May it Please the Palate: Vegetarian Lasagna Redux

As these chilly days of April stubbornly linger, I crave warm comfort foods. My memory returned to a simple mushroom lasagne a friend had once made, with no-boil noodles. I looked for recipes of that ilk, focusing on easy vegetarian spinach-mushroom lasagnes, and found nothing that quite satisfied. They were either hopelessly complicated, or they were of the weight-watcher type with cooking spray instead of olive oil, and faux cheese. Shudder.

I decided to give a recipe from "Cooks Illustrated" a try. I accidentally subscribed to their online magazine after forgetting to cancel at the end of my trial period. If you've seen their TV show "America's Test Kitchen," their shtick is perfecting recipes to make them foolproof.

Well, color me foolish. I made their vegetable lasagne for Easter dinner and despite the promising list of ingredients, I was disappointed. The no-boil noodles were alternately gummy and crispy, and the roasted vegetables had lost their taste. If I were reviewing that dish, I can assure you the restaurant would not have framed it and hung it on the wall, except perhaps as a shaming motivational tool.

So I went back to the drawing board. I substituted fresh lasagne noodles for the no-boil, a rich tomato puree for diced tomatoes, and cut back on the cheese. I also roasted all the vegetables together without letting them get charred, to retain moisture and flavor, which also simplified the recipe (Cooks Illustrated fussily insisted that each vegetable be cooked individually). With plenty of fresh herbs at the finish, the final result was not only pretty but full of flavor--and definitely a great improvement on "Roumel I."

This takes about 30-40 minutes to clean and cut all the vegetables; once that's done the rest is easy.

Ingredients:

For the roasted vegetables, you can also add or subtract as desired. Other possibilities include black olives, cauliflower, fennel, yellow squash, chard or kale, etc. You will want at least 5 or 6 cups when all is said and done.

4 artichoke hearts

1/2 lb. asparagus

1/2-1 head broccoli, cut into small florets

1/2-1 eggplant

1 lb. mushrooms, various varieties

1 red and/or green pepper

3-4 Roma tomatoes, seeded

1 zucchini

1/2 lb. spinach, roughly chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

2-4 TBS olive oil

1 TBS kosher salt

For the sauce:

2 TBS olive oil

1-2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 yellow onion, finely diced

28 oz. can pureed or crushed tomatoes, or more

1/2 bunch fresh basil, finely chopped

crushed red pepper, salt and pepper to taste

For the lasagne:

1 package fresh lasagne noodles (6-8 sheets) or dried noodles, cooked according to package directions

1/2-1 lb. shredded mozzarella, queso fresca, and/or ricotta

2-3 oz. shredded parmesan

1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley

Equipment:

Large roasting pan for vegetables, lightly greased with cooking spray

9 x 13 deep baking pan for lasagne, greased

aluminum foil, lightly sprayed with cooking spray on underside

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 400°.

2. Cut all the vegetables into 1/2 dice, except cut the broccoli and spinach as noted above. Toss with olive oil and kosher salt, spread on roasting pan, and place on top rack of oven for 25-30 minutes; remove just before vegetables begin to char.

3. While vegetables are roasting, heat oil, onion and garlic in large saucepan until fragrant but not brown. Add crushed or pureed tomatoes, stir over medium low heat. After about 10 minutes, add salt, pepper, and red pepper to taste, and add basil.

4. Spread small amount of sauce evenly over bottom of lasagne pan and cover with noodle(s). Spread 1/3 of the roasted vegetables evenly over noodles and 1/4 of the sauce on top.

5. Add a second layer of noodles, roasted vegetables, and sauce.

6. Add a third layer of noodles, but this time, mix your cheeses together (except the parmesan) with half the chopped parsley and spread this over the noodles.

7. Add a fourth layer of noodles and top as before with the remaining vegetables and 1/2 of the remaining sauce.

8. Top with the last layer of noodles. Using fresh pasta sheets, I cut the top sheets into strips to make a lattice effect, with a narrow gap to show off the vegetables underneath. Top this layer with the parmesan cheese, remaining sauce, and chopped parsley.

9. Adjust oven rack to middle position and lower oven to 375°. Cover pan with foil. Bake 25 minutes; remove foil and continue baking until top turns golden brown in spots, about 15 minutes. Remove pan from oven and let lasagne rest 5 minutes. Garnish with any leftover parsley and/or basil. Cut and serve immediately.

It is not often that life gives us a do-over, whether in litigation or otherwise. But with vegetable lasagne, give me a second chance, and I will make the most of it.

Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for "Current" magazine in Ann Arbor. He occasionally updates his blog at http://mayitpleasethepalate.blogspot.com/.

Published: Mon, Apr 8, 2013

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