Like many families, our family takes turns spending Christmas Eve with each side of the family or sometimes both together. Because of this we usually take turns hosting and never have settled on a "Christmas Eve" dinner.
With such large numbers, and a huge Christmas meal the next day, when my turn rolls around I find myself turning to crowd pleasers that feed a large group but won't subject me to hours upon end in the kitchen.
I also like variety and because we have a traditional Christmas Dinner that includes both ham and turkey, I want something delicious but different.
In past years we've done things like soup with scones, or a hearty beef stew but this year I decided an Italian theme would be fun. I had this recipe bookmarked and because I like 99.9% of Mel's recipes I went out on a limb and made it for Christmas Eve.
The outcome? Total Success!!
Beyond the usual red sauce, noodles and cheese, this " Classic" version incorporates a creamy white sauce AND browned mushrooms and garlic which are pureed and added the red sauce. I know it sounds a little weird but not one person out of the 25 that ate it, guessed what the secret ingredient was. Great for picky eaters like mine that would run screaming if they knew the truth, so please don't tell them!
Served with Cesar salad, this Christmas Jello, and lots of buttery garlic bread, this Italian Christmas Eve meal will be my tradition for years to come.
Classic Italian Lasagna
adapted slightly from Mel's Kitchen Cafe
*Makes one 9X13-inch pan of lasagna (and requires the use of several pots and skillets…but don’t worry, you can wash those up in a snap while the lasagna is baking)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
4 cloves fresh garlic, finely minced (see garlic tutorial here)
1/2 large onion, diced (about 1/2 cup)
8 ounces mushrooms, chopped
2 (8-ounce) cans tomato sauce
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes, undrained
2 teaspoons Italian seasoning (or a mix of dried oregano and basil)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
3 cups milk (not skim, I used 1%)
5 tablespoons flour
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
9 lasagna noodles, boiled for half the time on the box (or use 12 of the no-boil noodles, of which I far prefer the Barilla brand)
1 pound ground beef
1 pound mozzarella cheese, shredded
8 ounces Parmesan cheese, shredded
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9X13-inch baking pan with cooking spray or with a napkin dipped lightly in olive oil and set aside.
In a large skillet, brown the ground turkey over medium-high heat, breaking the meat apart into pieces with a wooden spoon. When turkey is cooked through, drain the grease and set aside.
In a medium-size saucepan over medium-high heat, add 2 tablespoons olive oil and one tablespoon butter. Add a pinch of salt and pepper. When oil/butter is hot, add the garlic, stirring constantly. When the garlic is lightly browned, but NOT burned, add the onion and mushrooms. Continue cooking on medium-high heat until the vegetables are soft and browned and the fluid has mostly cooked out. Remove from heat and either using a handheld immersion blender or transferring the vegetables to a blender, blend the vegetables to a paste-like mixture. Return the pot to the heat (pour the pureed vegetables back in, if using a stand-alone blender) and add the tomato sauce and tomato paste. Stir to combine. Then add the diced tomatoes, Italian seasoning, salt and pepper. Stir. Cover and let the sauce sauce simmer for 30 minutes over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally. Right before using the red sauce in the lasagna, stir in the reserved ground turkey.
While the red sauce simmers, if using lasagna noodles that need to be boiled, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and boil the noodles for half the time suggested on the box. Once the noodles are cooked, drain, but do not rinse. Add a dab of olive oil to keep them from sticking together. If you are using no-boil noodles, you can skip this step.
Also while the red sauce is cooking, melt the four tablespoons butter and when melted, add the flour, stirring constantly to combine and letting the mixture cook, while stirring, for a minute or two. Gradually add in the milk, whisking constantly. Add the salt and pepper. Slowly whisk the white sauce, ensuring it doesn’t burn on the bottom of the pan, while cooking it over medium heat. Continue slowly stirring or whisking while the white sauce cooks and thickens quite a bit, about 5-7 minutes. Add a pinch of mozzarella for good luck, if you wish!
To begin layering the lasagna, keep in mind that you’ll have three layers of noodles as well as three layers of the sauces and cheese – so plan on splitting all the sauce and cheese piles into thirds so you don’t run out at the end! On the bottom of your lightly greased baking pan, layer three pre-boiled noodles or four no-boil noodles, slightly overlapping the no-boil noodles. Layer the red sauce, white sauce, Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses, spreading all to the edges and top with another layer of noodles. Again, layer the red sauce, white sauce, Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses and top with the final layer of noodles. Layer the sauces and cheeses again.
Cover the lasagna with a greased layer of aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and let the lasagna sit for 15 minutes before cutting and serving.