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Great Cooks : Feeding the Restaurant Family

February 20, 1992|MICHAEL ROBERTS | Roberts is chef at Trumps in Los Angeles .

The favorite chore of most restaurant cooks is preparing the daily staff meal. It's an opportunity for a professional cook to show off, a chance to cook the dish for which you're most famous among friends and family. It's bringing a bit of your personal life to work and sharing it.

The other evening, staff dinner at Trumps was lasagna prepared by the pantry cook. Over the years, nearly every cook who has worked for me has prepared his or her "famous" lasagna. Most of them have been delicious, and even those that weren't particularly refined were pleasing. I've even offered somewhat more effete versions on the dinner menu. Everyone seems to love lasagna.

The most up-to-date Italian chefs are preparing individual lasagna, light versions with fresh, wide noodles piled with all sorts of things, from white truffles to smoked salmon, and moistened with an appropriate sauce.

The ubiquitous melted cheese that defines lasagna in the United States is largely missing from most Italian recipes. In fact, both Northern and Southern traditions make use of a besciamella , or bechamel sauce, to bind the noodles. Cheese, if there is any, lightly tops the dish.

Whichever tradition you prefer, your lasagna will be more delicious if you follow certain guidelines:

Don't overcook the lasagna. The noodles, not the stuffing, are the most important part of the dish. Maintain firmly textured al dente noodles.

Don't drown the dish in sauce. The usual red sauce is only meant to moisten the other ingredients and flavor the dish.

Even if using dried lasagna noodles, you don't have to parboil them before assembling and cooking the lasagna. Cover tightly and allow an extra 30 minutes of baking time.

And here's a household tip: Prepare two lasagnas and freeze one in a freezer-to-oven dish. An uncooked lasagna--made with either fresh or dried uncooked noodles--freezes better than a fully cooked one and can be cooked in either a microwave or conventional oven directly from its frozen state. Allow about one hour of extra cooking time if baking a frozen lasagna in a conventional oven.

VEGETARIAN LASAGNA

3 tablespoons oil

1/4 cup diced onion

1 cup assorted chopped vegetables such as artichoke hearts, asparagus, eggplant, mushrooms, broccoli and cauliflower

1/2 cup chopped cooked spinach

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper

1 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves or 1/2 teaspoon dried

2 1/2 cups milk

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 cup unsalted butter

1/4 cup flour

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

12 (11x3-inch) fresh or dried lasagna noodles

1/2 cup whipping cream

1 cup Fresh Tomato Sauce

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring, 5 minutes. Decrease heat to low and add assorted vegetables. Cover and cook 10 minutes. Scrape mixture into bowl. Mix in spinach along with salt, white pepper and rosemary. Set aside.

Place milk and nutmeg in small pan and heat over high heat. When it begins to foam and comes to boil, remove from heat and set aside.

Melt butter in 1-quart pan set over medium heat. Add flour and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Slowly pour milk over butter/flour mixture and cook, stirring, until thickened, another 2 minutes. Remove saucepan from heat and stir in Parmesan cheese. Cover and set bechamel sauce aside.

Meanwhile, bring large pan of salted water to boil. Add noodles and cook until barely tender. Drain noodles and halve lengthwise.

Oil bottom of 13x9-inch baking dish with 1 tablespoon oil and spread with 1/4 cup of bechamel sauce. Cover with layer of noodles. Spread with more bechamel and 1/3 of vegetable mixture. Repeat until there are 3 layers of stuffing and sauce between 4 layers of noodles.

(Dish can be frozen at this point. Completely wrap baking dish in double layer of plastic wrap and freeze up to 3 months.)

Combine whipping cream and tomato sauce in small bowl and pour evenly over lasagna. Cover tightly with foil. Bake at 350 degrees on middle rack 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Makes 4 servings.

Note: To cook frozen lasagna, unwrap and re-cover with foil. Bake at 350 degrees on middle rack. While lasagna is baking, combine cream and tomato sauce. After lasagna has baked 30 minutes, remove foil and pour sauce over surface. Replace foil and continue to bake 60 to 70 minutes longer.

SAUSAGE LASAGNA

Olive oil

1 medium onion

1 pound hot Italian sausages, casings removed

1 cup milk

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 cup unsalted butter

1/4 cup flour

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

12 (11x3-inch) fresh or dried lasagna noodles

1 cup Fresh Tomato Sauce

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in medium skillet over medium heat. Add and saute onion 5 minutes. Add sausage meat to skillet. Cook, stirring, until meat is cooked, about 7 minutes. Remove from heat, scrape into bowl and set aside.

Place milk and nutmeg in small pan and set over high heat. When it begins to foam and comes to boil, remove from heat and set aside.

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