(Fairly Easy) Lasagna with Meat Sauce

March 15, 2011 § 10 Comments

Sorry for such a delay in posts but I got the creeping cruds a couple of weeks ago that knocked me on my ass. But I’m finally all better now, whew! But enough about me and on to today’s topic. When it comes to lasagna, I often like to take a page out of Sandra Lee’s Semi Homemade  book and use shortcuts. I used to always think, “Why didn’t I just buy Stouffer’s??” when I would make lasagna from scratch. Using homemade bolonese sauce was fine if I had some leftover from a large batch. But making the sauce from scratch and the béchamel sauce and the lasagna, aiyeee!!! But we love lasagna and to help speed up lasagna nights, I keep a few things on hand in the fridge/freezer and pantry for those cravings. Assembly is still required but the time from prep to serving is way quicker.

I keep blocks of mozzarella that I buy in bulk in the freezer, cut into portions needed for pizza and lasagna (it’ll keep for a very long time if sealed in a food saver bag). Of course you can make this even more simpler by shredding the mozzarella before freezing or buy preshredded mozzarella. I like to shred mozzarella from the large blocks if I have time since I find the pre-shredded ones a little too fine and not as creamy. The only thing to keep in mind is to take it out of the freezer and into the fridge the night before or take it out of the freezer with enough time to defrost. If you have a Food Saver, that will make defrosting even faster. I’ve used slightly frozen mozzarella in lasagna before with no problems. Just need to increase the baking time a bit.

I also keep a box of Barilla Oven Ready lasagna on hand. These don’t require boiling prior to assembly although I do like to just rinse each piece under water since it helps cook more evenly. If you’ve never used these before, they are awesome!

When it comes to the meat sauce, I like using a 24-oz jar of Prego Mushroom & Garlic Sauce. You’re saying, “Jar sauce! What???” I know but it works great in this case. We stopped buying prepackaged pasta sauce years ago due to the fat and sugar content in many of the the jar sauces. HOWEVER, I feel there are times where you just gotta go with it. Besides, lasagna is not typically a low-carb diet menu item anyway. Of course you can use whatever jar sauce you want. I’ve tried a lot of different varieties and brands but the mushroom and garlic has been by far the favorite for the lasagna. If you really want to make this fast, you can certainly leave out the béchamel sauce but it is absolutely wonderful with it. The shortcut here if you don’t feel like spending 10 minutes on béchamel sauce, add 2 tablespoons of ricotta cheese to the meat sauce. As for the ground meat, I’ve been using ground bison and/or lean grass-fed/grass-finished ground beef (around 92%). Bison is not very fatty but it works beautifully in this sauce. And full disclosure, we prefer this semi-homemade sauce over the bolognese sauce.

I find that making the meat sauce first and then the béchamel sauce works best since I don’t have to fuss with keeping the béchamel sauce on warm over a double boiler. BTW, the leftover is great and heats up nicely in the microwave.

Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

Serves 6


  • 1 lb lean ground beef (about 92% lean)
  • 1 24-oz jar Prego Mushroom & Garlic Sauce (or any pasta sauce you like)
  • 1 box Barilla Oven Ready (no boil) Lasagna
  • 1/2 cup ricotta cheese
  • ~2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
  • ~2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (for buttering the lasagna pan)
  • Béchamel Sauce (or substitute with 2 tablespoon of ricotta cheese or cream cheese)

 Béchamel Sauce:

  • 3 cups whole milk
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 4 1/2 tablespoons all purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt

For Meat Sauce:

In a heavy bottomed pan, brown the meat on medium heat, breaking up chunks. Add jar sauce to meat and simmer for 10 minutes. Set aside and make the béchamel sauce.

For Béchamel Sauce:

In a saucepan, heat the milk on medium low heat, bringing the milk just to the verge of boiling. A ring of pearly bubbles will form around the edge of the milk when ready.

While the milk is heating, in a heavy bottomed pan, melt the butter on low heat. Once the butter is melted, add the flour, stirring with a wooden spoon or spatula. Cook, while stirring constantly, for about 2 minutes but DO NOT let the flour to become colored (it’ll get pasty tasting if it does). Remove from heat.

Add 2 tablespoons of the hot milk to the flour-butter mixture and stir to thoroughly incorporate the milk. Do this 3 more times (total of 1/2 cup of milk), making sure each addition of milk is fully incorporated before adding more milk. Now you can add the rest of the hot milk, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring to completely incorporate the milk before adding more milk. I like to use a whisk since I find it incorporates the milk faster than a wooden spoon.

Once all the milk has been incorporated, place the pan over low heat, add salt, and cook, stirring constantly until the sauce becomes dense and the consistency of sour cream. Use a whisk to break up any lumps that might have formed. If not using right away, keep warm in a double boiler set on very low. If a film develops on top, just stir it when ready to use.

For Lasagna:

Rinse each piece of the uncooked pasta under cold water and pat dry. Lay flat on a towel.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Thickly smear the bottom of a lasagna pan with the butter. Then smear about 4 tablespoons of  béchamel sauce. It’ll be a very thin layer of  béchamel sauce. If not using béchamel, just skip this step. Line the bottom of the pan with a single layer of pasta strips, edge to edge. Cut strips as needed to cover the bottom of the pan. I don’t overlap the strips.

Combine the meat sauce the remainder of the  béchamel sauce (or the ricotta or cream cheese). Spread just enough of the sauce to cover the first layer of pasta strips. Don’t go too thick. It’s okay if some of the strips show through. Sprinkle a big handful of mozzarella cheese on top of the sauce. Put little dabs of ricotta cheese next. Sprinkle on some Parmesan cheese. Add the second layer of pasta perpendicular to the first layer of pasta. I find this helps keep all the layers together and tighter than if all the pasta strips were laid in exactly the same direction. Repeat the procedure for the meat sauce, mozzarella, ricotta and Parmesan cheese to build up the lasagna. Depending on the size of the lasagna pan, you should have 3-5 layers. Leave enough of the sauce and mozzarella to spread a thin layer over the top-most layer, in that order. If you have leftover parmesan, sprinkle that on top of the mozzarella.

The lasagna can be made ahead of time. Tightly seal with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 2 days. Take the lasagna out of the refrigerator 30-60 minutes before baking.

Place the lasagna pan on a baking sheet (in case it boils over), and bake on the middle rack in the preheated oven for 25-30 minutes. The cheese on top should be completely melted and slightly brown. The edges should bake to a golden crust and you should see some bubbling around the edges. If baking a make-ahead lasagna, I use a butter knife to test the temperature in the middle of the lasagna to make sure it’s heated through completely. I stick the butter knife into the center and hold it there for about 10 seconds. Remove it and feel the knife to see if it’s sufficiently warm. If not, I let it bake for another 10 minutes or so and test again.

Remove from the oven and allow the lasagna to set for 10 minutes. Serve directly from the pan. You can see how well all the layers come together in the picture below. The thin individual layers and the cross-layering of the pasta all neat and beautiful. Also notice how well it comes out of the pan. Don’t forget to serve a nice slice of garlic bread and a nice glass of Chianti with it!


CAB's Steak and Macaroni

February 25, 2011 § 2 Comments

One of my favorite dishes is my mother-in-law’s steak and macaroni. She makes a mean steak and mac. This is my version of her recipe, albeit a few more steps and ingredients have been added. I use the Memphis Dust BBQ sauce since we love it but feel free to use your favorite BBQ sauce or just ketchup. If using just ketchup, bump the amount to 2/3 cup ketchup. This recipe works with slow cookers as well as in a pot on a stove. Your choice. 

Serves 4


  • 1 1/2 lb chuck steak, cubed into 1” pieces
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 large sweet onion, chopped
  • 8 large white mushrooms, sliced
  • 1/3 cup ketchup
  • 1/2 cup Memphis Dust BBQ sauce (recipe below), or substitute with your favorite BBQ sauce or ketchup
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2-3 tablespoons Canola oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 lb elbow macaroni, cooked according to package


Combine flour, salt and ground pepper. Dredge meat in flour, set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Brown meat in batches, adding more oil as needed. Transfer browned meat to slow cooker.

In same skillet, add onions and mushrooms. Cook until brown, turn down heat a bit if needed. Add water slowly to empty skillet, scraping off brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Add water and scrapings to slow cooker. Add ketchup and BBQ sauce to slow cooker. Cook on low for 3 hours or 1-1.5 hours on high, or until meat is tender. If cooking on stove top, simmer in a Dutch oven or heavy bottom pot on low for 1-2 hours, or until the meat is tender. Serve hot over cooked macaroni.

Memphis Dust BBQ Sauce Instructions:

Memphis Dust Rub (makes about 1/2 cup):

  • 4 tablespoons firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger powder
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon rosemary powder

Barbecue Sauce:

  • 1/2 cup Apple Cider Vinegar
  • 1 cup Ketchup
  • 1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce
  • 8 oz Henz tomato sauce, no salt
  • 3 tablespoons Brown Sugar
  • 1 tablespoon Yellow Mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon Salt
  • Dash of Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 cup Memphis Dust Rub mix

Mix all ingredients together and simmer for 15 minutes in a sauce pan. Will keep in the refrigerator for a very long time.

Short Rib Ragu

December 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

Short ribs can take some time to prepare so I don’t make it as often as I like. But when I do have the time, dishes like this one from Bobby Flay makes it worthwhile (you can find the original recipe here). As with many short rib dishes, refrigerating the cooked dish makes removing the fat much easier. Just gently reheat on medium until warmed through before serving. A meaty and hearty dish like this really needs a nice wide pasta to stand up to it, such as pappardella. I used linguine on this night since it’s what I had and works just fine. I substituted the port wine with Marsala wine. Both are fortified wine but you can also use sherry. The other modification I did was to rough blend with an immersion blender to thicken the sauce a bit more but still leaving some chunk of carrots. If you want a thicker sauce but don’t have an immersion blender, you can use a food processor or a blender. If using a blender, make sure you vent the lid if the sauce is hot.

A few notes about the dish. Since the sauce is reduced a couple of times, don’t go crazy on the sauce. What might taste perfectly seasoned in the beginning will taste overly salty by the time the sauce is reduced. If you need to speed up the cooking time, use 375 degrees oven temp which should reduce the cooking time to about 2 hours. I don’t think the ribs is as tender but is still very good. Also since these are short ribs, there will be some larger pieces of tendons leftover after shredding. The Mister doesn’t like the tendons so more for me! If you don’t mind tendons but don’t like the larger pieces, just slice them into more bite size pieces and mix in. Delicious!

This recipe  makes plenty for 4 hungry adults.

Adapted from Bobby Flay


  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 3 1/2 to 4 pounds short ribs, each about 2-inches long, cut flanken style, across the ribs
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 dried bay leaf
  • 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • 5 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 4 small carrots, diced
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 medium shallots, diced
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup Marsala wine 
  • 2 cups red wine, such as cabernet
  • 1/2 head garlic (about 6 cloves), cloves separated and peeled
  • 3 1/2 cups beef stock, low sodium if possible 
  • 1 pound pappardelle or other long, flat pasta
  • Chopped parsley
  • Grated Pecorino Romano, for garnish (Parmesan reggiano can be used too)


Heat oven to 325 degrees F.

Place a 5-quart casserole or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add oil, and heat until it is almost smoking. Season short ribs generously with salt and pepper. Working in batches if necessary, add short ribs to the hot oil. Cook ribs until browned on both sides. Remove ribs from casserole, and transfer to a large bowl. Set aside.

Meanwhile, prepare bouquet garni: Place bay leaf, rosemary, thyme, and parsley in the center of a square of cheesecloth. Bring edges together, and tie with kitchen string. Set bouquet garni aside. If you don’t have cheese cloth, you can tie everything together with kitchen twine but be warned that the herb leaves will fall off into the sauce.

Add carrots, celery, onion, and shallots to oil in the Dutch oven and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened and golden, about 10 minutes.

Add flour and tomato paste to the casserole, and stir to combine. Add Marsala wine; stir with wooden spoon until all browned bits have been scraped from the pan and the bottom of the casserole is clean. Add red wine, and simmer until the liquid is reduced by half. Add garlic, beef stock and the reserved bouquet garni.

Return browned ribs to the casserole. Bring the liquid to a simmer over medium-high heat. Cover the casserole and place it in the oven. Cook until ribs are very tender, about 3 hours.

Remove the cooked ribs from the casserole. Set the casserole on the stove top over medium heat, and simmer to thicken sauce just slightly. As soon as the short ribs are cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bones, and shred into small pieces. Degrease the sauce and discard the bouquet garni. Return shredded meat to casserole, and simmer to reduce sauce by about half.

Cook pasta according to package until pasta is al dente. Drain pasta, and serve with short rib ragu, sprinkle with the parsley and freshly grated Percorino Romano.

Shrimp Fra Diavolo

December 5, 2010 § 2 Comments

Hey you. Yeah you. I want to tell you about our new favorite pasta dish, Shrimp Fra Diavolo. (cheers, clapping, standing ovation!) Yes, my cyber friends, this dish deserves a standing ovation in my book. But when it’s the Rao-Pellegrino family’s recipe (of the famous Rao’s Restaurant), how could it be anything else but, right? So for the rest of this post, I want you to read it using your best “Good Guys” accent. Or for the girls, using your best Nadia G accent, eh! (Nadia, you are bitchin’!)

For most people, getting a table at the original Rao’s in NY is as likely as “getting made”. I think we’d have better odds at winning the lottery. So it’s either going to Rao’s in Las Vegas or ordering from Rao’s online, right? Fa-get about it because you can have Rao’s famous Shrimp Fra Diavolo right in your own kitchen! Actually, you can get all the recipes from Rao’s cookbooks (Rao’s Cookbook and Rao’s Recipes).

Fra diavolo means “Brother Devil” in Italian. I believe it was Mario Batalli who said fra diavolo is actually an American-Italian dish. Sometimes fra diavolo has been referred to as arrabbiata sauce (meaning angry sauce) but there is a difference between the two. Arrabbiatta sauce is tomatoes, garlic and red chili cooked in olive oil. Fra diavolo is a spicy sauce for pasta or seafood, which could be tomato-based or not. So I guess you can say that arrabbiatta sauce is a type of fra diavolo, you get my meaning?

I modified a couple of things from the original recipe (hope I don’t get no dead fish in a box) but I think Frank Pellegrino would forgive me since it’s still made with love. The original recipe calls for dredging the shrimp before cooking. Personally, I prefer it non-dredged. Your choice. I also made a modification to the garlic, which I would recommend to garlic lovers. And what Italian dish loving person don’t love garlic? Here’s my version of Rao’s Shrimp Fra Diavolo served with linguine (optional).

Note: Maybe some of you eagle eyes noticed that there is calamari in the photo. You be right. I would have added clams and mussels too if my local Henry’s would have had them like their ad said they would. Maybe the delivery guy was swimming with the fishes, OH! (oh you know I had to add that saying in somewhere). If you like calamari in your dish too, slice cleaned calamari (about 2 medium sized per person) into 1/2 inch rings and add them at the very end with the cooked pasta and shrimp. Calamari only needs a few minutes to cook or else you risk serving tough squid. Serving tough squid could make you find yourself next to the Henry’s delivery guy comparing who’s got the bigger concrete shoes. Just tell him it was custom made just for you.

If you want to add clams or mussels, reserve the olive oil from the cooked shrimp and use that to cook the clams and mussels until they open. Set those aside with the shrimp and then add it back in along with the cooked shrimp and pasta at the end, making sure everything is heated through. Make sure your saute pan is large enough to hold everything. You may also want to cut back the amount of shrimp to 1 pound, depending on how much clams and mussels you use.

Adapted from Rao’s Shrimp Fra Diavolo

Serves 4


  • 2 pounds large shrimp, peeled and de-veined, butterflied, tails removed (patted dry if dredging)
  • 1 1/2 cup all purpose flour (if dredging)
  • 1/2 cup fine-quality olive oil
  • 6 small garlic cloves, peeled and cut into chunks, divided
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
  • Dried red-pepper flakes to taste (1/2 teaspoon)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 (28-oz can) canned imported San Marzano Italian plum tomatoes, hand-crushed
  • 8 fresh basil leaves, torn
  • 1 lb. linguine (optional)


If serving with linguine, bring a large pot of water to boil. Salt the boiling water and cook pasta until just al dente. The pasta will be finished off in the sauce. Prepare the sauce while the pasta is cooking.

(If dredging, dredge shrimp in flour, making sure all sides are well coated. Pat to remove excess flour.)

Heat oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. When oil is very hot, but not smoking, add shrimp and 1/2 of the garlic, saute for 2 minutes. (Do not crowd pan; prepare shrimp in batches, if necessary.) Remove shrimp and set aside. Drain off all excess oil and discard garlic.

While pan is off heat, pour in wine. Return pan to medium-high heat. Add oregano, pepper flakes, remaining 1/2 of garlic, salt and ground black pepper. Bring to a boil and cook for 3 minutes. I left in the garlic so it can cook in the wine bath. It takes the pungency out of the garlic, gets all soft and very very tasty.

Stir in tomatoes and cook for 15 minutes or until sauce has thickened slightly. Stir in basil and shrimp and cook for 2 minutes. If adding calamari, clams, mussels and/or linguine, do it now. Serve it up with a few more sprinkling of torn fresh basil on top.

Buon appetito!

Rachael's Cauliflower Mac N Cheese

November 15, 2010 § 2 Comments

I don’t watch Rachael Ray’s cooking shows very often but recently, I caught her new show on the Cooking Channel which featured a Cauliflower Mac N Cheese dish that looked promising (recipe here). I loved her method of steaming the cauliflower whole in chicken stock. I was actually thinking this would be a great Thanksgiving side dish and another way to serve cauliflower. Rachael said this recipe can be made in 1 pot. Sure you can do everything in one pot if you want to cook everything in series but 2 pots really is the better way to go.  

This recipe calls for Gruyere cheese, which is kind of expensive if you’re on a budget. Also freshly grated Parmigiano cheese is better than the Parmesan cheese from the container. The recipe doesn’t state how much 1 cup of shredded cheese is in weight so I approximated it in the recipe below. I played around with the various cheese a bit and decided to add one more kind of cheese that I really like, Fontina. I thought the flavor of Fontina would go well with Gruyere. Some of the milder version (such as Danish) of Fontina can taste a bit like Gruyere and is often a bit cheaper than Gruyere. So maybe even a good substitute if the Gruyere is expensive in your region. Fontina tends to melt smooth, too, btw.

I increased the amount of cheese from the original recipe but then I like my mac-n-cheese on the cheesy side. Lots and lots of cheese. Feel free to cut back a bit to taste. If you have a Dutch oven or a oven-proof pot, you can use that instead of a baking dish, which is what I did. You’ll need about a 5-quart Dutch oven or pot to hold everything. You can also use regular pasta if you don’t like whole wheat pasta. I used whole wheat penne and neither of us could tell that it was whole wheat. Tasted great and I think it added a little of a nutty flavor to the whole dish. Just remember to undercook the pasta by 2 minutes from the package instructions since it will finish off in the oven.

A note about sage. If you are using dried sage, use 1-2 teaspoon and add it to the pot with the garlic and onions so that the dried leaves can reconstitute a bit and bring out the flavor. Of course if you can get fresh, all the better.

This recipe could easily feed the two of use 3x as a main dish. It is very filling and rich so doesn’t take much. I put the leftovers in individual ramekins and froze them. This dish freezes really well and to reheat. Defrost at room temperature and pop it in the oven (make sure the dish is freezer-to-oven safe) at 400 degrees F for 40 minutes or so until heated through. For a quicker method, it can go into the microwave frozen, heat for about 3-4 minutes on high, then pop it into the oven for about 15 minutes to crisp up the top. Also note that this recipe is a great make-ahead meal (noted below).

Adapted from Rachael Ray


  • Salt (for boiling the pasta)
  • 1 pound short cut pasta (recommended: macaroni, ziti or penne rigate or, whole wheat or whole grain pasta)
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large head cauliflower
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • About 2 1/2 cups whole milk
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Freshly grated nutmeg
  • 3 sprigs fresh sage leaves, very thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 cup shredded sharp white Cheddar cheese, about 4 oz
  • 1 cup shredded Gruyere cheese, about 4 oz
  • 1 cup shredded Parmigiano cheese, about 4 oz
  • 1 cup shredded Fontina cheese, about 3 oz
  • 1 small bundle watercress, washed and chopped


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (skip this step if making this as a make-ahead meal).

Bring water to a boil for pasta. Salt the water and undercook the pasta by 2 minutes from the instructions on the package. Drain and set aside.

While the water comes to a boil, in a covered Dutch oven or oven-proof pot, heat extra-virgin olive oil over medium to medium-high heat. If using the Dutch oven or pot for baking, make sure the pot can hold at least 5 quarts. Cut the core away from the cauliflower and set the head into the pot and add no more than 1 cup stock, cover and steam 12 to 15 minutes until tender. Remove and separate the cauliflower into florets. Discard liquid from pot.

Over medium heat in the same pot, melt the butter, then add onions and garlic. Also add dried sage if using. Saute for 3 to 4 minutes until tender. Add flour and whisk for 1 minute. It will be very thick. Slowly add in the milk while whisking. Season with salt, pepper, nutmeg, and fresh sage (if using). When thickened, about 3-5 minutes, stir in the Dijon mustard and 2/3 of the combined cheeses. Stir to combine everything.

Add pasta and cauliflower to the cheese sauce, top with remaining cheese. If using a baking dish, pour mixture into baking a buttered baking dish. If making this as a make-ahead meal, cool completely and cover, refrigerate or freeze until ready to eat.

Bake in a preheated 400 degree F oven until brown. Use a baking sheet under the Dutch oven or baking dish to catch the bubble-over, about 40 to 45 minutes.

This shot was about 30 minutes in the oven. Still not quite brown on the top but you can see all the rich cheesy goodness. I was a little surprised that it wasn’t as creamy as it looked but the flavor was definitely not something you’d get from a box. Kind of a grown-up mac-n-cheese if you will. And best part is that you get a good serving of veggie in it too. We enjoyed the flavor of the cauliflower as part of the dish but if you don’t like cauliflower, you might not like this. Of course you could just leave out the cauliflower altogether.

Hope everyone has a fantastic week!

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