a nice lasagna
Perhaps it's because the sun is setting a little earlier each day, or maybe I'm just getting old, but staying in on Saturday is pretty much my jam lately. Now I'm not saying I would turn you down for a drink at the Page, but I'm really only good for one or two. Then it's straight home for sweatpants and couch time.
Staying in on Saturday is the perfect anecdote to a week of over-scheduled days and makes the hermit in me want to dance around the apartment to the Pointer Sisters in a snuggie, but still manages to miss one important detail for a stress-free weekend: dinner. Of course there's always takeout, maybe some leftovers, or if you're really lucky, as I was this past week, your across-the-hall neighbors will invite you over for a big bowl of chili and hang time with their impossibly adorable new puppy (squee!), both of which will have your heart feeling like it's wearing an old favorite cozy sweater inside your chest.
But what about those nights in where you find yourself wanting be the Nice Neighbor - though you're already a couple of negronis in and you wouldn't change out of your sweatpants to save your soul - as I did last weekend? Well for those nights we have the easiest, breeziest, most beautiful cover girl version of Julia Turshen’s Nice Lasagna. A Lasagna that turns almost no effort into eat-the-whole-pan-in-one-sitting results. A lasagna with tricks up its sleeve.
It starts off rather questionably. Assembly is a messy, gloopy affair of slapping together parboiled dried lasagna noodles (or uncooked fresh, as the original suggests), two cheeses, a couple handfuls of ripped up basil, and a soupy sauce that contains a somewhat offputting secret ingredient, crème fraîche. I’ll admit, the first time I made this, I shoved it in the oven and spent the next 35 minutes worrying that we were going to be eating chips and salsa for dinner due to a botched lasagna job.
But what I pulled out of the oven had me making the heart-eyes emoji face - an utterly babelicious pan of pasta, with a perfectly bronzed lid (as SK says), and miles of crunchy edges. And once we dug in - have mercy it was over. Over, I tell you! It is so positively grand though not the slightest bit pretentious, and most importantly, free from the unpleasant greasiness so commonplace in restaurant-made lasagnas. For that win (or, #SmallVictory) I credit the crème fraîche, which you actually can't taste once cooked. You only know that something spectacular is going down and you're thrilled to be a part of it, while wearing your sweatpants, negroni in hand. Happy weekend!
A Nice Lasagna, adapted from the Small Victories Cookbook
Serves 6 to 8 (or 3 very hungry adults + 3 lunch-sized servings)
1 28-oz can (794 g) crushed tomatoes
1 28-0z can (794 g) diced tomatoes
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Red pepper flakes
1 cup (230 g or 8 oz) crème fraîche
1/2 lb (227 g) parboiled lasagna noodles*
1 cup (100 g) parmesan cheese, finely grated (plus a skosh more for the very top layer)
1 cup (100 g) mozzarella cheese, coarsely grated (ditto)
2 large handfuls of fresh basil, torn into small pieces
*Noodles: The original calls for you to make your own pasta, and while I'm sure it Seventh Wonder of the World-level delicious when you do, I am going all in here for using parboiled pasta. It's just ridiculously easy and tastes so, so good with far less effort. It's cray. Of course I will report back when I make it with fresh pasta (which I plan to, eventually) but for now, I'm Team Parboiled all the way. As for the brand, I used De Cecco every time because that's what my local grocer carries, but I have used Barilla successfully many times in the past.
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, warm up the up the olive oil, add the garlic and a little pinch of red pepper flakes. Cook until the garlic begins to turn golden, about 2 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes and diced tomatoes along with 1 teaspoon of salt, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium and let the sauce simmer for about 20 minutes. Turn the heat off, adjust the sauce for seasoning (I add a little sugar if the tomatoes taste especially acidic) and allow to cool slightly. Add the crème fraîche and stir until well combined.
Spread a thin layer of sauce onto the bottom of a 9-by-13-in (23-by-33-cm) baking dish, making sure that the whole surface is covered. Add a layer of pasta (typically 4 sheets per layer) overlapping slightly. Spoon over just enough tomato sauce to cover the pasta and then scatter over some mozzarella, parmesan, and basil. Repeat with the layers until you've used up all of your components, ending with sauce and cheese and no exposed basil as it will burn. (Note: I found that even with a light hand the cheese will go first, which is why I mention needing a little extra for the top layer).
Bake the lasagna, uncovered, until it's got a nicely bronzed crust on the top, the edges are bubbling, and the corners are crispy, about 35 minutes. Let it rest at room temperature, just like you would a steak (says Turshen, I almost never make steak - gasp!). Let the pasta fully absorb all of the sauce before serving so that you don't end up with any soggy slices. Slice into squares and watch it vanish before your eyes.