The Italians call their flag “il Tricolore” for its three colors: green, white and red.
Come to think of it, that’s also a good name for my aunt’s lasagna.
Like the flag, Auntie’s lasagna features three colors: green, from spinach and basil; white, from noodles and cheese; and red, from a hearty meat sauce.
If you love lasagna as much as I do — I order it nearly every time I go to an Italian restaurant — then you gotta try this tricolor version.
My aunt is not Italian, but her lasagna would pass muster with an Italian grandmother. And it should, because that’s how she got the recipe. A friend passed on his Nonna’s (Italian for grandmother) lasagna recipe, by word of mouth.
Nonna didn’t write it down. My aunt didn’t either.
When I asked my aunt for the recipe, she showed me one in “America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook.” She knows how I am with recipes. I like to have a list of ingredients with measurements and a clear set of instructions. The America’s Test Kitchen lasagna was as close as she could get, so we adapted that recipe together.
I’ve never seen another lasagna with spinach. Basil, yes, but not spinach. Most recipes for lasagna will tell you to stir minced basil in with your ricotta mixture. But my aunt’s recipe has you add layers of fresh spinach and basil leaves to bring a pop of color (and flavor!) to the classic Italian dish.
Note: If your spinach and basil leaves are too large to be considered “bite-sized,” tear them or chop them to size. We like to pick up a bag of baby spinach.
Auntie recommends no-boil lasagna noodles. Not only is it easier, but the no-boil noodles have a thinness to them that is akin to homemade pasta. Which means they’ll have a more tender mouthfeel than the ones you spend 10 minutes boiling. I’m sold.
Note: Since the noodles do go in dry, you need to thoroughly coat them with sauce. Otherwise you’ll bite into crunchy lasagna.
Then there’s the meat. Most lasagnas — America’s Test Kitchen included — repeat their layers four or five times. This lasagna is packed with so much meat that you’ll only have room in your 9-by-13 to make three.
That’s because my aunt likes to cook up a pound of hamburger and a pound of Italian sausage. The cookbook we referenced? It calls for half that.
Note: A homemade tomato sauce (see recipe for Auntie’s Meat Sauce) tastes better than jarred sauce, but if using jarred sauce (tomato only) is more convenient, you will need about two 24- to 26-ounce jars. Instead of the diced and crushed tomatoes specified in the recipe below, my aunt likes to chop fresh tomatoes for the sauce when they’re on hand.
If you go with jarred sauce: Before assembling the lasagna, heat 2 teaspoons olive oil in a large saucepan until shimmering. Add 1 pound (85% lean) ground beef and 1 pound ground Italian sausage and cook, stirring to break up the clumps, until no longer pink, about 5 minutes. Stir in the tomato sauce and bring to a simmer. Cook until the flavors have melded, about 5 minutes.
I brought plates of the lasagna to work for a taste test by Daily Herald colleagues. They all gave it a thumbs-up.
“The meaty sauce and the herby basil elevated this above your run-of-the-mill lasagna,” said Mark Carlson, who manages the newspaper’s page designers. “Sara gave me a very large piece, and I still wanted more.”
I’m still dialing in some of the measurements — so you’ll have extra sauce for another pasta dish — but like Nonna’s grandson, I just had to share.
Auntie’s il Tricolore lasagna
This recipe is adapted from “America’s Test Kitchen’s Family Cookbook” so that it more closely resembles an Italian grandmother’s recipe that wasn’t written down. The measurements are best estimates.
15 ounces ricotta cheese
1½ cups Parmesan cheese, grated
½ cup minced fresh basil
1 large egg, lightly beaten
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
2 cups fresh basil leaves
2 cups fresh baby spinach leaves
6 cups meat sauce (recipe below)
9 no-boil lasagna noodles (from an 8-ounce or 9-ounce package)
4 cups whole-milk mozzarella, shredded
Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 375 degrees. Mix the ricotta, 1 cup of the Parmesan, egg, salt and pepper until well combined.
Spread ¼ of the tomato sauce over the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Place 3 of the noodles on top of the sauce. Sprinkle evenly with 1 cup of the mozzarella and ¼ cup of the Parmesan. Finish with a layer of fresh spinach leaves.
Next layer: Spoon 1½ cups of the sauce evenly over the spinach. Place 3 more of the noodles on top of the sauce. Drop the ricotta mixture by the spoonful over the noodles, then spread it to an even thickness. Finish with a layer of fresh basil leaves.
For the final layer, spread ¼ of the tomato sauce over the basil leaves. Place the 3 remaining noodles on top. Sprinkle another 1 cup mozzarella and the remaining ¼ cup Parmesan. Spread the remaining 1½ cups sauce over the noodles. Finish with the remaining 1 cup of the mozzarella.
Spray a large sheet of foil lightly with cooking spray and cover the lasagna. Bake for 15 minutes.
Remove the foil and continue to bake for about 25 minutes longer, or until the cheese is browned and the sauce is bubbling. Let cool for 10 minutes before serving. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
To make ahead: The assembled, unbaked lasagna can be held in the refrigerator, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, for up to 24 hours. Allow the lasagna to sit at room temperature for 1 hour before baking. It can also be frozen, wrapped in additional layer of foil, for up to 2 months.
To bake from frozen, defrost it in the refrigerator for 24 hours, then allow it to sit at room temperature for 1 hour before baking.
Auntie’s meat sauce
Although this sauce was created specifically for lasagna, it tastes great over regular pasta.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, minced
1 teaspoon salt
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound (85% lean) ground beef
1 pound ground Italian sausage
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
¼ teaspoon dried oregano
¼ teaspoon dried thyme
⅛ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and 1 teaspoon salt and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Spoon in the cooked ground beef and Italian sausage. Stir in the tomatoes with their juice, oregano, thyme and red pepper flakes. Simmer until the sauce is slightly thickened, about 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Makes the 6 cups needed for the lasagna, and then some.