Sometimes I think I have some sort of kitchen-specific form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I get the inspiration to try a new recipe, and I cannot purge the idea from my mind until I follow through. For the past couple weeks, it has been lasagna that has been dominating my food-related thoughts.
Considering how much I like Italian food (you can't fight genetics), lasagna is a relative newcomer to the pantheon of things I'm willing to eat. I only started eating it in earnest when I was in college, and that was solely because my roommate Katherine would make it for me from scratch when I was having a bad day, or she just wanted to do something nice for me. To this day, there is only one restaurant at which I will order lasagna -- La Scarola, on Chicago's Near West Side.
The problem? Ricotta cheese. I loathe ricotta cheese -- both its flavor and its texture. But ricotta is one of the quintessential components of lasagna; just about the only way to avoid it is to make it yourself. Katherine would leave the ricotta out of the lasagna she would make for me, substituting extra mozzarella instead, and that was the only way I was able to enjoy the layered delicacy. But, without Katherine as my roommate, my life has been sadly bereft of homemade, ricotta-free lasagna for the past three years.
I could only hold out so long before I was forced to learn the art of lasagna-making on my own. The idea had been percolating for a couple months before I finally garnered the motivation to take on a cooking project of such a scope. After viewing scores of lasagna recipes online, none had stood out as particularly compelling to me, so I decided to take an extra risk and improvise my own rendition. For a sauce, I looked to a tomato-saffron sauce that I've been a little obsessed with of late, having made it five times since I first tested the recipe last fall. I added spicy Italian sausage, fresh mozzarella cheese, grated pecorino and parmesan cheeses, and some no-boil lasagna noodles to round things out.
Given that it was my first attempt at lasagna, I think the dish turned out reasonably well, flavor-wise. My only complaint was that I should have purchased more cheese, because my end product was a little light on the mozzarella. However, during baking, I experienced a bit of a disaster, when I could smell the distinct aroma of burning food wafting from the kitchen. I ran to check on the oven, discovering that the lasagna was bubbling over the side of the dish, leaking melted cheese and tomato sauce all over the oven floor. I threw a cookie sheet under it to catch the remainder, but the damage was already done -- I had to run the oven on its self-cleaning cycle the next day. Trust me, the fumes released from a self-cleaning oven are in no way pleasant!
As an aside, if you are interested in adding a bit of luxury to your weeknight pasta dinner, I thought I would pass along the recipe for the tomato saffron sauce. Saffron might be the world's most expensive spice, but it goes a long way, and it definitely adds a certain je ne sais quoi to tomato sauce. Its earthy pungency is a perfect complement. Even better, if you skip the lasagna route, and just sauce some pasta and top with some grated parmesan cheese, you can have dinner on the table in under an hour. Take that Rachel Ray!
Tomato Saffron Sauce with Sausage
(adapted from SeriousEats)
1 small onion, minced
2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
1 lb. spicy Italian sausage, casings removed
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
generous pinch of saffron
10 fresh basil leaves, cut into a chiffonade
1 lb. short pasta (I like campanelle for this dish)
1. Saute the onion in a few tablespoons of olive oil, until softened. Add the garlic and saute for one minute. Add the sausage and saffron to the pan and cook until meat is no longer pink.
2. Add tomatoes, half of the basil, and salt to taste. Simmer until slightly thickened and the flavors have had a chance to meld. Test for seasoning, and add more salt if necessary.
3. Add the pasta to boiling water, and cook according to package directions while the sauce simmers.
4. Combine the cooked pasta with sauce and remaining basil. Serve with grated parmesan cheese.