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Holiday lesson learned

By Newsday

An entire Christmas Eve dinner prepared in advance, frozen and reheated just hours before Santa is scheduled to arrive: It sounds like some kind of "Mad Men" ad campaign for Frigidaire, but in fact was a plan I hatched after the grueling last-minute race I ran to get hot appetizers, a salad, a turkey, several side dishes and a warm apple crisp on the table for Thanksgiving.

Here is the menu I have devised so I can sip Champagne as my main course warms in the oven and my dessert thaws on the countertop.

I'll start off the evening with Parmesan biscuits -- sliced from logs of savory dough I mixed, shaped, wrapped and froze in November. An hour or two before cocktails, I'll heat the oven, slice the defrosted dough and bake the treats and serve them. While the oven heats, I'll pull some frozen cooked shrimp from the freezer, defrost them under cold running water in a colander in the sink, then place them in a bowl over ice alongside some horseradish-enhanced cocktail sauce for dipping.

The first course: easy-to-serve soup, a porcini mushroom and chestnut soup I made a while back. After cooking and pureeing the soup, I poured it into an airtight container and, yes, froze it. All I'll need to do before serving is defrost it, reheat it and garnish each portion with a dollop of crème fraîche and a sprinkling of parsley. Sliced, reheated loaves of olive and rosemary bread from my favorite artisanal bakery will be a perfect accompaniment.

Crowd-pleasing, crowd-friendly spinach and sausage lasagna is the main course. Its vibrant red, green and white ingredients will be so pretty on the plates. It, too, is waiting for me in the freezer.

I'm still mulling over several dessert options. There's cheesecake, which freezes beautifully. But my meal is already pretty heavy on the cheese. A flourless chocolate cake freezes just as well and may be a better match. Or I could make an Amaretto mousse terrine or individual tortoni semifreddi. Whatever I choose, I am secure in the knowledge that it will be made and frozen at least a week in advance, so I have time to spare for last-minute shopping, gift-wrapping and hot chocolate drinking in the days leading up to the holiday.

Christmas Eve Spinach and Sausage Lasagna

Once you've assembled the lasagna, wrap the baking dish in a double layer of plastic wrap and then in a layer of heavy-duty foil to prevent freezer burn. Well-wrapped, it will keep in the freezer for up to 2 months. I recommend baking it directly from the freezer. Almost two hours of baking time gives the flavors a chance to come together while the noodles hydrate and the cheese melts and bubbles. Let it sit for 15 minutes before slicing. Serves 8.

For the Sauce:

     1     tablespoon olive oil

     1     onion, finely chopped

     3     garlic cloves, finely chopped

     1 1/2     pounds sweet Italian sausage, removed from casings

     1/4  cup heavy cream

     2    28-ounce can crushed tomatoes

     1/2     teaspoon salt

     1/2     teaspoon ground black pepper

     1/4  cup finely chopped fresh basil leaves

For the filling:

     2    10-ounce packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed of excess liquid

     1    15-ounce container whole-milk ricotta cheese

     1    cup grated Parmesan cheese

     2     large eggs, lightly beaten

     1 1/2     teaspoons salt

     3/4     teaspoon ground black pepper

     1/4     teaspoon grated nutmeg

     1    box imported no-boil lasagna noodles

     4    cups shredded whole milk mozzarella cheese

Make sauce:

HEAT olive oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat.

ADD onion and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add sausage and cook, stirring frequently to break up, until meat loses its pink color, about 5 minutes.

STIR in cream and cook, stirring occasionally, until almost evaporated, another 2 minutes. Add tomatoes, salt, pepper and basil and bring to a simmer.

TURN down the heat and cook at a bare simmer for 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer sauce (about 8 cups) to a bowl, cover and refrigerate until cool, at least two hours and up to 2 days.

Make filling:

PLACE spinach in triple layer of paper towels and squeeze to remove any remaining moisture.

STIR together spinach, ricotta, 1/2 cup Parmesan, eggs, salt, pepper and nutmeg.

To assemble lasagna:

SPREAD 1/4 cup sauce across bottom of 13- by 9-inch freezer- and oven-safe lasagna pan with 3-inch sides.

PLACE 3 noodles crosswise on top of sauce. Dollop 3 heaping tablespoons of spinach-ricotta mixture over each noodle (9 heaping tablespoonfuls per layer).

SPRINKLE with 1 cup mozzarella. Spoon 1 1/2 cups sauce over cheese. Repeat 2 more times.

TOP with remaining 3 noodles and cover with remaining sauce. Sprinkle with remaining cup mozzarella and remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese.

To freeze lasagna:

COVER top of dish with a sheet of parchment paper. Wrap entire dish in several layers of plastic wrap and a layer of heavy-duty foil. Freeze for up to 2 months.

To bake lasagna:

HEAT oven to 375°. Remove the parchment, plastic and foil. Spray a fresh sheet of foil with nonstick cooking spray and use it to cover dish tightly. Bake until noodles are soft and lasagna is heated through, 1 hour 15 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes. Remove foil and continue to bake until cheese on top is browned, filling is bubbling and the interior registers 160° on an instant-read thermometer, another 15 to 20 minutes. Let stand 15 minutes before slicing and serving.


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