Thursday, September 30, 2010

Candlelight and My Best Lasagna Made Romance

A romantic dinner – complete with wine, music, candlelight, panoramic view, good food – is a pretty traditional, even cliché, way to celebrate your wedding anniversary. My husband and I marked our 15th last week and we celebrated with all those trappings, with one big difference – our venue.

We packed an ample basket of goodies – a big pan of my best lasagna, safely ensconced in its thermal envelope; a simple tossed salad, greens, dressing and extras carefully separated, of course; our wine, and all the accoutrements I could think of. (Didn’t even forget the wine opener.) We headed up to our private little hill, 1500 feet up, on our farm and arranged our moveable feast in what we fondly call “the shanty.” Earlier in the day, I’d set up a card table and dressed the table – pretty tablecloth, flowers, candle holders stemmed glasses, silverware, china. (Okay, the glasses were plastic, and the plates were the fancy disposables from Marx Foods, but you get the picture -- and despite this picture, we really could see our dinner!) 
The “shanty” is designed for hunting, but it’s no shack, more like an outdoor room. My husband carefully outfitted it with all the comforts of home. It’s heated, insulated, carpeted, and furnished with cushy chairs and a radio, and all four sides have double-hung windows, an opening to an unmatched view.

And nature did her part, too. First, the beautiful sunset. Then the full moon, and a canopy of stars. A night built for romance.

Just as a humble PB&J takes on an elegant air when eaten al fresco, our portable feast had all the ambience of any classy restaurant. I had tried to outdo myself and make the best lasagna I ever had. Now, lasagna’s a pretty staple dish for us, if not weekly, certainly monthly. I’ve tried to make a few adaptations here and there and the occasional shortcut. And here’s what I’ve learned about making classic lasagna:
  • No-boil noodles work, but they’re just not the same when you’re trying to pull out all the stops.
  • Ground beef is okay but sweet Italian sausage is better, but more than a pound is overwhelming. And turkey sausage is a great way to lighten up.
  • Yes, cottage cheese works, but I still prefer the texture and flavor of ricotta.
  • A jarred sauce is okay, too, but homemade is best.
  • Freshly grated Parmesan makes a big difference.
  • Making three layers makes more sense to even things out better, but when your eye doesn’t judge “thirds” too well, a half is the way to go.
  • Spinach in the filling is better than parsley.
  • A little nutmeg grated into the spinach-ricotta filling is a subtle but noticeable difference.
With that, here’s . . . .

Nonna Rosa’s Best Lasagna

12 lasagna noodles
1 mild sweet Italian sausage, removed from casing if necessary
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup minced onion
1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
2 (6 ounce) cans tomato paste
½ cup dry red wine
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon oregano
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 eggs
3 cups (24 ounces) whole milk ricotta cheese
½ cup grated Parmesan
1 (10 ounce) frozen block of chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
4 grates of fresh nutmeg, or 1/4 teaspoon dry nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 pound mozzarella, thinly sliced
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Cook the noodles:   Bring a large pot of water to boil. When water is at a rolling boil, add salt and noodles and cook noodles for 8 to 10 minutes. Drain. (I have found that draining the noodles then placing on a parchment lined cookie sheet keeps the noodles from getting too sticky – as opposed to rinsing.) 
Make the sauce:  Brown sausage, onion and garlic in a large Dutch oven over medium heat until well-browned. Add tomatoes, paste, wine and seasonings. Simmer, uncovered for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. 
Make the filling: Mix eggs in medium bowl. Add ricotta and Parmesan. Mix in spinach. Add seasonings. 
Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. 
To assemble: Spread a scant cup of sauce in bottom of a 13 x 9 x 2 pan. Layer half the noodles in pan, spread with half of the ricotta filling. Layer half the mozzarella and half the meat sauce. Repeat. Sprinkle with another ½ cup of Parmesan. Cover with foil. (Coat foil with vegetable spray to prevent sticking.) 

Bake, covered, for 30 minutes. Then uncover and bake for 10-15 minute more, to desired brownness. Let sit for 15 minutes before cutting and serving. Makes 12 servings.


  1. Happy Anniversary! We are celebrating our 19th October 12th. The lasagna sounds great.

  2. I love the idea of a separate getaway building. That way, you don't think about what you need to do in the house, or hurry up to watch a show. We're having lasagna, but it's not homemade, it's from a restaurant. It's our dinner tonight when canning is taking over the house. Enjoy! 15 years is great.

  3. Your lasagna sounds wonderful! I like the addition of the red wine...I've never used wine in my lasagna (besides drinking it while cooking, of course!).
    And lucky you to have such an amazing view.


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