I’ve been obsessed with lasagna my entire life. It’s safe to say that I’ve eaten and cooked thousands of variations.
Yes, thousands. I’m dedicated.
I found this recipe for Lasagna-Style Baked Pennette on Food & Wine magazine years ago, back when I was still a subscriber and an omnivore. Apparently I was less discerning then because all I needed was to see the word “lasagna” and that meant I was going to cook it.
Now that I’m looking at it with a more critical eye, it’s obvious to me that this isn’t a lasagna at all. It’s just a pasta casserole or a baked penne or something. Whatever it is, it’s not a lasagna. To me, lasagnas are long strips of pasta (or long, thin vegetable strips if that’s your thing) with tomato sauce, cheese, maybe some meat, and possibly a variety of vegetables between. Chef Tom Valenti, I appreciate your willingness to share your recipe with Food & Wine, but you need to stop lying to yourself: this is casserole. Hey, dude, it’s OK. You can be a fancy-ass chef and still make a humble “whatever’s in my refrigerator” casserole. I grew up on those and look how I turned out.
Okay, maybe don’t do that.
The point is, there’s nothing wrong with a baked one-dish meal of random items you found in your pantry.
The last time I made this dish, I remembered it being sort of bland and boring. But I’ve been on a serious lasagna kick lately. Anything that says “lasagna” in the name…
To be fair, I thought that, since I’m now vegetarian, I could riff this up a bit, make it with faux-meat/soy crumbles — which have extra seasonings in it, to make it more meat-ish and flavorful — and I’ve grown a lot as a cook in the last six or seven years since I’ve made this. And, hey, I know my flavor profiles and it doesn’t take an idiot to salt and pepper something…
Okay, yeah, I should have skipped this or riffed it even harder. I tried and, in the end, I wished this dish had been so much more. Honestly, I think it’s the béchamel sauce that threw me. Typically, I like béchamel, but somehow the prescribed amount of Parmesan didn’t give the dish enough excitement, and I shudder to think how much Parmesan I would have had to add to do it. I mean, I love Parmesan but it’s not awesome for you. And vegetarian Parmesan is a little on the pricey side.
But it was a good weeknight dish to make — fast, easy, and filling — so I’m hoping maybe one of you will have any ideas as to how this dish can be jazzed up. Here’s my version. You can see the original recipe at Food & Wine.
Lasagna-Style Baked Pennette with Meat Sauce
1 pound pennette or ditali (I couldn’t find either so I used penne)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 pound faux meat crumbles (or ground meatloaf mix: 1 pound lamb, 1 pound veal)
One 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 1/4 teaspoons marjoram
2 tablespoons chopped fresh, flat-leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 quart milk
1 large egg yolk
1/2 cup freshly grated Romano cheese
Before I give you the cooking instructions, let me say that, though the ingredients say “salt and pepper,” in no way do the original instructions remind you to salt and pepper every damn step. And I guess I should remember to salt and pepper everything because it’s Cooking 101, but when you’ve got calamity in the house AND you’re trying to photograph each step for your blog AND you’re trying to bake and photograph some crazy chocolate brownies with beets them for aforementioned blog, it needs to be included in the instructions. Otherwise you’re going to get to the assembly stage and you’re going to be disappointed–nay, aggrieved!–by the blandness.
Luckily for you all, I added in when to salt. For you. Because I care. You’ll note that my instructions are so subtle that you won’t even know they’re there.
Preheat the oven to 350°. In a large pot of boiling water, cook the pasta until al dente. And hey, you should totally dump a tablespoon of salt into that motha’. Drain well.
In a large, deep skillet, heat the olive oil. Add the onion and cook over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 4 minutes. By the way, do you know where your salt is right now? Hopefully it’s in your onions and not hiding out in your pantry.
Add the soy crumbles, the faux-meat, or actual meat of your choosing (we don’t judge here), stirring to break up the lumps, until the meat is beginning to brown. 4 minutes for faux, 10 minutes for actual meat. If you used actual meat, drain all fat from the pan.
Remove from the heat and stir in the diced tomatoes, tomato paste, marjoram and parsley. You know what else would be delicious in this? Salt. And probably some fresh ground pepper. Hey, it’s a party! Transfer to a large bowl.
Time for the bechamel. In a large saucepan, melt the butter. Add the flour and cook over moderate heat, whisking, for 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in the milk and cook over moderately high heat, whisking constantly, until the sauce is very thick and boiling, 7 to 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in the egg yolks and the Romano. Your sauce should be light and creamy, and have a very smooth texture.
Thomas Keller salts and peppers his bechamel. So, if it’s good enough for him to do, it’s good enough for us. Get to it.
Stir all but 1/2 cups of the sauce into the meat mixture along with the pasta and season with salt and pepper. Spoon the pasta into a 3-quart baking dish. Spread the reserved 1/2 cup of sauce on top.
Bake the pasta in the center of the oven for about 30 minutes, until bubbling. Preheat the broiler. Broil the pasta 8 inches from the heat for about 2 minutes, until the top is browned and bubbling. Let rest for 10 minutes before serving.
As you can see in the photo of my original rendition, I used ditali the first time around. Ditali is teeny tiny adorable little pasta. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any tiny pasta other than Orzo (get with the program, Whole Foods and Amazon Fresh!) so I used penne. In my opinion, it still worked because this isn’t a lasagna. It’s a baked pasta, so you really can use almost any pasta that you wish.
Overall, I found this dish to be very dull and lacking in a point of view. It doesn’t know what it wants to be, and therefore has a hard time becoming anything at all. Is it Italian? Is it American? Is it a leftover dish? Is it supposed to be spicy, sweet, savory? WHAT DO YOU WANT, FOOD? WHAT IS YOUR MOTIVATION?
I made this dish a day ago and tried it again as leftovers the next day. I added a liberal amount of fresh pepper and it seemed to give the dish a little life, but it still lacked a lot of direction. It needs focus. At this point, I’m not sure the dish is even worth salvaging, but I’m always open to ideas on how to make this dish a little more unique? Thoughts? Leave a comment below… and don’t forget the salt.