Saturday, January 4, 2014

Gluten-Free Lasagna

Feeding More than a Few

It was New Year's Eve morning. I got a call from our friends taking us up on our offer for dinner that night.

New Year's Eve dinner. Cooked by me.

Yes, they did acknowledge that they weren't giving us any notice. But that's okay. They are friends and we had offered days before.

But now I had to scramble. No, not eggs. Scramble to get more ingredients. The menu was already set, but I didn't have enough of everything to add five people.

Now I was cooking for more than eight. With only enough ingredients for up to eight.

Sometimes even I can do simple math.

I was planning on making lasagna, and one pan usually feeds eight. I might have been able to squeeze enough appropriately-sized servings out of one pan for all of us, but I wasn't about to risk it. Not for dinner at my house. I needed more ingredients.

So, out I went to fetch what I needed.

Gluten-Free Lasagna

This is the recipe I have used for many years. It originated in the Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, but I have tweaked here and there over the years to be more to my liking. You will need to double this to make two pans, like me.

3/4 pounds ground beef
1 cup chopped onion
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 7.5-ounce can cut up tomatoes
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
2 tsp dried basil, crushed
1 tsp dried oregano, crushed
1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
5 ounces gluten-free lasagna noodles (6 noodles)
1 beaten egg
2 1/4 cups ricotta cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 Tbsp dried parsley flakes
1 pound mozzarella cheese, sliced or grated

I start by making the tomato and meat sauce. No, bottled sauce will not do. Don't waste your time on constructing lasagna if you are willing to accept bottled sauce. You will save yourself a lot of time and you will thank me later.

I knew I was making two pans of lasagna, so it was easy to make twice the amount of sauce, all at once, in one pot.

Start by browning the meat with the onions. When the onions start to become translucent, add the minced garlic. Cook and stir until meat is brown and onion is soft. If there is much fat, drain off fat. Stir in undrained tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato paste, basil, oregano, cinnamon, salt, and pepper. Bring to boiling, then reduce heat. Simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

While the tomato and meat sauce was simmering, I made the ricotta and egg filling. Start by lightly beating (no need to kill it here) one egg in a large mixing bowl. Stir in ricotta, 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese and parsley flakes.

This is a picture of a single recipe of the filling. I made another batch in another bowl, since that was easier for me.

I made sure I had two boxes of gluten-free brown rice lasagne noodles on hand. One box is enough to make two pans, if your noodles stay intact.

I do not recommend cooking these noodles according to the directions. I tried that. Unacceptable. Then I cooked the second box of noodles according to my own experience. 

Cook in lightly salted water that is just under boiling for six to eight minutes (far less than the recommended twelve), stirring very, very gently, keeping noodles apart as much as possible. Keep them moving separately. Test for doneness. They should feel firm, but not crunchy. If you start to see the noodles split, get them out quickly. 

Drain and run cold water over them. This stops the cooking process quickly. Immediately, and very gently (careful - they are hot!), separate each noodle and lay out on parchment paper or waxed paper in a single layer. Do not let noodles touch, as they are very sticky. After filling one sheet, lay out another sheet of parchment or waxed paper on top of the first layer and continue laying out noodles.

Note how some of these tore (lower right). The bottom noodle (left end) was broken like this when I put it in the water. This is delicate business and you want these noodles whole, with minimal tears. Keep any pieces, so that they can be fit back together later.

Now it is time to start building your lasagna. Or lasagnas, if you are doing two pans, like me.

Step 0: Spray pan with oil.

I have never found this step in any lasagna recipe, but believe me, it is vital if you want to serve your magnificent layers of lasagna onto plates with a spatula, instead of hacking at it and ultimately digging it out of the pan with a spoon.

Step 1: Lay a single layer of lasagna noodles across the bottom of the pan. If you have less than perfect noodles to work with, use the best ones now for the bottom of the pan, saving the less perfect ones for the layer of noodles in the middle of the pan.

Step 2: Spread half of the ricotta and egg filling in a thin layer across the noodles. Note how I drop small spoonfuls across the noodles before starting to spread the filling. This reduces the chance of tearing your noodles, which you don't want to do.

Step 3: Spread half of the tomato and meat sauce in a thin layer across the filling. Again, note how I drop small spoonfuls of sauce across the filling before spreading.

I'm pretty careful to not mix the filling and the sauce, because I like my layers to be layers. If you aren't careful, you might as well save yourself the effort and throw everything into a big bowl and call it "Free-form Lasagna". Yes, I've been served this. Once. Many, many years ago.

Not me. My lasagna comes with layers. Thank you very much.

Step 4: Cover the red sauce with half of the mozzarella. Thinly sliced or shredded. I've used both in the past. Slicing mozzarella thinly for this purpose is difficult. Choose the thinest, sharpest knife you have and cut as thin as you can. Get some good slices, but don't worry about all of them. Any slices that are less than perfectly shaped can be used in your middle mozzarella layer. That is now. You can instead opt to shred the mozzarella and spread half of it evenly across the top of the red sauce.

Step 5: Repeat all four layers, in the same order. Noodles on the red sauce, ricotta filling on the noodles, red sauce on the ricotta filling, mozzarella on the red sauce. You should have two sets of four layers, ending with the mozzarella.

Step 6: Shake the remaining grated parmesan evenly across the top of the mozzarella layer.

Now, can you see why it is easier to make two pans at once?

If you don't need both pans right away, just cover one with plastic wrap and freeze it. When you are ready to eat the frozen lasagna, be sure to put it in the refrigerator for a number of hours, and then leave it on the counter for a half hour and remove the plastic wrap before putting it in the oven. You don't want to break your pan in the oven (assuming you used a glass or Pyrex dish, like I did). I haven't broken Pyrex in the oven yet, and I don't intend to.

Finally, the baking. Bake in a 375º preheated oven for 30 to 35 minutes for one pan, slightly longer for two pans. At the end of this time, the red sauce should be bubbling and the mozzarella should start to turn brown. Then you know your lasagna is ready!

Pull your lasagna out of the oven and let it rest for about 10 minutes before cutting it. This will allow the cheese cool slightly, making it easier to cut and serve. When you do cut it, choose the thinnest sharp knife you have. This will help cutting through the cheese. Aiming to cut between the pieces of mozzarella also helps. But sometimes you just have to hack right through the middle of that glorious cheese and go with it.

Enjoy with salad, baguette, friends and family!

And just to keep things real, here is what happened to the first pot of gluten-free lasagna noodles I cooked for this meal. Gluten-free noodles are not as forgiving as gluten noodles, so be prepared. Always, always have another box on hand to recover from a potential disaster like this!

Ah, lasagna! Delicious, even gluten-free!

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