My friend Jack Collins knows how to throw a dinner party. I always end up feeling stuffed but entertained, the result of eating good food and enjoying an evening of witty, lighthearted company. And I always leave with a sense that I've just participated in something meaningful.
Jack is a painter and teacher by profession, and his artistic sensibilities are evident in everything he does. Creatively, Jack is most at home in abstract painting, a medium of expression that begins with sound artistic principles but breaks the rules just enough to shift the perspective, letting us see life in a new way Â a view that doesn't materialize through a traditional lens.
During the time that I have talked about and eaten food with Jack, I have come to see his personality and his approach to art reflected in his cooking. Jack is living proof that we are what we cook. His menus typically consist of basic or familiar dishes, prepared just differently enough to provide his dinner guests with a new experience.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Jack's version of lasagna is offbeat enough, in both taste and structure, to be interesting. Fennel and a mild bite of jalapeno are discernible in his sugo, a red sauce heavy in meat that is simmered a day early until dark and thick, and then reheated and simmered the day it's to be eaten.
He bakes the layered pasta and cheese separately and ladles the sugo over them on the plate. In this way he focuses attention on the sauce, which would be obscured if it were layered into the dish.
I asked Jack to write down the recipe, knowing full well that he doesn't work from a formula Â for anything. What I got back was very Jack. My favorite part is his instructions for layering the lasagna, in which the words "pasta" and "cheese" appear in an alternating cascade down half a page, suggesting at least five layers. The ingredients for the cheese mixture appear beneath, as something of an afterthought.
I've taken a bit of editorial license by way of translation and rearranged a few things, but this is his recipe to improvise upon as you choose. I know he would be disappointed if anyone followed it to the letter.
1 pound Italian sausage (bulk) with fennel, or use 1 pound bulk sausage and add 1 tablespoon fennel to the sauce
2-3 pounds eye of round roast, chopped into 2-inch squares
1 large onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
24 ounces canned, chopped tomatoes
8 ounces canned tomato sauce
1 finely chopped jalapeno
16 ounces button mushrooms, sliced
3/4 cup dry sherry
1 tablespoon basil
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 tablespoons ground pepper
1 tablespoon salt
4 tablespoons Italian seasoning
16 ounces lasagna noodles, cooked
2 24-ounce cartons cottage cheese
2 8-ounce cartons ricotta cheese
6 cups mozzarella, shredded
1 cup parmesan, shredded
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon pepper
1/2 cup diced parsley
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup grated parmesan
For sugo, saute sausage with onion and garlic in a stew pot until brown. Add fennel if needed, chopped tomatoes, tomato sauce, jalapeno, mushrooms, sherry, basil, bay leaves, salt, pepper and Italian seasoning. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 3 hours, adding water as necessary. Refrigerate overnight.
On the next day, skim fat from chilled sugo. Break up beef chunks into shreds and reheat. Simmer 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Thoroughly mix first four cheeses, eggs, salt, pepper and parsley. Oil the bottom of a large roasting pan with olive oil and spoon a layer of the cheese mixture into the pan. Top it with a layer of lasagna noodles, then another layer of cheese and noodles. Repeat until the cheese mixture and noodles are used up.
Bake covered for 40 minutes.
Cut lasagna into individual servings and spoon sugo over the top. Pass grated parmesan at the table.
Serves 12 very hungry people.
Â When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.