Time was, as summer rounded into autumn, you kept an eye out for that first cool, dry weekend after the leaves started to turn, when the air remained genuinely chilly in the shade all day long, and then you tilted back your floppy coppola hat, hooked your thumbs into your suspenders, gazed thoughtfully into the middle distance of your rustic Emilia-Romagna village, and knew it was time to make lasagna, you and all the other ridiculous olde-thymey caricatures in the hopelessly inaccurate lunatic fantasy being described here.
The point is, it's starting to get cool out there, occasionally at least, or anyway in some places you can sometimes walk across the street without your shoes melting into the asphalt, and this is what will have to pass for "cool" now, and this means that it's time to make lasagna. Lasagna is the best foodstuff of all for autumn, a cooling transitional season during which many mammals in our planet's temperate regions begin to pack on as much body fat as they can, in anticipation of winter weather giving them an excuse to wear bulky sweaters and heavy coats so that no one will notice that, whoa, hey, are you like depressed or something, because I mean you still look great and all but you have put on at least 45 pounds since the last reunion and also appear not to have shaved or showered in quite some time.
Lasagna's perfect for this. In addition to being outrageously tasty, it is a nutritional atom bomb (the Food and Drug Administration estimates that a single serving of lasagna contains seven hundred trillion calories, ∞ percent of an adult's recommended daily allowance of simple carbohydrates, and all the grams of fat that exist or have ever existed), and it is overwhelmingly likely to place its eater into a state of inactivity not unlike hibernation, but which the medical community stubbornly insists upon calling "a diabetic coma."
Doesn't that sound great? Yes, it does. Let's make lasagna! Everybody's got his or her own favorite lasagna—Mom's or Uncle Joe's or whoever's, with meat or without, with béchamel or without, with carrots and squash and other weirdo health shit vainly attempting to add some nutritional virtue to this cheese-filled meteor of death, and so on—so the following preparation is bound to differ in some way from how your mom or uncle or artisanal lasagna club or whoever-the-fuck makes it. That's fine. The following preparation tastes just as good as those, or better, or anyway if you eat it you're gonna be way too clutching-your-heart-and-calling-an-ambulance to make too much of a big deal about it one way or another.
To begin, preheat your oven to 375 degrees. You can also bring a huge pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta if you want, but before you do, let's talk about that.
There are four types of lasagne (this is the plural of lasagna, by the way; we'll use the singular lasagna to refer to the overall dish, and the plural to refer to the pasta itself), or anyway four that are worth discussing: the fresh homemade kind; the wide, flat, floppy stuff that is packaged and sold as fresh pasta in the refrigerated section of your local supermarket; the familiar long strips of dried stuff you have to boil before using; and the no-boil stuff that looks basically identical to the dried kind.
The important thing to know about the fresh, homemade stuff is that its assembly—even if you are the sort of wealthy, insufferable, Williams-Sonoma-catalog-humping assbag who owns an automated pasta machine—is a miserable, messy, time-consuming affair, which will counter 10 times over in needless mess and effort and annoyance whatever meager, transient verisimilitude it grants to your ludicrous delusion of self-reliance. And that's before you put it to use as nothing more than a humble starchy scaffolding for other, more vivid stuff. That is to say, don't make fresh lasagne. It is a waste of time.
As for the no-boil stuff (yes, we skipped two other types; we'll get to 'em in a second) ... well, the name says it all. You don't have to boil it, so if that's the route you're taking, you don't need to get a big pot of salted water boiling. However, the below preparation proceeds as though you are boiling pasta, and this actually does make a difference: No-boil pasta must absorb moisture from the ingredients around it (from the tomato sauce in particular) in order to soften during cooking, and this preparation may not include enough moisture for that. That is to say, just this one time, ditch the no-boil stuff, OK?
As for the remaining two types of lasagne (the long, narrow dried stuff with the ruffled edges, and the wide, perfectly flat, floppy pre-made "fresh" stuff from the refrigerated section), both will include instructions for boiling them. Choose whichever you want; in either case, the three important notes here are:
1) Don't cook the pasta until all the other elements of your lasagna are ready to go, so that you can strain the pasta and begin assembling the lasagna directly instead of having to make arrangements to keep the pasta from drying out and/or sticking together while it waits for you to finish everything else.
2) Err on the al dente, undercooked side of things, so that your pasta can finish cooking in the oven without turning to mush.
3) Be mindful that you're going to need two stovetop burners for other stuff. If you don't have at least three working burners, you should wait until later to boil the water.
So. Sure, go ahead and get that pot of water heating up now if you want to clear that step out of the way, but be mindful not to drop the pasta into it until closer to the end. Better the other components of the lasagna should sit and get cool waiting on the pasta than that the pasta should get dry and nasty waiting on, say, the ragù—or that it should boil even a minute longer than the bare minimum time required to get it in range of al dente.
Now, haul out a big sauté pan or saucier pan or flat-bottomed wok, and brown some ground meat in it. You can choose for yourself whether you want to go for familiar ol' ground chuck, or to be a little more adventurous and go for uncased hot Italian sausage, or to use straight-ahead ground pork or ground turkey or just grab that yappy fucking lapdog from down the street who always nips at your heels when you pass you little fucker you're just a sewer rat putting on airs and just toss it on in there, bedazzled collar and all, or what. If you are a boring sack of crap and therefore decide to use plain ground chuck or pork or turkey, instead of the obviously superior sausage that you are not so subtly being instructed to choose, you'd be well advised to add some crushed red pepper and maybe some ground fennel seed, as well as a hearty pinch or two of salt, to the meat as it browns, because otherwise it will add nothing but chewiness (and, ugh, nutritious life-sustaining proteins and lipids [wanking motion]) to the finished product.
Meat mostly browned? Add some finely chopped onion and minced garlic to it, as well as a light drizzle of olive oil, and cook this stuff until the onion is softened and starting to turn translucent. Now you're gonna turn this into a basic ragù by adding a can of whole tomatoes (San Marzano are best, but the crummy store-brand variety is perfectly fine, too), a small can of tomato paste, a couple glugs of cheap red wine, and—yes, goddammit, yes!—three or four or five or six anchovy fillets. Thoroughly crush the tomatoes with your mighty Kitchen Implement Of Choice (wooden spoon, spatula, the alarming flanged mace that earned you the nickname "That Psycho With The, Like, War-Club Or Whatever That Thing Is, Oh God Call Security"), bring this concoction to a boil, then reduce it to a simmer and leave it alone for a while so its flavors can hang out together and the liquid can reduce a bit.
Your oven is preheating and your ragù is simmering happily and your pasta water is (maybe) coming to a boil (even though you are not ready to put pasta into it no seriously put the fucking pasta down). Now, get out another pan or pot of some sort (this one probably shouldn't be nonstick-coated, since you're going to be attacking it with a wire whisk for a while and you don't want cancer, unless you do want cancer, in which case what the fuck) make béchamel sauce. This is pretty straightforward: Melt, oh, most of a stick of unsalted butter over medium heat; whisk, say, half-a-cup of flour into it until the mixture is smooth and hot and smells like starchy, buttery ecstasy; gradually whisk in a few cups of room-temperature whole milk; simmer and whisk and simmer and whisk and simmer and whisk until this stuff's thick enough to coat a wooden spoon and rounding into gluey pastiness. There. Béchamel sauce.
Stir a pound of by-God full-fat ricotta (and maybe a pinch of nutmeg if you have any, ha ha like you would ever have any nutmeg, oh man [wipes tears from eyes]) into your béchamel sauce and remove it from the heat altogether. The ricotta will sorta melt as you stir it in, and you will be left with molten deliciousness, oh dear God, and you will have to bite your hands off at the wrists to stop yourself from plunging them entirely into this still-very-hot stuff. Dip the tip of a small spoon into it and taste it, no wait stop oh Christ somebody get a fucking taser or something, you can't dunk your face into the cheese sauce no no no—could it use a little salt? Yes, it could. Season it a little. Set it aside. Aside. Set it aside, damn you, and stop thrusting your pelvis at it, for fuck's sake you are not Ravishing Rick Rude.
OK, now you can boil the pasta. A pound or so of it should be enough, depending on how deep your lasagna's gonna be. While it's boiling, grate some Parmesan, chop some basil and oregano, and cut, oh, a pound-and-a-half or two pounds of fresh mozzarella into thin slices. Drain the pasta when it has boiled to al dente-ness, grab a deep-sided casserole dish or disposable aluminum-foil baking pan, and now ...
... assemble lasagna! Start with a very thin layer of the liquid from your ragù on the bottom; put a layer of just-overlapping pasta atop that; ladle a bunch of the cheesy béchamel stuff atop that; sprinkle this with some of the chopped herbs; scatter a few slices of mozzarella across that (leaving plenty of space between these, as they'll spread during cooking); sprinkle some grated Parmesan atop that; now a layer of the ragù; now another layer of pasta; now the ricotta-béchamel stuff; and so on. Eventually your dish will be nearly full. Top the last layer of pasta wit (in order): the ricotta-béchamel stuff; the ragù; some mozzarella slices; some sprinkled herbs; a big fistful of the grated Parmesan; then, finally, a hearty drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.
Stick that fucker into the oven and set a timer for 45 minutes, but don't go away for too long. After, say, a half-hour or so, you'll want to start peeking in on the lasagna every five minutes; when the top of it is bubbly and browned and your face and hands are pressed against the glass oven window and you are sobbing uncontrollably because your lasagna has not deigned to respond to your many proposals of marriage, it is done. Get it out of the oven, set it on an oven mitt on the countertop, and hit yourself over the head with a cast-iron skillet so that you will be unconscious and therefore unable to molest your lasagna for the next 20 minutes or so, while it sets.
So 20 minutes have elapsed. Ha. No they have not. But it's your kitchen and your lasagna and your life, and by God no dipshit internet food person is gonna stop you from consuming soupy unset lasagna if you wanna. It's time to eat.
Serve your lasagna with really fucking cold beer, or red wine, to wash it down—but with absolutely nothing else. There's more than enough food here already, stretchy with melted mozzarella and creamy and tart and juuuust piquant, juuuuust teasing your palate enough to keep you charging ahead for more, and somewhere in there the silly pasta doing the humble work of imparting the bare minimum of structure and respectability to what's essentially just a great wild heap of cheese and meat and sticky, goopy tomato.
You ever drop a really large, heavy rock into a deep body of water from more than a few feet up? Like, off of a pier, or a cliff, or a bridge, or whatever? It makes this great, really fucking satisfying sound when it hits the water; this wonderful full-bodied KUH-GLUNK that small children are hardwired to find the most entertaining thing in the world. Not coincidentally, that is the sound that lasagna makes when it hits your stomach, and pins you, immobilized, to wherever you will be sitting as you watch other people, like, run around and clobber each other and throw balls and not eat lasagna, the morons. What the fuck's wrong with them?
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at firstname.lastname@example.org, or publicly and succinctly on Twitter @albertburneko. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.
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