Reinventing an old favorite, better than ever

I woke up today and felt like making lasagna. Lasagna used to make an appearance a few times a year on my cooking rotation, combining long-simmered homemade red sauce with thick layers of creamy ricotta and chewy mozarella. Oh, and some garlicky spinach for color, of course. Then came cancer year, and the long list of “no” foods, and I created a “no”-food-friendly lasagna recipe for my mom and the other people in her treatement group that had lots of veggies and none of the forbidden stuff like refined flour or cheese or soy or meat or anything else that actually belongs in lasagna. It was pretty tasty, but not terribly filling. You had to eat about half a pan to feel satisfied, which is totally antithetical to the whole function of lasagna, which, as far as I’m concerned, is to spend more time than usual preparing a fairly elaborate dish, but then get a payoff which is that one small square of that jam-packed, densely layered dish can feed a family of four for a week.

lasagna

So today I woke up and felt like making lasagna for the first time in a long while, but this time it would need to be my first vegan, gluten-free, CFS-friendly lasagna. By CFS-friendly I mean that this would need to be a lasagna with the proper energy input-output equation; in other words, a few hours in the kitchen today that would translate to many “no problem, we’re having lasagna!” meals in the coming week.

As I gear up to recount the great lasagna adventure, now would be a perfect time to mention the big news of the summer. Not only has Farmer B returned at last from the East, she has brought her joyful sense of fun, gracious disposition, and farming/cooking/preserving/sauerkraut-and-kombucha-fermenting savvy and know-how into our home for the summer, and Duck and I could not be happier with our new housemate. Part of my inspiration to make lasagna was the amazing lentil, potato, carrot, mushroom dal Farmer B had made for us all the night before, spurring me to want to make an elaborate meal she could just relax and enjoy.

But of course, Farmer B being Farmer B, she had the day free and suggested that what could be more fun than making lasagna together, with her as my sous-chef, of course? So the great lasagna project got that much easier and a million times more fun. The only challenge that remained was figuring out what, exactly, would go in this thing. The gluten-free conversion for lasagna is easy since I’ve discovered Tinkyada brown rice pasta, the pasta that I actually prefer in texture and flavor to wheat pasta. But the vegan part is a bit trickier. There are many options – you can go the fake ground-meat route, or the soy-cheese route, or the just-veggies-and-red-sauce route, or, my personal favorite, the tofu-ricotta route.

I hate soy cheese in all its forms, and I don’t even like meat, so I am not going to go out of my way to find substitutes for it (most of which contain gluten, anyway). The just-veggies route seems to lead to rumbling, empty bellies five minutes after you finish a slice, plus I like my lasagna veggies simple. Just greens and maybe mushrooms, but none of this carrots and broccoli and zucchini randomness. But tofu-ricotta is tricky. You can crumble up tofu to the texture of ricotta, but it’s still crumbled-up tofu – bland, bland, bland. And sometimes it gets dry, because it doesn’t have all that nice dairy fat in it, and then you have a mouthful of dry bland tofu sandwiched between noodles.

To address the flavor issue I turned to vegan-cooking genius Isa Chandra Moscowitz of the Post-Punk Kitchen. Her recipe for Tofu Basil Ricotta sounded like exactly what I was looking for in the flavor department. And to deal with the lingering question of potential dryness, I called on my own vegan-cooking genius, and decided to incorporate some of my Savory Vegan Cream. I really think the addition of the cream was what ultimately pulled the whole dish together, flavor and texture-wise, plus I had not even anticipated the mouthwatering appeal of seeing a lasagna with a creamy red-and-white topping, as opposed to the usual plain vegan red sauce topping.

From my CSA box I had a huge bunch of chard, another of beet greens, and a few leaves of curly kale, as well as a bunch of fresh basil. Yum. Perfect filling. I made a simplified version of my old elaborate homemade red sauce, Farmer B whipped up some vegan cream sauce (and a little gluten-free peach and blueberry crisp for dessert), I massaged my tofu into ricotta-like perfection, we steamed the greens, and then finally I layered everything together. That’s the nervous part, for me, especially because I am never following one single recipe. Will there be enough sauce for all the layers? Did I use too many greens in the first layer and they won’t stretch all the way across on the next one? How much cream should I put – I don’t want it to get greasy! But everything came together beautifully (the lasagna gods were smiling on us today) and when it came out of the oven… well, you can see for yourself. I don’t think the picture does justice to the rich promise of herbs and tomatoes and creamy goodness that emerged from the oven. Perhaps you’ll just have to try it for yourself. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it!

Incredibly detailed recipe below…

Vegan, Gluten-Free Lasagna with Dark Leafy Greens and Combination Creamy and Red Sauce

Overview:

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Start pressing the tofu.
  3. Start the tomato sauce (unless you want a long-simmered tomato sauce, in which case start that a day ahead or 3 hours ahead or whatever you like).
  4. Steam the greens and start water boiling for the noodles.
  5. While the greens are steaming, blend up the vegan cream.
  6. Remove the greens from the heat, squeeze out excess water, set aside.
  7. Put in noodles to cook.
  8. If the tofu is done pressing (1 hour or more), make the tofu ricotta.
  9. Drain noodles, rinse, and set aside, making sure they don’t stick together.
  10. Finally, assemble the lasagna and bake!

Tomato Sauce:
You’ll need enough “tomato product” to make around 4 cups of sauce. So either use jarred premade pasta sauce (not the best option, but sometimes necessary), or make your own sauce from canned tomato options, including stewed tomatoes, diced tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, and tomato paste. I recommend not using very much tomato paste if you are making your own sauce because it can have a very strong taste that can be metallic or artificial tasting.

Olive oil
1 onion or red onion, diced
3-5 cloves garlic
Dry herbs: oregano, thyme, rosemary, basil, marjoram
3-4 cups total tomato product (stewed, crushed, diced, etc. tomatoes)
Salt and pepper

Heat olive oil over medium-high heat in a medium-sized pot. Saute onion and garlic until they are soft and golden. Add in tomato product, dried herbs to taste, salt, and pepper, and stir to combine. Bring to a boil, lower heat to low, and simmer, stirring occasionally. You can simmer as long as you like, but plan to give it at least 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, taste your sauce. Too thick? Add some water. Too acidic? Add a small sprinkle of sugar (a little goes a long way). Too thin? Add a small amount of tomato paste and cook longer until the sauce reduces. Make sure you end up with your 4 cups, though, so you have enough for your lasagna.

Greens:

2 large bunches of chard and/or beet greens (You can throw in a few leaves of kale like I did, but I don’t recommend having that as your main green)

Cut stems away from leaves and chop into medium pieces. Discard stems (or save for scrap stock.) Steam greens until tender. Remove from heat immediately, squeeze lightly to drain water from leaves, and set aside.

Vegan Cream Sauce:

1/2 C. unsweetened soy milk
2 t. lemon juice
2/3 C. olive oil
Salt & pepper

In a blender, combine 1/2 C. unsweetened soy milk with 2 t. lemon juice and blend for a minute and a half on high. While still running the blender, add 2/3 C. olive oil through the pouring hole in the blender cap, very slowly, in a one continuous stream. Keep blending until it gets thick. (If you have leftover cream you can refrigerate it. It will keep in the fridge for about a week.)

Tofu Ricotta: (from the Post-Punk Kitchen website)

1 1/2 pounds firm tofu, pressed (we like to use Wildwood sprouted tofu because it supposedly has better nutrient retention)
3 tsp lemon juice
3 tsp olive oil
2 clove garlic, minced
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup nutritional yeast flakes
handful fresh basil leaves, chopped fine (15 leaves or so)
dash fresh black pepper

Here’s a little guide to pressing tofu if you haven’t done it before. This is a vital step for preparing tofu ricotta so make sure to leave at least an hour for it.

After tofu is pressed: In a large bowl, mush the tofu up with your hands, till it’s crumbly. Add lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper and basil. Mush with hands again, this time you want it to get very mushy so squeeze through your fingers and mush until it reaches the consistency of ricotta cheese. May take 2-5 minutes.

Add olive oil, stir with fork. Add nutritional yeast and combine all ingredients well. Use a fork now, because the oil will make it sticky. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

Lasagna Noodles:

15 GF lasagna noodles (I like Tinkyada Brown Rice noodles)

Follow directions on box for cooking lasagna noodles, as different GF pastas have different cooking times.

Assembling the Lasagna:

Put about a cup of sauce, or enough to just cover the bottom of a lasagna pan. Then lay out your first layer of noodles. Spread about half the tofu mixture evenly across the noodles. Distribute half of the greens evenly across the tofu ricotta, then spread a thin layer of vegan cream across the greens. Next put another cup of tomato sauce, then another layer of noodles. Repeat the previous steps: tofu ricotta, greens, vegan cream. Finally top with a layer of noodles and another cup of sauce. Spread vegan cream on top of the tomato sauce. Cover the pan with foil and bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake for another 10 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes (this lets the lasagna firm up so it makes a nice even slice), serve, and enjoy!

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