The most basic American recipe for lasagna combines layers of a marinara sauce with beef — the same we might ladle over a pile of spaghetti — lasagna noodles and a mixture of ricotta and mozzarella cheese. Vegetarians might substitute veggies for the meat in the sauce, and occasionally you’ll see a creamy spinach or seafood version.
Truth is, lasagna can be as creative as any other pasta dish, which means there are hundreds of possible options. The sauce doesn’t even have to contain tomato.
The mother of all lasagnas, the Lasagna Bolognese from Emilia Romagna, Italy, combines a light veal-and-pancetta sauce (cooked with celery, carrot and onion, a little milk and only a touch of tomato) with layers of sauteed spinach and creamy balsamella or white sauce flavored with Parmigiano cheese.
If you’d like to try a new lasagna variation not too far from the standard, simply use your favorite recipe, but substitute Italian sausage for the ground beef and add a layer of sauteed onions and roasted peppers or another favorite cooked vegetable.
One of the most popular lasagnas I’ve ever served had layers of fresh goat cheese and lentils spiced with garlic and red pepper.
Other ideas could incorporate creamy sauces with shrimp or chicken and pesto; roasted butternut squash and aged Gouda cheese; a healthy take with ground chicken sauce and sauteed zucchini or yellow squash; or layers of sausage in red-wine tomato sauce, with wild mushrooms, rosemary and peppers.
A favorite Calabrian pasta dish from southern Italy combines spicy sausage with fennel, tomato, lots of garlic and hot pepper, and cooked broccolirab with grated pecorino cheese. Broccolirab is more pungent and leafier than regular broccoli.
We turned it into lasagna by cooking the sausage and canned crushed tomato into a sauce with lots of fresh garlic, onions and extra fennel seed. Then we blanched the broccolirab and sauteed it with lots of onions and garlic, and made a balsamella sauce (the Italian version of bechamel sauce) flavored with nutmeg. The layers of balsamella were followed by a generous sprinkle of salty pecorino cheese. See the recipe below.
A few tips for making the most satisfying lasagna:
1. Get a baking pan at least 4 inches deep. It’s hard to spread super-thin layers of ingredients to fit in a 2-inch pan, and you want thick layers anyway. Tall, colorful squares with distinct stripes look nicer on the plate than a larger, flatter square.
2. Canned tomatoes are fine, but I don’t recommend using jarred pasta sauce, unless there is a particular brand with a flavor you want. A simple sauce of crushed tomato, garlic and onion with olive oil is superior to most jars of sauce.
3. Spray the pan well and cover the bottom with a thin layer of sauce before adding the first noodles.
4. No lasagna noodle ever needs to be boiled before using, even the thick ones with wavy edges. If you seal the pan well with a lid or microwaveable plastic wrap and foil, the noodles will steam to perfection and save you a step and lots of mess.
5. Instead of loading your lasagna with heavy layers of cheese, consider making a thick, well-seasoned balsamella or white sauce and spreading it on, topped with a sprinkled layer of good Parmesan or another flavorful cheese.
6. When assembling the lasagna, always end with a layer of bechamel and/or cheese.
7. Give yourself plenty of time. Lasagna needs to rest at least 30 minutes to slice well. It’s even better made a day ahead and reheated.
LASAGNA WITH SAUSAGE AND BROCCOLIRAB
Enough to fill a 9- by 12-inch pan that’s 4 inches deep
1 pound hot Italian sausage
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fennel seed
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced
2 8-ounce cans crushed tomatoes
Salt and pepper
1 bunch broccolirab
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons onion, minced
2-1/2 tablespoons butter
2-1/2 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk, heated until warm in the microwave
Nutmeg, salt and white pepper to taste
1 pound box dry lasagna noodles
2 cups grated Pecorino Romano Cheese
2 tablespoons parsley
For the sauce: In a wide skillet, crumble and fry the sausage until it begins to exude fat. Add the garlic, fennel, onion and parsley, and continue to fry, breaking up with a spatula, until the sausage is completely cooked and the onion soft. Drain away all grease. Add the crushed tomatoes and season to taste. Simmer 15 minutes.
For the broccolirab: Bring a large pot of water to the boil and add salt. Add the broccolirab and cook until the stems are just tender. Drain and permit to cool enough to handle. Place on a cutting board and chop coarsely.
In a wide skillet, heat the olive oil and add the garlic and onion. Fry for 1 minute, but do not let the garlic brown. Add the broccolirab and stir over high heat 5 minutes, or until tender and wilted.
For the balsamella: Melt the butter in a saucepan and stir in the flour. Let bubble for 30 seconds, then slowly whisk the milk into the pan. Continue stirring until the sauce comes to a boil. Season to taste liberally with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
To assemble: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray the pan well and add a thin layer of tomato sauce (I try not to get too much meat on the bottom, just some liquid.) Add a layer of noodles, then a layer of meat sauce, a layer of white sauce, and a generous sprinkle of pecorino.
Top with noodles, the broccolirab, white sauce and cheese.
Top with noodles, meat sauce, white sauce and cheese.
If you have enough left, make another layer of noodles, and top with all the remaining meat sauce, white sauce, and cheese. Finish with a sprinkle of fresh parsley.
If your pan does not have a lid, stretch heat-safe plastic wrap tightly over the top of the pan, then follow with a layer of aluminum foil, crimped tightly around the edges. This will seal in steam and permit the noodles to cook evenly.
Bake for 45 minutes, then uncover and poke with a knife to make sure the noodles are soft. If not, cover again and bake for a further 15 minutes. When the noodles are soft in the center, place the uncovered dish back into the oven for 10 minutes to brown the edges. Permit to rest at room temperature, covered, for 30 minutes before slicing. It will still be hot.
– Serves 8-10