Of all the richly deserved complaints that Italians from Italy lodge against Italian food in America, the one that resonates with me the most is that lasagna was never intended to be heavy. Over the years, more than a few Italian chefs have shown me the beauty of a light, fluffy pasta casserole that wouldn’t weigh enough to hold a ship in place in rough water.
Yet the complaints will continue, as will the lasagna at the center of the fray. It’s up to each and every one of us who cooks to do what we think best about it.
Having given the matter a bit of thought over the years, I think there are three culprits – starting with the fact that most complaints come from trained chefs hailing from the north of Italy, while most of the lasagna they’re complaining about is by untrained grandmothers from Sicily and the rest of the south. In this age of regional cuisines, most of us understand that these are two different worlds with two very different ideas of what qualifies as good food.
The second culprit, I think, is assimilation. If the new arrivals in America from the 1850s until World War I had little or nothing to spend on food, they slowly worked their way into better jobs. Most assuredly their more educated, more American children did. And what speaks of greater success in America than meat? What many chefs make to be light and flavorful was instead filled up with ground beef, veal and pork, even Italian sausage – the more meat the better, because it screamed that you could afford it, with the amount of cheese following close behind.
The third and final culprit is frozen lasagna. As the meal being “replaced” was not light, chef-made lasagna but hearty Sunday lasagna inspired by somebody’s Sicilian grandmother, companies like Stouffer’s voted with their layers. They did a good job, making frozen lasagna that delivered not only the convenience that was their original inspiration but flavor that was quite good back when most Americans still weren’t using the words “frozen” and “good” in the same sentence.
So that’s where we are today. We can, however, find inspiration in the lighter, more subtly flavored versions served in some of our finest Italian restaurants.
This lightening process is not rocket science. Three elements make American lasagna feel heavy, and each can be made lighter with ease. Since we no longer have to impress our guests with how much meat we can afford, we can simply use less – a mix of ground beef, veal and pork is wonderful, in smaller amounts. Using some ground turkey is a nice, fat-lowering touch as well, adding yet another layer of fascinating flavor.
In this country, as almost nowhere or never in Italy, more cheese is almost always better than less. And according to Italians, this is a mistake. In particular, reduce the amount of mozzarella you use, knowing it was never intended to be this way. Beating an egg into the ricotta is another way of increasing the fluffy consistency of the layers.
Finally, you don’t really need six or seven layers. Many Italian chefs work wonders with three layers, and I’ve actually enjoyed lasagna with only two. If at all possible, make or buy fresh sheets of pasta, which tend to be thinner and lighter than the dried “lasagna noodles.” You might make a lot of chefs from Italy happy indeed.
MOM’S MEAT & SPINACH LASAGNA
In addition to joining Mom’s red tomato sauce to produce the iconic colors of the Italian flag, baby spinach leaves add nutrition and further lightness. They form a layer that – Mamma Mia! – is something other than pasta, meat or cheese.
16 ounces lasagna noodle, fresh or dried
1 pound ground beef (or “meatloaf” mixture of beef, veal and pork)
1 large jar Mom’s brand Special Marinara Sauce
2 cups ricotta
1 egg, beaten
1 cup grated Parmesan
2-3 tablespoons dried minced onion
2 tablespoons dried parsley flakes
½ pound shredded mozzarella
1 bad baby spinach leaves
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cook the lasagna noodles in salted water until pliable. If fresh, this takes almost no time. Brown the ground meat in a large pan, drain off any fat and mix in the marinara. In a separate bowl, combine the ricotta, egg, Parmesan, onion and parsley, stirring until smooth. Cover the bottom of a deep 9 X 13-inch ovenproof pan with meat sauce, then with a layer of pasta, followed by more sauce, ricotta mixture, and spinach leaves. Sprinkle lightly with mozzarella and repeat the process with a fresh later of pasta. Add one more layer after that, ending with mozzarella. Bake in the oven until browned and bubbly, 15-20 minutes. Let cool for about 15 minutes before cutting out squares. Makes about 8 servings.