I recently posted about my adventures making the easiest, slow-roasted marinara sauce following the last tomato harvest of the season [sniffs, wipes away a tear]. It would be remiss of me indeed if I did not post recipes that USE the sauce soon after.
I am a strong advocate of slow-roasting whatever tomatoes you use for your marinara sauce, be they fresh or canned, because the process really elevates the flavor of the sauce. That’s IF it’s a weekend or IF you have the time to invest.
But let’s get real, Beavis: sometimes you just need something faster. The sauce I am about to divulge is definitely a cheat.
Rather than ground beef/pork/veal, I use Italian sausage (you can use pork, chicken, or turkey sausage). For the sauce, I use the marinara I’ve made beforehand, which I’ve lovingly packaged and stored in the freezer. If I don’t have any of that awesome sauce on hand, I use crushed tomatoes. Of course, you could always use—ahem—JARRED SAUCE [cue music from Psycho]. I won’t tell anyone. But this is quick—I swear.
Making Bolognese Sauce
To make this "cheat" Bolognese sauce, I first sauté the Italian sausage, breaking it up as small as I can get it, and then drain off the fat. Finely minced onions get a slow sauté in olive oil with a pinch of pepper flakes, followed by a few cloves of finely minced garlic and grated carrot (a substitute for adding sugar!).When the veggies are softened, I add—wait for it—A TABLESPOON OF Asian Fish Sauce. Yes, really.
You know how adding anchovies adds a meaty complexity without the fishiness? (It does.) I’ve found that adding fish sauce does the same thing without the leftover anchovies and evil-smelling tins.
I reduce the fish sauce down to almost nothing, and then add the wine. After reducing more, I add the meat back to the pan and put in the tomatoes, along with salt, pepper, and fresh or dried herbs. The sauce simmers for twenty minutes or so, and then it’s go-time. I don’t add milk or cream—I like the lightness and tomato-ey goodness of this sauce.
One thing that I’ve learned through hard experience is that my kids (well, two out of three) are chunk-haters. This includes chunks of veggies, chunks of meat—even chunks of cheese. To avoid the dinner table spectacle of the boys picking EVERY SINGLE CHUNK out of their sauce (which Phil happily eats later—but STILL!), I have taken to buzzing an immersion blender through the sauce. As it turns out, it has a nice texture afterwards. Who knew?
The Bolognese "Saucy Two-Step"
The first meal in this Saucy Two-Step is, of course, Pasta “Bolognese”. Simply boil the pasta of your choice in well-salted water during the last 10 minutes of your simmer, dress the pasta (see below), top with the sauce, and pass the Parmesan cheese at the table. (Or, you could fancy it up a bit by shaving thin curls of Parmesan on top of the pasta with a vegetable peeler!)
Next comes Lasagna “Bolognese”. Why in quotes? Well, the use of Italian sausage is already one strike against tradition. Second, I have tried making this dish with Béchamel sauce, and...it’s more work. WHY WOULD I WANT THAT?! And anyway: I like the consistency better when I use Ricotta cheese—not traditional, but it IS more F-OF speed.
Making Lasagna Bolognese
The hard part of this meal plan is convincing myself to assemble the lasagna the night before. All I really have to do is boil the noodles (and drain, and douse in cold water), grate the cheese, mix the ricotta with some herbs, and set everything out (including the meat sauce) in a lasagna-making mise en place.
The layers go into a 9 x 13” baking dish (meat sauce, then noodles, then meat sauce, ricotta, and Parmesan…then repeat until you’re out of layers—or room). On top goes a layer of meat sauce, ricotta, Parmesan, and—if I’m feeling adventurous—a sprinkling of grated Romano. I keep extra meat sauce handy because Phil likes to top his lasagna with more sauce. “He likes-a da juice”.
Another hard lesson learned from picky eaters: I make sure that EVERY speck of noodle is covered with sauce and cheese. Any wayward noodle sticking out to get brown and crispy in the oven will be devoutly avoided.
I cover the dish with aluminum foil and refrigerate overnight, and it’s ready for a 1-hour bake the next evening. BUT—in all likelihood—I’ve pooped out and put the lasagna assembly off until morning.
Could you mix the meat sauce with ziti or penne (whatever, really), top it with ricotta and parmesan, and bake that? Of course you could! That’s why I keep lots of different pastas on-hand: it allows me to make these critical game-time decisions.
Depending on the size and voraciousness of your family, you may or may not have leftovers. If you do, happy days! The lasagna freezes really well. Pull it out for another busy weeknight meal! You can thaw it overnight in your refrigerator, then reheat in the microwave. I have also made a double batch of this recipe, baking one lasagna for dinner and freezing the other (carefully covered with plastic wrap pressed down onto the surface of the casserole, then covered with foil). Give the lasagna a day to thaw in the refrigerator, then uncover, peel off the plastic wrap, recover with foil, and pop into a 350 degree oven for 1 to 1-½ hours. Check the internal temperature: it should be about 160 degrees. Take the foil off for the last 15 minutes to crisp up the top.
Here are the links to these recipes, and also to Baked Pasta Casserole—Lasagna's first (but faster!) cousin.