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Make a batch of pasta goodness in oven or slow cooker

Good lasagna is an easy thing to make yet it is easier to make bad lasagna. The best way to learn is by watching a master -- meaning from someone from an Italian family who learned it from her mother who learned it from her mother, etc. (Bob Fila/Chicago Tribune/KRT)

WORTHINGTON, Minn. -- One of my all-time favorite meals is lasagna, and during my growing-up years, DotMom used to make a simplified version sans the cottage cheese/ricotta layer. So it was basically just layers of noodles, meat and cheese — definitely a kid-pleaser.

I still remember an occasion when a now dearly departed family friend brought over a big casserole dish of that same simple lasagna when Mom was out of commission for cooking duties. What that well-meaning friend didn’t know is that Mom went to great pains to break up the whole tomatoes called for in the recipe so they wouldn’t be visible to her picky-eater children. The big chunks of tomatoes initially caused a bit of a ruckus, although we were quickly cautioned to keep our mouths closed and eat around the offending tomato bits.

Nowadays, I prefer my lasagna with a layer of creamy cheese in the middle and certainly wouldn’t be turned off by big chunks of tomatoes in the sauce.

When I make lasagna, it’s generally a whole-afternoon proposition, as I cook up enough to squirrel away in the freezer for future meals. That means I don’t get around to it very often.

Lately I’d been considering another big lasagna-making spree, as I’ve had a hankering for that combination of cheese, noodles and sauce that just can’t be filled with anything else. The craving was somewhat satisfied, however, during a recent potluck lunch event at the Daily Globe. Newsroom colleague Julie Buntjer made a batch of slow cooker lasagna and later shared the recipe with me.

So here is the lasagna recipe from my personal file — a variation on Sharon Johnson’s Sunday Lasagna recipe from DotMom’s “Mixing & Musing Cookbook,” as well as Julie’s slow cooker version. Either would also be a suitable dish to make for that someone special on Valentine’s Day.

Nothing says “I love you” quite like noodles and sauce.

Make-Ahead Lasagna

1 pound ground beef

1 pound Italian sausage

½ yellow onion, finely diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

Two 8-ounce cans tomato sauce

One 6-ounce can tomato paste

4 ounces button mushrooms, sliced

2 teaspoons dried basil

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1½ teaspoons salt

½ teaspoon pepper

2 cups ricotta or cottage cheese

1 cup shredded Italian cheese (mozzarella or mozzarella blend)

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Lasagna noodles

Tomato juice

Brown beef with onion and garlic. Add tomato sauce, tomato paste, mushrooms and seasoning. Simmer this mixture for half an hour or more.

In a medium bowl, combine ricotta or cottage cheese with shredded mozzarella.

In a well-greased 9- by 13-inch pan (or two 9- by 9-inch foil pans, if splitting to put in the freezer), ladle a bit of sauce into the bottom, spreading to cover. Add a layer of noodles, breaking to fit. Top with a layer of sauce, followed by a layer of cheese and more noodles. Repeat layers, ending with sauce. Add tomato juice over the top and around the sides, until you can see the juice around the edges. Let settle for a bit, then top with the grated Parmesan cheese.

Cover with aluminum foil. Refrigerate overnight if desired. Bake 2 hours at 300 degrees, removing foil for last half hour of cooking.

Slow Cooker Lasagna

1 pound ground beef

Lasagna noodles

One 24-ounce jar spaghetti sauce

1½  cups cottage cheese

1½ shredded mozzarella cheese

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Brown ground beef and drain.

Spoon 1 cup spaghetti sauce into bottom of a 4-quart slow cooker. Mix remaining sauce with beef.

Place 2 uncooked lasagna noodles on top of sauce in slow cooker. Spread 1/3 of the meat mixture on top of noodles. Spread ¾ cup cottage cheese over meat. Sprinkle ½ cup mozzarella cheese over cottage cheese.

Add another layer of uncooked noodles, 1/3 meat mixture, the remaining cottage cheese and ½ cup mozzarella cheese.

Place another layer of uncooked noodles, meat mixture, and mozzarella cheese.

Sprinkle Parmesan cheese over top. Cook on low for 4 hours. (If cooked much longer, it gets a bit well done, Julie notes.)

Tips from the kitchen:

  •  The beauty of both these recipes is that you don’t have to cook the noodles beforehand. They cook in the sauce, saving a step in the preparation.
  •  Ricotta is the more traditional option for the center cheese layer in lasagna, but cottage cheese seems to be the choice in our Upper Midwest region. It all comes down to personal preference. Either works, but if using cottage cheese,  choose a brand that isn’t too watery, as it can make the end product soupy.
  •  If doing the make-ahead version for freezing, I usually double the recipe and make four 9-inch square pans to stash for future meals. I prefer the disposable aluminum pans for two reasons: First, I don’t own 4 square baking pans; and secondly, the pans can be rinsed and recycled after use, aiding in cleanup.
  •  I prefer fresh mushrooms, but canned mushrooms can be used in a pinch; either can be added to the slow-cooker version.

Rickers is features editor of The Daily Globe of Worthington, Minn.

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