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Sausage-laden sauce characterizes classic lasagna

Lasagna, in my kitchen, has always been more format than recipe, more concept than iconic dish.

Keeping ricotta cheese and no-boil noodles in my fridge and pantry allows me to make lasagna with anything else that comes to hand. Maybe mushrooms and spinach, maybe ground meat and eggplant, maybe summer squash or — most recently — winter squash.

Simply put, the layers of noodles and cheese, not what resides between them, define lasagna in my mind. Some cooks, however, would denounce that position as heresy. There’s only one lasagna in their repertoire, and it relies on pork sausage — lots of it.

My dad widely touts my mom’s lasagna as the best ever, although I was less enthusiastic as a kid. The pounds of pork sausage she used, which didn’t sit so well in my stomach, likely gave rise to my ambivalence. As a cook in my own right, I view lasagna as a vehicle for stretching meat with veggies, not a way to emphasize protein.

But there are plenty of cooks, not just my mom, who would disagree. Among them is Chicago Tribune writer James P. DeWan, who composed a how-to column on lasagna earlier this year upholding sausage as “yum!” and spinach as “blech!”

Here’s his recipe that, omitting the bell peppers, also would find favor among my mom’s lasagna admirers. This yields more sauce than you’ll need for the lasagna, meaning the remainder can constitute another dish, including a fast weeknight dinner of spaghetti or frozen ravioli. Because no-boil noodles require a more watery sauce, this recipe calls for some chicken stock.

Lasagna

Neutral oil, as needed

1 1/2 to 2 pounds bulk Italian sausage

1 onion, peeled and diced small

1 bell pepper, cored and cut into medium dice (color of your choice)

2 to 4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

Salt, to taste

2 (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes

8 to 12 ounces chicken broth or water

1/2 tablespoon Italian seasoning (optional)

1 teaspoon fennel seeds (optional)

Crushed red pepper, to taste (optional)

1 (9-ounce) package no-boil lasagna noodles

1 pound ricotta cheese

1 pound mozzarella cheese

1 to 2 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated

For sauce: Place a heavy-bottomed pot over medium high heat, then add enough of the oil to coat bottom. Add the sausage; saute until cooked, stirring to break up chunks, for 8 10 minutes. While sausage cooks, saute the onion, bell pepper and garlic in a tablespoon or two of oil in a separate pan until soft, for about 5 minutes. Season with salt. When sausage is cooked, drain and discard any accumulated fat.

Stir in the crushed tomatoes and cooked vegetables. Add the chicken stock or water until sauce is somewhat liquidy. Season with salt and stir in the optional Italian seasoning, fennel seeds and crushed red pepper; simmer to blend flavors, for 20 to 30 minutes.

To construct lasagna: Ladle a thin layer of sauce over bottom of a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish. Lay the noodles over sauce with edges overlapping. Spoon blobs of the ricotta onto noodles every couple of inches, then sprinkle over some of the mozzarella. Ladle more sauce to cover entire surface. Repeat with another layer. Cover top layer with noodles, then mozzarella. Add sauce until it’s coming up pan’s sides, then sprinkle Parmesan over.

To bake, cover lasagna with foil and slide into a preheated, 350-degree oven until sauce is boiling and noodles are cooked through, for about 45 minutes. Uncover for last 10 minutes to brown. Let lasagna rest for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Tribune News Service photo