Classic Comfort; Homey, satisfying lasagna meant to please a crowd

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There are four main axioms to preparing homemade lasagna:

* Many steps are involved.

* It always takes a long time.

* It isn't exactly cheap.

* It's always worth it.

For me, and seemingly every child I know (regardless of ethnicity), lasagna is the quintessential comfort food. It's complex in flavor, yet homey and satisfying, and has great visual appeal. Depending on the ingredients, it can be a complete and very wholesome meal "in a square."

When I was a kid, there was only one way to make this multilayered, oven-baked pasta dish, and that was from scratch. First, the sauce was made, using onions and garlic, ground meat and canned tomato products. After it had simmered all day long, it was time to shred the cheeses and compose the ricotta mixture.

The noodles were cooked just before the dish was assembled. About an hour later, dinner was served, and family and friends -- not to mention the cook -- rejoiced.

Like virtually every other popular food, lasagna is now sold in the freezer at the grocery store. In light of the lengthy preparation time, I suppose this is a fairly reasonable substitute for the real deal, but true lasagna aficionados (and folks with time on their hands) would never settle for a prefab frozen version.

Here are three recipes for those who still regard lasagna as a classic, crowd-pleasing dish that must be made from scratch.

As one who cherishes free time, I recommend preparing the sauce and combining the ricotta mixture one day ahead. The lasagna will profit, and your time will be best spent if you cook the noodles just before putting together all the components and baking the dish. But be sure to bring the refrigerated sauce and ricotta mixture to room temperature before assembling the lasagna.

Deluxe Lasagna

Serves 8-10

SAUCE:

1 medium onion, finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

2 pounds bulk mild Italian sausage

1 tablespoon fennel seed

1 tablespoon crushed rosemary

1 (30-ounce) can tomato sauce

1 (14-ounce) can chopped tomatoes

1 cup water

RICOTTA:

1 pound mozzarella cheese, shredded

23 ounces low-fat ricotta cheese (1 1/2 containers)

1/4 pound Parmesan cheese, grated

1 1/2 cups finely chopped fresh basil

1 pound lasagna pasta noodles

To prepare sauce, in large, shallow pan, cook onion, garlic, sausage, fennel and rosemary over moderately high heat 10 to 12 minutes, breaking sausage apart as you stir mixture. Add tomato sauce, chopped tomatoes and water, and bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to moderate and simmer 40 minutes until thick and aromatic. Remove from heat. Cool to room temperature or store in tightly sealed container in refrigerator up to 2 days before using.

To prepare ricotta, place half of mozzarella cheese in medium bowl. Reserve other half to use on top of lasagna. To mozzarella, add ricotta and Parmesan cheeses and basil, and mix well.

Cook lasagna noodles according to package directions. You will only be using 15 noodles, but it's good to have a few extra. Cook until al dente and drain well in colander.

Lightly grease 9-inch-by-13-inch baking pan. Cover bottom with a little sauce. Make pasta layer using 5 noodles. Cover with more sauce. Top with half of ricotta mixture. Make another layer of pasta and cover with sauce. Add remaining ricotta. Make third and final pasta layer and cover with remaining sauce. Cover with foil.

Bake at 350 degrees 55 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle reserved mozzarella cheese over top. Return to oven without foil and bake 10 minutes longer until cheese is just melted. Remove from oven and let stand at room temperature 20 minutes before cutting into serving pieces.

Mushroom-and-Leek Lasagna With Bechamel Sauce

Serves 8-10

SAUCE:

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup flour

4 cups whole milk

2 cups chicken or vegetable broth (see note)

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

LEEKS:

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 pounds leeks, trimmed, halved and cut into 1/4 -inch-wide half-moons, thoroughly washed and drained

1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme

MUSHROOMS:

1/2 ounce dried morel mushrooms, coarsely chopped

1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms, coarsely chopped

1 1/2 cups hot water

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 pounds button mushrooms, cut into 1/4 -inch-thick pieces

1 1/2 pounds portobello mushrooms, quartered lengthwise and cut into 1/4 -inch-thick pieces

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 pound lasagna pasta noodles

1 pound mozzarella cheese, shredded

1/4 pound Parmesan cheese, grated

To prepare sauce, in heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt butter. Add flour and cook over moderate heat, stirring frequently, until pale golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Very slowly, add milk, whisking constantly with wire whisk to form smooth paste. Slowly add remaining milk, chicken broth and mustard, whisking constantly. Bring to boil over high heat, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to moderately low and cook 8 to 9 minutes until sauce is thick enough to coat back of spoon. Remove from heat. Let stand at room temperature until ready to use or cover tightly and refrigerate up to 2 days.

To prepare leeks, in large saute pan, heat 1 tablespoon oil over high heat until warm. Add half of leeks and 3/4 teaspoon dried thyme and cook 5 minutes to 6 minutes, stirring frequently, until leeks are slightly limp and light golden brown. Transfer to bowl. Cook second batch in same fashion using remaining olive oil and thyme. Combine both batches and mix well. Set aside until needed, or cover tightly and refrigerate up to 2 days.

To prepare mushrooms, place dried mushrooms in small bowl and cover with 1 1/2 cups hot water. Let soak 20 minutes until soft. Remove mushrooms from soaking liquid, reserving liquid, and rinse well under running water to remove any grit or sand. Place mushrooms in large bowl. Using coffee filter or paper towel, strain soaking liquid twice to remove dirt, sand and grit. Set liquid aside until needed.

In large nonstick saute pan, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over high heat. Add half of button mushrooms and cook 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until all liquid evaporates and mushrooms are golden brown. Add to reconstituted mushrooms. Cook second batch in same fashion using remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and add to mushrooms.

In same pan, cook portobello mushrooms in soaking liquid over high heat 15 to 17 minutes until liquid is reduced to about 1/4 cup. Add cooked mushrooms to pan and heat 2 to 3 minutes, stirring constantly, to coat all mushrooms with liquid. Add garlic and mix well. Remove from heat.

Cook lasagna noodles according to package directions until al dente. Drain well in colander.

Lightly grease 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish. Spread 1 cup sauce over bottom. Line pan with 4 noodles. Cover with half of mushroom mixture and half of mozzarella cheese. Top with 3 noodles. Spread 1 cup sauce over pasta. Gently spread leeks over sauce. Top with 3 more noodles. Cover with remaining mushrooms and mozzarella cheese. Top with 5 noodles -- 4 lengthwise and 1 across bottom. Spread about 2 1/2 cups sauce over top or enough to cover pasta. (There will probably be a little sauce left over.)

Bake on bottom rack of oven at 375 degrees 50 minutes. Remove from oven. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese over top. Return to oven and bake 10 minutes longer. Let stand at room temperature 15 minutes before cutting into serving pieces.

Note: If you'd like to make this a vegetarian dish, use canned (or homemade) vegetable stock to make the bechamel sauce.

Turkey-Spinach Lasagna With Roasted Bell-Pepper Sauce

Serves 8

SAUCE:

6 large red bell peppers, roasted, peeled, stemmed and seeded (see note)

1 (14-ounce) can chopped tomatoes

salt, pepper

RICOTTA:

2 (15-ounce) containers low-fat or nonfat ricotta cheese

3/4 pound Asiago cheese, grated

TURKEY-SPINACH MIXTURE:

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 teaspoons dried oregano

1 pound ground turkey

3/4 pound baby spinach leaves

salt, pepper

1 pound lasagna pasta noodles

To prepare sauce, in 2 batches, puree bell peppers and tomatoes in blender until very smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste and set aside until needed or cover tightly and refrigerate up to 2 days.

To prepare ricotta, mix together ricotta cheese and only 1/4 pound Asiago cheese. Reserve remaining cheese to use as garnish on finished lasagna.

To prepare turkey-spinach mixture, in large saute pan, cook onion, garlic, oregano and turkey over high heat, stirring frequently, until meat is no longer pink and all liquid has evaporated, 8 to 10 minutes. Add spinach little by little and cook until just wilted. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer mixture to large colander to drain thoroughly.

Cook 14 lasagna noodles according to package directions until al dente. You will be using only 12 noodles, but it's good to cook a couple extra in case they tear. Drain well in colander.

Lightly grease 9-inch-by-13-inch baking pan. Cover bottom with some sauce. Make pasta layer and cover with more sauce. Top with half of meat mixture and half of ricotta mixture. Make another layer of pasta and cover with sauce. Add remaining meat mixture and top with remaining ricotta. Make third and final pasta layer and cover with remaining sauce. Cover with foil.

Bake at 350 degrees 45 minutes. Remove foil and sprinkle remaining 1/2 pound Asiago cheese over top. Return to oven without foil and bake 10 minutes longer. Remove from oven. Let stand at room temperature 20 minutes before cutting into serving pieces. Serve immediately.

Note: If you're pressed for time but not cash, you may buy roasted, peeled and seeded red bell peppers in a jar rather than preparing them yourself.

Pub Date: 09/22/99

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