Thursday, September 8, 2011

Classic beef lasagna

I've got a secret to tell you.  Ready?  Here goes:

I love to plan.

Surprised?  Most likely not :) It's said love of planning that can sometimes be a curse.  Sometimes I need to just go with it.  Fly by the seat of my pants.  Let the chips fall where they may.

This week, however, that planning of mine has paid off bigtime.  Last week, I was overcome with cravings for hearty fall foods and, warm humid September weather be damned, I decided to incorporate them into this week's menu.

Fast forward to Labor Day: rainy, chilly, dreary Monday that it was here in Pittsburgh, I didn't mind one bit... because I had a cheesy, piping hot lasagna in the oven waiting to meet its maker!  That maker being a cook who suddenly realized that her comfort food cravings were psychic visions.  Or some other kind of hoo-ha.

Despite my brush with seeing into the future, I'm slacking just a bit when it comes to the past.  I can't believe that I've been blogging for almost 2 years and haven't yet posted a recipe for lasagna.  Maybe it's because my very favorite recipe isn't from a little old Italian grandmother.  But, you know what?  It's the best lasagna I've ever had, bar none!

I've sampled lasagna from dozens of recipes, homemade and at restaurants, and nothing compares to this stuff.  Nothing, I tell you!  So, I bet you're wondering whom we can thank for this killer lasagna?  Uh, well... it's on the back of this lasagna noodle box.

A box for no-boil lasagna noodles, to boot.  Don't judge a book recipe by its cover source!  Years ago, my dad's coworker shared the secret of this recipe for classic Italian lasagna, and it's been a favorite of our family's ever since.

In fact, it's such a favorite that it felt strange making this without the help of my family.  My dad is usually in charge of making the sauce, my sister samples the cheese for quality control before sprinkling it on the lasagna, and I man the ricotta mixture.  My mom?  That wonderful woman is usually keeping watch over us making an absolute m-e-s-s of the kitchen to see what she's got to clean after dinner.

But, as much as I love my dear family, nothing will prevent me from making this ultimate Italian casserole for myself!

I made a few changes this time -- just two tiny additions -- and an already-incredible lasagna has approached cooking hall of fame stardom!  Bright green spinach and fragrant garlic mixed with that hearty meaty sauce and tender sheets of pasta.  And that cheese?  Ricotta, mozzarella, and parmesan for the win!

I swear, this is what that little kid in commercials was referring to when he proclaimed, "The cheesiest!"  Each and every bite involved a long string of never-stretching mozzarella cheese.  You know, the kind that you hope you never have on a first date dinner but that you absolutely LOVE in the comforts of your own home?  Yeah, that's the stuff of dreams.

Happy cooking and buon appetito!

Classic Lasagna
(adapted, with a few additions, from San Giorgio's recipe)
-serves 10-12

A few notes: If you're not a fan of spinach, you can easily omit it without any consequences.  If, however, you're a spinach enthusiast like moi, you might even want to use two 10-ounce packages of frozen spinach -- I think I'm going to do this next time.

1lb ground beef
1 clove garlic, minced
3 cups (about 28 oz jar) spaghetti sauce
1 3/4 cups (15 oz) ricotta cheese
1 egg, slightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon dried basil leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 (10 ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained well
12 pieces San Giorgio Oven Ready Lasagna, uncooked, unsoaked
4 cups (16 oz) shredded mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese (the Kraft stuff is just perfect)

Preheat oven to 350 F.

In large skillet, add beef and break up with a spatula while cooking. Add minced garlic, and continue to cook beef until browned. Remove from heat and drain and discard excess fat. Stir in spaghetti sauce and tomato sauce.

In a small bowl, stir together ricotta cheese, egg, basil, oregano, and spinach.

In a 13x9-inch glass baking dish, spread 3/4 cup meat sauce.  Place 3 pieces uncooked pasta crosswise over sauce. Pieces should not overlap or touch side of pan since they will expand when baked.

Spread a very full 2/3 cup ricotta mixture evenly over pasta.  Spread 3/4 cup meat sauce evenly over ricotta covering pasta completely; sprinkle with 1 cup mozzarella cheese.  Repeat steps 2 and 3 two more times.

Top with remaining 3 pasta pieces.  Spread remaining meat sauce completely over pasta; sprinkle with remaining mozzarella and parmesan cheese.

Cover with foil and bake 30 minutes.  Remove foil and bake for 15 additional minutes or until hot and bubbly. Let stand 5 minutes before cutting.  Serve with a crisp salad on a cool fall/winter/summer (?) evening!

Storage tips: Can be kept, covered and refrigerated, for up to a week.  If freezing (this is a perfect candidate for it!), you can freeze at many different stages in the process: assembled and uncooked, cooked and whole, or cut into individual portions, wrapped well, and frozen.

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