‘Cheater’s lasagna’ consolidates cheese, pasta

The lack of Thanksgiving leftovers a mere three days post-holiday is a first for this turkey lover.

Flying, rather than driving, to spend the holidays with family near San Francisco eliminated any possibility of returning home with edible odds and ends to dispatch in the coming week’s menu. Even if I don’t host the holiday, I can typically count on my mom to foist the turkey carcass off on me, owing to my penchant for making stock and stripping bones, for which she has little patience.

So what to make when only pantry and freezer staples are at hand? “Cheater’s Lasagna” has become one of my favorite methods in the past few months for recasting ravioli that I toss into the freezer whenever it’s on an attractive sale at my locally owned grocer. This includes the Rana brand that comes stuffed with mushrooms, artichoke hearts or prosciutto, in addition to plain cheese.

With the ease of no-boil lasagna noodles, why try to fudge lasagna? Arguably, the hardest part of this dish is the layering of ingredients: sauce, noodles, ricotta, meat, veggies. Repeat. For cooks in a hurry, it’s a bit tedious.

Enter the concept of the ricotta layer already encased in pasta. And the pillows of ravioli filled with cheese bake into an even layer that looks and tastes like a traditional lasagna, observed recipe testers for the Detroit Free Press.

Their recipe, adapted from “Real Simple Meals Made Easy,” features Italian sausage, which I typically have in the freezer. But it’s infinitely adaptable, of course. Use any ground meat, cooked fresh or reprised from leftovers. Diced ham or even pepperoni or salami would be nice, too. Heck, if you’ve still got turkey leftovers, use those, which would pair nicely with a white sauce.

As a vegetarian dish, it easily accommodates sautéed mushrooms, greens or squash. I first tested this recipe at the tail end of the season for garden zucchini as a way to serve up long strips of the veggie in a way that didn’t attract undue attention from my young boys. As I hoped, they gobbled it up.

Enamored of smart shortcuts in the kitchen, my husband, who pulls cooking duty every month at his fire station, was duly impressed. “I’m totally stealing that,” he said. High praise.

Instructions for a quick tomato sauce are something of a bonus with the following recipe. To the Free Press’ method, I’ll had my own, developed from a surplus of tomato paste in my freezer, along with garden tomatoes, which freeze exceptionally well for the purposes of making sauce.

Simply thaw out a quart bag of tomatoes, heat in a saucepan, breaking up with a spoon or wire whisk, then add a few tablespoons of tomato paste from a can, tube or straight from the freezer (I portion mine into ice-cube trays). Season to your liking.

Tribune News Service photo

Cheater’s Lasagna With Italian Sausage

1 jar (24 to 26 ounces) favorite pasta sauce or Quick Tomato Sauce (see NOTE)

2 bags (24 ounces each) frozen large or jumbo cheese ravioli, partially thawed

1 to 1 1/2 pounds sweet Italian sausage, cooked, drained and crumbled

1 package (16 ounces) frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry

8 ounces (2 cups) shredded mozzarella cheese or Italian blend shredded cheese

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Fresh torn basil, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 F. Spoon one-third of pasta sauce into a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Place half the ravioli on top of sauce in a single layer — squeeze them in if necessary. Sprinkle with the cooked sausage, the spinach and half the mozzarella. Layer on remaining ravioli. Top with remaining sauce, remaining mozzarella and Parmesan.

Cover with foil and bake in preheated oven for 20 minutes. Uncover and bake until bubbling, for 5 to 10 minutes more.

NOTE: To make a quick tomato sauce, in a large skillet heat 2 tablespoons olive oil. Sauté 2 peeled and minced garlic cloves for 1 minute. Add 1/4 cup chopped onion and finely chopped carrot if you like. Add 1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes with all their juices. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and stir in some chopped, fresh basil. Keeps in refrigerator for 3 days or frozen for about a month.

Makes 8 servings.

Recipe adapted by the Detroit Free Press from “Real Simple Meals Made Easy” by Renee Schettler (Real Simple Book, $24.95).

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