Here’s a recipe development trick: Ask a dish what it’s trying to do, then do the exact opposite. Take something sweet and turn it savory, like salt-and-pepper pear crisp. Or, take something savory and turn it sweet, like roasted potatoes with fish sauce caramel.
In other words, take something familiar and flip it on its head, teach it to do a handstand, even a cartwheel. This is often with respect to flavor, but texture wants to play, too. Maybe you take something tender and turn it crispy. Maybe, I don’t know, lasagna.
Which, if we’re being totally transparent with each other, I never really liked. There, I said it. I never really liked lasagna. (Do you think differently of me now?) I love pasta and tomato sauce, adore meat and cheese. But layer all of these into a casserole and somehow, to me, the whole feels less than the some of its parts. Unless I score a crunchy-edged corner piece, where the tomato sauce is jammy and the noodles, golden-brown, flirting with burnt. If only every slice could be like this…
Surprise! It can. Here’s how: Instead of layering lasagna into a shallow baking dish, layer and bake it in a loaf pan. Slice that into slabs, like quick bread, and pan-sear them. While a typical baking dish hovers around a 2-inch depth, a loaf pan is 50 percent taller. This height will come in handy in just a moment.
But first, let’s talk about the lasagna itself. A lot of people lean toward ricotta: so creamy! And ricotta is creamy—when it’s fresh. When it’s baked, though, it stiffens instead of melts. This is helpful for hack paneer, but less than ideal for ooey-gooey lasagna. So, no ricotta. Some other creamy alternatives: béchamel, which requires a bit of work, or melty cheese, which asks next to nothing of you. To streamline this shindig—that is, get us to lasagna as soon as possible—we’ll go with mozzarella: fresh, whole-milk, preferably not reduced moisture but that will do in a pinch. Add in a tomato-based meat sauce with an Italian sausage personality: caramelized onion and fennel, toasted fennel seeds, ground pork, chili flakes. And no-cook lasagna noodles because they’re on your side.
Layer all these components up, up, up until you have a lasagna loaf. Bake until the layers become inseparable, the top bubbly and browned. Dinner time! you say. Not quite. This is the hardest part: You have to wait. Like, cool at room temperature, then put it in the fridge, then let it completely chill. This could be overnight. Or a day. Or several days.
Say you make lasagna on a Sunday afternoon, a leisurely weekend project. Come Monday night, your train was delayed, you arrive home hungry, almost hangry. Need dinner. Stat. Run a butter knife around the edge of your lasagna loaf to loosen. Flip onto a cutting board with a bang!, a sense of confidence that—you really have to believe this—the lasagna can sense. Slice into thick, circa 1-inch, slabs. Set a skillet—cast-iron and non-stick are great, but any will do—on the stove over medium-high heat. Add a generous layer of oil—olive and canola, the former for flavor and the latter to avoid of any burning. When the fat is shimmery, add the lasagna slabs. They should sizzle. Turn when they’re as charred and crispy as you like—figure about 3 minutes per side.
“That’s so line cook!” one of my co-workers said when I told her about the technique. And indeed, it is. One of the first times I encountered slice-and-fry lasagna was at The Lakewood in Durham, North Carolina, where I used to work. The kitchen would sear lasagna to order on a griddle—a dreamy professional kitchen pickup since you can execute the dish in advance, then turn it into its best self on a moment’s notice.
This sort of efficiency is appreciated at home, too. The most time-consuming steps are accomplished when lasagna-making sounds fun. Then the quickest, final one happens when eating lasagna sounds fun. Melty-centered, cheesy-charred, crispy-edged. Who’s bringing the wine?
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 pound ground pork
- 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
- 1/2 yellow onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 fennel bulb, finely chopped
- Kosher salt
- One (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes
- Crushed red pepper flakes
- Unsalted butter, for greasing
- 1/2 pound no-boil lasagna noodles
- 3/4 to 1 cups finely grated or ground parmesan
- 1/2 pound fresh, whole-milk mozzarella, thinly sliced
- Vegetable (or other neutral-tasting, high smoke point) oil, for frying
- Olive oil, for pan-frying