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I love Italy and things Italian. I spend as much travel time in Italy as I can, and just about all my favorite "comfort foods" are Italian.

And when it comes to the ultimate in pure heartwarming comfort, it's hard to beat a big pan of lasagna. This stuff is better than birthday cake, in my book, and come to think of it, it resembles nothing so much as a gigantic cake - savory, not sweet - with delicious tender pasta, silken cheeses, juicy meats and tangy tomato sauce making a mouth-watering and satisfying treat.

Even in midsummer, when hot and humid days would normally suggest cool salads and simple fare, thoughts of lasagna can easily persuade me to crank up the air conditioner and fire up the oven.

Lasagna seems complicated because it has a lot of ingredients and requires a number of steps. But it's simple enough if you lay out a brief road map: Prepare the meats. Make a simple tomato sauce. Organize the cheeses. Boil the pasta, assemble the lasagna and bake. Ingredients and proportions are pretty much advisory and may be altered, within reason, to taste.

So: Remembering at some point during the process to preheat your oven to 375F (about 200C), let's begin:

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

1 pound (about 450 grams) lean ground beef
1/2 pound mild Italian sausage
28-ounce can Italian-style plum tomatoes
6-ounce can tomato paste
2 cloves garlic
1 small or 1/2 large sweet yellow onion
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon dried fennel seed
Dried red pepper flakes
Black pepper
15-ounce tub ricotta cheese
Nutmeg, freshly grated if available
8 ounces mozarella cheese, fresh if available
2 ounces grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
1 pound lasagna pasta


1. THE MEATS: If you're using bulk sausage, brown it in a skillet over medium heat. (If using sausage links, peel off the coating and break the meat into bits, then brown.) When the sausage is fairly well browned, add the ground beef, breaking it up and cooking just until it loses its raw red color. Drain off and discard as much of the fat as you can. (Feel free to alter the proportions to your liking - it's fine with ground beef alone, and excellent with nothing but sausage.)

2. THE TOMATO SAUCE: Put the plum tomatoes, the tomato paste and about 1/2 cup water in a bowl and buzz with a stick or stand blender until the tomatoes are coarsely chopped. Chop the onion and garlic and heat them in the olive oil in a saucepan with dried red pepper flakes to taste until the vegetables are translucent. Add the chopped tomato mix and reduce heat to very low. Add the salt and pepper and the fennel seeds (lightly crushed with a mortar and pestle if you wish) and allow to simmer uncovered for a half-hour or so.

3. THE CHEESES: Put the ricotta in a bowl and season to taste with freshly grated nutmeg. Grate the mozzarella into another bowl. Measure out the Parmigiano (or Pecorino or other Italian grating cheese if you prefer) into a third.

4. THE PASTA: Fill a large pasta pot or saucepan with water and add enough salt to make the water distinctly salty "like the sea." Bring to a rolling boil and put in the lasagna; cook according to package directions - typically about 10 to 12 minutes - until it's done but not overcooked, remembering that it will cook further during baking. Drain it and cover it with cold water to make it cool enough to handle.

(Just before the pasta is done, spoon about 1/4 cup of the hot cooking water into the ricotta bowl and stir until the cheese is smooth.)

5. ASSEMBLY: Put a shallow 9-by-12-inch baking pan or lasagna pan in a work space near the sink, and assemble the tomato sauce, meat, ricotta and mozzarella nearby. Put just enough tomato sauce into the pan to cover the bottom, and lay in four lasagna noodles. This should be just enough to cover the bottom, with the edges overlapping slightly. Spread about one-fourth of the remaining tomato sauce over the noodles, then cover with about one-fourth of the meat, one-fourth of the ricotta and one-fourth of the mozzarella. (Precision is not important here - just eyeball the proportions with the idea that you'll need to split the ingredients among four layers.) Continue in the same way with layers of pasta, sauce, meat, ricotta and mozzarella. When you're done, sprinkle the Parmigiano over the top.

6. BAKING: Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil and pop the pan into the 375F oven. Bake for 25 minutes or until hot and bubbly. Remove from the oven, take off the foil, and let it cool and set up for 10 to 15 minutes before you cut it into squares and serve. A loaf of crusty bread, butter and a green salad is all you need to complete the meal.

WINE MATCH: A dry, acidic red wine is called for here - snappy reds sing an operatic duet with tomatoes - and while it doesn't have to be Italian, it might as well be. Chianti is the standard, but feel free to run in a Salice Salentino, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo or just about any other Italian red. I chose an appealing, affordable red from Puglia, Terrale 2001 Primitivo, the Italian equivalent of Zinfandel.

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Thursday, July 3, 2003
Copyright 2003 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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