Friday, 23 February 2024

Foodie Freak: Vegetarian lasagna

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My daughter doesn’t realize that I’m worth more alive than dead, because I’m sure she’s trying to kill me. She’s being very clever about it, though; she’s trying to make it look like a heart attack.


She has often expressed the wish to eat vegetarian, but she is systematically eliminating the vegetarian foods that I can cook with. She doesn’t like tofu, she is only just tolerant of falafel (I’m still trying to perfect a recipe that she might like), and she outright hates the pre-made meatless meatballs and “meat patties.” Even quinoa, as simple and innocuous as it is, sits on her plate uneaten.


How can I cook vegetarian if she is systematically eliminating all of the popular vegetarian dishes? That banging noise you hear is my head against the refrigerator; a few more good hits and I’ll be exposing brain.


However, she does like vegetarian lasagna, which, if you’ve ever made it you will know, is a labor-intensive dish (both vegetarian and meat-packed types). But it’s OK – I love my daughter and if she requests a vegetarian dish that she will actually enjoy, it’s my pleasure to put in the effort. Why not? I like a challenge!


The root word for lasagna is said to come from the Greek, either from “lasana” meaning a stand for a pot, or possibly “laganon” which is a sheet of pasta cut into strips. Either way, the Romans adopted the word into the Latin and it lived on into the Italian language.


There was a wild rumor that the British invented the dish since the recipe for “loseynes” (pronounced “lasan”) is found in Britain’s oldest cookbook, “The Forme of Cury.” I was going to write down the recipe as it is written in the book but old English is very difficult to read so it would have almost appeared as gibberish.


My best translation of what the cookbook says is, “make a dough and dry it, then make several layers with cheese and sauce, then cook.” That’s it, pretty simple, no other recipe needed, and I’m going to follow that example.


Oh, and did you notice? There’s no meat in this recipe. Lasagna was originally a vegetarian dish.


To give the English their due, “The Forme of Cury” is the oldest recipe for lasagna currently on record. The cookbook was compiled in the year 1390, and the discovery made quite a number of British hearts flutter with pride, but the fact that Britain was once a Roman province makes the idea of lasagna being an aboriginal British invention not quite believable. And while they smugly claim they invented lasagna, they have yet to explain why it has a Greek name.


However, also to the Brits' credit, they are a little truer to the original lasagna idea in that, to this day, they prefer it made with a white (béchamel) sauce as opposed to the tomato sauce that Italians and Americans favor. Tomatoes hadn’t even made their appearance in Europe when this first recipe was recorded, and wouldn’t be used popularly for another 400 years.


The traditional flat noodles with ruffled edges are a throwback to when the pasta was rolled out with simple rollers and then set out in the sun to dry, which resulted in a pasta similar to what we expect when we think of lasagna noodles. In Italy lasagna noodles are usually flat without the ruffle.


The original recipe for lasagna describes layers of dough with sauce between the layers, and baked into more of a flat cake. It eventually evolved into the casserole type dish that we recognize.


Since lasagna was a dish that was cooked in an oven and only the wealthiest homes possessed those, lasagna was considered a very special dish. Even as ovens became common in every home, the many steps and lengthy preparation involved relegated the dish into a rare treat.


Nowadays, with so many time-saving kitchen gadgets, prep time can be managed reasonably. You can even purchase no-boil noodles and put them in without cooking. Yes, please! Less work is better!


I use a mandolin to slice all of the vegetables, and wear a special protective glove so I can use it extra fast without having my fingertips become part of the finished dish (I purchased the glove at The Kitchen Gallery). The mandolin gives you perfect slices quickly and uniformly, much better than using a knife. Besides, you really don’t want to show off a large collection of razor sharp knives if your child is trying to kill you.


Before we get started with the recipe, something I highly recommend is to use a disposable aluminum pan. If you’ve ever washed a lasagna pan, you know what I’m talking about and will love the idea. If you are going to make lasagna you might as well make two at a time and freeze one for a later date.


The great thing about lasagna is that you don’t really need a recipe. You put a cup of pasta sauce on the bottom of a 9-inch by 12-inch baking dish, then a layer of the no-boil noodles, and then go to town any way you want.


I like to start with some ricotta and then just layer on ingredients as I go. Keep in mind that you don’t want to make the layers too thick or tightly packed. You want the cheese to have room to melt downward and the sauce have gaps to bubble upwards so the flavors can meld. Gaps in the layers are good.


When choosing what to put in the lasagna remember there are no rules about what the layers should be. Some suggestions would include zucchini, shiitake or portabella mushrooms, butternut squash, spinach leaves, diced tomatoes and onions or leeks, sliced garlic, eggplant, fresh basil, oregano and thyme.


I also recommend at least three types of cheese; I use mozzarella, Parmesan and ricotta. And let’s not forget, you’ll want your favorite tomato sauce intermingled throughout.


To be totally honest about my own recipe, I also add a layer of my own personal roasted bell pepper sauce in there which we’ll talk about it another day.


As you can tell, with all this pasta dough and cheese and sauce, this is not exactly health food. I didn’t say it wouldn’t be rich, I just said it doesn’t contain meat. You’ll have to excuse me for a moment, I have to make an appointment to change my will.


Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and put a cup of sauce on the bottom of the pan, spreading it out to cover the entire surface. Add a layer of no-boil lasagna noodles then (my preference) a layer of cheese, then lay a few layers of whatever you chose for veggies, followed by another cup of sauce, noodles, cheese, and then a couple more layers of your favorite ingredients. You don’t have to spread the ricotta too thin since the layers will compress it and the heat of the oven will cause it to flow.


When you’ve completed all of the layers, top it all with a nice layer of shredded mozzarella and Parmesan and a sprinkling of herbs, which will give it a nice color as it bakes.


Cover it with aluminum foil and bake for 35 minutes or until a knife can pierce the center easily.


Carefully remove the foil and bake for an additional 10 minutes or until the cheese starts to get golden brown.


Remove from the oven and let rest for 15 minutes. This is a very important part of the process, as it gives the melted cheese an opportunity to reset and hold everything together when you cut it. Serve.


Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community. Follow him on Twitter, http://twitter.com/Foodiefreak .

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