Growing up, in a Japanese-American household, we had an interesting mix of foods that graced our dinner table. It's only after I left home that I came to recognize them as comfort foods. Mac and Cheese didn't make the list, but Japanese Curry and Spaghetti with Meat Sauce were some regulars. Lasagne is another classic comfort food that made it onto our dinner table for special occasions and to this day, it's one of my all-time favorites.
With a savory meat sauce, between layers of tender noodles that have absorbed all the great flavors of the sauce, and a caramelized layer of cheese on top, it may very well be the ultimate comfort food. Recently, I was tasked with cooking for a large family gathering in Japan that involved both older folks and young kids. Flipping through my mental rolodex of crowd-pleasers, Lasagne quickly floated to the top of the list. When I realized I'd never shared my lasagne recipe with you guys, the decision was made.
I knew I made the right choice, when I saw a 90 year old Japanese grandma, who'd probably only eaten pasta a handful of times in her lifetime, clean her plate with a contented expression on her face. The only bummer was that the casserole dish was practically licked clean by the time I went back for a second slice. Next time I'm doubling the recipe!
If you're wondering where the ricotta is, it's a personal preference. For me, adding ricotta makes lasagne far too rich to eat more than one slice. My version takes a more balanced approach between the cheese, pasta and sauce, which will have you going back for seconds and thirds.
My version of Lasagne isn't very complicated to make, but there are a few closely guarded secrets I've integrated over the years that set it apart from the rest.
- Use a mix of meat – I use a 5:2 ratio of beef to pork, but you could also make this with Italian sausage, or even minced bacon. You want enough beef in the mix that it has a solid beefy flavor, but adding in some pork brings depth and umami to the mixture.
- Mushroom powder – Dried mushrooms have a boatload of umami compounds and when powderize they make a great natural alternative to MSG. I grated in a dried shiitake mushroom with a microplane, but porcinis would work great as well.
- Add sweetness – Because most canned tomatoes lack the sweetness of sun-ripened tomatoes, I find sauces made from them often taste tart and one dimensional. This is easily corrected by adding a grated carrot. It not only contributes a wonderful vegetal flavor, it adds sweetness naturally without using refined sugar.
- Parboil the pasta – Some recipes call for assembling lasagnes using uncooked pasta. This makes the pasta absorb most of the liquid from the sauce, making it dry and gummy. On the flip-side, cooking the pasta for the time specified on the package results in a lasagne with soggy noodles. That’s why I like to par-boil the noodles for about 3 minutes less than what the package directions specify. This removes the excess starch and allows the noodles to plump up, but they’re not fully cooked, so they don’t get too soft while the lasagne bakes in the oven. I don’t usually add oil when boiling pasta, but for lasagne I make and exception because the large surface area of the noodles will make them stick together, and they become almost impossible to separate.
- Use a mix of cheese – While most recipes call for using Mozzarella in Lasagne, mozzarella contributes very little flavor because it has not been aged. That’s why I like using a mixture of Mozzarella with Gruyere (you can also use Comté). Its a melting cheese that’s aged for 3-10 months, giving it a rich nutty flavor that lends the Mozzarella a helping hand.
Oops, there go my secrets... but hopefully you've learned a trick or two.
You can make the sauce a few days in advance and store it in the fridge, but boil the noodles and assemble the lasagne the day you plan to serve it. This gives the flavors in the sauce a chance to meld without making the noodles soggy. It should also give you enough time on the day of your dinner to crank out a few other dishes to impress your guests.
- Add the olive oil to a large pot along with the onions, garlic and carrot. Cover with a lid and cook over medium low heat until the onions are soft and translucent. The moisture released by the vegetables should keep them from burning, but if they start burning, turn down the heat and add a little water.
- Once the onions are cooked, remove the lid and turn up the heat, sautéing until the mixture is 1/3 the original volume and starting to caramelize.
- Push the vegetables to the sides of the pan, turn up the heat to medium-high and add the ground beef and pork. Use a spatula to break up the clumps.
- Add the milk and boil, continuing to break up the clumps until the beef is cooked and there is no liquid left.
- Add the wine and boil until most of the liquid has evaporated and there is no smell of alcohol remaining.
- Add the tomatoes, using your hands to crush them into small pieces, and then add the tomato paste, salt, oregano, and black pepper.
- Use a microplane to shave the dried shiitake into the pot (you can also put the dried mushroom in a spice grinder and powderize).
- Simmer the sauce over medium low heat until it is thick (30-40 minutes).
- Generously salt a large pot of water and add a teaspoon of olive oil. Bring the water to a boil, then cook the pasta 3 minutes less than what the package directions say. My pasta said 9 minutes so I cooked it for 6.
- Place the oven rack in the top position and preheat to 350 degrees F (180 C).
- Put the Mozzarella and Gruyere in a bowl and toss to distribute evenly.
- To construct the lasagane, put down a layer of sauce that's just thick enough to cover the bottom of the dish.
- Sprinkle with cheese.
- Cover with the parboiled pasta, cutting the pasta as necessary to fill in the spaces. Repeat so that you have 3 layers of pasta.
- Once you have 3 layers of pasta, finish by spreading the remaining meat sauce on top of the last layer of pasta. Cover with enough cheese so that you cannot see any sauce underneath.
- Put the lasagne on a baking sheet to catch any spills, then place it in the oven. Bake until the sauce is hot and bubbly and the cheese has browned on top. If the sauce has been bubbling for a while and the cheese is not getting brown, turn up the heat to 450 degrees F (230 C) to finish it off.
- When the lasagne is done, take it out of the oven, garnish with minced parsley, and let it rest for 10 minutes before cutting and serving.