Friday, April 11, 2014

Sausage and Peppers Lasagna

Have you ever gone to the grocery store, seen a random ingredient, and then come up with a completely weird dish in which to put it? For instance, have you picked up a bulb of fennel and thought, "I'm going to make lasagna?"

I have. Yeah, it didn't make sense to me either. Fennel isn't exactly a typical lasagna filling. And of course fennel alone might be a bit strange, so I decided it needed to be combined with sweet Italian sausage (which is flavored with fennel) and roasted red peppers. Why not? Why does lasagna have to be made with the same traditional ingredients every time? Ok, because it is delicious that way, but it can be delicious with other ingredients, too. Like sausage and peppers and fennel. (Oh my!)

I picked up a package of Giovanni Rana brand fresh pasta sheets on that same grocery store excursion. The fresh stuff cuts out the whole messy step of precooking dry pasta and carefully separating out the individual noodles so they won't stick together when they cool. I won't use the no-boil kind; they require far too much sauce and make for a lasagna that seems drowned. And while a besciamella (b├ęchamel sauce) may be more traditional, I like to use ricotta cheese mixed with a bit of Parmesan to make my lasagna nice and creamy.

Really, I think anything goes in a lasagna, as long as there's plenty of cheese.

The result of my madness was actually pretty great. The fennel married nicely with the sausage, and even though the ingredients were non-traditional, it still tasted like lasagna.

This recipe makes a ton. Enough for 10 normal people.

Sausage, Pepper, and Fennel Lasagna

1 lb mild Italian sausage
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium bulb fennel, sliced thinly
1 12-oz jar roasted red peppers, chopped
3-5 cloves of garlic, depending on their size and how much you like garlic, crushed
24 ounces of your favorite marinara, homemade or jarred, 1 cup reserved
generous pinch red pepper flakes
generous pinch of fennel seeds, crushed lightly
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup ricotta cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
16 ounces fresh lasagna noodles (NOT the dry "oven-ready" noodles)
2 cups grated mozzarella cheese

Put a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Remove the sausage meat from its casings and add to the pan, breaking it up into smaller pieces with the end of a spatula. When the sausage starts to let off some of its fat, add the onion. Stir occasionally, continuing to break up the sausage into smaller pieces, until the onion is translucent and sausage is mostly cooked through and browned. Add the fennel, roasted peppers, and garlic, stirring to combine. Pour in the sauce (except the reserved cupful) and add the red pepper flakes and fennel seeds. Bring to a simmer, then turn heat down to low. Cover pan. Cook until meat is tender and sauce is somewhat reduced, about 1 hour. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat and allow to come to room temperature.

Combine ricotta and Parmesan in a small bowl and set aside.

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Lightly grease a 9 x 13-inch baking pan. Put a few spoonfuls of the reserved sauce on the bottom of the pan, then cover with a layer of pasta. Spread half of the ricotta mixture over the pasta. Use a slotted spoon to scoop out chunky bits of sausage and vegetables from the sauce and layer these on top of the ricotta. Lightly sprinkle with some of the mozzarella cheese. Top with another layer of pasta, the remaining ricotta cheese, more chunky bits, and a bit more mozzarella. Add the final layer of pasta, a layer of sauce, and the rest of the mozzarella.

Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake in preheated oven for 20 minutes. Uncover and bake an additional 20 minutes until bubbling and browned.

While the lasagna is baking, reheat the rest of the reserved sauce (combined with any leftover sausage/fennel sauce) to use at the table if the lasagna seems dry.

Allow the lasagna to rest about 10 minutes before cutting into servings.

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