CHEF JEFF: One Byte At A Time — Cheesy Meatball Lasagna

Have you ever seen a recipe that looks so good that you know you are just going to have to try it? But maybe with a spin of your own.

I came across one of those the other day. It was for a meatball lasagna.

Meatballs and lasagna are two of my favorite foods, but never before had I thought about combining the two. I figured that whoever came up with this recipe had a pretty good imagination.

Well, it turns out that Italians have been making this dish in several variations for years. It’s the perfect recipe for those who prefer a less chunky meat sauce with their lasagna.

In my version, instead of using the traditional meat sauce, I employ a vegetable marinara that is complemented with layers of sliced meatballs and cheeses.

Cheesy Meatball Lasagna
15-ounce container ricotta cheese
1 cup mozzarella cheese
1 cup Parmesan cheese
1 egg
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
Salt and pepper
16 Italian-style meatballs, cut in half  (meatball recipe follows)
2 quarts marinara sauce (marinara recipe follows)
1 pound lasagna noodles
1 cup mozzarella cheese
½ cup Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a mixing bowl, beat together ricotta cheese, mozzarella cheese, Parmesan cheese, egg, Italian seasoning and salt and pepper until everything is combined. Set aside.
To assemble, spread about 1 cup of marinara sauce onto bottom of a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish. Top with lasagna noodles in a single layer. Spread ⅓ of the ricotta mixture on the noodles. Spread ⅓ of the halved meatballs out on the noodles. Sprinkle with ⅓ of the mozzarella cheese. Top with ⅓ of the remaining sauce. Continue this pattern until you use all the ingredients. Sprinkle the Parmesan cheese over top.
Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 45 minutes. Uncover and bake an additional 15 minutes or until the noodles are cooked and the cheese is bubbly. Allow to cool about 10 minutes before slicing and serving.

1½ pounds ground beef
1 pound of ground pork
2 cups Italian-flavored bread crumbs
4 eggs
1 cup milk
1 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 cup grated cheese
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 garlic cloves, chopped very fine
1 onion, minced
1 tablespoon fennel seeds, crushed
Place all ingredients in a large bowl and mix thoroughly. Let stand ½ hour. Shape into medium-size meatballs. Fry gently in olive oil until lightly browned, or place on foil on a cookie sheet and bake for ½ hour at 350 degrees.

Marinara Sauce
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 green bell pepper, chopped and pureed
3 carrots, chopped and pureed
8 ounces white mushrooms, chopped and pureed
1 15-ounce can tomato sauce
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
½ cup red wine
4 tablespoons sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons basil pesto
3 tablespoons sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
In a deep 10-inch frying pan, heat the olive oil and gently saute the garlic. Add tomatoes, tomato paste, sun-dried tomatoes and other vegetables.
Put on medium and saute for 15 to 20, stirring occasionally. Add wine, pesto, sugar, salt and pepper. Simmer for about half-hour to an hour.
Yield: Makes about 2 quarts.

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