything up for yourself to be on the safe side. Made with the above ingredients,12 portions is about 4.5 points per portion. If you're being really strict, you can cut it into 16 portions for about 3.25 points each, but, honestly, those portions are a bit measly--ok for lunch, but probably not enough for dinner unless you were also eating a side dish.

*For the record, I would like to state that while I definitely do the lion's share of the cooking in our household, the Engineer is always a willing and able sous chef. I admit to having tendencies toward control-freak-ism and have been known to hyperventilate if the onions are not diced to proper proportions. I'm much better than I used to be, mostly because I was came to realize that I needed to chill out or my sous chef would not be quite so willing and able. Still, we find it works best to divide tasks by type: I'm in charge of cutting and stir frying, and the Engineer is in charge of the pilaf; I'm in charge of toast and the Engineer is in charge of scrambling the eggs; and so on. *shrug* It works for us.


Angelina said...

I don't eat meat...so I won't make this lasagna as is but it sounds good.

I always make food that can feed us for a couple of days. I don't know any other way of cooking. Isn't it funny how some people get tired of a particular dish after having it once in two weeks? I can eat the same food (if it's super good) over and over and over. Glad to know there are others out there like that too! Love the new word!

Emma C said...

Angelina, you can definitely make this lasagna without meat and it's just as tasty. You can also make it with crumbled frozen tofu, seitan, or any of those meat alternatives instead of hamburger. I was a veggie head for many years myself, so I'm used to always having to switch recipes over to being veggie. :)