~ Crockpot Lasagna - I made it, it works & it's good! ~
Proving I am not a food snob isn't always easy because on many levels I am. I believe in cooking with real butter, real cream, real cheese and real eggs. I believe in a diet that consists of meat, poultry, fish and seafood balanced with potatoes, pasta, rice and grains, and, vegetables galore. Every bite of every thing, in moderation, should be worth every calulated calorie. I want it cooked properly by the best method available, whether that be low and slow or fast and furious using moist or dry heat, and, I want it to emerge as pretty as a picture too.
My overall opinion about food cooked in the crockpot is snobbish (definition: just short of being complete snobbery), meaning: for the most part, food cooked by any conventional method is almost always the better alternative to food cooked in a slow cooker. An oven is an oven, a skillet is a skillet, and a crockpot is not a substitute for either. I am not alone in this mindset. Aside from foods that benefit from lengthy slow simmering, like chili, most stews and a pot roast (which must be seared on the stovetop first), my personal feelings are to avoid the crockpot.
The times, they are a changing:
That said, I'm not trying to work two jobs and serve home-cooked meals to a family in today's economy. Working moms and dads who are skipping the drive-through and cooking at home need to be commended for each and every meal they bring to the family dinner table by whatever means they used to cook it, which is why when I received this "cry for help" from a reader, I decided to spend this quiet afternoon trouble-shooting a crockpot recipe for her.
These folks need to be celebrated, not criticized:
Background: Donna and her husband Seth both work as EMT's and are raising three children. Both parents rely on the crockpot to cook their family's meals several times a week. Until I received this e-mail, the thought of making lasagna in a crockpot not only never occurred to me, I had never even heard of it. I have only considered lasagna to be an oven-baked casserole.
Q. Donna says and asks: "Seth makes chili, and bean soup too. He made your recipe for Crockpot Chile and we loved it. My youngest son even ate the sweet potatoes. I make a couple of chicken dishes, meatballs and BBQ'd ribs. My children love lasagna (I buy the boxed, frozen kind), so, I tried this recipe for crockpot lasagna (Donna included the recipe and the website - I'll post neither.). The noodles were gummy and the ricotta mixture was bland and runny. It looked nothing like the photo. I would love a crockpot lasagna recipe that works -- do you have one?
A. Kitchen Encounters: Donna, so happy that you and yours liked my recipe for ~ A Scrumptious, Slow-Cooked, Sweet Potato and Ground Beef Chili ~ (recipe can be found in Categories 2, 3, 13, 19, or 20). I do not have a recipe for crockpot lasagna, but after looking at the one you included, I'm sure I can make it work, starting with three important changes: do not use no-boil noodles, simmer the tomato sauce w/the meat mixture (it should be meat sauce, not meat and sauce), and, the ricotta mixture will need egg and spices added to it. I do not consider the website you used a reputable one. They are well-known and share all sorts of recipes, but much of what they share, in my opinion, is poorly-written and untested.
Imagine if you will, crockpot lasagna that has heart & soul:
For the meat mixture:
2-2 1/2 pounds 90% lean ground beef
1 generous cup diced yellow or sweet onion
3 1/2 cups marinara sauce, preferably homemade, or your favorite brand (28 ounces)
2 cups whole milk ricotta cheese
1 1/2 cups each: grated mozzarella and provolone cheese
6 tablespoons finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 extra-large egg, preferably at room temperature
1 tablespoon dried parsley flakes*
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
* Note: Feel free to substitute 2 tablespoons of fresh, minced parsley for dried. I chose to write the recipe using dried because "in the spirit of things" this is a very busy family, and, I wanted to come up with a tasty end result using on-hand pantry items.
~ Step 1. In a 3 1/2-quart chef's pan place the ground beef. Dice the onion, adding it to the pan as you work. Over medium-high heat, saute, stirring frequently, using a spatula to break the meat up into small bits and pieces, about 15-20 minutes, or until almost no liquid remains in the bottom of the pan.
~ Step 2. Add all of the marinara to the pan. Adjust heat to a gentle simmer and continue to simmer, 15-20 additional minutes. Remove from heat and set aside. Note: You will have about 6 cups of a basic but very tasty meat sauce which can be used to sauce pasta too.
In a large bowl, using a fork, whisk the egg. Add the ricotta, remaining mozzarella & provolone, 1/4 cup of Parmesan, and, the spices. Using a large spoon thoroughly combine.
~Step 4. To assemble the first layer of the lasagna: In the bottom of a 6-quart crockpot, using a large spoon, evenly distribute 2 cups of the meat sauce. On top of the sauce, place 3 lasagna "noodles", breaking the corners of two of them to fit the shape of the crockpot. Spoon and spread1/2 of the ricotta mixture (about 1 1/2 cups) evenly over the top of the noodles. Add about 2 more cups of the sauce, and distribute it over the ricotta mixture.
~Step 5. To assemble the second lasagna layer: Break and place 5 more lasagna "noodles", in the opposite direction of the first layer, over the top of the sauce. Spoon and spread the remaining half of the ricotta mixture over the noodles, followed by the last two cups of the meat sauce. Finish with 3 more lasagna noodles, facing the same direction as the first layer, again, breaking the corners of two of them to fit the shape of the crockpot. Place the lid on the pot.
~ Step 6. Cook on low for 4 hours. After 3 hours, Uncover and sprinkle with the remaining 1 cup of mozzarella and provolone cheeses, followed by the remaining 2 tablespoons of the Parmesan. If you want to sprinkle a bit of Italian seasoning blend and/or red pepper flakes over all, do it now.
Cover the crockpot and allow the mixture to cook for 1 more hour prior to slicing and serving.
After three hours of cooking, lasagne will look like this:
Freezing Instructions: Remove crock from crockpot. Cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate uncut lasagna overnight. Remove from refrigerator. Uncover and slice into perfect portions. Wrap each portion in plastic wrap, place them all together in a ziplock bag and freeze. Remove all or one-at-a-time, thaw and reheat in microwave. How convenient is that!
Tip from Mel: I'm not going to lie, if you have the time to make this lasagna a day ahead and refrigerate it uncut, then slice it and reheat each portion atop a puddle of extra marinara sauce, do it. Not only does it look picture perfect, it tastes even better than on day one!
Special Equipment List: cutting board; chef's knife; 3 1/2-quart chef's pan; spatula; large spoon; 6-quart crockpot
Cook's Note: If you'd like to make a somewhat similar version of this recipe conventionally in the oven, click into Categories 3, 12, 14, 19, 20 or 22 for ~ Jesse's E-Z Spatini Lasagna (& Mrs. DiCindio) ~. Yes, of course it is more work than making it in the crockpot (everything is), but, it makes two -- eat one, freeze one, be happy!
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014)