Vegetable Lasagna

I'll bet that anyone with even the most basic of cooking skills has a specialty dish. Even people that don't cook in the traditional way have something they can put together and do very well, even if it's a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich. If that's all you can make, well, that's your specialty (my friend Jason may be the exception to this rule). When I first moved away from home, I attended school all day and worked nights and weekends to make enough money to pay the rent and bills. Back then, I lived on a dead end street, in an apartment complex that also housed three other people I went to school with. By the end of the month there was very little money left for food for any of us. Luckily there was an alternative to buying food and no, we did not steal it! The town where I lived was an agricultural town and it grew practically everything you could imagine. This came in very handy.

At the back entrance of the school was a pair of railroad tracks that crossed the road. These railroad tracks proved very useful. Every day about the time I was finished at school, the trucks that carried produce from the fields to the distribution center would drive over the tracks, which bounced and jostled every wheel on the trailer. My friends and I would gather next to the railroad tracks and wait for the trucks to zoom by. Often when they bounced over the tracks some of the product they were carrying would fly out and land in the road: we called it veggie suicide. We would quickly run out into the street and grab whatever fell out before another car or truck smashed it. We were so happy when it was a potato or a bell pepper though we really didn't care what it was. I'll admit we were always slightly disappointed when it was broccoli, (and it was often broccoli). When we felt like we had enough to feed everybody we would return to our apartments and search for anything else we could use to make dinner. One person could have some cheese, someone might have some tuna, and someone else would have some bread. I always had boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese in my cupboard because back then it was five boxes for a dollar. We would gather together in one apartment and cook whatever we found by the tracks with whatever we had. These dinners weren't always particularly balanced but it was food nonetheless and soon what we called “veggie surprise” became our apartment complexes specialty. However, every now and then, usually at the beginning of the month, we had enough money to buy the ingredients to make a big pan of lasagna.

I don't remember eating a lot of lasagna growing up. There was a lot of pasta to be sure, spaghetti or rigatoni usually, and it would either be in a red sauce with meatballs on the side or just tossed with butter and Parmesan cheese. My guess is that there must have been lasagna at some point, but I just can't remember. Needless to say, lasagna is a favorite of mine even if my introduction to it is lost to time. When eating at an Italian restaurant it is always the first thing I look for on the menu. Then the debate with myself begins... should I get lasagna or the ravioli... or maybe penne arrabbiata, or hey, the carbonara sounds good and we are in real trouble if there is a bolognese on the menu. Ultimately, seven out of ten times I'll choose the lasagna I think because when the server works their way around the table and asks me what I will have? I panic. In my brain all the other choices disappear and only one remains: lasagna. Not sure why, it just happens that way.

Thinking back to the first time I made classic lasagna, it all seemed so complicated. You had to cook your noodles, have your cheese mixture ready, have the meat mixture ready and get everything to fit in the pan in nice even layers. And those noodles were hot; nobody told me they would be so hot. I would have been about 18 or 19 at the time, so I wasn't all that experienced in the kitchen. Remember that most of my food came from boxes and cans or by driving through the Jack in the Box on the corner. In any case, I can recall going to the store and looking at the back of the lasagna noodle box for the recipe and making it exactly as described. Despite everything, it came out okay. After that lasagna didn't seem so hard to make at all.

Lasagna reminds me of Sunday evening dinners growing up. This was the night my grandparents would come over and altogether there would be eight of us around the table. Dinner was always one of those meals that arrived at the table in a super large pan or a giant bowl. Perhaps a pot roast with potatoes or the more common spaghetti and meatballs. On the side there was always a loaf of bread or rolls and usually a bowl of grated cheese that went onto, well, everything. Sometimes my grandmother would make fried eggplant or she would whip up this crazy dish made from stuffing, zucchini, and cream of celery soup. We also usually had some sort of salad on the table. There would be a big bowl of iceberg lettuce and a variety of smaller bowls filled with things like olives, cut up cucumbers, radishes, and my sisters’ favorite; pickled beets. With the food in the center of the table, with everyone's plates, glasses, silverware, and salad bowls surrounding it, the table seemed packed. Maybe it was because I was short and sat more at eye level that it seemed crowded, but that full table, with everyone reaching for different items, passing bowls of food to one another, is what I think about when I make lasagna. It just lends itself so perfectly to a group meal, whether that group is family or friends doesn't matter, lasagna will always say, "hello, welcome, sit next to me".

My grandmother would have stared at me in disbelief if I told her I was making a veggie lasagna. I'm sure that would have confused her and she would most likely mumble something in Italian and then continue with her crocheting. It's sometimes difficult to imagine a different take on a food you are so familiar with. I think my grandmother would have approved of this dish in the end though, after all she was a big fan of zucchini.

Nowadays veggie lasagna isn't all that uncommon. A good many of them have similar ingredients and are similarly put together. This lasagna doesn't stray too far off the path but there are a few distinct differences. I came across this recipe originally in Cooking Light magazine way back when and as usual I really have not changed it. This lasagna isn't like a traditional meat lasagna at all. This lasagna isn't meant to feed the masses, in fact we only use 6 noodles in the entire dish and there is no need to precook the noodles. What? How is this possible, you ask? We'll get to that in a bit. The sauce is sparse in this dish so you won't end up with a lasagna that is covered in a heavy tomato sauce but you won't sacrifice anything. A little red wine, a touch of brown sugar and some herbs, make the sauce quite flavorful. The standard ricotta cheese is swapped out for cottage cheese which adds a little extra taste and makes for spreading the cheese mixture much easier. Instead of cooking the noodles, the lasagna will be refrigerated for 8 hours before you bake it. This allows to noodles to soak in liquid from the layers. In addition, this lasagna has a 1½ hour baking time, so you'll need to get this together first thing in the morning to serve for dinner the same day. Alternately you can prepare and bake it on one day then simply reheat the next and it will still taste the same.

I hope you'll try this lasagna. It serves six, so gather five of your friends, warm up some crusty bread, and lightly dress a simple green salad. You might as well finish off that bottle of wine you will be opening as well. Remember; lasagna, either classic meat or this veggie lasagna, is meant to bring people together.

So... Here's how I put this together...

Ingredients

  • 1 (10 oz) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained.

  • 1 (16 oz) carton cottage cheese

  • 1 egg, beaten

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

  • 3/4 cup minced onion

  • 1½ cups sliced mushrooms

  • 2 cloves garlic, minced

  • 2 (14½ oz) cans diced tomatoes, drained

  • ¼ cup minced fresh parsley

  • ¼ cup of your favorite dry red wine - See Note Below

  • ¼ cup tomato paste

  • 2 teaspoons dried whole basil

  • 1½ teaspoons dried whole oregano

  • 1 teaspoon brown sugar

  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

  • ¼ teaspoon salt

  • 6 lasagna noodles, uncooked

  • 5 - 6 cups thinly sliced zucchini (about 2 lbs)

  • 8 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese - divided (1½ cups in one bowl, ½ cup in a second bowl)

  • 2 - 3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Note when choosing a wine to use, any dry red wine will work. The original recipe called for Burgandy, but I think you should use something you would want to drink, you'll only use a small amount from the bottle in the sauce, so you can plan on serving the rest at dinner or just drink it yourself when no-one is looking. I have used Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and most recently Red Zinfandel and the sauce has been great each time.  I will admit to you I don't drink so that's why I say choose what you like to drink, for this recipe.

Directions:

Take your spinach and press it between two paper towels to remove excess moisture. Then put it in a bowl along with the ricotta cheese and egg and stir it to get everything well combined. You can set this mixture aside for now.

Now take out a large sauce pan (it should not be aluminum) and heat up the olive oil over medium high heat, then toss in the chopped onion and let that sauté, stirring it occasionally until it gets tender, which should take just about three minutes.

When the onion is tender stir in the mushrooms and the garlic and continue cooking another two minutes or until the mushrooms also get just a little bit tender.

At this point dump in the tomatoes, parsley, wine, tomato paste, basil, oregano, brown sugar, salt and pepper and stir it up well really well.

Let the mixture come up to a simmer and then reduce the heat to low and let it simmer, uncovered, for just about 20 minutes. But give it a little stir every so often.

At the end of the 20 minutes remove the pan from the heat and set it aside.

Now for the layering part.

As I layer this I imagine I am making three individual lasagnas that are each one noodle wide. They just happen to be right next to each other in the pan.

So, take a 12 x 8 x 2 inch baking dish (again, not aluminum) and lightly grease it with cooking spray or a light coating of oil or butter.

You're going to take 1/3 of the tomato mixture and spread it along the bottom of the baking dish and arrange three of the lasagna noodles in a single layer on top of that.  I try to take mostly sauce for this layer, leaving the mushrooms and larger chunks of tomatoes for the center and top.

Next give your spinach and cheese mix a quick stir and then spoon on top of the three noodles half of the spinach mixture. spreading the mixture just to the edge of each noodle. Again just imagine your layering three seperate lasagnas.  In the end things will expand on their own.

 

Now take half of your zucchini slices and layer them on top of the spinach mixture.

Next we sprinkle half of the big bowl of mozzarella cheese (about 3/4 cups) over the zucchini slices. 

So that wasn't so hard was it?

Now you're going to do the same thing again. 

Start with half of the remaining sauce, then three noodles. Gently press down on the noodles to set them in place but not so hard as to squish the filling out the sides of each one. Next add the remaining spinach mix, then the remaining zucchini, then the remaining big bowl of mozzarella (3/4 cup)

Top off the whole thing with the last part of the tomato mixture, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 8 hours. You should have left over at this point: 1/2 cup of mozzarella and 2 - 3 tablespoons of parmesan cheese. Store those in the fridge for now as well, we don't use them until the whole thing is baked and ready to serve.

If you got up early to prep this, and your dishes are done... you can go back to bed (if that's helpful).

After 8 hours we're ready to bake.

Your oven will have been preheated to 350 F with a rack in the center position.

Take the lasagna from the refrigerator and remove the plastic wrap. Use a piece of aluminum foil to cover the dish tightly and bake for 1½ hours.

When it's done, remove the foil and sprinkle on the remaining mozzarella and parmesan cheese, then let it sit for 5 - 8 minutes to let that cheese get a bit soft and for the lasagna to set up just a bit. If you are baking this on one day and reheating it the next wait to put the last part of mozzarella and parmesan cheese on until just before serving.

Toast up your favorite garlic bread, maybe a simple green salad, pour yourself a glass of that wine and you're set. You can read about and get my garlic bread recipe here!