Cooking Class with Chef Ivan Flowers – Lesson 67 Lasagna

Last week I taught you how to make fried oysters, I’m hoping that with that recipe there is a whole new crop of oyster lovers. This week I want to teach you how to make lasagna. This classic Italian dish is the perfect symphony of pasta, creamy ricotta, gooey mozzarella and sweetly acidic marinara. Many people think lasagna is a difficult dish and only make it on special occasions or eat it only when they dine out. I am going to teach you a few shortcuts and techniques that will have you cooking lasagna anytime you crave it.

Before I get into the recipe I want to talk about lasagna noodles. In the olden days you had to boil the lasagna noodles making sure you cooked it just right so it wouldn’t be over-cooked and soggy or under-cooked once it was baked in the casserole. It was difficult to get the pasta cooked correctly and then you had the “fun” of trying to work with the cooked noodles. Well forget about all that. Now you can buy dry lasagna noodles that cook as the lasagna bakes. And they come out perfectly cooked every time! It seems like a small thing, but this eliminates an entire step and makes assembly much easier. Hooray!

Now let’s get cooking!

This recipe serves six to eight people. You will need: 13 x 9 casserole dish, medium saucepan, large bowl, spoons, knife, baking sheet, foil, colander, oil spray, one box pre-cooked lasagna noodles, one jar marinara sauce (another shortcut), one Parmesan rind, sixteen ounces whole milk ricotta, two egg yolks, two teaspoons granulated garlic, one tablespoon dry Italian seasoning, one teaspoon black pepper, ¼ teaspoon salt, ¾ cups grated Parmesan, one pound shredded mozzarella and ½ cup chopped fresh basil.

First you will want to preheat your oven to 350. Next, place the marinara sauce in a saucepan with the Parmesan Rind over medium-low heat. You want to slowly warm the jarred marinara sauce with the Parmesan rind so it infuses the sauce with flavor. This is a simple trick that can make a jarred sauce taste homemade. The Parmesan rind is an old Italian trick that makes the sauce richer and adds a nice nuttiness. This also is a great way to enrich soups.

While the sauce warms, take the ricotta and dump the entire container in the colander. You do this to remove any excess liquid from the cheese. If you skip this step, you risk the lasagna being watery. I like using whole milk ricotta instead of part-skim ricotta because it has a richer taste and a creamier consistency. Once the ricotta is drained, transfer it to a large bowl. Now add in the two egg yolks. I like using just the yolks because, again, it creates a fabulous richness. Now add: granulated garlic, Italian seasoning, ¼ cup Parmesan, salt and pepper. You use granulated garlic instead of fresh because you want the garlic flavor, but you don’t want the bitterness of raw garlic. Once everything is added to the ricotta, stir until it is well combined. This step is crucial to delicious lasagna. If you don’t season your ricotta, you are left with a very bland dish. Remember you season at every step of cooking, which is what makes delicious food.

Now it is time to assemble, so get your mise en place ready. At hand you want: lasagna noodles, warmed marinara sauce (discard the Parmesan rind), ½ cup Grated Parmesan, shredded mozzarella, seasoned ricotta and chopped basil. First, spray your dish with oil. This will make serving the lasagna easy. Once the dish is sprayed, you can start assembling. There is a method to the assembly. You want the sauce next to the noodles so the liquid helps them cook. Also, you want to make sure everything is evenly distributed so that every bite is in balance with salt, sweet, acid, etc. So, start by spreading a thin layer of marinara into the dish. Next, add the lasagna noodles. You want the noodles to cover the entire bottom of the dish. You will need to break some noodles to do this, which is perfectly okay. Next spoon 1/3 of the ricotta mixture over the noodles, spreading it out so it evenly covers them. Now comes more marinara, again you want to evenly cover the cheese with the sauce. Then comes 1/3 of the mozzarella, 1/3 of the Parmesan and 1/3 of the basil.

The second layer starts with the marinara again and then the noodles. Repeat layering in the same order you did the first. You will do this until you have three layers. You want to end the third layer (or the top of the lasagna) with sauce, mozzarella, Parmesan and basil.

Once the lasagna is assembled, cover loosely with foil and place on a baking sheet. You do this so if the lasagna boils over it goes onto the sheet, not all over your oven. Cook the lasagna for 45 minutes to an hour. You want it to be hot and bubbly. Once it is cooked, remove the foil and turn your broiler on. Broil it until the cheese is golden brown. Now remove it from the oven and let is sit at least 20 minutes before serving. If you don’t do this the lasagna will collapse onto itself and you won’t have nice, servable portions. That’s it!

Now that you know how easy it is, you make lasagna whenever you desire. Plus, leftovers freeze and reheat beautifully. And there are so many variations on this classic cheese lasagna. Cut cooked meatballs in half and layer into it. Roast mushrooms, slice them and add into the sauce. Add some Boursin into the ricotta and roasted red peppers into the sauce. I could go on and on.

Remember, as with any technique or recipe, the most important component is the cook’s heart. The heart is what helps you create delicious meals you’ll never forget.

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Chef Ivan Flowers

Chef Flowers has over 25 years of fine cuisine experience. The former Executive Chef at Top of The Market, San Diego, also owned Fournos restaurant in Sedona, Arizona, named a top 25 restaurant in Arizona. He was also Executive Chef at L’Auberge de Sedona, the AAA Four-Diamond, Four Star award winning restaurant. Flowers has created extraordinary cuisine for some of the finest restaurants in Arizona, including T. Cooks at Scottsdale's Royal Palms Resort and the Phoenician's Mary Elaine's and Different Pointe of View.