Lasagna was a staple in my family growing up, though there isn't an Italian ancestor in sight on either side of my family tree. Maybe it's because there is no better comfort food than the warm, bubbly layers of cheese, pasta and sauce. Maybe it's because the dish is easy to make ahead and it serves a crowd with minimal fuss. Whatever the case, I've gravitated toward making the traditional dish in a skillet in recent years.
As I've written about in earlier articles, I'm a big fan of cast iron skillets because of their durability, superior heating quality and possible health benefits. When it comes to lasagna, using a skillet also cuts down on clean-up and keeps the bake time to about an hour.
Quick history of lasagna
Like philosophy, drama and cheesecake, lasagna traces back to ancient Greece. Named after a fermented noodle called laganon, the Greek dish consisted of layers of pasta and sauce sprinkled with toppings and eaten with a pointed stick. After the Romans conquered the empire, they incorporated the dish into their own culture (not to mention Greek mythology).
The recipe we associate with lasagna today surfaced in Naples during the Middle Ages--during the Black Plague of all times. The Brits also lay claim to the first recipe, which researchers found in an English cookbook from the late 14th century.
Oddly enough, tomato sauce didn't come into the mix until the 1880s. The traditional recipe evolved to include handmade pasta, fresh-ground beef or pork, and a rich tomato sauce that required hours of simmering on the stove. Because it took so long to prepare, lasagna was primarily served on holidays and special occasions. As the dish changed with the times, so did its role. While it's still served at large gatherings, lasagna now stands-in as a weeknight meal too.
One of my favorite things to do is to search old cookbooks for recipes. I found this skillet lasagna recipe in Food & Wine's Best of the Best Cookbook, which gathered recipes from 25 bestselling cookbooks in 2014. The editors discovered the skillet lasagna below in Keepers, a compilation of tried-and-true recipes from food writers Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion.
If you want to give it a try, here's the recipe:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound sweet or hot Italian sausages, casings removed
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
large pinch hot red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 28-ounce cans whole peeled tomatoes
1 sprig basil, plus a handful of basil leaves
salt and pepper
1 9-ounce package no-boil lasagna noodles
4 ounces mascarpone cheese or cream cheese (½ cup)
½ pound fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced and patted dry
1. In a large high-sided saute pan with 3-quart capacity and a lid, heat the oil over high heat until it shimmers. Add the sausages and cook, stirring often and breaking up the meat, until browned, about 4 minutes. Leaving as much oil in the pan as possible, transfer the sausage to a medium bowl and set aside.
2. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the onions, garlic and pepper flakes to the pan, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are softened, about 7 minutes. Add the oregano, the tomatoes and their juices, crushing the tomatoes with your hands or a potato masher, the sprig of basil and the cooked sausage and any juices. Season with salt and pepper, then gently simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Check the seasonings (it should be a little salty) and discard the basil sprig.
3. Break half of the lasagna noodles in half crosswise (it's fine if smaller pieces break off) and as you do so, push each piece into the sauce under the sausage, distributing them evenly throughout the pan. Break the remaining half of the noodles in half and distribute them evenly over the sauce, then push down on them with the back of a spoon to submerge them. Cover the pan and gently simmer (raising the heat a little, if needed) until the noodles are tender and the sauce has thickened slightly, about 12 minutes.
4. Dollop the mascarpone over the lasagna and swirl it into the sauce. Top with the mozzarella and gently simmer, cover, until the cheese is melted, about 2 minutes. Off the heat, top with the basil leaves, tearing any large ones. Let the lasagna rest, uncovered, for about 10 minutes, then serve.
Keeper's skillet clean-up tip:
If you end up with a burnt skillet, add an inch of water and simmer until the stuck-on bits come away from the bottom. Let the water cool and wash as usual. For really bad burns, add a splash of distilled white vinegar to the water, scrub with baking soda, then wash as usual. (But as I've also said in previous articles, I've used scouring pads on well-seasoned skillets will no long-term effects. Just use a light touch.)
I've skipped the sprig without any noticeable effects.
You can substitute crushed tomatoes for the whole tomatoes and save yourself some work.
You can substitute ground beef or vegetables for the sausage. You can also try this delicious vegetarian skillet lasagna from Half-Baked Harvest, which includes zucchini, mushrooms, red bell peppers, sun-dried tomatoes and spinach. I actually prefer to the vegetarian version but be sure to minimize the moisture in your veggies.
Pair this with a good pinot noir and top with fresh parmesan cheese. Here are six bottles under $15 that are worth buying, according to Wine Magazine. My favorites are the Bogle and the Castle Rock, in part because Hulu's Castle Rock series was filmed a few towns over. I've also drunk way too much Yellow Tail because it's a good deal for the price.
Wine Lover Magazine gives this advice about choosing a wine to match your lasagna:
Like for other foods, you should always try to match the intensity and weight of the dish with the intensity (body) of the wine: Bold wines go with rich meals, and light-bodied wines pair well with light dishes. You can also prepare your pairings based on color: White wine for white meat and red wine for red meat.
Planning a small dinner party?
Bon Appetit recommends serving lasagna at a dinner party with Escarole and Butter Lettuce Salad with Pomegranate Seeds and Hazelnuts. To start, the magazine suggests an antipasto platter of high-quality jarred foods and cured meats. For dessert: storebought tiramisu, which couldn't be easier. (My mom buys little glass jars of Tiramisu from Costco. Not only are the individual servings classy but they taste great, too).
My Food and Family suggests a party pairing of lasagna with Italian panzanella salad, which consists of tomatoes, cucumbers and bread. For dessert, serve chocolate-almond biscotti drizzled with chocolate.
Lacademie advises going beyond the salad and offers 33 side-dish choices, including roasted broccoli rabe, roasted garlic and lemon soup, and--surprisingly--buffalo wings.
Whatever you choose to accompany your skillet lasagna, be sure to enjoy it.