Childhood picture books, stories and TV shows that depicted food and dining made a real impression on me. Illustrations of steaming bowls of pasta or a piece of toast smothered in purple jam gave me my first taste of foods I’d yet to try, and are sometimes still the archetypes I hold food up to today. Instead of simply reminisce, I’m going to bring those dishes to life the way I imagined they’d be.
I was a huge fan of Garfield’s as a child but I didn’t chalk up my appreciation for him as anything unique. He was a popular cat in the 80’s–who didn’t check the comics in the weekend paper to see which of his crimes he pinned on Odie, or just how he was ruining Jon’s latest fledgling romance? I didn’t realize how much I related to Garfield (yes, to a lazy, entitled, greedy cat) and didn’t notice that the cartoon strips I was most drawn to were the ones in which he was eating. Looking back, the Garfield books I eventually asked for were all of the food compilations. What I loved was “reading” about him on a midnight-snack-run and what I loved the most was seeing him gorge on lasagna. He never disappointed when he ventured to the kitchen in the dark and with only the light from the fridge shining on him, pulled out a lasagna and threw mounds straight from the tray into his mouth. He made it seem irresistible, this pasta casserole I don’t think I’d ever eaten to that point. It was the reason I started to request beg for it until, finally, probably to make me stop already, someone in the house gave in and started making it.
That was my aunt, one of the many relatives living under same roof I did during my childhood. She would accommodate many of my food requests to appease me but also because she was a curious and experimental cook. A new-to-Canada Sri Lankan, she didn’t know the first thing about Italian food but she had coworkers at the factory who did. She asked a lot of questions, executed a lot of trials and made a pasta that I ate as voraciously as a fat, orange cat, if not directly from the tray. Hers is still my favourite version, with a creaminess derived only from cottage cheese, not from a bechamel. Her sauce was a version of meat bolognese and my mushroom bolognese stands in in this vegetarian version. But aside from that, this is how I remember it and though not a ringing endorsement since he laid waste to most any food, I think Garfield would approve.
Lasagna with Mushroom Bolognese
This is the lasagna I remember enjoying plate after plate of when I was young. My aunt bypassed the bechamel sauce and used cottage cheese instead of ricotta to attain that creamy, richness. *She used a meat sauce but my mushroom bolognese stands in perfectly here and it can be made a day or two in advance of assembling and baking this lasagna.
1 egg, beaten
1 c finely grated Parmesan cheese
2 c cottage cheese
Ground black pepper
4 c mushroom bolognese*
12 no-cook lasagna noodles
3 c shredded mozzarella cheese
Preheat oven to 400F degrees.
Add the egg and Parmesan to the cottage cheese and mix well. Season well with salt and pepper.
Cover the bottom of a 13x9x2-inch baking dish with 1/3 cup of the mushroom bolognese. Set aside another 1/3 cup of the sauce for the top of the lasagna. Lay 4 noodles side by side (small gaps are fine, as is slight overlapping–it will depend on the noodle you buy) on top of the base sauce and top with a half of the remaining sauce. Then spoon over half of the cottage cheese mixture and gently spread it evenly across to the edges too. Sprinkle with 1 cup of grated mozzarella. Add another layer of 4 noodles and cover evenly with the remaining half of the sauce, and then the remaining cottage cheese mixture and sprinkle evenly with 1 cup of mozzarella. Top with the last 4 noodles. Cover the top with the reserved 1/3 cup of sauce and lastly, sprinkle with the remaining cup of mozzarella cheese.
Grease the underside of a sheet of foil with oil and cover, or tent your lasagna loosely over top before crinkling it snugly around the dish to prevent the top layer of cheese from sticking to it. Bake for 50 minutes, then uncover and bake for 10 minutes more to create a slightly golden crust. Remove and rest for at least 10 minutes before slicing and serving. Serve hot or warm.