Easy Italian lasagna roll-ups with a side of meatballs

WHO: Patty Ruppel, 58, of Largo, a substitute teacher and teacher's assistant at St. Patrick Catholic School and mother of four.

WHAT: Lasagna Roll-ups

ABOUT THE RECIPE: "I'd always wanted an authentic Italian sauce recipe," Ruppel said.

And then, about five years ago, her priest invited her to a dinner where he served lasagna roll-ups in a light Italian sauce. It was exactly what she had been looking for. Ruppel asked him for the recipe, and she has been making it ever since. "Everyone seems to love it," she said. "It's always been a big hit in our family."

The lasagna is a great dish for entertaining because it's both elegant and convenient.

"It looks pretty when you serve it because everyone gets their own individual rolls," Ruppel said. With sauce drizzled on the plate and a meatball on the side, it looks gourmet. Plus, it's perfect for company because you can make it ahead of time, she said.

Before guests come, Ruppel prepares the lasagna but doesn't bake it. Her 11-year-old Brittany spaniel pads into the kitchen and watches her as she stirs the sauce. "Spaghetti sauce is his favorite meal of all time, so any time we're using garlic or he smells tomato . . . he can't wait to be helping me in the kitchen," she says, laughing.

Once the lasagna is ready, she sticks it in the refrigerator, then pops it in the oven half an hour before it's time to serve. To save even more time, she sometimes freezes the meatballs a week in advance. She places them in the freezer to harden on a tray for 10 to 15 minutes, then bags them to be put back in the freezer.

TIPS: You can use about 10 fresh tomatoes instead of canned tomatoes for the sauce. It gives it a lighter, fresher flavor, Ruppel said. The sauce can cook for five hours or even all day. "The more you cook tomato sauce, the thicker it gets," Ruppel said, so she suggests adding water to give it the consistency you like. Use a blender if you want a really thin sauce.

ON THE SIDE: "I usually serve it with homemade garlic bread and a nice, big tossed salad."

FAVORITE MEMORY IN THE KITCHEN: Ruppel said cooking is a way to bring people together — whether at gatherings of friends or at nightly family dinners. "Some of my best memories happened around the family dinner table," her daughter, Stephanie, said.

Growing up, Ruppel said she loved making homemade chicken noodle soup with her mom. They made everything from scratch — even the noodles!

Emily Young, Times correspondent

If you have a recipe that you would like featured, or would like to nominate other home cooks and their dishes, email jkeeler@tampabay.com with a name and daytime phone number. Include SIGNATURE DISH in the subject line. Or mail to Taste, Tampa Bay Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

>>MODERATE

Lasagna Roll-ups

1 box lasagna noodles

Nonstick cooking spray

8 ounces ricotta cheese

1 to 2 tablespoons half-and-half (or milk)

1 egg

2 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded

For the sauce:

2 cloves minced fresh garlic

Olive oil

2 (15-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes

2 (15-ounce) cans tomato sauce

2 cups of water

1 pork bone (chop or other cut)

1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste

Fresh or dried parsley, basil and oregano, to taste

For the sauce: In large pot, lightly cook garlic in olive oil; add 2 cans crushed tomatoes, 2 cans tomato sauce and 2 cups water. In separate skillet, brown pork bone on both sides in olive oil and add to tomato sauces. Use the can of tomato paste to deglaze the skillet, then add to sauce pot. Add fresh or dried parsley, basil and oregano to taste. Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer. Simmer several hours, adding water to keep at desired consistency. Remove pork bone before serving.

Assemble: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cook noodles just until al dente, about 10 minutes, then drain. Lay them on a cookie sheet sprayed with nonstick spray. Spray a 9- by 13-inch pan with cooking spray and put about ½ cup of sauce in the bottom. Whisk together ricotta cheese, half-and-half and egg. Spread each noodle with a tablespoon or two of ricotta mixture and sprinkle with mozzarella cheese, then roll up. Place rolled lasagna pieces snuggly next to each other in the sauce-lined pan, seam side down. Put a little sauce over each piece and sprinkle more mozzarella on top. Bake 30 minutes, lightly covered with foil for the first 20. When serving, place roll-up on plate; spoon sauce either on top of meatballs or to the side. Lasagna can be made early in the day and warmed for dinner. Sauce and meatballs may be made a few days ahead and refrigerated for several days or frozen until needed.

Makes 15 or 16 roll-ups. Serves 8.

Source: Father Paul Pecchie, pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church

>>MODERATE

Meatballs

1 pound ground beef

½ pound ground pork

1 cup grated Romano cheese

1 teaspoon salt

teaspoon black pepper

1 ¼ cups dry bread crumbs

2 cloves minced garlic

2 tablespoons dried parsley

2 eggs

Mix together all ingredients and form into balls. Place on a rimmed cookie sheet and bake at 350 for 15 to 20 minutes, turning half way through. When finished baking, put desired amount of meatballs into sauce about 30 minutes before serving; freeze the rest for next time.

Makes 28 meatballs.

Source: Father Paul Pecchie, pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church

Easy Italian lasagna roll-ups with a side of meatballs 02/24/14 [Last modified: Monday, February 24, 2014 1:05pm]

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