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December 24, 2007 / Tony

Tony’s Best Lasagna

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This recipe is based on the Joy of Cooking’s Classic Italian American Lasagna (1997 edition, pg 314).  I have made that recipe as written at least 3 times to very, very good effect.  The sauce created by the pork and tomatoes is just amazing.  However, there are a few things about the recipe that I didn’t like as written.  First, it asks the cook to layer meatballs into the lasagna.  It’s an inventive idea but I just don’t see the purpose.  Inevitably, the layers will be uneven due to the size and shape of the meatballs, which means empty pockets in the lasagna and that is not a good thing.  Plus, it takes a bit of work to shape all of those meatballs which I am not necessarily opposed to but if you’re going to go whole hog on the thing like I do (i.e. making fresh pasta to go along with it), you’re not really looking for extra things to do.  Second, it asks the cook to layer in Italian sausage “coins” into the pasta.  For me, again, it makes for an uneven lasagna but more importantly, the sausage sort of takes over the dish.  I like Italian sausage but I don’t really like it as the dominant flavor in a lasagna.  Especially after you’ve spent 3-4 hours braising a piece of pork in the sauce.  I’d much rather taste that richly flavored sauce.  Finally, the recipe calls for a pork loin or a beef beef bottom round.  (This will be seem more clear when you read the recipe.)  I’ve never made it with the beef but using a pork loin seems just a poor choice because it’s so lean.  Sure, there’s a bit of fat right on top but that isn’t the same as having the fat and connective tissue that a pork shoulder or pork rib would have.  And since you’re braising it so long anyway, why not take advantage of being able to use a tougher cut of meat that will, in my opinion, add a lot more flavor the party.  So, with those thoughts in mind, here is my modified recipe:

Tony’s Best Lasagna

For the sauce:

2 T extra virgin olive oil

2 1/2 pounds country style pork ribs or pork shoulder (also named Boston Butt)

1 medium yellow onion, diced

6 oz bacon, chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 cup water

2 28 oz cans whole tomatoes, with juice

1 cup red wine

1/4 cup tomato paste

1 tsp dried basil

For the meat filling:

2 large eggs

3 slices white bread

1 large handful parsley

about 2 oz Parmesan cheese

1/2 tsp salt

Ground black pepper to taste

For the lasagna:

1 lb ricotta cheese

1 pound shredded mozzarella cheese

about 1 lb fresh lasagna noodles, cooked slightly, preferably Fresh All-Egg-Yolk Pasta

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Begin by making the sauce.  Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.  Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a Dutch oven or a pot large enough to hold all of the sauce ingredients.  Season the meat liberally with salt and pepper and deeply sear the pork on all sides, working in batches if needed.  Remove the pork to a plate.  Add the onions, bacon, and garlic.  Sprinkle some salt in the pot as well (to ensure that the onions release their juices).  Saute, stirring often, until the onions are softened and have taken a bit of color.  At this point, your pan should have a “clean” bottom as the onion juice has deglazed the pan.  (Don’t worry if it hasn’t happened, though.)  Put the meat and any accumulated juices back in the pan and then add the water.  Increase the heat to medium high and cook until almost all of the water has evaporated and it looks saucelike in the pan.  Then add the tomatoes, red wine, tomato paste, and basil.  Bring the pot to a boil and then stick the pot into the oven uncovered.  Bake for about 3-4 hours or until the meat is fall apart tender, stirring every hour or so. 

When tender, remove the meat from the sauce and let it cool on a plate.  Take your stick blender to the sauce and puree it.  (Alternatively, process the sauce in the blender or food processor.  If you don’t have any of those, crush the tomatoes in your hands before adding them to the pot or use crushed or diced tomatoes.)  Taste the sauce and adjust any seasonings, even adding a bit of sugar if the sauce is too acidic. 

Then place the meat in a food processor and process until shredded finely.  (Or shred by hand.)  Remove the meat from the food processor and then place the eggs, bread, Parmesan, salt, and pepper in the food processor and process until finely chopped.  Mix everything together.  (Alternatively, chop everything by hand and mix it up.) 

Now you can assemble the lasagna.  Using a large, glass rectangular baking pan, place about 1/2 cup of the sauce on the bottom of the pan.  Then start layering in this order: lasagna smeared with ricotta cheese, meat filling mixture, mozzarella cheese, salt, pepper, and about 1 1/2 cups sauce.  After each layer, using a spatula, even everything out and make sure the sauce reaches everywhere.  The last layer should be simply noodles with ricotta, the remaining sauce, and then the remaining mozzarella cheese and the 1/4 cup Parmesan.  Use your judgment to juggle the amounts as you’re building it.  It’s not an exact science and don’t sweat it if you’re layers are a bit uneven.  It will still be delicious. 

Bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes or until well-browned and bubbly.  Let is stand for 15 minutes before serving. 

The lasagna can be assembled one day ahead.  Keep in the refrigerator.  However, adjust your baking time if you’re are baking a cold lasagna. 

OK, so that’s a lot of work.  I know it.  It takes at least a half a day to assemble but this is worth it.  And it’s a great thing to make for a special occasion, like making it for Christmas Eve as I did for my family.  Here’s a picture of a piece:

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One Comment

Leave a Comment
  1. sognatrice / Dec 26 2007 5:01 am

    Funny that original recipe looks like a version of Calabrian stuffed lasagna like they make down here–only no one here puts ricotta or even mozzarella in it. Here it’s provola, prosciutto, and hardboiled eggs. YUM!

    Here’s the recipe of my Calabrian Mother-in-Law:

    Calabrian Stuffed Lasagna

    I’ve seen other Calabrian recipes that use the little meatballs as you described but I imagine that at least in the area I’m in, they feel that the ground meat in the sauce covers.

    I *do* love a pork-flavored ragu as well, and I have some spare ribs in the freezer….

    Thanks for sharing and happy holidays!

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