Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Vegetarian lasagna for pals

The recipe that I'm about to post will seem like it's not for the faint of heart; there are many, many steps. But each step is simple and can be accomplished with a variety of homemade and store bought ingredients. Maybe you're more adventurous than I am and you have pasta-making skills and want to roll your own lasagna noodles, or maybe you're more pressed for time than I was and you use jarred marinara sauce and frozen spinach. Ultimately, I suppose that somebody would be able to tell the difference in a side by side comparison of lasagnas -- but nobody's going to do that, and everybody is going to be so, so thrilled that you made them a lasagna that they won't say a word. I put this lasagna together with love for my pals Andrew and Rachel who just welcomed a lil tiny baby into their house, and I can imagine that activities like cooking are eons away from their minds. So maybe you have a friend going through a stressful and busy time, or maybe you just love your friends so much that you gift them giant hulking trays of pasta and cheese. Either way, this recipe is special and the end result is tasty, small in dimensions but stacked tall so it'll be easy for your pal to stick in their fridge, easily reheated and freezes extremely well. I have some suggestions at the bottom of the recipe for how to gift this lasagna and step by step pics for how to assemble. Of course you can make this lasagna for yourself as well, and actually you could double the recipe without all that much extra effort and assemble two at once, one for you and one for your pal!

This is one of those recipes where having all of your ingredients in front of you before you begin is essential, and you don't want to start assembling the lasagna before everything is ready and laid all out for you, just to help you stay organized. I've laid out a plan for making homemade marinara sauce, using the kinds of noodles that require parboiling, and using fresh spinach and mushrooms. If you follow what I laid out here, you should really only end up with a half dozen dirty dishes--! I know you don't believe me, but it's true. This was essential in my planning, which other folks without a dishwashing partner surely understand.

My general plan:
1. start marinara sauce and set it to simmer (sauce pan)
2. cook spinach (your very largest pasta pot and a strainer)
3. cook mushrooms (use the spinach pot)
4. boil water for noodles (use the spinach/mushroom pot)
5. put together ricotta mixture (large mixing bowl)
6. grate the pecorino cheese (small mixing bowl)
7. boil noodles and drain (spinach/mushroom pot and a strainer)
8. assemble lasagna (lasagna pan, I used a disposable aluminum one because this was a gift)

See!? Not so bad. OK, here it goes:

Marinara sauce:

1 tbsp olive oil
1 yellow onion
2 garlic cloves
1 or 2 carrots, enough for ~ 1 C when grated
1/4 C red or white wine (optional)
1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes (I used the kind with basil in them already)
handful of chopped fresh parsley and oregano (optional)
1 C whole milk (optional but really nice in the lasagna)
salt and pepper to taste

Dice onions fine, mince garlic cloves and grate the carrot on a small or medium setting on your box grater (or alternatively, dice fine). Add olive oil to your sauce pan and heat on medium heat. When the oil's hot, add the onions and a pinch of salt and cook stirring occasionally until translucent, about four minutes. Add the carrots and garlic and cook for another minute. Add the wine, stir and let it evaporate for a minute, then add the tomatoes. Bring to a boil (but keep an eye on it because the mix will be somewhat thick and you don't want sauce everywhere as it's bubbling), then lower to a simmer and cook for 45 minutes. Turn off the heat and add salt and pepper to taste (for the lasagna, err on the side of less salt because there will be a lot of other, seasoned components in the dish), and stir in the milk and herbs, and set aside somewhere out of the way.


18 oz of fresh spinach (volume isn't super important here; I would avoid baby spinach because I think it's stringy when cooked up, I used bags of spinach from the grocery store which came in 9 oz quantities. Shoot for a pound of spinach, and a little more or less doesn't change things much. This was a very high spinach to ricotta ratio at the end)

Rinse spinach thoroughly in a strainer. No need to get all the water off, it will help steam the spinach faster. Turn heat to medium under your big pasta pot and add all the spinach, stirring / being patient as it all gradually wilts down. Cook until just wilted and bright green, and drain spinach back into the strainer and immediately run cold water over it. This should make it cool enough to handle, and you'll want to squeeze as much water out of the spinach as you can. Set spinach aside.


1/2 lb any kind of mushrooms, I used cremini 
Small amount of chopped parsley and/or oregano (optional)

Wipe out spinach pot but don't go crazy with washing it. Add a small splash of oil and season with a pinch of salt, and cook mushrooms on medium heat until they release some liquid and get color on them, about 5 or 6 minutes. Turn off heat and pour mushrooms into a glass bowl, toss with a little chopped parsley and oregano if you're using it elsewhere.

Lasagna noodles:

Your package of noodles will give you the most accurate instructions on how to prepare them. Mine had to boil for 4 minutes, then drain. Yours might be the no boil kind, which you often soak in a little bit of milk ahead of time. Just follow whatever instructions you need to get the noodles ready to assemble the lasagna. If you're rolling homemade noodles -- you're on your own, because I've never done that before! I used 9 noodles in total from my 12 oz box, which was around half the noodles in the box.

Assemble the lasagna:

All of the components prepared above PLUS:

Ricotta filling: 

1 C full fat ricotta
1 egg
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 C fresh parsley, chopped coarsely
2 tbsp fresh oregano, chopped coarsely

and, 1 C grated parmesan or pecorino cheese (keep separate from filling)

Mix all of the above ingredients together in a large mixing bowl and set aside for a minute. Take your cooked spinach and squeeze in a kitchen towel or against the edges of the strainer (or I just used my hands) and try to get as much water out of the spinach as you possibly can. This will help keep the lasagna from getting too watery. Then mix the spinach in thoroughly with the ricotta and set aside. Gather all of your lasagna components around you, including the baking dish. I used a deep square pan from the grocery store, which came with its own lid making this all even easier when it came time to carry the lasagna to my pals.

Coat the inside of the pan with a little bit of olive oil. Spoon about 1/4 C of the marinara into the bottom. Next layer lasagna noodles, overlapping one another slightly, to line the bottom of the pan. Then take 1/2 C of the ricotta mixture and 1/4 C of the marinara and dollop across the surface of the noodles, as evenly as you can. Sprinkle with 1/4 C of grated cheese. Cover this layer with another layer of noodles and repeat, this time adding the mushrooms with the ricotta, until you've filled your pan to the top (the lasagna will sink a little as it cooks, so it's ok to fill it up pretty full). These suggestions got me a generously filled, 3 layer lasagna, but if you're using a bigger pan, you might want to adjust the filling amounts and do just two layers.

Bake the lasgana on top of a cookie sheet at 350 degrees, covered with aluminum foil for 40 minutes and uncovered for about 15 minutes or until the cheese has melted on the top and the whole thing is really bubbling.

To prepare this as a gift for someone like I did, you have some options! You can gift it unbaked, cooked, and frozen either unbaked or cooked, all depending on what your friends would prefer. If you freeze it, make sure to either defrost the lasgana in the fridge for several hours before baking, or plan on double the baking time (warming up an already baked lasagna should take about 30 minutes at 350, and probably an hour if its frozen). To gift it unbaked, ask your friends to bake it within a day and store it in the fridge until they do, or freeze.

Wow! Congrats to you for making your way through my lasagna novel. Basically, the point being that there's not actually a lot of technique or difficulty to putting one of these together, it just takes some time.

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