It’s not too often I have a less-than-successful project to post about, but I feel like tonight’s venture is worth mention. The final results may not have been optimal, but like any good scientific experiment, I learned more from my failure than I would have from a success. In the spirit of scientific discovery, I’ll give this a (moderately) proper scientific method treatment.
QUESTION: Can I make a lasagna that is both healthy and delicious?
HYPOTHESIS: A lasagna made with healthier-than-average materials will taste as good as or better than a standard lasagna.
- oven-ready lasagna noodles
- 56 oz petite diced tomatoes
- 12 oz tomato paste
- 1 zucchini, finely grated (yes, grated, as in get out your cheese grater and use the side with the smallest holes – the mushier the better)
- generous dash (each) of dried onion, paprika, roasted garlic and red pepper blend, marjoram, oregano, basil, whatever the hell other Italian herbs strike your fancy, pepper (red, white and black if you got ’em!)
- splash (each) of Marsala cooking wine and Worcestershire sauce
- as much garlic as you can stand
- 1-2 oz fresh baby spinach, diced
- 15 oz part skim ricotta cheese
- ~5 oz grated mozzarella cheese
- ~2 oz grated parmesan cheese
- ~1 oz grated ricotta
- 1 lb ground turkey
- splash of beef broth (to make the turkey taste like beef… riiiiight)
- another splash (each) of Marsala cookign wine and Worcestershire sauce
- dash of caraway seed
- more peppers (again, red, white, and black)
- more garlic
- ~1 oz grated mozzarella cheese
- ~1 oz grated parmesan cheese
- 1 giant sauce pot
- 1 giant skillet
- 1 medium-sized mixing bowl
- 1 oven-safe baking dish (whatever you have that’s roughly rectangular and at least 2 inches deep)
- lots of heat-resistant spatulas/turners/things with which you can shove meat and/or stir sauce
- 1 basting brush
- In giant sauce pot, mix all sauce ingredients except dry herbs and simmer over low heat for no less than 1 hour. Add dry herbs at the last possible minute.
- In skillet, brown ground turkey then simmer in garlic, peppers, caraway seed, beef broth, Worcestershire, and Marsala until all the liquid has boiled off.
- In mixing bowl, combine Ricotta with the other cheeses and garlic.
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees (F).
- Using basting brush, spread just enough sauce in the baking dish to cover the bottom. Lay out noodles so they cover the bottom but don’t overlap.
- Again using basting brush, spread just enough sauce to cover the noodles.
- Dot a layer of cheese mixture to cover the saucy noodles.
- Sprinkle spinach over cheese.
- Sprinkle meat over spinach.
- Brush sauce over meat.
- Lay out noodles perpendicular to the previous layer of noodles, again covering everything, but not overlapping.
- Repeat the sauce-cheese-spinach-meat-noodle layering business until the dish is full.
- Spread more sauce over the top layer of noodles.
- Sprinkle topping mozzarella and parmesan cheeses to cover everything.
- Put baking dish in some other oven-safe container (cookie sheet with edges, another baking dish) to catch the inevitable overflow (you just filled a baking dish to maximum capacity, dum-dum!).
- Bake until the topping cheeses are thoroughly browned but not burned.
- Let cool for 10-20 minutes.
- Cut into reasonably-sized cubes.
Noodles: Bottom and middle layers of noodles were adequately done. Top layer was chewy but edible.
Tomato-zucchini sauce: Sauce was delicious.
Cheese: Cheese was good but overpowered by turkey.
Spinach: Spinach neither enhanced nor diminished flavor or texture of the lasagna.
Meat: Turkey did not taste like beef. Turkey was also not greasy like beef.
The oven-ready noodles that were adequately buried in sauce cooked through before the cheese burned. In future testing, top layer of noodles should be more thoroughly covered.
Tomato sauce tasted great, especially with the shredded zucchini, which acts as an extra seasoning in addition to being the kind of healthy green vegetable my mother toiled all those many years to convince me to eat. In other words, I still pwn tomato sauces. Thanks and Gig ‘Em.
The spinach served its purpose perfectly. I did not have to suffer the slimy texture of cooked spinach, and the flavor was not strong enough to overpower anything else. Because it was fresh to start with, it stayed relatively crisp through the baking process and should even have retained most of its nutritional value.
The cheese-to-meat ratio was not optimal. Especially given the distinctive turkey flavor, I probably needed double the cheese and maybe even half the meat to achieve the overwhelming cheesiness that I have come to expect from ricotta-based pasta dishes.
Though the turkey-for-beef substitution did not result in a perfect taste match, I considered the trade off worthwhile to avoid the thick layer of grease that inevitably appears when cooking with beef. Any meat-and-pasta dish is significantly more enjoyable when the fat is not visibly pooling on top.
Overall, the lack of cheesy flavor put a damper on the eating experience (and also probably put a damper on the fat content, but really… priorities!). However, I am satisfied, feeling full but not fat, and knowing that I managed to sneak not one but two green vegetables into the dish.
Somewhere on her beautiful mountain-top, my mother is watching the fiery fall colors and crying a little, but doesn’t know why. What she doesn’t know (yet) is that this evening, I pulled a small meatloaf I made -using her wonderful recipe- from the freezer and did something she would consider unthinkable.
I took out a week’s frustration at the congestion that has been meandering between my lungs and nose all week on the meatloaf, with a pile of sinus-freeing spicy things. I lined the bottom of the baking dish with a smoky citrus salsa, then doused the meat with both white and crushed red pepper, and baked the thing until the spicy flavor permeated every meaty bite.
And it was glorious.
There are few things in this world more pleasant than opening the oven and being enveloped in a cloud of garlic-gas. (Unless you’re my mother, in which case that is apparently a very unpleasant thing.)
I had a pound of ground beef – a Tube o’ Meat, as it were – wasting away in my freezer. I bought it planning to… I’m not sure what I was planning, other than to up my intake of iron for a change.
Anyway, I decided it was time to cook it tonight, so I did. I got it good and thoroughly browned in my trusty non-stick skillet, then sectioned off enough for two small shepherd’s pies and the rest went into a nice big pot for some slow-cooked spaghetti sauce.
The shepherds pie is very loosely based on a recipe from one of my ancient Betty Crocker’s New [haha] Dinner for Two books and some of the recipes from foodnetwork.com:
Preheat oven to 350 F.
1 tbs (-ish) butter
1/2 lb (-ish) ground beef
ground black pepper
marsala cooking wine
Optional seasonings: marjoram, oregano, whatever makes you happy
Cut potato into several chunks and boil until very soft. Drain off the water, mash the potato with butter and a dash of heavy cream until very smooth. Mix in white pepper and garlic powder to taste.
Brown ground beef. Add garlic, onions, and peas. Drown in beef broth and Worcestershire sauce with a splash of marsala cooking wine. Season to taste with liberal quantities of ground black pepper and your standard Italian herbs. Keep cooking a few more minutes, until the liquid ingredients have boiled down a little.
Line bottom of baking dish(es) with ground beef mixture.
Daub mashed potatoes over the top. Don’t smooth out all the little peaks on top – that’s the part that browns! Pour a little more beef broth over it to be sure nothing dries out.
Bake for 30 minutes or until potatoes begin to brown.
Handle with extreme care when removing from the oven and let it cool!
I like using the little baking dishes because I can eat one pie tonight and slap a cover over the second, refrigerate, and reheat for a second meal later in the week.
Now for that spaghetti sauce:
(same idea as the lasagna sauce, just with beef)
1/2 lb (ish) ground beef
1 large can diced tomatoes
marsala cooking wine
half the contents of your spice cabinet (within reason)
Brown the beef. Add liberal quantities of cooking wine, garlic, onion, and all your favorite spices. This particular batch contains the following:
crushed red pepper
Oh yeah, and – uh – some diced tomatoes. Y’know… for a splash of color.
Let simmer on very low heat for as long as you can, stirring occasionally just to be sure nothing is burning to the bottom. If it starts drying out, add beef broth (or more cooking wine). Throw in an additional can of tomato paste for thicker sauce.
There are very few places in the known universe where the relentless march of entropy can be quite so clearly observed as in my kitchen. Every once in a while I am overcome with a sort of madness and actually clean the mess I have made while experimenting on poor unsuspecting foodstuffs.
Today was one of those days.
While home for lunch I actually got out the 409 and a new roll of paper towels (for cleaning, not for lunch) and the stove top and counters were pristine when I returned to work.
Naturally, to restore balance to the universe, something messy had to be made for dinner.
We made lasagna.
Lasagna… is messy.
In case you can’t recognize the pieces in that mess of tomato-y goodness, we added a couple of layers of thinly sliced zucchini along with the usual meat, cheese, pasta and sauce. It was magnificent.
…and I probably needed the extra serving of veggies, because I still eat like a college student when I don’t have a parent around to set me straight.
Speaking of veggies, I make my own sauce, so I can maximize the vegetable content while minimizing the unnecessary stuff that tends to pile up in prepared sauces. I start with a 28 oz can of diced tomatoes, and a 12 oz can of tomato paste. If the sauce is going straight onto pasta, I generally skip the tomato paste. For pizza sauce, I use petite diced tomatoes, because pepperoni just doesn’t sit right on top of large chunks of tomato.
The exact seasoning generally depends on my mood, but more often than not, I add the following:
- healthy dash of oregano, marjoram, basil, and paprika
- red pepper (one shake for polite company, many shakes if it’s just me)
- liberal splash of marsala cooking wine
- even more liberal pile of minced garlic (again, largely dependent upon the company)
- optional: dash of dried onion and/or sage, splash of beef broth
I cook this mixture on low heat, stirring occasionally, for as long as I can. The longer it cooks, the better it tastes.
…unless I let it get too hot and the bottom burns, then I stir vigorously and hope the burned taste is sufficiently diluted.