Ah, lasagne! I've loved it ever since I was a child, when it was sometimes my chosen Birthday Dinner. My mother's lasagne lives on in memory as The Best Lasagne Ever, but it's been years since I've had it, and the recipe, sadly, died with her.
I can't recreate my mother's lasagne - though believe me, I've tried - so I've settled instead for arriving at a delicious dish that is quick to prepare and can be refrigerated for a day (or frozen for a month) before cooking.
Because the thing with lasagne is that if you make it from scratch, it takes a lot of preparation just to get ready to prepare the lasagne. Those of you who have done it will know what I mean. You need to make the tomato sauce. You need to boil and drain the noodles. You need to grate the cheese. For roasted vegetable lasagne, you need to roast the vegetables. And then, only then, can you begin the arduous task of layering the ingredients in the pan. By the time you've assembled the dish, you're frazzled - and the kitchen is littered with dirty dishes. Is there an easier way?
I'm here to tell you that there is.
First, the sauce. You could go out and buy bottled spaghetti sauce - a common enough ingredient these days - but I don't take that route because I find such sauces too salty, sweet, chunky, and preservative-laden. Instead, I use a large can of unsalted ground tomatoes, which I season myself with pesto and salt and pepper. Easy, smooth, thick sauce that is seasoned just right, no cooking required. That's what I'm talking about.
Then, the noodles. There now exists a product called "oven ready noodles" or something like that; the crisp dry noodles don't require boiling and are supposed to soften as they cook. The problem with these is that they require a very wet sauce, as they absorb the moisture they need to soften from the sauce; if the sauce is too dry, they will remain crunchy and starchy. Also, you can't refrigerate or freeze these noodles before cooking, so you have to cook your soupy lasagne right away. So I use "fresh" lasagne noodles. Not, sadly, really truly fresh noodles - there is no purveyor of such near my home, and making my own noodles, while laudable, is a time-consuming process at odds with my desire for quickly assembled lasagne. Instead, I use the lasagne noodles that are sold in packages in the refrigerator section of my local supermarket. They keep, unopened, for several weeks in the fridge; once opened, they can be used to assemble a lasagne that can be refrigerated or frozen before baking.
The cheese. Yes, grating is involved, or you can buy it pre-grated in a package.
There is one bit of cooking involved to prepare for preparing the lasagne, and that's the vegetable roasting, but it's quick and easy. My recipe uses eggplant and zucchini, but feel free to experiment with whatever vegetables you like.
What you need to make one 9" x 14" (23 cm x 35 cm), or two 8" x 8" (20 cm x 20 cm), lasagne(s), feeding up to eight people
- 1 lb/450 gr eggplant (aubergine) (about 2 medium)
- 1 lb/450 gr zucchini (courgette) (about 1 medium)
- 3 tblsp/45 ml olive oil
- 28 oz/800 ml can crushed or ground tomatoes - no salt, and preferably without added tomato juice
- 1/4 cup/60 ml pesto
- 1 lb/450 gr grated mozzarella
- 1 cup/240 ml grated romano or parmigiano cheese (please don't use that sawdust in a green can)
- about 1 lb/450 gr fresh pasta sheets (the package I buy is actually 360 gr, about 10 sheets)
What to do
Preheat the oven to 400°F/200°C.
Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Dice the eggplant and zucchini into 1/4 inch (1 cm) chunks, place in large bowl, and toss with olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Bake for about 35 minutes, stirring once, or until soft and browned; remove and cool to room temperature.
In the same bowl you tossed the vegetables (now empty), stir together the canned tomatoes, pesto, and salt and pepper to taste.
Oil the lasagne pan(s).
Begin assembly by spreading a thin layer of tomato in the bottom of the pan(s). Not too much, or you'll run short at the end. Then place one layer of noodles, cutting to fit if you need to, and not overlapping the noodles. They don't have to go right to the edges of the pan.
Layer on one third of the roasted vegetables (or one sixth if you're using two pans); it won't cover, don't worry. Add a large dollop of the tomatoes and spread in a thin layer over the noodles. Ideally, the entire top of the noodle should at least have been brushed by tomato sauce. Again, there won't be much; don't worry about that. Sprinkle over one quarter of the cheeses (or one eigth if it's two pans). Repeat with two more layers of noodles, vegetables, tomatoes, and cheeses, then finish off with a final layer of noodles, the remainder of the tomatoes, and the rest of the cheese. Cover with a lightly oiled sheet of tin foil.
If you want to bake the lasagne right away, put it in a 375°F/190°C oven for half an hour, then remove the foil and bake for another 15 minutes.
If you want to bake it the next day, put it in a tightly sealed bag in the fridge and the next day bake in a 375°F/190°C oven for 35 minutes with foil on, 15 minutes with foil off.
If you want to freeze the lasagne for up to a month, put it in a tightly sealed heavy freezer bag and place in the freezer. To bake, thaw overnight in the fridge, then bake in a 375°F/190°C oven for 35 minutes with foil on, 15 minutes with foil off.