I've already gotten a few personal emails wondering what I am going to make for my own Christmas dinner this year. Usually, it is a big hunk of roast beef, but this year, I need to keep to down to a dull roar with lots of make-ahead dishes. Lasagna has got to be the All-Time Classic Make-Ahead Dish. I've been making this one with both red and white sauces and a light chicken-spinach filling for years. In fact, it gave me one of my first moments of pride as a young chef when I served it at a catered dinner for one of my university professors. He told me, "This is the best lasagna I've had since I left Rome...and I am not kidding!" You just might agree--whether or not you've been to Rome! (Photo by Ben Fink.)
Red and Green Lasagna
Makes 12 servings
Make Ahead: The lasagna can be prepared 1 day before baking.
With a more delicate flavor than the typical beefy lasagna, this delicious chicken- and- spinach-filled version is especially welcome at holiday time, where its green and red ingredients tie into the season’s colors. In addition to tomato sauce, it also has a creamy white sauce that gives the dish northern Italian flair. Yes, it is a bit more complicated than other lasagnas, but the results are hard to beat.
•Some cooks like to make and freeze lasagna 2 or 3 weeks before baking. The last time I cooked a frozen batch of this dense lasagna, it took 2 1/2 hours to cook through! In my opinion, the convenience of freezing isn’t worth the lengthy baking time. (Of course, you could defrost the lasagna first.) I [refer to make and freeze the the tomato sauce, chicken, and stock for up to 1 month. When I am ready to make the lasagna, I defrost them, make the filling and white sauce, and assemble.
•This lasagna is sublime with fresh pasta. If you have a pasta shop nearby, buy 1 pound fresh lasagna noodles. Cut the pasta into lengths to fit the dish. As you assemble the lasagna, boil the pasta as needed in batches in a large pot of lightly salted water over high heat until they are barely al dente and supple, about 3 minutes. Using a large skimmer, transfer the pasta to a colander, and rinse briefly under cold water to stop the cooking. Spread the kitchen towels and pat the tops dry with another towel. Working with one layer of lasagna noodles at a time keeps them from taking over your kitchen counter.
Chicken and Broth
One 3 1/2-pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium celery rib with leaves, chopped
1 medium carrot, chopped
2 sprigs fresh parsley
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
One 28-ounce can tomatoes in juice, chopped, juices reserved
One 6-ounce can tomato paste
1 1/2 teaspoons dried basil
1 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon crushed hot red pepper
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Two 10-ounce packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 cups ricotta cheese
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 large eggs, beaten
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound dried lasagna noodles
3 cups shredded mozzarella cheese (12 ounces)
1. To prepare the chicken and broth, place the chicken, onion, celery, and carrot in a large pot and add enough cold water to barely cover the chicken (about 2 quarts). Bring to a boil over high heat., skimming off the foam that rises to the surface. Add the parsley, thyme, and bay leaf. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and cover tightly. Let stand for 30 minutes to allow the chicken to cook through.
2. Strain through a colander over a large bowl, reserving the chicken broth. Cool the chicken until easy to handle. Discard the skin and bones, coarsely chop the meat, and set aside. (The chicken and broth can be made 1 day ahead, separately cooled, covered and refrigerated, or frozen for up to 1 month.)
3. To make the tomato sauce, heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Stir in the tomatoes with their juices, tomato paste, 1 1/2 cups of the reserved chicken broth, basil, oregano, and red pepper, and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the tomato paste. Reduce the heat to low. Simmer, uncovered, until thickened and reduced to about 6 cups, about 40 minutes. (The tomato sauce can be made 1 day ahead, cooled, covered, and refrigerated, or frozen for up to 1 month.)
3. To make the white sauce, in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Whisk in the flour and let bubble, without browning, for 2 minutes. Whisk in 3 1/2 cups of the reserved broth and bring to a simmer. (Reserve the remaining broth for another use.) Cook, stirring often, until thick, about 3 minutes. Stir in the heavy cream and season with the salt and pepper. Transfer to a medium bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing the wrap directly on the surface of the sauce, and pierce a few holes in the wrap to allow the steam to escape (this prevents a skin from forming on the surface of the sauce). Set aside.
4. To make the filling, put the spinach in a wire sieve. A handful at a time, squeeze the moisture out of the spinach, and transfer the spinach to a large bowl.
5. In a small bowl, mix the bread crumbs and heavy cream and let stand until softened, about 5 minutes. Scrape into the bowl with the spinach. Add the chopped chicken, ricotta and Parmesan cheeses, eggs, parsley, nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Set aside.
6. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. One a time, stir the pasta into the water. Cover and bring the water back to a boil. Immediately uncover the pot, and cook the pasta until barely tender, about 7 minutes for dried. (The pasta will cook further in the oven, so it should still have some “bite” to its texture.) Drain and rinse under cold running water. Shake the colander well to remove excess water. (If not using immediately, toss the pasta with 1 tablespoon olive oil and set aside in the colander for up to 1 hour.)
7. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350°F. Lightly oil a 15 X 10-inch baking dish.
8. Spread about 1/2 cup of the tomato sauce on the bottom of the dish. Arrange 5 lasagna noodles (4 horizontally and 1 vertically), slightly overlapping and cut to fit, in the dish. Spoon one-third of the tomato sauce over the noodles. Scatter half of the chicken-spinach filling over the noodles, then spread half of the white sauce on top, and sprinkle with 1 cup of mozzarella. Arrange another 5 noodles in the dish. Top with half of the remaining tomato sauce, then the remaining filling, remaining white sauce, and 1 cup of mozzarella. Arrange a final layer of noodles, spread with the remaining tomato sauce, and sprinkle with the remaining mozzarella. Cover the lasagna tightly with aluminum foil. (The lasagna can be prepared up to 1 day ahead, covered tightly and refrigerated.)
9. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking until the sauce is bubbling throughout, or about 30 minutes more. Let the lasagna stand for 10 minutes before serving.