Spinach and Sausage Lasagna
One of the favorite meals that my Dutch grandmother would make for her grandchildren when we would come to visit was lasagna. We weren’t meat and potato kids, and since my oma had lived in the States on and off since she was 12, had raised all of her kids here, and despite a Dutch husband and her parents close by, she never really brought any Dutch recipes to her table, or at least not when I was around.
Who doesn’t love lasagna? In Naples they make lasagna for Mardi Gras, a great indulgence before a long fast. Instead of creating a ragù, like I have done here, they put tiny meatballs in between the layers of pasta and cheese. It is gluttony in a pyrex dish.
I only made lasagna a few times in Italy, the pasta that you can find is much different than what I was used to, the thick noodles that you can find here weren’t common at all. I later learned that they were Neapolitan, which is why it was hard to find them in Tuscany and Lazio, both regions having a strong tradition in fresh pasta. I found the fresh pasta and industrial fresh pasta difficult to work with for a lasagna. The pasta that you don’t have to boil before making the lasagna, don’t trust it, you end up with crunchy lasagna. So after attempts with these difficult pastas, I would only make lasagna when I found Neapolitan lasagna noodles, not very often.
Lasagna is an ordeal to make, but it is so good. My oma would make it with a meat sauce and ricotta, and though I have wonderful memories of it, after 5 years of mouth-watering fresh ricotta, I can’t bring myself to buy Sorrento or Polly-O ricotta. I make my own béchamel sauce, which is a bit lighter than the industrial ricotta found at the supermarket. I also like to add a vegetable to my lasagna, something my oma would have never done, meat and potatoes, nothing green, she did not like her veggies. The only thing that she admired about George Bush senior was the fact that he didn’t like broccoli either.
The one thing that I wish we had here, that we had in Italy, was the right kind of mozzarella. I would never buy the good stuff for a lasagna, but there was industrially made fior di latte (mozzarella, made with cow’s milk) that you could get at the grocery store which was great for pizza or lasagna. We get the hunk of monz’ here and it is a bit too cheesy for my husband’s taste, fine for me though, I grew up on it!
Spinach and Sausage Lasagna
For the meat sauce:
- 3 mild Italian sausages
- 1 clove of garlic, peeled and left whole
- 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 28 oz can of san marzano tomatoes
For the béchamel:
- 2 tbsp butter
- 3 tbsp flour
- 2 cups heated milk
- salt & pepper to taste
- pinch of nutmeg
- 1 lb lasagna noodles
- 2 large bunches of fresh spinach (you could also use frozen spinach, 2 packs)
- 2 cups grated mozzarella
- 1/2 cup of grated parmigiano-reggiano
Meat Sauce: Heat a heavy-bottom pot over medium heat. Peel the skins off of the sausages and place them in the hot pot with the garlic. Once they start to cook, break them into small pieces with the edge of a wooden spoon. Once the sausage starts to stick add the tbsp of olive oil, continuing to break it up as it cooks. When you no longer see any pink pieces of sausage add the tomatoes. Break the whole tomatoes by squeezing them in your palm over the pot, pour in the rest of the tomato juice. Bring to a simmer and fill the tomato can with water to add to the pot. Allow to simmer over low heat for a few hours, stirring occasionally.
Spinach: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. When the water is at a rolling boil, add the spinach and allow to cook for about 5 minutes. Strain in a colander and allow to cool. Once the spinach has cooled, squeeze the spinach to release the extra water. You can leave them a little bit moist, that moisture will help finish cooking the pasta in the oven.
Béchamel: Melt butter in a saucepan over low heat. Add flour and stir. Heat milk in a separate saucepan over low to medium heat. While constantly whisking, gradually add hot milk to the roux. Simmer mixture while continuing to whisk. Sauce will thicken in a few minutes.
You want to make the béchamel as the first batch of noodles are cooking, once it has thickened, turn the heat down to a minimum and continue to whisk occasionally to prevent the sauce from clumping.
Fill a large pot with water for the pasta. Bring to a boil over high heat. Once the water starts to boil for the pasta add a small handful of salt to the water and bring to a rolling boil. Add the pasta and cook for about 6 minutes, you want it to be a bit undercooked because it will continue cooking in the oven.
I tend to boil my noodles in batches to prevent them from sticking together. The thick noodles don’t have as much of a tendency to do that, so you can cook the whole batch together, just be sure to separate them quickly after draining the water.
Spread a thin layer of ragù at the bottom of a 9″ x 13″ baking dish, preferably glass. Place one layer of cooked noodles on top, covering the entire dish. Distribute half of the spinach on the layer of noodles and pour half of the béchamel on the spinach, spreading it evenly with the back of a spoon. Place the second layer of noodles on the spinach and béchamel and pour on another layer of ragù, a bit more this time, spreading it evenly over the noodles. Sprinkle the grated cheese on the ragù adding a bit of the parmiggiano reggiano. Place the 3rd layer of noodles on the cheese and ragù and repeat with the spinach and béchamel. The final layer of noodles will be topped with ragù and cheese. Cover and let sit until you are ready to bake, it can be made 1 day ahead of time and chilled in the fridge. If you make it a day ahead, allow it to come to room temperature before putting it in the oven.
Preheat oven to 375°. Bake the lasagna, covered with aluminum foil, for 30 minutes. Remove the aluminum foil and allow to cook for an additional 10 minutes, until it is bubbling. Remove from the oven and allow it to sit for a few minutes before serving.
We still have half of the lasagna in the fridge and are looking forward to having it for dinner again this evening.