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Lasagna the Quick, Easy, and Delicious Way

Do you know that the local restaurant you frequent probably doesn’t make everything from scratch? I learned this when I worked in a New York City a while back. Much to my dismay, I watched one day as the kitchen staff unpacked boxes of already-made sauces, packages of conveniently chopped vegetables, and even prepared cookie dough and pie-shells. There is a well-known chain of sandwich shops that boasts heroes with “freshly baked bread”. But you might be expecting to find frenetic yeast rising and dough rolling in the back. Chances are you would see globs of dough pre-formed into hero-bread shape, waiting to be put in the oven. And what’s the difference? The cookie or bread would taste freshly baked, and the cooks wouldn’t waste time with rolling pins or discarding dough that didn’t rise. It makes for a much more efficient kitchen, right?

Well, why not use the same principle in your own kitchen? You can make a delicious lasagna without rolling out the pasta dough, or even toiling over a stove to make your own sauce, like Grandma did. Of course, if you want to do everything from scratch, more power to you, because you probably have no kids, don’t have to work for a living, and have someone to clean the mansion and do the laundry. But for the rest of us, leave the saucing to Francesco Rinaldi, and the pasta artistry to Ronzoni. Your guests will think you knocked yourself out for them, and you can still put your own culinary signature on your lasagna. To this day, friends still call me on me to tell them how to make “my” lasagna, and my name doesn’t even end in a vowel!

First, buy a package of lasagna pasta. To make it special, you can get green spinach pasta. If you want to make it really outstanding and you live in a big city, or an area with a big Italian population, you can go to the local Italian deli and get fresh lasagna noodles, instead of picking your box off the grocery shelf. Check with the store about cooking time and make sure you tell them you are making a lasagna, so the pasta will be put in the oven after cooking. Sometimes you get already-cooked pasta that you can put right into the oven without par-boiling. If you use pasta from the box, do not boil it for the 15 minutes they tell you on the box. You want your pasta to be “al dente” which is a little hard, because when you put it in the oven to bake your lasagna, the pasta will cook more, and you don’t want it to overcook it and let it get mushy.

The next thing you are going to put together is your filling. Now, here is where you are going to put your own signature on your lasagna. Mine was little mini-meatballs, but you can also brown the chopped meat and put it in too. Start with some tomato sauce. Here too, take liberty and pick out a jar of your favorite spaghetti sauce. You can use meat sauce and you don’t have to brown any meat. You can use sauce with sausage, or to make it really special, buy already-made Italian sausage. Make sure you cook it first. Want to add your own special vegetable? You can put in cooked eggplant, zucchini. Onions, peppers or whatever you want. Add fresh herbs if you desire. If you want to make a vegetarian lasagna, leave out the meat. Want to go easy on the calories and cholesterol? Use chicken or instead of chopped beef, use chopped veal or even chopped turkey. For a very different lasagna, put in seafood -- calamari, mussels, or even shrimp.

Now you are ready to assemble your lasagna and put it in the oven to bake. You will need a large container of ricotta cheese and a package of mozzarella cheese too. Take a rectangular baking dish- either glass or metal, or even disposable. Spray the bottom with non-stick cooking spray or a thin layer of olive oil. Then line the bottom of the pan with sauce. Then cover the bottom with a layer of your pre-cooked “al dente” lasagna noodles. Next, slather on your ricotta cheese in a thick layer. Then, put on your filling and sauce. Then, put another layer of lasagna noodles, again slather on ricotta, and again your filling. Top off with a layer of lasagna noodles, liberally pour sauce on top, and then slices of mozzarella to cover the top. Put the pan in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes, or until the mozzarella on top is completely melted and the sauce is bubbling.

Make sure to serve some Italian bread and compliment with a good bottle of wine, and your guests will never know that you didn’t slave all day. You can even make the components of the filling the day before. That way, all you have to do on the night of your dinner party is parboil the lasagna noodles, assemble the lasagna, and pop it in the oven. Everything is already cooked; you only have to put it all in the oven to melt the mozzarella and heat everything up. The lasagna is your creation. You have chosen what goes into it and what flavors and spices your guests’ taste buds will enjoy. And the best part? If there are leftovers, you can reheat it and enjoy it again. I will never figure out why, but Italian food always tastes even better the second time around. Isn’t there a song like that? Or is it love that is better the second time around? Love? Lasagna? They certainly go together.

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