September 28, 2013 at 6:50 am

Maureen Tisdale

Let's Talk Food: Slow-Cooker Pizza Lasagna and early a.m. cooking

Slow-Cooker Pizza Lasagna (Maureen Tisdale / The Detroit News)

There is something magical about pre-dawn cooking.

Last Saturday, I got up between 3 and 4 a.m. That may not sound like a good thing, but it was wonderful; I’d been worrying how I could fit everything in that day. I had a busy morning starting at 7 a.m. with a long-scheduled breakfast with my friend Tammy near Eastern Market, and I wanted lunch (and the leftovers that would give me a running head start on my batch-cooking for the week) ready by the time I got home.

Besides, there are three reasons I always love the early morning. First is what my health-conscious and aforementioned sister Tiff aptly dubs Morning Brain. Morning Brain can brainstorm and plan, even while cooking, with a level of effectiveness Evening Brain can’t even dream of, what with it being unconscious the second I stop moving.

Reason No. 2 is I can get stuff done more efficiently and with less guilt while my 15-month-old is still asleep.

Reason No. 3 is early morning brings back such a sense of home and my mom. Mom has always been a morning person (and like myself, usually fairly incoherent by 9 p.m.), and I associate pre-dawn, house-is-quiet puttering with how she’d get it together before the seven of us kids and Dad got up. In fact, part of the magic today is knowing my husband and son, like my family of origin back when, will wake up to great smells and surprise accomplishments out of the way.

By the time I ran off at 6:30 a.m. to meet Tammy, cookies for a friend at church and our beloved daycare workers were cooling on the counter, and an Italian lunch was cooking on the stovetop. Granted, I was tired later that day, but I’m not 100 percent sure that’s avoidable as a working mom deeply involved with friends, family, church, daycare and other communities.

When I was waiting for Tammy at Louie’s, I texted Mom about what I’d gotten done.

“Feel like I have lived my weekend this a.m. already,” I texted.

“Understood,” that Mom-of-7 texted back. “I always said that about motherhood: full-time job before you go to your job, then full-time job after you get home.”

And that’s why sometimes, for me, cooking has to start before the sun does.

Pizza Lasagna

Adapted from “365 Slow Cooker Suppers” by Stephanie O’Dea. This is a “very customizable” dish, O’Dea writes, and I took her up on it, using the handful of sliced mushrooms I had on hand, instead of the pound of mushrooms she suggested, and adding black olives. I tweaked the ricotta and lasagna noodle amounts based on convenient sizes to buy and what fit in my slow-cooker, plus added an extra sprinkling of cheese at the end for a gooier, pizza-like presentation.

This was also my first time trying those Reynolds Slow-Cooker Liners (how I HATE scrubbing the slow-cooker); they are totally worth it, in my book. I managed to cut the liner when serving and drip a little in the cooker, but nothing burned on like food too often does.

1 pound lean ground beef
26 ounces of pasta sauce (keep the jar, if you buy one that size; me, the only 26 oz jar I found was twice as expensive as other sauces, so I bought sauce in bulk and weighed 26 ounces into an old clean olive jar to the same effect)
8 lasagna noodles (you’ll probably have leftovers)
15 ounces ricotta cheese
1 tablespoon dried Italian seasoning
Add ins: A handful of sliced mushrooms, a large can pitted black olives, 1 sliced green pepper, pepperoni slices (to taste; I used one package of large, thin ones to make layering them faster than working with dozens of small ones)
4 cups shredded mozzarella cheese, plus an extra ½ to ¾ cup to melt on at end
¼ cup warm water

Line or spray with cooking spray your slow-cooker (I spray the inside of the lid just to keep cleaning easier).

Brown the meat on medium and drain off excess grease. Then add the pasta sauce and stir. In a separate bowl, mix the ricotta and Italian seasonings. Get the add-ins sliced or measured as necessary.

Next, build the layers: A large scoop of sauce, a layer of lasagna noodles (you’ll likely need to break them to get a good fit), a dollop of the seasoned ricotta spread over the noodles, and a layer of the add-ins. Top with 1 cup of the mozzerella, then repeat.

For me, this made three layers, with both the 3rd and 4th cup of mozzerella going on the top, in addition to the water (swished around the jar used for the pasta sauce and distributed over the dish). I cooked it on low for 6 hours. O’Dea advises letting it sit with the lid off for 10 minutes before serving; that’s perfect for melting that final bit of cheese I added for a extra-cheese pizza-y top.

Serves 8 (or if you’re my family, 4 husband servings, 4 baby servings).

Enjoy!

When do you love to cook and why? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below the recipe. You need a Facebook account to add comments, but they’re free and easy to sign up for. Maureen Tisdale, Detroit News Food Editor, will keep an eye out the next few days to respond to any great comments or questions you post. You can also follow her on Twitter @reentiz. Join the conversation!