I’m not entirely sure if lasagna is a “sexy” enough topic for a blog post, but I’ve had enough people ask me for this recipe over the years that I thought I should share it with all of you. Plus, it seems appropriate to celebrate our first official week of rainy weather with a recipe from my “Celebrate the Rain” cookbook from the Junior League of Seattle. [Sidenote, my career in the Junior League was sadly short lived - but this cookbook was one of the best things I got out of it.] I’m not ordinarily a huge lasagna fan – I don’t eat red meat, which means I often can’t eat it anyways, but even when there’s a veggie option I find it’s usually heavy and/or mushy and/or bland. It’s hard for me not to like a dish made up of pasta plus cheese plus tomato sauce, but rarely have I experienced a truly stand out dish – this is one of the few lasagna recipes I’ve found that I can truly say I love. So much so that I made it for a dinner party last week, and have been pouting about lack of leftovers ever since.
Chicken cacciatore is basically chicken braised in tomato sauce, usually with some combination of onions, garlic, mushrooms, bell peppers, and herbs. I made that definition up, but it’s a combination of the first five or so recipes I read after a quick google search. This recipe, as the name implies, is a combination of chicken cacciatore and lasagna. We make a “cacciatore sauce” of sorts using lots of fresh vegetables, shred the chicken into the sauce, and layer it with noodles (or pasta sheets!) like a lasagna, only using mozzarella and parm instead of your typical ricotta layer. While there is still plenty of cheese, it somehow seems so much lighter than traditional lasagna – and so full of veggies that you don’t even feel that bad about going back for seconds.
This isn’t the quickest of recipes, but as lasagnas go it’s pretty simple to put together. The chopping takes some time, but it’s so worth it. I’m now really wishing I had doubled the recipe, as this will keep well in the freezer (baked or unbaked), and as long as you’re doing one, you might as well do two (or even three!) – the increase in time is marginal. Time saving tips include no-boil noodles or pasta sheets and rotisserie chicken. Boiling lasagna noodles is a total pain – no matter how much oil I add to my cooking water, they seem to always stick together and then break when I try to pull them apart. I’ve used no-boil noodles before and think they’re fine, but I know some people don’t like them – the pasta sheets really are the way to go if you can get them. They’re so easy and so fun, and it makes it a lot easier to serve your lasagna without having to worry about cutting in between the noodles (no pretty ruffles like regular lasagna noodles, though). Rotisserie chicken is a huge time saver, and I find the meat easier to shred. For once I can’t tell you to use the Trader Joe’s pre-chopped onions (my apologies to your eyeballs), but slicing doesn’t take too terribly long. Pre-grated cheese seems so un-gourmet….but if that’s your thing, I won’t tell and it will still taste yummy. Honestly though, if you can force yourself to be at least sort of efficient in the kitchen (slice onions while chicken cooks, slice mushrooms/mince garlic/dice pepper while onions cook, grate cheese while sauce simmers, etc.) it really doesn’t take that long to put together.
Layer your lasagna: noodles, sauce, cheese; repeat; repeat again. Don’t the pasta sheets look so fun?!? Dump an extra can of tomatoes over everything (except the top layer of cheese) if you’re short on sauce (see my note at the bottom of the recipe). You can stop here and then bake later (if you’re making this ahead of time), or freeze now and bake later, or bake and then freeze – the possibilities are endless. For my aforementioned dinner party, I put the lasagna together ahead of time, went about my day, and then popped it in the oven right before everyone arrived. The house smelled yummy, we had a lovely 30 minute cocktail hour, and then I took the lasagna out of the oven, popped dessert in, and we sat down to a bubbling-hot-out-of-the-oven dinner (and then an hour later, a bubbling-hot-out-of-the-oven apple crisp). For someone who’s always scrambling around and doing everything last minute, I was pretty proud of myself! Lasagna may not be the sexiest blog topic, but it gets major points for the make-ahead factor. Serve with a simple green salad and bread, and it’s a great meal to share with friends – you can sit and chat and enjoy yourself rather than frantically throwing everything together at the last minute. And with a fire in the fireplace and a couple bottles of wine, it’s the perfect meal with which to celebrate the rain.
Chicken Lasagna Cacciatore, from Celebrate the Rain
1/4 cup olive oil, divided
3/4 lbs. boneless, chicken chicken breast**
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
10 ounces button mushrooms, brushed clean, trimmed, and thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into 1/2″ dice
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes***
1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1 lb. mozarella cheese, grated
1 cup parmesan cheese, grated
12 cooked lasagna noodles OR 9 no-boil lasagna noodles OR 3 fresh pasta sheets
To make sauce:
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper, add them to the pan, and cook until browned on the bottom, about 6 minutes. Flip the chicken and cook until tender and cooked through, about 5 minutes longer. Transfer the chicken to a plate and let cool; reserve the saucepan. When the chicken is cool, shred it and set aside. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in the saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until tender and lightly browned, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the mushrooms and garlic and cook until the mushrooms are tender, about 5 minutes longer. Add the bell pepper and sauté until nearly tender, about 2 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, parsley, oregano, basil, salt, black pepper, and dried red pepper flakes. Add the chicken, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 10 minutes.
To prepare lasagna:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Oil a 9 x 13 baking dish. Spread 1/2 cup of the tomato sauce (avoiding large chunks of chicken or vegetables) on the bottom of the dish.*** Line the dish with 4 cooked lasagna noodles or 3 no-boil lasagna noodles or one pasta sheet. Spread 1 1/2 cups of the tomato sauce over the pasta and sprinkle with 1/3 of the mozzarella and 1/3 of the parmesan. Repeat the layering of noodles, sauce, and cheese two more times. (The lasagna can be prepared a few days ahead, covered with plastic, and refrigerated, or covered securely with plastic and foil and frozen for a few weeks). Bake the lasagna until the cheese turns golden brown in spots and the sauce is bubbling, about 30 minutes (if after 30 minutes the sauce is bubbling but the cheese hasn’t started browning, turn the oven to broil and watch the lasagna carefully – it will brown quickly). Transfer the dish to a wire rack and let the lasagna sit for 5-10 minutes before serving.
*The recipe says 8 servings, but I’ve found it usually yields closer to 10-12. You’ll want leftovers, though.
**You could use a store-bought rotisserie chicken here as a shortcut. I usually do, and wondered why I didn’t this time (not that it’s hard to cook the chicken, but I always manage to get oil splattered all over my stovetop). You’ll need about two cups cooked, shredded white meat, skin and bones discarded. One chicken should yield this easily.
***Every time I make this recipe, I find that I’m way short on sauce (in part probably because my lasagna pan is bigger than 9×13, so this may not be as much of an issue for you). My new trick is to use an extra can of crushed tomatoes – you could use a jar of spaghetti sauce as well if you’re in a pinch. I like to pour 1/2 cup – 1 cup crushed tomatoes into the bottom of the pan before I start building the lasagna (rather than using the sauce as instructed). Then I do the recommended 1 1/2 cups of sauce per layer (possibly a little more if it looks like that isn’t enough). Once I reach the third layer I’m a little short, so I use up the homemade sauce and then dump the rest of the can of crushed tomatoes over the casserole before I add the final layer of cheese. You could use a 15.5-ounce can of tomatoes if your lasagna pan is closer to 9×13 size/if you find you aren’t that short on sauce, but I used an entire 28-ounce can this time and it turned out great. You could also just add the second can of tomatoes to the sauce as you’re making it (along with the can called for), but my saucepan is usually close to overflowing so I’ve been doing it this way. Making sure the top layer of pasta is fully covered with sauce is especially important if you’re using the no-boil noodles or the fresh pasta sheets as they’ll need the liquid to cook.