At 14, when I was a newly-minted vegetarian, there was only one all-vegetarian restaurant near my house— the Salad Bar, on Michigan Avenue in Dearborn. One of my favorite dishes was their baked vegetable lasagna, made with broccoli. In middle school, my grandmother and I would often go together, splitting a salad and an entree. That, and getting banana-strawberry smoothies there, were my first fond food memories of dining out while veggie.
And, like many others, lasagna evokes warm memories for me. The Salad Bar is long gone, but one lesson I remember from that place: leaving out meat hardly means leaving out flavor. Going gluten-free has made dining more difficult, which means I’ve had to do more cooking at home. (One note, though: I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t mention Detroit Vegan Soul’s lasagna, which is delicious, and makes me want to try my hand at vegan ricotta.)
One suggestion I can make, regarding noodles: try to find brown rice noodles. Of those, I’ve had the best luck with Tinkyada. Great flavor and consistency, they’re never crumbly, and aren’t dry and weird the next day. Heck, my roommates (three of ‘em) didn’t believe me when I told them their dinner had non-wheatie noodles.
When making vegetable lasagna, the question you need to ask is: what kind of veggies do you want? While broccoli is a favorite of mine, it does have a strong flavor— hence, why this recipe uses spinach instead, along with zucchini and eggplant.
Interestingly, whenever I make lasagna, it’s always with family or a group of friends, and I’m often drinking. So, this recipe is comprised of tips from several other friends I’ve cooked with. And so I’m going to begin not with a list of ingredients, or directions, but a list of tips for making excellent lasagna.
1. Buy more vegetables than you’ll think you’ll need. Especially things like squash, zucchini and mushrooms lose a lot of water, and cook down a great deal, when you saute them. Spinach especially.
2. Saute your vegetables before you add them to your lasagna— you want to bring out the flavors in your ingredients before you bake them.
3. Add more garlic. Garlic is a wonderful flavor, and it’s healthy as well.
4. Don’t splurge on cheese. After 40 minutes in the oven, it won’t matter how fancy the mozzarella is.
5. Don’t buy pre-made tomato sauce. Go with tomato paste and crushed tomatoes instead— you will be able to control the flavors and spice level easier.
1 box gluten-free lasagna noodles (Tinkyada is what I used)
1 fifteen oz. container ricotta (if you want to go lighter, you can use cottage cheese)
2 cups shredded mozzarella
1 bag spinach
3-4 medium zucchinis
1 medium sized eggplant
1 medium onion
3-4 garlic cloves
1 bunch fresh Italian parsley
1 8 oz container mushrooms
1 can of tomato paste
2 cans crushed tomatoes
1 egg (optional)
2 tablespoons butter (optional)
salt and pepper, to taste
1. Start boiling the water for the pasta, because getting water boiling for big lasagna noodles will take a while.
2. Peel and slice the eggplant into round sections, about 1” inch wide, and soak the eggplant in water with one tablespoon salt for about 20 minutes. (This will cut down on the bitterness.)
3. Dice the onion and mushrooms, and saute them with the minced garlic in olive oil.
4. Chop the zucchini, and then drain and pat the eggplant dry.
5. When the onions and mushrooms are staring to brown, add the diced zucchini, eggplant and mushrooms.
6. Let the zucchini and eggplant cook for a few minutes. When they start to soften, add the tomato paste and crushed tomatoes. Simmer for about 20 minutes.
7. While the sauce is simmering, dice up the Italian parsley (you’ll want about one cup.) Melt the butter in the microwave, and mix the ricotta, parsley and egg together in a bowl.
8. Take your spinach, and add it to a pan with a bit of olive oil and garlic. Wilt the spinach just a little, before you add it to the lasagna.
9. Don’t forget to check on the noodles!
10. A hint about layering: begin with a layer of sauce, before putting any noodles in the dish. This will keep the noodles from sticking to the bottom of the pan.
11. Start layering: lay the noodles across the sauce, with the edges just touching. Then add another layer of sauce, then some mozzarella cheese, then another pasta layer.
12. Then, to change it up: add the ricotta in one layer, making sure to spread the cheese out evenly across the noodles. On top of the ricotta, layer the slightly wilted spinach.
13. Continue to layer the pasta, mozzarella and sauce until you run out.
14. Sprinkle the last of the mozzarella on top.
15. Bake at 40 minutes at 350 degrees, or until the cheese is bubbling.
(And whenever I look at the word “lasagna,” I keep hearing it pronounced with a hard g, all Zapp Brannigan style. Champaign, anyone?)