Here is the secret for the most delicious, cheapest, and least wasteful lasagna you can make.
In what may be the least singular statement ever, I will tell you that lasagna is a popular thing in my house. What's not to love? It's the ultimate deliciously gooey comfort food and can be adapted to suit the variety of eaters in our family – vegan, vegetarian, and even the tomato-averse adult in the house. But here's the problem, I always end up spending a small fortune on ingredients for what seems like should be a rather humble endeavor. Maybe it's because I live in New York City, but I am always shocked at the grocery bill.
But recently I was looking at the pasta sheets in the fridge that remained after making homemade ravioli a few nights before, and I decided to cobble together a lasagna without buying anything new. And as it turned out, my family declared it the best lasagna yet. It may not have been the most traditional lasagna, but it was free(ish) and delicious.
How to make Leftovers LasagnaThere is no recipe here, one just needs to follow the basic rules: Layer pasta with sauce, cheese, fillings, repeat, ending with a layer of pasta covered with sauce and cheese. Cover lightly, bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes. Remove, let rest for 10 minutes. Eat.
The only difference is instead of buying everything, scavenge the fridge and pantry. Here's what we used.
PASTA: We used leftover pasta sheets, but you could use leftover cooked pasta; or if you have odds and ends of pasta shapes, cook them all up for more of a baked pasta kind of layered dish. You could even use leftover rice or other starch for a delicious layered casserole; or bread for a savory lasagna-like bread pudding.
SAUCE: We had about a cup of tomato sauce that I found in the freezer. But we also had three red peppers that were quickly fading, so I roasted them on the stovetop, removed the charred skin, and processed them in the blender with some sea salt and cayenne. The perfect tomato sauce swap – sweet, savory, and smoky.
You could use any vegetable that works well pureed; it doesn't have to be a tomato-based lasagna. We make a roasted butternut puree for sauce for our family member who cannot eat tomatoes. I have also experiments with creamed spinach and/or just a plain bechamel. If you can make something saucy, it's fair game. (Within reason, of course.)
CHEESE: We took this opportunity to clean out the cheese drawer. We had some leftover ricotta (from the ravioli) that I mixed with two nubs of crumbling leftover cream cheese and some cottage cheese. For the hard cheese, I found half an abandoned ball of smoked mozzarella, a few kinds of parmesan, and a bunch of mystery ends – grated them all and mixed them together.
FILLINGS: Here we used anything in the fridge that looked like it was going to turn the corner sooner rather than later. This meant a bunch of mushrooms, some arugula, a sad carrot, and half a jar of black olives, all sauteed together with olive oil and garlic.
We layered it all up and baked it. After it came out of the oven, we garnished it with a shower of fresh oregano (which in all honesty would make a casserole made of cardboard taste good).
Now maybe we were lucky in that the fading leftovers we sacrificed to the service of lasagna were all delicious and somewhat compatible, but it really drove home the point for me that lasagna is a perfect vehicle to use up leftovers. And of course I spent money on these ingredients in the first place, so it wasn't truly "free." But that we used up stuff that was diminishing in value and that we didn't spend anything on new ingredients, it really was the cheapest lasagna I have ever made.
This is already a strategy a lot of us employ with soups, chili, pots of beans, salads, and even savory tarts. Lasagna generally has more of definition of what it is supposed to be, so it may not be as obvious a choice for the "kitchen sink" approach – but after this success, I may never go standard again.