I really like cookbooks. Sit me down on the couch with a glass of wine, sticky notes, and a thick book full of beautiful and evocative culinary images and I am one happy girl. Dissecting recipes can entertain me for hours, methods and timing dancing through my head as I imagine this ingredient melded with that one. But it is a very special book that holds my attention for the space between recipes, where the author's true voice emerges in the stories behind the dishes compiled. When my stepfather, Joe, handed me his copy of The Italian Country Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper and said "You can borrow it, but only for a little while. And you MUST read the chapter about tomatoes." I had a feeling it would be just that kind of book. I immediately curled up in the corner of my parents' L-shaped couch and sank into that tomato chapter, which begins like this:
"I must begin this chapter with a confession: There is nothing, absolutely nothing that pleasures me more than a bowl of pasta and tomato sauce. When I want to reach out with all my love to my husband, a dish of pasta and tomatoes is almost always in my hands. When I am worn out and the world isn't such a nice place to be in, I make tomato sauce and pasta. When time is short but dear friends must be fed with joy and not pressure, I make pasta with tomato sauce. Never are any two of these pastas alike, because for me, this is the food of instinct."
Lynn Rossetto Kasper, The Italian Country Table
And...I was hooked. My own copy arrived back home in Virginia the very next week and I immediately began plotting an "Italian Month" on Bella Eats. It didn't happen because, well, life got busy, but we've cooked and loved several of the recipes and I've very much enjoyed getting lost in the spaces between them.
I made this lasagna last month for very good friends we hadn't seen in many weeks and I must say, it was the perfect dish for a mini-reunion. Simple ingredients create a complex marriage of flavors and textures that you just can't stop eating. We sat around our table for hours catching up, the pan of lasagna between us enticing each of us to a second serving.
The pasta, cheese, and canned tomatoes were purchased at our local pasta shop, Mona Lisa Pasta. It shouldn't be a problem for you to find them in most grocery stores, but do seek out the highest quality cheeses and tomatoes you can. The simplicity of this lasagna allows their flavors to shine. I did a little happy dance when those sheets of fresh pasta were brought out to me in the shop, soft and supple and brushed with semolina. I'd been contemplating making my own, but with limited time was pleased to have this option. If you can, use fresh pasta, but if not dried will do as well.
Also, the sauce is delicious. It is worth keeping a can of san marzano tomatoes in your pantry for an emergency batch of fresh sauce whenever it may be needed.
I followed the recipe in The Italian County Table almost exactly, adding only the mushrooms.
Home-Style Lasagna with Mushrooms (optional)
Tomato Sauce Ingredients
- 3 tightly packed tablespoons each fresh basil and Italian parsley leaves
- 1tsp fresh oregano leaves
- 2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
- 2 tbsp fruity extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 large cloves garlic, minced
- 1 pint basket (3/4 pound) flavorful cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes
- 1/2 cup water
- pinch of sugar
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/8 tsp hot red pepper flakes
- 1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
- 1-3/4 to 2 pounds high-quality, creamy ricotta cheese
- 1/2 pound fresh mozzarella cheese, shredded
- 8 scallions, trimmed of root ends
- 2 tightly packed tbsp fresh basil leaves
- 1 tightly packed tbsp fresh Italian parsley leaves
- 1 tsp fresh oregano leaves
- 2 cloves garlic
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 medium large onion, cut vertically into strips about 1/4 inch wide
- 1/2 pound cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced (optional)
- extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 pound dried lasagna pasta (or, homemade pasta. or, if you're very lucky, fresh pasta from your local pasta shop.)
- Prepare the tomato sauce by mincing together the herbs and chopped onions. Heat the oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Saute the onions and herbs to golden brown. Add the garlic and cook a few seconds, then stir in the cherry tomatoes and the canned ones with their juices, crushing them with your hands as they go into the pan. Boil, uncovered, over high heat until thick, stirring often. Add the water and cook a few moments more. Stir in the sugar and season with salt and black pepper and red pepper flakes to taste. Cool briefly, then pass the sauce through a food mill or puree in a processor or blander. Cover and set aside.
- Holding pack 2 tbsp of the parmesan, blend the cheese in a bowl. Mince together the scallions, basil, parsley, oregano, and garlic. Stir into the cheeses, seasoning to taste with salt and pepper.
- Toss the onion strips and mushrooms with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper. Heat a saute pan over high and saute until the onion is starting to brown and the mushrooms have released their liquid. Turn out of the pan.
- If you're using dried pasta, cook in fiercely boiling water, stirring often, until barely al dente (it should be underdone). Drain in a colander and hold in a bowl of cold water. Fresh pasta does not need to be cooked.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Oil a shallow 2-1/2-quart baking dish. Drain the pasta and pat dry. Moisten the bottom of the dish with sauce. Cover with a single layer of pasta. Daub with one quarter of the cheese mixture and one quarter of the browned onions + mushrooms. Moisten with one sixth of the remaining sauce. Top with a layer of pasta and continue layering, topping the fifth layer of pasta with the remaining sauce. Cover lightly with foil.
- Bake for 40 minutes, or until heated through. Sprinkle with the reserved 2 tbsp parmesan. Let rest 10 minutes in the turned-off oven with its door open, then serve.