Like many fine features of Italian culture, lasagna goes back to the ancient Romans, who were modifying something they got from the Greeks. Or maybe the dish was borrowed from medieval England. Either way, it has by now become thoroughly Americanized—witness Stouffer’s twenty frozen varieties, promoted with the leading question, “On the lookout for lasagna?” (Who isn’t?)
But the best lasagna isn’t something you happen upon by being extra watchful in the frozen-foods aisle, of course: it’s something you make yourself. If you’re skeptical of the effort required, consider that Stouffer’s is packed with tapioca dextrin, hydrolyzed beef protein, and caramel color flavor (sounds synesthetic), in addition to bargain-basement commodity meat and dairy products.
Your mouth and body will both be much better off if you do some advance grocery shopping, set aside a couple of weekend hours, uncork a bottle of wine, and put some water on to boil. Homemade lasagna isn’t easy, exactly—but it isn’t hard, either. It just takes time, some menial labor, and a starter kit’s worth of cookware (most of which, conveniently, you can wash while the lasagna’s in the oven).
Lasagna, like casserole, refers to both the cooking vessel and the type of food cooked in it (the Latin lasanum refers to a dish or bowl), but that doesn’t mean you can stick just anything in there. Béchamel has its place; contrary to what some recipes will tell you, lasagna isn’t it. The last thing you want to include in lasagna is an attention-demanding sauce that adds no flavor of its own.
Which brings us to the Three Rules of Lasagna-Making. No. 1: Extraneous ingredients are acceptable only if they add flavor. Mushrooms are a good example: Their dark meatiness nicely contrasts with sweet, bright tomatoes. (If you insist on literal meatiness in your lasagna, by all means add half a pound of ground beef or pork in with the mushrooms and onions in Step 2, but be sure to skim off the meat’s extra fat before you add the tomatoes.) Fresh herbs are another good flavor-booster: Nothing else perks up the smooth mellowness of ricotta quite so well. Eggs, cottage cheese, frozen spinach? Leave those less flavorful items on the shelf.
Rule No. 2: Use high-quality ingredients. No jarred tomato sauce; no powdered Parmesan from a shiny green can; no ragged, rubbery mozzarella from a re-sealable bag; no pastelike, guar-gum-containing Polly-O ricotta. If ever there’s a time for a trip to Whole Foods, it’s now. If you do it right, lasagna will cost you a few bucks a serving—think of it as taking the Axl Rose appraoch (make it rarely and spend a lot of money).
Finally, Rule No. 3: Season every single layer with salt—and pepper, while you’re at it, but mostly salt. A generous pinch should go in the pasta-cooking water, in the tomato sauce, and in the ricotta mixture. Every component should taste delicious on its own before you start layering. That’s the only way to make the whole thing delicious.
Mushroom and Herb Lasagna
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
Time: About 1½ hours, partially unattended
Olive oil for greasing the pan
1 pound dried lasagna noodles
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
8 ounces fresh mushrooms, preferably a mixture, trimmed and chopped
1 large yellow onion, chopped
6 garlic cloves, chopped
Three 14.5-ounce cans diced tomatoes
1 pound fresh ricotta cheese, at room temperature
1½ cups grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup whole milk
¼ cup chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves or 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
6 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
1. Heat the oven to 375°F and grease a 9- by 13-inch pan. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Add the noodles and cook until just beginning to turn tender, about 5 minutes. Drain and set aside.
2. Meanwhile, put the oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add the mushrooms, onion, and garlic and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until the onions have softened and all the mushrooms’ liquid has evaporated, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and adjust the heat so the mixture simmers steadily, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is thick and saucy, about 30 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
3. Combine the ricotta, Parmesan, milk, basil, thyme, and rosemary in a medium bowl; season with salt and pepper to taste. Spread about ½ cup of the tomato sauce in the bottom of the greased pan. Arrange about ⅓ of the noodles over the tomato sauce (it’s okay if they overlap slightly), then cover the noodles with about ⅓ of the remaining tomato sauce, followed by about ½ of the cheese mixture. Repeat once. Add a final layer of noodles (you may have one or two left over), cover them with the remaining tomato sauce, and arrange the mozzarella in a single layer on top.
4. Bake until the lasagna is bubbly and heated through, about 30 minutes. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature. (Store leftover lasagna in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a few days.)