If you’re looking for a 30-minute meal, this isn’t it. Frankly, this recipe is a lot of work, and I wouldn’t waste my time making it for just anyone. There are some things you only make for someone you love (or maybe someone you want to impress). It’s the first meal I ever cooked for the Hub, and nearly 15 years later, he’s still remembers it. If I had an Italian grandma, this is the dish I could imagine her making. I’m not trying to scare you away, exactly. I just want you to understand the seriousness of this lasagna. You make it for an Occasion. Company, a birthday, Sunday dinner. Do it right.
The recipe originally came from a cookbook my parents bought on a trip to Italy, and the instructions are deceptively brief. Turns out, there’s a good bit of prep work, and you have to coordinate the cooking of two different sauces. There are no shortcuts (except for the wonder that is no-boil lasagna noodles), no grainy store-bought ricotta, no sauce from a jar. I’ve made that lasagna, and eaten it happily, but this isn’t it. This is a northern Italian version of lasagna, light on the tomato, with a silky white sauce that melds with the deep flavors of soffritto, sausage and wine. It’s rich, but not heavy. As they say, it’s a labor of love. Set aside an hour or two, put on some music, and maybe pour a glass of wine (but save some for the sauce).
A couple of months ago, my mother offered to bring the lasagna when they came for dinner one day. I had made it the weekend before, but would never say no to the good fortune of eating lasagna twice in one week, especially one made by someone else. But tasting her version and my version so close together, I discovered that they weren’t the same. She has adapted the recipe over the years and never told me. All this time, I had been making perfectly good lasagna from the original recipe (really good, in fact), when I could have been making lasagna that was sublime.
Well. Now that I have the secret to sublime, I’m going to share it with you.
A few notes: Doubling the recipe is a good idea. Not because there isn’t enough to feed a good-sized family, but because if you’re going to the trouble, you should get an extra meal or two out of the deal. Bake it, cool it, wrap it and freeze it for another day. Thaw it overnight in the refrigerator before reheating it in a warm oven (or even a slice at a time in the microwave). If you don’t have celery root, you can substitute parsnip, or skip it and just add an extra carrot and rib of celery.
Lasagna with Italian sausage and béchamel sauce
1 large onion
2 medium carrots
2 ribs of celery
small chunk of celery root, peeled
2-3 large cloves of garlic
2-3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 pound Italian sausage (mild or hot–up to you)
2 cups white wine (dry sherry is fine)
1 28-oz. can of tomatoes, diced or crushed
1 bay leaf
4 Tbsp. butter
4 Tbsp. flour
4 cups milk (at least 2%)
2 cups freshly grated parmesan cheese
1 cup freshly grated mozzarella cheese
1 package no-boil flat lasagna noodles (Barilla seems to be easiest to find around here)
Dice the onion, celery, carrots and celery root in a very small dice (1/4-inch or smaller). Mince or press the garlic. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large, deep skillet or Dutch oven, and then add vegetables and sauté until soft, 8-10 minutes. Don’t let them burn. Transfer the cooked vegetables to a bowl and set aside. Split the sausages (if still in their casings) with a sharp knife, peel off and discard the casings. Brown the sausage in the same skillet over medium-high heat, breaking the meat into small pieces as you stir. When it has browned and the fat has rendered, drain off the fat and add the vegetables back to the pan. Pour the wine over the sausage and vegetables and bring the mixture to a simmer. Add the tomatoes with their juices, the bay leaf, and salt and pepper. Let simmer, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, or until the mixture reduces and thickens slightly. Taste and add salt if necessary.
While the sauce is simmering, start the béchamel sauce. Heat the milk (I use my glass batter bowl and heat it in the microwave for 3-4 minutes). In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Whisk in the flour until there are no lumps, and continue whisking the mixture for 2 minutes. Slowly pour in the hot milk and whisk until smooth. Turn up the heat to medium-high and whisk continuously, until the sauce comes to a simmer and thickens noticeably. Turn off the heat and stir in one cup of grated Parmesan. Add salt and pepper to taste.
To assemble the lasagna, grease a 9″ x 13″ baking pan. Spread a couple ladles-full of béchamel in the bottom of the pan. Then add a layer of uncooked noodles, breaking them in pieces to fit the pan, if necessary. Spread a layer of meat sauce, then a layer of béchamel, and then a little grated mozzarella. Repeat (3-4 layers of noodles usually fit in my pan), and end with a layer of béchamel. Make sure to cover all the edges and corners of noodles with sauce. Sprinkle on the remaining cup of grated Parmesan on top, and cover with foil. Bake in a 350 degree oven, covered, for about 45 minutes. Remove the foil and bake about 15 minutes more, or until the top is bubbly and the noodles are tender when a thin knife is inserted into the lasagna.
Let the lasagna rest for at least 15 minutes before serving. It works fine if you bake it early in the day (or the day before) and reheat it gently, covered, in a 300 degree oven.