To Boil or Not to Boil

In food on 06/19/2009 at 10:49 am

The other half had a hankering for lasagna. I didn’t like to make it because it takes forever and the ingredients make it cost out at $20 or more, depending on how decadent you spree. Plus it drops like a brick into your stomach and gives me a sympathy bellyache. On top of that, I have a bone to pick with Italian food.

First of all, there’s two camps. You’ve got motherly Lidia in one corner who is traditional, a stickler about not wavering from old technique, and uses fancy terms when you can say ‘red sauce.’ Then you’ve got Giada in the other corner, wearing cleavage and hot pants, who dumbs it down and vamps it up. But they both use the same old ingredients over and over and over, as if tomatoes and semolina were the only things in the world worth using. And…what’s with the obsession with hazelnuts?

To me, lasagna is a stack of pasta and sauce glued together by cheese. It reminds me of the Sam Mason ‘meatloaf’ in the Iron Chef skirt steak battle. He layered thin slices of steak, glued it together with transglutaminase powder and then sous vide-d it to make a new tenderized block of meat. Why waste the time and money when you can just grab a slice around the corner? Same basic idea, but with QQ. Lasagna is mushy and fussy. I vowed to make it simpler, tasty (with chunks of ingredients you can see and taste separately), and fast.

My secret ingredient: cottage cheese.

bad mush

good n' chunky

Compared to the usual ricotta (top), cottage cheese (bottom) has larger grains and less liquid. It will give the final product more body. And it doesn’t taste like spongy brains in your mouth. Not that that’s a bad thing in soup; but in lasagna, it’s gag-worthy. Go for the most milkfat content. 4% was the max offered at my grocery store.

Next, what is the deal with regular vs. ‘no-boil’ lasagna noodles? It’s a big scam. Really. No-boil may be a thinner sheet, but I prefer thicker noodle to preserve more QQ. I never boil my noodles. They are too slippery and slimy if you do. There’s no need to soak them in water before baking either, just make sure the topmost noodle layer is covered with sauce, and break off pieces of the corner to insure a tight fit in the pan. Besides, crispy bits are a plus in my book. Adds more texture.

Third, no jar of sauce needed. It’ll just water down the whole ensemble and commit to mush. Gummy food is for when you only have gums left in your mouth. Just get a can of whole peeled tomatoes and tomato paste to amp up the tomato wattage for the same price as a pre-mixed jar. This way you can be creative and decide the herbs, spices to add, and the salt content. There’s usually way too much salt in the shredded cheese already anyway.

Last, saute the meat sauce until just done. Baking the lasagna in the oven is akin to boiling it, and I normally like my pasta al dente, which takes only 7 minutes to cook. The flavors will have plenty of time to marry for the total amount of time they will mingle (~1 hour) before mangia.

Now, go forth and lasagna!

1 box of lasagna noodles
1 can whole peeled tomatoes (organic makes a difference in flavor)
1 Tbsp tomato paste
1 bulb garlic, chopped (or 2 Tbsp sofrito if you have it)
1 lb ground fatty pork (juicier flavor than beef)
1 tsp vanilla extract
oregano + your favorite herbs (we had tarragon on hand)
salt and pepper
1 lb cottage cheese
2 eggs
shredded cheese (freshly grated sharp cheese is best, but a bag of pre-shredded is okay in a pinch, and frankly, cheaper)
Parmesan (pre-shredded is NOT okay)

Preheat oven 350°.

Saute garlic in hot olive oil. Add pork as soon as garlic is fragrant. Saute and break up meat into chunks (not itty bitty bits). Add can of tomato when pork is still slightly pink. Break up tomatoes into chunks.

Add tomato paste, vanilla, herbs, salt and pepper. Let simmer 5 minutes and remove from heat.

Combine cottage cheese with eggs and pepper. Mix well.

Assembly: Sauce on bottom first to prevent sticking, then noodle, cottage cheese, sauce, shredded cheese. Repeat 3X

Cover with foil and put in oven 20 minutes. Uncover and bake additional 15 minutes for ‘no boil’ noodles (20 minutes for regular noodles). When cheese on top is brown and bubbly, it is done.

Take out and let it rest for 10 minutes to let the cheese firm up. Cut into pieces with spatula and serve with freshly grated Parmesan cheese on top.

Note: I was contemplating adding a bitter veggie like spinach or watercress, but soggy veggie is worse than limp pasta. I would saute it separately on the side if you need something to balance the carbo-load.

ooey gooey good

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