Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Smoked Lasagna. Or, My Dad is Awesome for Humoring Me.

Last Sunday was Father's Day.  My mom is in Ireland with her cousin.  At my parents' house, she's the cook.  So for the past two weeks, Dad has been eating Bachelor Chow.  He's always been willing to eat my experiments, so I decided to feed him a few times this week.  For Father's Day, I made lasagna.  Now, one of my rules of cooking is never to experiment on guests.  Normally, I only cook tried and true recipes for my friends and family, because I know some of my experiments end up looking like Klingon food, and sometimes they probably taste like it, too.  But, I was having problems choosing the perfect dish to cook for my dad.   He's the opposite of a picky eater, but I wanted it to be special.  

I got it in my head that I would make lasagna.  Prior to this, I had made lasagna once in my entire life.  And that, according to the date stamp on my picture, was in June 2008.   So pretty much three years ago.  It was a spinach lasagna.  My dad is a meat fan, so I decided to use a new recipe, thus violating my rule about experimenting on family.

After extensive googling, I decided to make Michael Symon's lasagna recipe.  I love Michael Symon, to the point where I happily fangirled all over myself when I went to his restaurant, Lola, with my husband and in-laws.  Anyway, I picked his recipe because it wasn't super complicated.  And it was Michael Symon, how could it go wrong?!

The lasagna looks awesome.  But you should smell my house.  And my hair. 

This recipe seemed like it would make enough lasagna to feed a family of 25 for a month.  But, somehow, it all fit into this dish.  It's not deep enough to be a lasagna dish, but it's the most appropriate dish that I have. 

The lasagna involves quite a bit of prep work.  Then, the meat sauce has to cook for 2 hours, and the lasagna has to bake for an hour and a half.  I froze the leftovers, hopefully they'll still be food when I try to eat them for lunch.  If the leftovers aren't edible, this isn't worth the effort (at least to me) unless it's a special occasion like serving friends or family. 

One thing that I didn't expect to happen was the smoke.  After carefully layering the sauce, cheese mixture, and noodles, I gently covered it with tin foil and put it in the oven to bake for an hour.  Now, by "gently covered," I mean that I applied the tin foil with the strength of Hercules.  Then I went downstairs to play The Witcher 2.  About 45 minutes later, I sent Dave upstairs to check on the lasagna.  A few minutes later, I heard him open the door to the deck.  I thought to myself, "do I smell smoke?"  I headed upstairs to find the kitchen, dining room, and living room filled with smoke.  Dave had opened the door off the kitchen and the windows.  Disturbingly, the smoke detector was silent.  After a moderate amount of profanity, I opened the oven.  A black cloud of smoke floated out, making my hair smell fabulous.  But, the lasagna looked completely unharmed!  Unfortunately, my gargantuan strength caused me to put the foil on too tightly, and the oil from the lasagna leaked out of the pan and onto the bottom of my oven, where it promptly burned.  A lot.  So, I took the lasagna out.  It needed to bake for another 30 minutes, uncovered, according to the recipe.  My dad was due to arrive in 30 minutes.  Bravely, Dave attempted to wipe up the nasty smoking oil with a sponge, which melted immediately.  Next, we tried paper towels, which worked surprisingly well.  The oven stopped smoking, yay!  So, I threw the lasagna back in the oven and shut the door.  Five minutes later, I decided to check on it, and released another cloud of nasty black smoke into my kitchen.

After some more therapeutic profanity and attempts to clean the oven, the smoke detector finally realized it needed to do its job.  We managed to turn it off about three seconds before my dad pulled in to our driveway.  At this point, the windows over the driveway are open, and in my mind, black smoke is billowing out of them, with the sounds of sirens in the distance.  The doorbell rings, and my dad is here.  I let him know that we might be sending out for pizza.  He chivalrously informs me that he'll eat whatever it is that I cooked.  Hopefully, he wouldn't wish that it was Klingon food.

I baked the lasagna with the oven partially open, it seemed able to hold the temperature.  I was floored that the lasagna didn't taste like smoke or burnt oil.  My entire house smelled like burnt oil.  My hair smelt like burnt oil.  It's now the Wednesday after Father's Day, and my house still smells a little bit like burnt oil.  But, the lasagna was good!

Lessons Learned:  place foil loosely over lasagna.  For extra security, throw a sheet of tin foil underneath the rack where the lasagna pan will be.

On to the recipe! 

My grocery store was out of ground veal; I doubled the beef to compensate.  I also totally omitted the pork bones because my store was crowded and I didn't want to hold up the line asking for a pound of pork neck bones.  One thing I remember from my lasagna experiment in 2008 was that it was SO WATERY.  I know spinach holds a lot of water, but I wanted to avoid a repeat at all costs.  So, I put my two pounds of ricotta in some cheesecloth and stuck it in a strainer while I did the rest of my prep work.  Occasionally, I became paranoid and squeezed it like I was trying to create diamonds from cheese a little, just to make sure I had drained all the water out.  All of the herbs came from my garden, which I thought was really cool.  When I was assembling the lasagna, I was very aware that my dish was too shallow.  But, I was determined to fit more cheese!  So, I crammed it in.  Somehow, I managed to use all of the ingredients, even though I originally thought it was going to be enough food for two full pans. 


Overall, this lasagna was good.  I don't claim to be a lasagna connoisseur, but I think it could have been better.  I think the cheese needed to be a little less crumbly.  I think the sauce could have been more tomato-y.  My dad enjoyed it, which at the end of the day, is all that matters.  I consider this a culinary triumph because for about a half hour when I couldn't get my oven to stop smoking, I thought it was going to be a train wreck! 

Mom's Lasagna
Adapted slightly from Michael Symon
Serves an army.  Make sure you have room in your freezer.

1/2 cup olive oil
1 onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
Pinch salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds ground beef (if you can use 1 lb ground veal and 1 lb ground beef, do it, because that's what the original recipe called for)
1 pound spicy Italian sausage, loose or removed from casings
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 (28-ounce) can San Marzano tomatoes, with their juice (I drained them, reserved the juice to add later, and chopped them so they would spread more evenly through the sauce). 
2 bay leaves
1 pound dried lasagna noodles
2 pounds whole milk ricotta cheese
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup chopped fresh oregano leaves
2 large eggs
1/2 cup grated Parmesan, plus more for final topping
1 pound fresh mozzarella cheese, grated

1)  Prepare the ricotta.  Cut a large enough piece of cheesecloth to hold the ricotta.  Place it in a large strainer.  Dump the ricotta into the cheesecloth lined strainer and allow it to sit there until you need to use it.
2)  In a large Dutch oven or heavy pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and a  pinch of salt and sweat them until they're translucent, about 2 minutes.
3) Add the ground veal, beef and sausage, and season with salt. Cook until the meat is browned, about 10 minutes. Add the white wine, chopped tomatoes and their juice, and the bay leaves. Scrape the bottom of the pot to get all of the browned bits into the sauce. Simmer for 2 hours over medium heat.
4) Remove the bay leaves and and let cool. Skim any fat that rises to the surface.
5) Cook the noodles.  Bring a large pot of water to a boil over medium heat. Cook the noodles according to the package.  Drain well and set aside.
In a medium bowl mix together the ricotta, parsley, basil, oregano, eggs, and Parmesan with a pinch of salt.
6) When the sauce is almost at the end of its 2 hour simmer, preheat the oven to 350 F.
7) Assemble the lasagna.  Ladle about 1 cup of sauce on the bottom of a lasagna pan. Arrange a layer of noodles followed by a layer of sauce and then some of the ricotta mixture. Top with a layer of mozzarella, smoothing it with a spatula to the edges. Repeat the process until the pan is full. Finish with a final layer of noodles, sauce, the mozzarella, and Parmesan.
8) Cover the lasagna with aluminum foil and bake for 1 hour.  DO NOT let oil seep out and make your kitchen smell gross. 
9) Uncover and bake for 30 minutes. Alternatively, take some extra time to get the smoke detector to stop screaming and to scrape nasty burnt oil from the bottom of your oven.  Paper towels work better than sponges.
10) Remove the pan from the oven and let it rest, 5 to 10 minutes before serving.


Anonymous said...

That looks delicious! I'll have to try it. If you ever visit Detroit, Michael Symon has a restaurant here called Roast... it's fabulous.

Scienter said...

Dave went there when he was on work travel and loved it! If you try this lasagna, make sure you have a deep enough pan, unlike me.

Michelle said...

Oh boy, do I sympathize! I'm finally down to learning more casseroles for the cookbook. Boy do I hate making casseroles. I would skip it, if they weren't so useful for potlucks.

Whenever you bake something that has any possibility of running over, put a cookie sheet under it. And if you do end up with a little runoff on the oven itself, if it's not too much, just open the windows and let it burn off. (As opposed to risking burns by reaching into the bottom of a hot oven. Ouch.)

I, too, have made lasagnia too watery by adding raw greens. Supposedly cooked greens work better, but that leaves me wondering if the resulting twice-cooked greens are worth eating.

Among casseroles, I hate making lasagnia the most, because it has so many steps!

Thanks for the funny read!

Elizabeth said...

That looks yummy!

Scienter said...

@Michelle: twice cooked greens sounds like they'd probably be gross and have no nutrients left. I've heard that using thawed frozen spinach works well, too. I think if I used greens, I'd try to make my sauce thicker than usual and consider cutting the ricotta with more non-ricotta cheese.


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