I recently moved into a one bedroom apartment, nestled between the Hollywood Hills, Hollywood, and West Hollywood. This is momentous because it is my first time having a separate bedroom (I have been a reigning queen of studio apartment living), but also because I am settling further into my life in Los Angeles. After subletting for eight months, I have moved into my own place; I have a lease; I have purchased furniture; I’m making a commitment. And I have a separate room for my bed. This is huge. The other morning, I woke up, and walked into my kitchen. As I poured myself a cup of coffee, I noticed a sound I couldn’t quite put my finger on. After a few seconds, I realized it was the refrigerator. I have slept in the same room as my refrigerator for so long that it was actually shocking to hear it in the morning, after being away from it, in my quiet bedroom, all night.
In addition to gaining a refrigerator-free sleep sanctuary, I can now entertain in a way that I was previously unable to. In my previous apartments, I could have one person over for dinner; I had a taco party once, and I’m pretty sure we all sat on the floor. In my new place, I can actually have 4-6 people over, and comfortably feed and seat them. Having lived here for a few weeks, I deemed that it was time for a dinner party, both to break the place in a little, and to thank a few kind souls that were instrumental in making my move successful. I decided to employ a few Ina Garten entertaining principles: make as much in advance as possible so that you can enjoy your party, and take a little bit of help from the store where appropriate. The menu included: truffled marcona almonds and olives from Whole Foods as hor d’oeuvres with drinks; lasagna and salad for the main course; vanilla ice cream with balsamic marinated strawberries for dessert (and I even used Ina’s recipe for that).
Lasagna is such a crowd-pleaser, and I could have it completely finished when my guests got arrived. For these reasons, it seemed like a great choice, but it would have to be a really special lasagna: sauce from scratch, full of fresh basil, really good quality sausage, a variety of cheeses, and lots of layers. Lasagna can be labor intensive, but with some thought, it’s relatively fool proof. Because of this, the key to success lies in the quality of the ingredients. I made a trip to a special sausage shop for extra tasty Italian sausage; I used fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, handfuls of fresh basil, and San Marzano tomatoes. It will make a huge difference if you buy blocks of cheese and slice/shred them yourself. Both the flavor and texture of the melted cheese will be far superior to anything pre-shredded or pre-sliced.
This recipe uses no-boil lasagna noodles, which makes life a little bit easier, but I would recommend not assembling it more than 20 or 30 minutes prior to baking. I assembled mine about an hour and half before baking, and the noodles because a touch overcooked. It wasn’t exactly a fatal flaw, but my lasagna would have been a little bit better with a more toothsome noodle. However, the flavor was pretty perfect, as was the amount of sauce. It wasn’t the least bit soupy, but it had a notable tomatoey, and meaty quality, as opposed to being dry, or over run with cheese. The fresh mozzarella also gives it a true dairy flavor that I don’t think you would get from using all part-skim mozzarella.
Lasagna with Sausage and Basil (adapted from Epicurious)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- About 1 1/4 pounds fresh Italian sausage (any combination of mild and hot that sounds good to you)
- 1 onion, diced
- 3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano, crushed
- 1-28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
- 1-28 oz. whole peeled tomatoes
- 1/2-3/4 cup fresh basil leaves, torn
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 bay leaf
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1-15 oz. container ricotta cheese, plus one cup
- 1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese (just regular, not fresh)
- 3/4 cup shredded parmesan cheese
- 1/2 to 3/4 cup fresh basil, julienned
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 12 no-boil lasagna noodles
- 12 oz. fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
- 1 cup parmesan cheese, shredded
- Non-stick olive oil or canola spray
Sauce: Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium-high heat. Add sausages, onion, garlic, oregano and crushed red pepper and sauté until sausage is cooked through, mashing sausage into small pieces with a wooden spoon or a potato masher, about 10 minutes. Add both cans of tomatoes, and the bay leaf. Bring sauce to boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer 15 minutes to blend flavors. They tomatoes should fall apart on their own, but you can also mash them up a bit. Some chunks are okay. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Chill until cold, then cover and keep chilled.)
Filling: In large mixing bowl, combine all ingredients with a spoon. Blend together until smooth.
Assembly: Preheat oven to 375°F. Spread 1 1/2 cups sauce in 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish. Arrange 3 noodles on sauce. Drop 1 1/2 cups filling over noodles, then spread evenly to cover. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, and top with about 1/4 of the sliced mozzarella. Repeat layering of sauce, noodles, filling and cheeses 2 more times. Top with remaining 3 noodles. Spoon remaining sauce atop noodles. Top with remaining cheeses. Your lasagna may be taller than the baking dish at this point, and look watery. Don’t panic! Spray large piece of foil with nonstick olive oil spray. Cover lasagna with foil, sprayed side down.
Place lasagna on a foil-lined baking sheet, and bake lasagna 40 minutes. Carefully uncover. Increase oven temperature to 400°F. Bake until noodles are tender, sauce bubbles thickly and edges of lasagna are golden and puffed, about 20 minutes. Let stand for at least 15 minutes before serving (30 to 40 minutes won’t hurt it).
May 25, 2015