Chili and lasagna are two North American dishes about which I am completely ambivalent. My position is that in everyday life, I am destined to happen across a meal of chili or lasagna often enough that I never feel the need to cook them.
My husband, on the other hand, could live on chili and lasagna, with the occasional Vietnamese bun dish for variety. This is an area of contention in which (surprisingly) my extended family helps our marriage—my mother considers lasagna to be a last minute stand-by recipe that she can throw together to feed unexpected visitors. And because she knows my husband loves it (and loves her lasagna in particular), she tends to make it for us fairly frequently when we visit. Which is why I never feel the need to cook it myself. So while my husband is grateful for any and all lasagna, the current set-up pretty much guarantees that, unless he makes it himself, he'll never get lasagna in his own home.
Until this week, when I drew a blank during meal planning. When I asked him what he'd like me to cook this week (I should know better than to ask), he responded the same way he always does: "Lasagna!" For once, I couldn't think of anything better, and since I have unlimited supplies of hamburger in the freezer, as well as a big bag of frozen garden tomatoes that needs using, I thought, why not?
But I wasn't going to make a lasagna that required any opening of cans. Oh no. Mine was going to be 100% from scratch (well, except for the noodles).
Between my toddler's naptime and my baby's afternoon nurse-and-nap frenzy, I had a small window of time to pull this together. I boiled noodles and started gathering my sauce ingredients. I like to add as many veggies as possible to my meat sauces, so I chopped onions, garlic, celery, carrots and mushrooms, and on a whim, a small remainder of my dad's home-smoked bacon from Sunday's breakfast. Who needs olive oil when you can cook vegetables in bacon fat? I browned the bacon, added the veggies and had just added the beef when I got summoned by my baby—all the while I nursed him I fretted over whether anything was burning, and tried to put my yoga practice into practice by just relaxing and being in the moment, and trusting that everything would work out. Nothing burned, to my relief.
A recipe that I was using as a loose guide suggested canned tomatoes, some beef broth and tomato paste. I had frozen tomatoes, a small amount of homemade beef stock (very rich, though), and tomato paste. I figured the extra juice in the frozen tomatoes would make up for the demi-glace-like beef stock, and I threw in a bit more tomato paste and salt to make up for the lack of canned tomatoes, added some dried oregano and bay leaves and let it all simmer.
As the sauce finished cooking an hour later, and I had finished mixing up the ricotta-spinach layer, my toddler woke up from his nap. He kept himself occupied with grated mozzarella while I assembled the dish. Everything looked and tasted fine, and the stoneware lasagna pan weighed a ton once the thing was built. I looked at the wreckage I'd left behind in my kitchen, and wondered, is the effort and mess really worth it? And the other thought was, how does my mother consider this an easy last-minute dish?
The verdict? It was a nice lasagna. Our toddler dug right in and ate half a piece. The bacon added a nice touch, but as I said, I'm fairly ambivalent about it, and this particular incarnation didn't change my mind. But was it actually better than if I had followed the recipe on the noodle box and just used store-bought sauce? I don't think my lasagna would stand up to a rigorous cost-benefit analysis.
My husband, self-proclaimed lasagna connoisseur, enjoyed it, but more for the novelty of actually getting to eat lasagna at home than for any inherent value in this particular version. When I asked whether it was any better than other lasagnas, he said, "Your mom's is way more tomato-y and tangy. Why is that?"
It's decided, then. Mom, you can keep my husband in lasagna. I'll move on to other things.