Vegetable Lasagna a la Diva
With all these veggies, there isn’t even room for meat in this dish! Believe me you won’t miss it. There’s a little prep work involved but mostly just washing and chopping vegetables. You can set someone to that task if you want to get to the noodles cooked and dig out a 13”x9” pan.
Once all the veggies are in small bits they need a bit of time in the skillet with a dollop of butter to and acquire that roasty flavor. I start with the traditional trio of all Italian dishes, carrots, celery, and onion or as the French call it, Mirepoix. When the onions are clear and browning on the edges, I add some poblano pepper, broccoli stems and florets (Zucchini could be used also). Steam building up from all these cooking vegetables is enough to cook the broccoli (or zuke). Plus, it will bake further as well. I set that on the back burner and get my big pot of salted water boiling for the noodles. I only need nine of them for the three layers of this lasagna. With a pair of tongs I set the noodles on their side to cook evenly and stay as whole as possible. My noodles were pretty busted up to begin with but it wont matter. As long as the top three noodles are the pretty ones, no one will ever know that cracked or broken noodles are under all that yummy cheese and sauce. What ever shape your noodles are in, just cook them 8 minutes and reserve about a half a cup of the liquid it was cooked in for later. They won’t be all the way done but they will continue to absorb sauce later and finish cooking nicely. I keep them in the colander while I finish the sauce. Now that the big pot is free I slice the mushrooms and cook them separately. I start to saute three baby Portobello mushrooms in a pat or two of butter. I add a couple splashes of soy sauce, which really gives them a meatier taste but I don’t want soy sauce to take over all the veggies so that’s why I cook the mushrooms separately. I add about a quarter cup of dry white wine next, a little salt and pepper too, and reduce the liquid until it is nearly gone. The mushrooms soak up quite a bit of delicious flavor (I could totally eat a plate of just these). Next, I add the veggies that have been on the back burner and mix that in with a can of tomato paste, diced tomatoes and about half a jar of artichoke hearts (paying attention to the tenderness of the leaves and removing anything too stringy or tough). In goes a jar of spaghetti sauce next and last but not least the herbs. I have a ton of basil growing out back so I use it. I also have thyme, but it’s growing waaay on the other side of the house and I’m feeling too lazy to go out and pick some. Fortunately, I have some dried from last season that I add instead. Fresh is best, but slightly less than fresh will have to do…I’ve got a family to feed before it gets too late.
I use a lot of products from Aldi that are just as good as big brands. Their spaghetti sauce is similar to Prego…both, I think are very good but Aldi’s is only $1.89. Their bricks of cheese are also about the same price and taste really good. I use two: one of the Monterey Jack and one mozzarella. I like to grate my own cheese when ever possible because It’s less expensive, it tastes better, and there are less additives. I don’t trust processed stuff much anyway.
What are they adding and why? Well, there’s potato starch to prevent caking, cellulose, (what ever that means) and natamycin, a so-called natural mold inhibitor. I’m OK taking the extra 20 seconds to skip that stuff, thank you. I do use parmesan cheese from a can though and it has some anti caking stuff but not the mold inhibitor. If I had the real stuff on hand I would so use that instead.
Well now, the sauce is ready, the noodles are ready, the 13×9 pan is ready…it’s time to assemble this dish. The first layer starts with my adding a little of the pasta liquid which helps thin about half a cup of sauce, enough to just cover the bottom of the pan. This layer will help release the noodles when you are ready to serve. Also the extra moisture will keep the pasta from drying out while baking. I rinse the noodles in cool water to unstick them from one another. I do this carefully so I don’t tear them up, using the ugliest ones for the bottom layer. Next more sauce goes on…just enough to cover the noodles completely. Keep in mind that you have to cover two more layers and you don’t want to run yourself out of sauce before you reach the top layer. So now, I’m ready for the cheese! Low fat cottage works as well as ricotta…a little trick my dad taught me but you don’t want to add too much…just a dot here and there. Next I add the Monterey Jack cheese, just enough to cover the sauce and cottage cheese. Everyone has different levels of cheese love…I kind of consider mine in the moderate to high range. But you can do what ever your heart desires: pile it on or sparingly sprinkle. Next will be a showering of parmesan cheese for that sharp flavor. I do this just to fill in the cracks.
The second layer is exactly like the first: A layer of noodles, sauce enough to cover them, dots of cottage cheese/ricotta cheese (you could add more ricotta in each layer because it doesn’t have as much moisture as cottage cheese), Jack cheese, and parmesan cheese. At this point I’m about to run out of Jack cheese so I break open the mozzarella. I only need about 3 oz. to get the sauce covered. Finally I’m ready for the top layer. Everything is the same as the first two except for the absence of cottage cheese and that I’m completely out of Jack cheese and go with the mozzarella. Jack cheese is a creamier cheese when it melts than the mozzarella, but mozzarella has that stringy quality when it melts. It seems like a better choice for the top layer to me but again to each their own. It’s the sauce that will soak into the noodles. The cheese’s job is to stay put between the layers and do its job being melty and yummy throughout.
It is time to bake this saucy cheesy work of art. So about since the second layer I’ve had the oven fired up and preheated to 350°. In she goes for about 35 minutes or until the top is nicely melted, bubbly, and browning a little on the edges.
I’ve only added a little fat to saute the veggies and since there’s no meat there’s none of the fat associated with it. I don’t feel a bit of guilt eating a dish that boasts seven vegetables. I had a can of butter beans I would have drained of liquid to add a bit more protein but decided against it. There was already just enough stuff in it to coat three layers of noodles so maybe some other day. As always it is a hit at the dinner table. A little side salad of lettuce, tomatoes and green peppers, and everyone is eating yet three more vegetables and not missing the meat one bit. I don’t hear anyone complaining about it either. We say our grace, and thank God for the wonderful variety of plants covering our Earth that can be assembled into such delicious food. Now it’s time to tuck in!