Monday, February 16, 2009

Hearty venison lasagna (with fresh ricotta!)

Hearty venison lasagna with fresh ricotta, adapted from The Complete Cooking Light Cookbook
I'm going to a conference next week, and after I get back I have a very busy week full of evening meetings and events. So, I figured that I should prepare now and have things in the freezer ready for just such an occasion. And what freezes better than lasagna? I love lasagna. I like the traditional kinds, and I like the variations that use all kinds of interesting vegetables. You can't go wrong when you put things between layers of noodles (even if your "noodles" are actually sliced vegetables).

But I couldn't allow myself to make lasagna the easy way. I had to give myself a challenge and make my own ricotta. This was prompted by several blogs touting the simplicity of making ricotta. So here we go on another adventure...

Hearty Venison Lasagna (adapted from "The Complete Cooking Light Cookbook")

1 1/4 lb ground venison (or any other lean ground meat)
1 medium onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup parsley, minced and divided
1 can (28 oz.) crushed tomatoes
1 can (14 oz.) whole tomatoes, undrained and chopped
1 can (8 oz.) tomato sauce
1 can (6 oz.) tomato paste
2 tsp dried oregano
2 tsp dried basil
freshly ground black pepper
12 whole wheat lasagna noodles (use brown rice pasta for gluten-free)
3 cups fresh ricotta (see below)
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg
2 cups grated cheese (I used a mixture of cheddar and havarti)

Brown meat in a large pan. Push meat to the sides of the pan, add onions and garlic, and cook until tender (about 5 min). Add 2 Tbsp parsley and next 7 ingredients (through pepper). Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 15 min. Remove cover and cook for 20 more min. While sauce is cooking, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and cook noodles until they're al dente. Drain the noodles and set aside. Combine ricotta, remaining 2 Tbsp parsley, Parmesan, and egg in small bowl. Spread 3/4 cup of tomato sauce in the bottom of a 9x13 pan. Layer 4 noodles, 1/2 of ricotta mixture, 2 1/2 cups sauce, and 2/3 cup cheese. Repeat layers again, and finish with the last 4 noodles and the remaining sauce on top. Cover with foil and cook at 350 for 1 hour. Remove foil, sprinkle with remaining cheese and cook uncovered for 10 more min. Let stand for 10 min before serving. Serves 12.

Fresh Ricotta (from Bitten)

3 quarts milk*
1 tsp salt
4 1/2 Tbsp lemon juice

Combine milk and salt in a large pot and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. Once the milk starts to simmer, stir in the lemon juice and turn heat down to medium-low. Let it sit for 5-10 min, until a large layer of curds forms. Line a large colander with several layers of cheesecloth, and transfer curds to the cheesecloth using a slotted spoon. Let it drain for an hour or so. Makes about 3 cups, and keeps in the refrigerator for a few days.

UPDATE (4/23/09): I found that the cheesecloth isn't necessary - just use a colander with very small holes.

*Ideally you want to use whole milk. I used non-homogenized milk and poured off some of the cream to use later in the week. In effect it was probably more like 2%, and it still had a decent amount of flavor.

Fresh ricotta, adapted from the Bitten blog
Ricotta? Yum. Lasagna? Double yum. This ricotta is infinitely better than what you get at the store. For starters, it doesn't taste like plastic, but instead has a buttery, creamy flavor. And making it resulted in a wonderful milk smell permeating my entire apartment. At one point I thought that Paula Deen had invaded my place with pounds and pounds of creamy butter.

This was definitely the most time consuming lasagna I've ever made, but by far the most amazing. It was totally worth all of the effort (assuming you can spare the time). And now I have a ton of leftovers that should keep me going through the busy times. However, I could probably eat all 12 servings in the next week or so and not get tired of it. I'm going to declare this another successful adventure!

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