Award-Winning Lasagna

When it comes to food, my mom and I are exactly alike. We never skip breakfast. We have large recipe collections—a bulging accordion file for me and a closet containing every issue of Gourmet and Bon Appetit since 1997 for her. We like to cook by ourselves. And we love leftovers.

After a dinner party 15 years ago, my mom froze a batch of homemade arugula pesto for future use. A few months later, she made a lasagna with it and added tomato sauce, hot and sweet Italian sausage and a mixture of mild mozzarella, sharp Romano and creamy ricotta.

Just a few weeks after she came up with the recipe, Polly-O announced its “New York Searches for the Perfect Lasagna” contest. My mom entered and, never one for modesty, confidently claimed that she would win. The oversized $5,000 check from Polly-O still hangs in her kitchen today.

When I needed to raise money for a half marathon I ran years ago, friends forked over $40 for an open bar—and a couple slices of her award-winning lasagna. In college, I had a small role in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My mom drove a few hours to see me deliver my lines, and afterward, the whole cast, still in costume, devoured the two lasagnas she brought along with her. Before becoming parents, my husband, Daniel, and I used to throw a Brazilian barbecue every year. Without fail, someone would always ask, “Is your mom bringing her lasagna?”

It took 10 years before I tried to make the lasagna myself. I invited friends over for an impromptu dinner and was still making the arugula pesto when they arrived. When I made it the second time, I did something my mom and I both don’t usually do: I asked for help in the kitchen.

My friend Amanda and I gave the bunches of arugula a good whir in the food processor with a bit of basil, olive oil and pine nuts. Amanda’s husband, Jeff, expertly chopped an assortment of fresh herbs that give the lasagna a bright, fragrant flavor, and Daniel nursed the sausage and sauce. Together we scooped and slathered all the ingredients on top of no-cook noodles, and just about two hours later, we sat down with our sloppy, oozing slices.

It might not be the way my mom makes her lasagna, but for me, this method will have to do.

Arugula Pesto and Sausage Lasagna
Prep time: 1 hour
Cooking time: 50 minutes, plus standing
Makes two 13x9-inch lasagnas with 8 to 10 servings each

1/2 pound each sweet Italian and hot Italian sausage, casing removed and crumbled
1 medium onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, peeled and divided
2 cans (28 ounces each) Italian-style crushed plum tomatoes
1 cup dry red wine
3/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley, divided
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 teaspoon black pepper, divided
1 1/2 cups grated Romano cheese, divided
1/2 cup pine nuts
4 cups arugula leaves
2 cups fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 container (15 ounces) whole milk or part-skim ricotta cheese
2 eggs
1 pound lasagna noodles (18 noodles), cooked and drained (we used no-cook noodles, which worked just fine)
1 pound whole-milk or part-skim mozzarella cheese, shredded

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, brown the sausage; drain. Add onion and 3 minced garlic cloves; cook 1 minute. Stir in tomatoes, wine, 1/4 cup parsley, red pepper, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Simmer over medium heat for 15 minutes. Stir in 1/2 cup Romano cheese.

Place remaining 3 garlic cloves and the pine nuts in a food processor container fitted with a steel blade; cover and process until finely chopped. Add arugula and basil; process until smooth. Slowly add the oil in a thin stream until blended. Add lemon juice and 3/4 cup Romano cheese. Set aside.

Mix ricotta cheese, eggs, remaining 1/2 cup parsley, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Stir in arugula mixture; mix well.

Spread 3/4 cup of the tomato sauce on the bottom of two greased 13x9-inch baking dishes. Layer each dish with 3 lasagna noodles, 2/3 cup ricotta mixture, 1 cup tomato sauce and 2/3 cup mozzarella cheese. Repeat layers twice. Top with remaining Romano cheese.

Bake for 50 minutes. Let stand 15 minutes before serving.

Lia Wiedemann is a writer who loves food and her two little boys. She leads Brooklyn food tours for new moms and shares favorite recipes and restaurants on her blog, This Little Piglet.

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