At a time when cooks clamor for quick, easy recipes that ar low in fat and calories, lasagna -- time-consuming and rich, with layers of noodles, cheese, meat and sauce -- remains popular.
It's second only to spaghetti and meat sauce in the affection of pasta lovers, according to a National Pasta Association survey. Nearly a fourth of the respondents picked lasagna as their family's favorite pasta dish.
Once, lasagna was mainly white noodles, tomato sauce with meat, ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. That's the Southern Italian or Neapolitan version that first became popular in this country, according to Nancy Verde Barr. Her cookbook, "We Called It Macaroni" (Alfred A. Knopf, $21.95), tracks the Americanization of Italian food.
Another classic version is made with bechamel sauce. That's the Northern Italian version, says Ms. Barr,who lives in Providence, R.I.
Lasagna is a traditional Italian feast dish, she explains. In Italy, Easter and Christmas dinners wouldn't be complete without lasagna as the first or pasta course, she says.
Southern Italian immigrants brought lasagna to America before the turn of the century. In restaurants, it was served as a main course.
"It came to be served American-style," says Ms. Barr, partly in response to the nutrition wisdom of the time. Meats and starches had to be eaten together to maximize the nutritional benefit, or so the thinking went.
"That's why lasagna is so different here.
There's so much more in it -- more sauce, more meat, more cheese," she says.
But over the years, new versions have expanded lasagna options.
Vegetables such as squash, broccoli and spinach have sneaked into the layers; some versions are meatless. All kinds of mushrooms show up in lasagna, and exotic cheeses give it variety without disturbing the familiarity that makes the dish a classic.
"People know what it's supposed to look, feel and taste like," says Susan Johnson, a cooking teacher.
Cooks rely on lasagna for home entertaining or for make-ahead family meals because it's a virtually goof-proof dish that can be frozen and reheated or baked and kept warm.
Lasagna doesn't suffer from the casserole stigma. Even though it is similar to a spaghetti casserole, says Ms. Johnson, "people think of it as more dressed up than spaghetti."
About the only thing that can go wrong with lasagna, says Donna Chowning Reid of the National Pasta Association, is runny sauce, more likely to occur when lasagna has been frozen.
The solution is to cook the sauce until it is thick before assembling the layers.
In keeping with popular demands for streamlined preparation, some recipes eliminate the need to cook the noodles before layering. That seems to be the step that lasagna cooks dread most. There's also a no-cook lasagna noodle on the market. Recipes on the box are designed for the product.
Layer by layer, no matter what's between, it's the people's choice.
* Place cooked and drained lasagna noodles on clean, dry dish towels to soak up excess water.
* Cook down tomato-based sauces until very thick to minimize excess moisture, especially in make-ahead, frozen lasagna.
* To freeze lasagna, assemble and freeze, unbaked, in a pan such as aluminum that can safely go from freezer to hot stove. Bake an additional 30 minutes or until top is browned and lasagna bubbles. Cover during the first 30 minutes of baking time.
* Frozen lasagna may be thawed overnight in the refrigerator before baking. If a glass baking dish is used, bring casserole to room temperature before placing in hot oven.
Makes 8 servings.
1/2 pound turkey sausage
1 large onion, diced
2 (16-ounce) cans low-salt tomato sauce (4 cups)
1 cup water
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil or 1 teaspoon dried
1 pound lasagna noodles, uncooked
1 pound part-skim ricotta cheese
2 cups grated mozzarella cheese
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Brown sausage in large skillet over medium-high heat. Drain; add onion. Cook over low heat until onion is soft. Stir in tomato sauce, water and basil. Remove from heat.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spoon some sauce over the bottom of a 9-by-13-by-2-inch baking dish. Cover with uncooked noodles. Spread a layer of ricotta over the noodles along with mozzarella, Parmesan and sauce. Repeat, ending with sauce.
Sprinkle with mozzarella and Parmesan. Bake, covered, for 45 minutes and then uncovered for another 25 to 30 minutes until brown and bubbling. (Freezing before baking is not recommended.)
White lasagna with Canadian bacon
Makes 8 servings.
1 pound lasagna noodles, uncooked
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 large onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound mushrooms, sliced
1 (14-ounce) can artichoke hearts, drained
3 cups part-skim ricotta cheese
1 cup skim milk
3 ounces crumbled blue cheese
6 ounces Canadian bacon or lean ham, diced
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Cook noodles according to package directions; drain.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion, garlic and mushrooms. Saute until vegetables are soft and liquid has evaporated, 6 to 8 minutes. Stir in artichoke hearts. Remove from heat.
Stir together ricotta, milk, blue cheese and Canadian bacon; reserve 1 cup.
Spoon some of the vegetables over the bottom of a 9-by-13-by-2-inch baking dish. Cover with noodles and spread one-third of the ricotta mixture on top. Continue to layer with vegetables, noodles and cheese mixture, ending with noodles. Cover with reserved cheese mixture and sprinkle with Parmesan. Bake, uncovered, 40 minutes or until brown and heated through.
Lasagna with spinach, mushrooms and cheese
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
1 pound lasagna noodles
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 shallots, finely chopped
3/4 pound button mushrooms, chopped
1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms, chopped
1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups milk
1/2 cup crumbled Gorgonzola
1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmesan (divided use)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 (10-ounce) packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed and dried
1 1/2 cups ricotta cheese
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 teaspoons dried basil
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
Cook lasagna noodles according to package instructions; set aside. Place oil in large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and shallots; cook about 5 minutes, until soft. Add mushrooms; cook until liquid is evaporated, about 10 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer to a large bowl and reserve.
Melt butter in the skillet; blend in flour and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Gradually whisk in milk; bring to a simmer. Cook, stirring, until sauce thickens, about 5 minutes.
Stir in the Gorgonzola, 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese and the tomato paste. Continue cooking and stirring until the cheese is melted.
Stir half the mushroom mixture into the sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat; reserve.
In a large mixing bowl, combine spinach, ricotta, 3/4 cup $l Parmesan, eggs, basil, nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste with the remaining mushroom mixture; stir to blend.
(Both the sauce and the filling can be made a day in advance, covered tightly and refrigerated; reheat before assembling the lasagna.)
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Spread a thin layer of sauce on bottom of 2-quart casserole. Place a layer of noodles over the sauce. Spoon a layer of spinach/mushroom filling over the noodles and top with sauce. Repeat layers, ending with noodles and a thin layer of sauce. Sprinkle remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan over top. Bake about 35 to 40 minutes or until browned and bubbly. (If the top browns before the sauce is bubbly, cover loosely with aluminum foil.)