Culinary adventures: Too hot to turn on the oven? Slowcooker rescues dinner
During the last few months I have found myself in an unusual situation: I have no kitchen.
A remodeling project has taken my oven and stove and for someone who spends most of her life in the kitchen it has been challenging.
I feel like I am preparing family meals in a college dorm room. Our meals are prepared using various appliances including a hot pot, my mom's old electric skillet (in harvest gold, of course), toaster, microwave and the grill. This situation has forced me to test my creativity and think of appliances in ways I hadn't before.
In the midst of this, I found myself craving my family's quintessential comfort food, homemade lasagna, but wasn't sure how I would bake my creation. Then I remembered the slow cooker.
I have used my slow cooker to make pulled pork, roast chicken, casseroles, and even breakfast oatmeal, but had never considered it as both a vessel and moist oven that would make the perfect lasagna. As an extra bonus, with no oven heating up the house this became the perfect meal for a hot summer day.
Thanks to some Internet research I found recipe inspiration and garnered tips like combining meat with the cheeses, not the sauce. Keeping the sauce as its own layer ensures there's adequate moisture to cook the noodles.
Some people enjoy ground beef or even vegetarian versions but in my family we like the flavor of Italian sausage in our lasagna, so I started by sautéing onions and garlic with bulk Italian sausage, allowing the mixture to cool slightly before combining it with ricotta, parmesan and mozzarella cheeses and herbs. An egg helps hold everything together. For convenience I used our favorite prepared marinara sauce, and uncooked lasagna noodles, the no-boil variety.
Start by giving your slow cooker a good coating of cooking spray for easy clean up. For my 7-quart slow cooker I add 1½ cups of sauce followed by a quarter pound of uncooked noodles. Since my slow cooker is oval I broke the noodles into pieces and overlapped them a bit to form a complete layer before topping them with more sauce. Next came the ricotta cheese layer, topped with more mozzarella, and then followed by more sauce. My slow cooker provides less surface area than a traditional lasagna pan, so I stacked the ingredients in four layers instead of the usual three, finishing with a final layer of noodles and sauce. Because of the depth, my lasagna needed six hours on low. Depending on the size and manufacturer of your slow cooker your cooking time may be different, so be sure to experiment.
After the lasagna finishes cooking, top it with a little more mozzarella and parmesan cheese, replace the lid and allow the cheese to melt before serving.
This recipe makes a hearty meal that's rustic (read, "messy") as it is difficult to cut into perfect pieces that sit tall and square on a plate. Yet without question it provides the flavors and satisfaction of the traditional, oven-baked lasagna including those crusty edges of noodles and cheese -- my favorite part.
Slow cooker lasagna now holds a permanent place in my recipe collection. Future attempts might include adding spinach or sun-dried tomatoes to the cheese layer, or maybe even some sautéed diced zucchini and red pepper flakes for a little extra kick with some ground turkey or chicken instead of Italian sausage. There are so many possibilities, but all will include a generous amount of sauce and cheese, and no oven to overheat the kitchen.
• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four from South Barrington, won the Daily Herald's 2011 Cook of the Week Challenge.