The first rain was this week, so I’m declaring it open season for Fall foods even if it does shoot back up to 90 soon after.

It’s the perfect time for lasagna, not only because it’s finally possible to run the oven for an hour but because lasagna is a great food for the busy season: you can make it ahead and pop it in the oven on a timer, you can freeze it baked or unbaked, it reheats beautifully and makes a grand desk-lunch later in the week.

It’s also the most flexible of foods, easy (and very satisfying) to make vegetarian and accommodating for most allergies. It’s a good place to use up leftovers as well. Here are guidelines and suggestions, a base recipe, and a few building block recipes to get you started.


Most of us grew up with boxed dried noodles that had to be cooked before the lasagna was built. That’s a lot of trouble for a fairly plain result. If you go that route, be sure your cooking water is very well salted.

Other noodle choices: cooked sliced polenta, fresh pasta sheets (homemade or from the store), no-boil noodles, cooked small pasta shapes like macaroni (this makes a different, but delicious, kind of lasagna), and all manner of squash or root vegetables shaved thin.

The amount of noodles you need is based on the area of your pan — for this recipe, you need enough noodles to make three layers. You’ll probably need to trim noodles to make the noodles fit the pan. I try to use the trimmings in one of the middle layers so as not to waste them.


Lasagna needs plenty of sauce. If you’re using no-boil dry noodles or fresh pasta sheets, you’ll want a bit extra to be sure you coat every inch of noodle.

When I want to make a really luxurious lasagna, I’ll make two sauces, usually a béchamel and a tomato sauce. Canned pumpkin makes an excellent lasagna sauce. I’ve been known to use it straight out of the can, thinned with a little water to the consistency of heavy cream, but it does benefit from a quick cook in a pot with some sautéed garlic and dried thyme.

Homemade or packaged alfredo sauce is nice, as is a pesto layer. A proper Bolognese sauce is delicious, but not very moist, so you’ll want an extra sauce.


You will need Parmesan or a similar granna. Please don’t buy it already grated, because it will be dry and have that peculiar undertone of ick. The best tool for grating Parm is a rasp-style grater like a Microplane.

Ricotta is also essential. Belfiori from Berkeley is my favorite, but any good brand will do. I usually stir freshly grated Parm into the ricotta along with some minced garlic to ensure even seasoning. If I’m making a veggie lasagna, I will often stir in an egg. Some people like cottage cheese rather than ricotta.

I always include mozzarella, fresh, aged or both. Fresh mozzarella is soft and tender, and comes in several shapes. If you buy the big balls of it, you’ll need to slice them into thin rounds. Smaller “pearls” can just be dotted into the layers. Aged or dry mozzarella should be grated. I avoid the pre-grated mozzarella because it’s very dry, and coated with starch that makes it less melty.


I most often make a veggie lasagna, because I feel like three or four kinds of cheese is more than enough protein. This is a place where veggie sausage can work really well, provided it’s well seasoned.

If you want actual meat, almost any cooked meat can be used — ground beef, sausage, or nicely chopped leftover roasted or braised meat will all work well.


A nice layer of sautéed mushrooms is lovely in lasagna. Cooked greens are also grand, provided you makes sure they aren’t too watery. Sliced or chopped black olives and cooked sweet peppers are frequently layered in with good success.

Be cautious when using summer squash, eggplants or fresh or stewed tomatoes; all should be well seasoned and not too wet to avoid creating a mushy layer.

— Along the way I ended up writing quite a lot of material, which I’m starting to collect on a website, Stop by and see what you can find! As always, you can reach me at

Choose Your Own Adventure Lasagna

This recipe fills a deep 13-by-9 pan. If you don’t need lasagna for a crowd or leftovers for the week, you can reduce the recipe and make a smaller pan. Or make the full recipe, but build it in 3 loaf pans and freeze two of them. (I use loaf pans from the Dollar Store or thrift store, or disposables as a last resort, so I can give them away at need.)

Frozen lasagna will take about two hours if you go straight from freezer to a 350-degree oven — do temp it with an instant read thermometer and make sure the center hits 165 degrees. Freezing tends to dull garlic and onion flavors, so you may want to amp them up a little.


1 onion, chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano
6-8 cups of sauce
4 cups fresh ricotta
2 cloves garlic or to taste, minced
(1 egg)
1 cup (3-4 ounces) finely grated Parmesan
1 pound grated mozzarella or sliced fresh mozzarella
4 layers of lasagna noodles
6 cups any combination cooked meat or vegetables

Putting it together:

Oil a 13-by-9-inch baking pan.

Chop onion and cook with a little oil until tender. Add salt and oregano and set aside.

Stir garlic and egg, if using, into ricotta along with half-cup Parm.

Spread 1½ cups of sauce in the bottom of pan (tomato or pumpkin is best for this layer.)

Top with one layer of noodles. Top noodles with 1/3 each of ricotta mixture, cooked onions, mozzarella and cooked meat or vegetables, in that order. Cover with 1 cup of sauce.

Repeat twice more, ending with a layer of noodles. Cover with remaining sauce and top with remaining Parm.

Cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees until bubbling and nice, about 1 hour. Let stand 15 minutes before serving.

Polenta in the Instant Pot


4 cups cold water
1 cup polenta
½ teaspoon salt

Putting it together:

Grease a loaf pan, even if it’s nonstick.

Set pot to Sauté and bring water and salt to a boil; stir in polenta. Turn off Sauté, put on lid and set manually for seven minutes at high pressure. When time is up TURN OFF POT and time manually for 15 minutes. Release pressure, remove lid and stir to combine. Pour into loaf pan and refrigerate overnight or up to three days. Slice loaf of cold polenta very thinly to make a nice substitute for lasagna noodles.

Fresh Pasta Sheets

Fresh pasta sheets can be layered into lasagna without cooking, but use an extra cup of sauce in your recipe.


1 cup all purpose flour
1 egg
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoon water

Putting it together:

Put the flour in a large bowl and stir in the salt. Break the egg and mix it with 1 tablespoon of water, stirring until well combined. Heap the flour into a mountain, make a well in the middle of the flour and pour the egg into it.

Using the tips of your fingers, pinch the egg into the flour until well combined, then knead until a smooth dough forms, adding up to one additional tablespoon of flour if needed. This process should take about 10 minutes, so be patient! When dough is smooth and nice, cover and let stand 15 minutes.

If you have a pasta machine, follow directions for putting dough through rollers, stopping on the next to last thickness. Cut pasta into strips that will fit your lasagna pan.

If you don’t have a pasta machine, divide dough into three pieces and work with one at a time, keeping the others covered. Flour a counter lightly. Shape dough into a neat rectangle. Use a rolling pin to roll it out, turning and flouring as needed, until you have a very thin sheet of pasta, about the thickness of the blade of a butter knife. Cut into strips that will fit your lasagna pan.

Quick Spicy Tomato Sauce

Makes 3 cups.


1 teaspoon crushed garlic
1 teaspoon oil
1 teaspoon each oregano, thyme, red pepper
1 28-ounce can fire roasted diced tomatoes
Salt and pepper to taste

Putting it together:

Heat oil in heavy skillet and add herbs and garlic. Stir 1 minute. Add tomatoes and cook over medium heat about 10 minutes. Let cool slightly and run through blender or hit with stick blender. Taste and adjust seasoning.


Makes 3 cups

Putting it together:

6 tablespoons butter or oil
5 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoons salt
3 cup milk

Putting it together:

In a heavy saucepan, melt the butter. Add the flour and salt, mixing well, and cook over low heat for one minute. Pour in the milk in a thin steady stream, stirring the whole time, and mix carefully to get any lumps out. Cook over low heat until thick, stirring occasionally. Be gentle – do not whisk or beat. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise

Published online on September 17, 2019 | Printed in the September 18, 2019 edition on page A7