2012 September: Lovely Lasagna

Lasagna is a staple in many pizzerias and restaurants across the nation. It rounds out your menu and accompanies your pizza, pasta and salads perfectly. Great lasagna can be a feature on your menu that can truly set you apart from your competitors.It really surprises me how many restaurants serve less than mediocre lasagna with watery or grainy textures, leaving customers highly disappointed, let alone wondering if they even want to come back at all. Get creative with some tantalizing ingredients and let your culinary chops take your restaurant to the next level.

The good news is that it’s actually easier, in my opinion, to assemble great lasagna than it is to put together a bad one. It all starts with quality ingredients. You’ve got to have a great ricotta. Find a firm and smooth ricotta that is not too watery with a grainy texture.
Your lasagna noodles may seem to be less expensive if you’re buying dry lasagna that you’ll need to boil, but I prefer using fresh/frozen pasta sheets. It makes the preparation time and assembling super fast.Remember when you have to take the time to boil lasagna noodles, it costs money and takes longer to assemble, so consider full pasta sheets. The lasagna sheets fit into a two-inch half pan perfectly. You just layer them with your lasagna cheese mixture and marinara. When I make a larger lasagna, I use a two-inch full pan instead of a half pan and simply lay two pasta sheets side by side and assemble it in the same way. I like to use a large ice cream scoop to portion my cheese so it is always consistent.
When I make my Four-Cheese Lasagna, I simply mix my high quality ricotta, mozzarella, provolone and Parmesan, with my raw eggs, garlic, salt, pepper and Italian seasoning. Once that is complete, it’s easy to whip together a pan of lasagna. Since we sell quite a bit of lasagna, we actually make four full size pans at a time which will last three to four days under refrigeration.

Before you cover your pan of lasagna with foil to go into the oven, I put a couple of deli sheets between the sauced lasagna and the foil. This will prevent the acid from the tomato sauce from eating through the alumi- num leaving bits of it on top of your lasagna. I know a little extra iron in the diet can’t hurt, but I’ve never heard that aluminum is a healthy alternative. I bake my lasagna fairly low at 325 F for 45 minutes to an hour, or the inter- nal temperature reaches 165 F.
Another important tip: if you try to serve your lasagna right when it comes out of the oven, it will be very difficult to cut and serve without it kind of fall- ing apart.
This is why I like to let my lasagna cool and set up under refrigeration. Once it’s cool, I cut and portion it, heating four to six pieces at a time. This ensures that I don’t have lasagna sitting on the steam table too long.
If you want to serve lasagna in your restaurant and it’s a slow start, consider reheating each piece to order. If it is very thick, you may want to microwave it in an individual casserole dish for three minutes and then finish it with some marinara, mozzarella cheese and then into the oven for two minutes. As I’ve shared, I make a four-cheese lasagna and then offer meat sauce as an add-on for an extra fee. This alleviates the need to make both a cheese and a meat lasagna.

Now it is time to put on your chef hat and think outside the box. Now that you’ve mastered making great lasagna with the techniques that I’ve shared, it’s time to think about chang- ing things up a bit. Feel free to change out your sauce and even add some dif- ferent ingredients. Here are some great crowd pleasers:
Chicken & Sausage Florentine Lasagna. This is an all white lasagna, meaning it is made with the cheese blend and Alfredo sauce instead of tomato sauce. I place cooked sausage (sliced coin-shaped or crumbled) sautéed spinach and diced or shredded cooked chicken breast in between the layers of the lasagna when I assemble it. When ready to serve each piece, make sure it’s hot and then top it with a little more Alfredo and some of your mozzarella cheese and give it a two- minute bake in the oven.

Eggplant and Roasted Pepper Lasagna. You can layer either some of your breaded fried eggplant or grilled eggplant and colorful roasted peppers in with your lasagna, or you can make a lasagna layering just the eggplant, peppers, sauce and lasagna cheese and leave the pasta out altogether. This is more of a layered eggplant Parmesan but because of having the layers of the ricotta cheese blend, it can be consid- ered a pasta-free eggplant lasagna.

Here’s an outrageous appetizer that I created about 12 years ago: fried lasagna sticks. You’ve got to start with cold baked lasagna. Cut some squares carefully into planks and then the planks into sticks. Lay them out on a sheet pan with parchment paper ensuring that the sticks are close, but not touching and freeze them solid. With the standard breading proce- dure, (flour, egg wash and then bread crumbs) bread them and flash fry them for about 60 seconds. Carefully layer them in a pan with deli paper between each layer. You can keep them frozen until you fry them to order or keep them under refrigeration. They fry fairly quickly. I serve them with a side of marinara and Alfredo sauce. I showed this idea to Olive Garden in their culinary center in Orlando about 15 years ago and they implemented it a few years ago. This is one of my best selling appetizers of all time!

Jeff Freehof owns The Garlic Clove in Evans, Georgia. He is a frequent contributor to PizzaToday and a speaker at the Pizza Expo family of trade shows.