February 28, 2009

Skillet Lasagna

Who doesn't like the classic flavours of lasagna? Unfortunately, it's a time consuming dish to make, and not really suitable for weeknights, although if you make two when you do take the trouble, you can freeze one and whip it out at a moment's notice (and an hour in the oven). Fortunately, it's really simple to make a delicious skillet dinner that riffs on the same flavours, and even relies on layering to achieve its goal: a lasagna-like experience in about 30 minutes (if you're motivated), using a skillet and your stovetop. Perfect for weeknights, especially if you want to take some leftovers for your lunch the next day. Assuming, of course, that there are leftovers (you can always increase the chances of leftovers by adding a salad and some garlic bread).

This can even be a quite healthy dish, if you use lean meats, and go with a more moderate approach to the cheese. I don't add oil to fry the meat, as it's not really necessary if you have a good non-stick or cast-iron pan. If the meat starts to catch too much on the pan, you can always splash a little dry vermouth or white wine (or water, of course) to zap the heat for a moment and loosen things up.

Skillet Lasagna

(Adapted from America's Test Kitchen)
Serves 4
Total Prep & Cooking Time: 30 – 45 minutes

1 lb meatloaf mix or any lean ground meat
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
Salt, as needed
½ teaspoon ground white pepper
pinch red pepper flakes
10 curly-edged lasagna noodles, broken into 1½ inch lengths
28 oz can diced tomatoes plus extra water (see directions)
1 cup tomato sauce
¾ cup whole milk ricotta cheese, optional
¼ cup minced fresh basil
2 – 3 cups fresh spinach, chopped
½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated, (plus extra for serving)

Pour the diced tomatoes, with their juice, into a four-cup measuring cup. Add enough water to the tomatoes to make 4 cups in total.

In a 12 inch non-stick skillet, break up the ground meat with a wooden spoon and fry over medium-high heat until it begins to brown. Add the onion and ½ tsp salt and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about 15 seconds. If you are using optional seasonings (see below), add them now.

Sprinkle the noodle pieces evenly over the meat. Gently pour the diced tomatoes with their added water and tomato sauce over the pasta. Cover and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue to simmer, until the pasta is tender, about 20 minutes. You may peek! If any noodles are sticking out too far, push them back under. (The sauce should look watery after 15 minutes of cooking. If dry, add up to ¼ cup additional water to loosen the sauce.)

Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in spinach and ½ cup Parmesan. Season with salt and black pepper to taste. Dot heaping tablespoons of ricotta over the noodles. Cover the skillet and let stand off the heat for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with the basil and serve with the extra Parmesan on the side.

Seasoning Options:
Add any or all of the following seasonings: ½ teaspoon dried oregano leaves (not powder); 1 teaspoon fennel seed; ½ teaspoon dried basil leaves

Mushroom variation:
Add 6 large mushrooms, sliced or diced, once the onion is softened. Continue to cook over medium-high for about five minutes more before proceeding.

Further notes:

Because I found the original seasoning to be quite plain (despite the chile flakes) I add all of the seasoning options above, which give it that really classic familiar taste. I highly recommend the fennel seeds, particularly.

I confess that I don't usually go with the ricotta cheese, though it does make the dish a little more hard-core lasagna-esque. I don't tend to have ricotta on hand, and it feels a little tacked on, to be honest. Instead, I took an idea from my mother's baked spaghetti, and lay strips of provolone over the top just after stirring the spinach through, and covering until the cheese is melted (as shown above).

Finally, if you suddenly discover that you don't have that box of lasagna noodles that you thought you had, 200 grams of farfalle work beautifully in the dish, although the overall effect as a "lasagna" is kind of shot, at that point.