My mother used to make lasagna with dried noodles, which she would carefully boil until al dente before layering them into the pan with an assortment of fillings. And it was good.
Then someone said you didn’t need to boil the noodles first, that the sauce in the pan would cook them perfectly. And they were right. Those were even better.
Then fresh pasta came along and turned lasagna a couple of degrees more divine because of the lush texture that only freshly made noodles can provide.
And then I wanted lasagna one day, really bad, and didn’t have either dried or fresh lasagna noodles, and didn’t really want to go to the trouble of making homemade pasta. Yes, it’s definitely worth the trouble. But once in a while you just have to let laziness win, for sometimes - just sometimes - laziness leads to delicious things because lazy people are inventors. (That’s my excuse, anyway.)
|Frozen (L) and fresh (R)|
So I started rooting around. The pantry yielded zip by way of alternatives, but wait a minute, there in the back of the freezer was a package of spring rolls. And what are spring rolls but really thin egg pasta? I did some hasty calculations, realized it would work, and got everything ready.
If you have homemade marinara sauce ready, go with that for sure. But I write mainly about China’s foods for my job, so I rarely go to that bother. Instead, I generally have jars of Paul Newman or something sitting around for whenever spaghetti sauce is needed.
And so you see, the point of this exercise is to use whatever is available. If you don’t have ricotta cheese, try crème fraîche or drained cottage cheese. No mozzarella? Use some other mild cheese that looks good to you. Not a meat eater? No problem: sub in sautéed mushrooms.
Think of lasagna as a way to effortlessly clean out the refrigerator and pantry. But always, always have those spring rolls ready in the freezer. Try this and you’ll see what I mean.
Whereas some lasagnas can come across as leaden or overly starchy, this one is light and airy. That thin pasta absorbs the marinara as it cooks, turning into gentle wisps that glide between whatever filling strikes your fancy. This is also a great way to prepare ahead on the weekend, since it can easily be frozen and reheated. This is a winner.
Spring roll lasagna chez Huang
Huángjiā kăo qiāncéngmiàn 黃家烤千層麵
Italian via a short detour in China
|Sausage & onions|
Serves 6 to 8
1 (11 ounce | 312 g, or so) package frozen spring rolls, Wei Chuan brand recommended (see Tips)
1 bunch fresh spinach
2 (28 ounce | 737 g or so) jars of prepared marinara sauce, whatever flavor and brand you prefer
12 ounces | 340 g Italian sausages of any flavor or brand, crumbled or thinly sliced
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
5 cloves garlic, chopped
3 hardboiled eggs, sliced
1½ cups | 400 g ricotta cheese, whole milk preferred
80 ounces | 225 g whole-milk mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
1 cup | 80 g coarsely grated Parmesan cheese
|Ricotta, mozzarella, & eggs|
1. Set the unopened package of spring rolls on the counter to gently defrost while you prepare everything. Line an 11-cup | 2-liter pan with parchment paper or foil, extending the paper or foil up the sides by about 1 inch | 2 cm, as this will give you even more room for the lasagna. Spray the paper or foil with oil and set the pan on a baking sheet. Arrange a rack in the center of your oven and set it to 400°F | 200°C.
2. Cut off the ends of the spinach and soak it in warm water while you prepare the rest of the ingredients, as this will help loosen any soil. Swish it around in the water, changing the water as needed, until absolutely every grain of grit has been dislodged. Shake the spinach dry, shred it thinly, and microwave big handfuls of it at a time in a heatproof bowl for 1 minutes. Squeeze the liquid out of the spinach and set it in a work bowl. Repeat with the rest of the spinach.
3. Set a pan over medium heat and fry the sausage until most of the fat has been rendered. Drain off the fat, add the olive oil and onions, and fry these until the onions are translucent. Add the garlic and continue to fry until the sausage is borderline crispy.
|Scrunched up wrappers|
4. Spread a thin layer of the marinara sauce in the pan. Place 2 spring roll sheets on top of the marinara sauce, scrunching them up a bit to make them fit so that they do not overlap. Spread another layer of marinara sauce on the sheets and add some of the meat and onion mixture, then a layer of spring rolls, then marinara sauce, then eggs, then spring rolls, then marinara sauce, then ricotta cheese, then spring rolls, then marinara sauce, then spinach and mozzarella cheese, then spring rolls… in other words, just keep layering things into the pan in whatever order you like. The only thing you need to do, really, is top the spring rolls with marinara sauce, as this turns the noodles soft and silky. You probably will have 25 spring roll sheets in all, so make the top layer out of 3 scrunched-up sheets topped with marinara sauce, and then sprinkle the Parmesan over the top. You probably won’t use all of the marinara sauce, so don’t push it. Make sure all of the spring rolls are carefully dabbed with the sauce, as otherwise those bits will turn hard and inedible.
5. Bake the lasagna uncovered on the baking sheet for 35 to 40 minutes, at which point the top will be browned and the sauce will be bubbling around the edges. Rest the lasagna for 15 to 20 minutes to give the pasta time to absorb the sauce, for this will make cutting and serving it a whole lot less sloppy. Cut the lasagna into squares as desired. Leftovers can be refrigerated and heated up in the microwave. You can also make this ahead of time and bake it for about 30 minutes, then cool it and freeze the lasagna. To reheat the lasagna, defrost it overnight in the refrigerator, and then cook as directed above for another 15 minutes or so, until hot all the way through.
|Marco Polo lasagna|
Spring roll wrappers and egg roll wrappers are pretty much the same thing, with the egg roll ones generally a little bit thicker. Use whatever you like.
I recommend frozen over fresh ones since the latter can go bad, and you rarely have an opportunity to notice that until you open it up, or at least that has been my experience. Plus, frozen spring roll wrappers are ready whenever you need them. Hurray for that.