Yesterday we were supposed to get together with some of our oldest and dearest friends to enjoy a meal together and celebrate the start of the year. If you are wondering how long it takes to be “oldest and dearest,” I met the newest friends in that group in 1991! Unfortunately, as things sometimes happen, one couple couldn’t work out the logistics of the kids’ work schedules and sports games and such–all you parents surely understand this–and one half of one of the couples came down with some illness the day before. So rather than drive 6 hours round trip to have a meal with the friends we actually see most frequently anyway, we are postponing our dinner for a few weeks.
Of course, I found out about the change of plans 30 minutes after I pulled the lasagna I’d been laboring over for hours out of the oven. Alas, that is the way things go sometimes. The silver lining is obvious: more lasagna for us! Plus, it really turned out so well that it seemed a shame not to share it here with you.
I stopped working from recipes long ago (for cooking, anyway), so I rarely make lasagna the same way twice. This version was great though, so I’m codifying it in a recipe. I have even given this lasagna a Descriptive Name: Five Cheese Hot Italian Sausage Lasagna. I didn’t really intend for it to have five cheeses, but sometimes cheese just randomly jumps into my cart at the grocery store. And that’s what happened. So there. Please, please, please know that you can make whatever changes you want. Swap out cheeses for your favorites. Use small curd cottage cheese in place of the ricotta. Use sweet Italian sausage as opposed to hot. Finely dice some soprassata and toss that in.
I find that using hot Italian sausage as the meat brings so much flavor to the sauce that my ingredient list tends to be much shorter than usual. Twelve ingredients in the sauce plus hours of simmering to reduce it to a deep, vibrant brick red, a handful of ingredients in the ricotta layer and then it’s just layer-layer-layer. I think you’ll like it. I hope you do. And if you make it, please let me know if you love it.
For the Meat Sauce
- 2 Tablespoons olive oil
- 1 pound hot Italian sausage, , (bulk or links with the casings removed)
- 2 medium sweet onions, , diced
- 2 cloves garlic, , minced
- 1 green bell pepper, , seeded and diced
- 1 stalk celery, , diced
- kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper, , to taste
- 1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
- 1/4-1/2 teaspoon hot pepper flakes, , to taste
- 1/2 750 ml bottle red wine, (I used a Pinot Noir, but any dry to off-dry red will do)
- 2 28 oz cans whole tomatoes, , pulsed in the blender until just a bit chunky
- 2-3 Tablespoons sweet balsamic vinegar, , to taste (I used a fig infused one because it's what I had)
For the Ricotta Mixture
- 2 cups ricotta cheese
- 1/4 cup each freshly and finely grated Parmesan or Grana, (an "American Parm"--they are very similar) and Asiago cheese
- 1 whole egg
- kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, , to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon Italian seasoning
- 1 box regular, (not no-boil) lasagna noodles
- 1 large round fresh mozzarella cheese, (the "ball" kind)
- 1 1/2 cups freshly grated mozzarella cheese, (from a soft block)
- 1/2 cup each freshly and finely grated Parmesan, (or Grana) and Asiago cheese
For the Meat Sauce
- Heat a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat.
- Add the oil and let it get hot.
- Add the sausage and break it up well with a wooden spoon or some other fun kitchen implement. You don't want any big chunks of sausage, so be thorough.
- When the sausage is starting to brown, add the onions, garlic, bell pepper and celery along with some kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, the Italian seasoning and the pepper flakes.
- Cook over medium to medium-high heat until the vegetables release all their liquid and are starting to turn golden.
- Add the bottle of wine and simmer until reduced by half.
- Add the 2 cans of still-kind-of-chunky-but-blended tomatoes and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and add 2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar.
- Taste and adjust seasoning, but hold back a bit since the sauce will be reduced and the saltiness will eventually get concentrated.
- Simmer uncovered over low heat until the sauce is very thick. When you stop stirring, any pieces of vegetables, sausage and tomatoes should not sink to the bottom.
- Taste and add a bit more balsamic if you think it needs a bit more sweetness. Adjust the salt last if necessary.
For the Ricotta Mixture
- Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and stir until thoroughly combined.
- Slice the ball of mozzarella into thin rounds. Try to get about 12 of them. Set aside.
- In a 9"x13" glass baking dish (or similar), add about 1 1/2 cups of the meat sauce and spread evenly. Top with 5 uncooked lasagna noodles. (**See Note below) I can get four across, overlapping slightly. Then I break one to fit perpendicular to the rest at the end of the pan.
- Add another cup or so of the sauce and spread evenly. (***See Note below)
- Place slices of the fresh mozzarella evenly over the sauce.
- Top with another layer of noodles. Put the perpendicular slice on the opposite end of the pan from the first layer of noodles. Alternating like this will make the lasagna easier to slice and more likely to hold together later.
- Press down a bit on this layer of noodles just to make sure everything is compacted a bit. (This is another advantage of not boiling the noodles first. It gives you something to press down on!)
- Add another cup or so of the meat sauce and spread it out in a thin layer.
- Top evenly with the ricotta layer and spread it out to the edges of the noodles.
- Top with another layer of noodles (this is layer 3 of noodles). Press down to compact a bit.
- Add half of the remaining sauce and then top with layer number 4 of noodles.
- Spread the last of the meat sauce over these noodles and then top with the grated mozzarella, Parm (or Grana) and Asiago.
- Cover tightly with a sheet of non-stick foil and press the whole shebang down just a bit.
- Place the covered lasagna on a sheet tray to catch any drips and bake for an hour.
- Remove the foil and reduce the heat to 350 (for a softer top) or keep it at 375F for a crunchier top. Bake for an additional 20 minutes.
- The lasagna should be bubbling all over. It may have spilled over some onto your sheet pan. Be glad you were smart enough to use one and know that I didn't think of it until there was already lasagna liquid on the floor of my oven.
- Remove lasagna from the oven and let cool for at least 20 minutes or so before slicing and serving.
- To get the cleanest cuts. Cool to room temperature and then refrigerate overnight. Reheat before slicing. If you do this, add another thin layer of mozzarella, Parm/Grana and Asiago to the top so you will still get to experience some gooey cheese.
**I never boil my lasagna noodles before assembling lasagna. No, I don't buy the no-boil kind. I just use regular lasagna noodles. I find that they cook in the oven just fine and even soak up some of the excess liquid that can make lasagna be a pain to slice and serve. If you don't boil yours, follow the directions for baking in the recipe. If you decide to pre-boil your noodles, figure it will only take about 30-40 minutes of baking.
***I had about 1 1/2 cups of meat sauce leftover after assembling our lasagna. You can see how it baked up in the photos. If you like more sauce on yours, go ahead and use it all up as the instructions say. If you do like a drier lasagna, go a bit lighter on the sauce and save some to have with spaghetti later.
I will be making lasagna again for our rescheduled dinner. It might not be just like this one, but at least I finally have something in writing and you have a new lasagna recipe to try!
Thanks for spending some time with me today. Have a lovely day.