Lasagna is one of my favourite foods to cook and to eat. When lasagna, this cheesy, bubbling rectangle of glory, emerges from the oven, you just know that it’s a special day. You can either eat a huge portion yourself and then freeze the rest in squares, ready to be reheated for breakfast, lunch, or dinner- or you can have all your friends over for dinner and make the world a better place, one full belly at a time. I like to go back and forth between these two options.
I went with option two last week, and invited all my friends over for dinner. I had them bring supplies for garlic bread, a salad, and a few bottles of wine, and the meal came together perfectly. It’s a Friday night activity that I highly recommend.
However, every time I make lasagna, I remember how much of a Process it is. I think of it a labour of love, but it’s definitely an undertaking. You have to make the tomato sauce, brown and season the meat if using, make the bechamel sauce or season the ricotta, boil the pasta, shred a metric ton of cheese, assemble it all, bake it, then let it cool for half an hour or more before eating. It’s a good 3 hours of work, and yields way too many dirty dishes. All of this is not to deter you from making lasagna- god forbid!- it’s to teach you to plan ahead for a lasagnastravaganza.
In prepping for my lasagna party, I discovered the power of starting an elaborate dish the day before. I’d done it for caterings and in restaurant kitchens, but never really at home. Honestly, starting the day before is a bit of a gamechanger, lasagna-wise.
The lasagna I made was vegetarian, with mozzarella and parmesan cheese, tomato-spinach sauce, and mushroom bechamel, and it was GOOD- I want to make it again this week and just eat the whole thing myself but I “probably won’t”.
Anyway, here’s how I approached my lasagna prep:
MAKE TOMATO SAUCE: In a large pot over medium heat, warm 1/4 cup olive oil. Slice 5 or 6 cloves of garlic and throw them in the oil. Add 1 tsp (or two) of chili flakes. Let the garlic and chili sizzle for 2 or 3 minutes and then pour in two 796ml cans of whole stewed tomatoes, including the liquid. Add 1 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp pepper. Turn the heat up to high and bring to a boil, and then turn it down to low and simmer for an hour.
While that’s happening…
SAUTE SPINACH: In a pan over medium heat, saute 6 cups/huge handfuls of spinach with a drizzle of olive oil- it’ll shrink down to next to nothing in just a couple of minutes. Stir it around and saute until the spinach has wilted completely and some of the liquid has evaporated. Drain off the rest of the liquid and set the spinach aside.
SAUTE MUSHROOMS: Dice 10-15 white mushrooms, and in the same pan over medium heat, saute them with a pinch of salt and a drizzle of olive oil. Cook them until they brown and release their liquid. Keep sauteing until the liquid evaporates completely. Throw into a tupperware and put into the fridge.
SHRED MOZZARELLA: 500g of mozzarella takes a while to shred, so I like to do it while watching TV. When the cheese is all shredded, put it into a baggie or a bowl tightly-sealed with plastic wrap. Put it into the fridge.
Add the wilted spinach to the sauce, taste it, and adjust the seasoning to your taste. Let it cool for at least 30 minutes before putting it into the fridge.
Go to bed!
2 hours before your guests arrive…
MAKE BECHAMEL: Melt 1/4 cup of butter in a large pan over medium heat. Chop a clove of garlic and add it into the butter, along with a pinch of salt, a pinch of pepper, and a tiny (fingertips only!) pinch of nutmeg. Add 1/4 cup of flour to the pan and immediately whisk the mixture to combine. Mix the butter and flour in the pan for three minutes, and then add 1 cup of milk and whisk until combined. It’ll thicken very quickly and start to look kind of like icing. Cook it, whisking constantly, for another 5 minutes. Add another 1 cup of milk and whisk again to incorporate, letting it thicken slightly for a minute or two, and then take it off the heat. Taste it. You will want to eat the whole thing, but refrain. Fold in the sauteed mushrooms from yesterday.
BOIL LASAGNA NOODLES: Use the biggest pot you have, and salt the water aggressively, with at least 1 tablespoon of salt. You don’t want your water to be bland, because then your pasta will be bland and it’ll dilute the goodness of the flavour of the sauces and veggies. Cook the noodles for two minutes LESS than the package instructions- they’ll keep cooking in the oven. Drain and drizzle with a little olive oil so they don’t stick together.
ASSEMBLE: Finally! Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a 13×9 inch glass baking dish, put a nice ladleful of the tomato sauce and spread it across the bottom. Lay a few lasagna noodles into the baking dish on top of the sauce (mine fits three). Spoon on some mushroom bechamel and spread it along the noodles. Ladle on some more tomato sauce, and spread it around too. Grab a handful of mozzarella cheese and sprinkle it all over. Now do another two layers: noodles, bechamel, tomato sauce, mozzarella. Grate a lot of fresh parmesan cheese onto the top layer- probably around 1 cup, but just make a beautiful layer of cheesy snow on top. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and place in the oven for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, remove the foil and let it cook for another 20 minutes. When the sauce is bubbling and the cheese is starting to brown in some areas, remove from the oven. Let it cool for at least 30 minutes before cutting into it- preferably wait an hour, but I won’t fault you if you can’t wait. Sprinkle with fresh cracked pepper and a little more parmesan, and then cut into squares.