March 17, 2012
For a while, it seemed like the default vegetarian option at any pre-set or group menu at restaurants in this town was vegetarian lasagna. Not being vegetarian myself, I had more options to choose from, but I recall sitting next to any number of folks who would fork disdainfully through their entrees muttering about the general lack of anything resembling a vegetable other than tomato (in sauce form) and perhaps a sliced mushroom (if they were lucky), or mushy cube of something indeterminate, and which might have once been zucchini, or possibly bell pepper. Mostly, they were bland and unimaginative, as far as I could determine from the reactions. I avoided the dish at all costs, personally, because I never, not even once, heard anyone say that it was delicious.
But really, there are so many reasons that vegetarian lasagna could be fantastic, that I became determined to work one out. This is the vegetarian recipe that has been my staple for the past 15 years.
Notes: The idea of grated zucchini and chopped mushrooms standing in for ground meat comes from from Anne Lindsay's Lighthearted Everyday Cooking. The idea of roasted fennel comes from the now-defunct Cafe S'il Vous Plait on Robson Street (although, I'm not sure they roasted it). Mixing the cheese and egg with the spinach is a tip I stole from my sister. The rest is pretty much classic!
Total prep & cooking time: 2 to 2 1/2 hours, depending on your level of organization
1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
1 foot-long zucchini, grated
500 grams mushrooms, button or cremini
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, minced
796 mL canned diced tomatoes (no sodium added)
2 cups tomato sauce (no or low sodium)
1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
200 grams mixed wild mushrooms
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups part-skim ricotta or 1% cottage cheese
300 grams chopped frozen spinach, thawed
pinch grated nutmeg
9 lasagna noodles (or equivalent fresh noodles)
200 grams mozzarella, grated
1/2 cup parmesan, freshly grated
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
pinch of chile flakes
1 teaspoon fennel seed
1/2 teaspoon oregano leaves (less, if using powdered)
1 teaspoon dried basil leaves (or 1/4 cup fresh)
Pre-heat the oven to 400℉. Spritz a 9x13" glass baking dish lightly with cooking spray, or rub lightly with canola oil. Toss the sliced fennel bulb with 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil and a tablespoon of water, and add a pinch of salt. Roast uncovered in the oven for about 30 minutes, until the fennel is completely tender. Remove from oven, scoop the fennel onto a plate or bowl, and set the oily pan aside to build the lasagna in, later. Start heating your water to boil the noodles.
In the meantime In a medium bowl, combine the ricotta, the spinach (squeeze out excess water first), the egg, and the nutmeg, and mix thoroughly with a fork.
Prepare the wild mushrooms by cleaning, removing any woody stems, and slicing into large, recognizable pieces.
Use a food processor or mini-prep to finely chop (pulse) the button mushrooms until the pieces are mostly roughly the size of green lentils. In a large skillet, heat the remaining olive oil, and begin to saute the onions and garlic. Feel free to deglaze with a little splash of water or wine as you go, to keep them from sticking. Once the onions are starting to turn translucent, add the grated zucchini, and the chopped mushrooms. Stir and saute until the vegetables are tender, and any excess liquid has evaporated. Add the wild mushrooms, and stir them through. Add the salt, white pepper, chile flakes, fennel seed, and oregano, and continue to stir and saute. When the herbs are all nicely integrated in, add the diced tomatoes with their juices, the tomato paste, the tomato sauce (except for about a half-cup), and, if the mixture instantly looks too thick, a half-cup to a cup of water. Add the basil, and let the sauce cook gently, covered, over low heat, while you boil up the noodles.
Get the noodles going, and drain in a colander once just barely tender. Lay the noodles out on a cutting board or sheet, if you want to keep them from sticking to each other.
In your oily 9x13" baking dish, put down the reserved bit of tomato sauce, and spread it out to cover the bottom of the dish. Add three noodles to cover the sauce, and then add 1/3 of the simmered vegetable sauce, spreading it out evenly. Next, add all of the roasted fennel bulb, spreading it out into a nice even layer. Add half of the mozzarella cheese, sprinkling it over the fennel. Lay down the next three noodles. Lay down half of the remaining vegetable sauce, spreading it nice and evenly. Add the ricotta cheese and spinach mixture, carefully spooning it around the dish, and then using the back of the spoon to smooth it all into a layer. Top with the last three noodles, and the last of the sauce. Cover the top of the dish with the remaining mozzarella and the parmesan. If you like a little green, you can throw some chopped parsley in there, too.
Cover the dish with foil (spray the underside lightly with canola oil or rub it with olive oil first) and bake for 40 minutes, or until bubbling and hot. Remove from the oven and let it stand, uncovered, for about 10 minutes before you cut it, to make sure that it serves up nicely, and doesn't just slide apart. You can use that time to knock together a salad, or some garlic bread or something.
Enjoy with a nice glass of wine, and the comfort of knowing that you will eat well for days to come.
Does it take a while? Yeah. But, you can make it in advance for a dinner party, and it freezes well, too.
I'm currently contemplating a version that includes some coarsely/medium-ly chopped chickpeas somewhere in the mix, but I'm undecided if I should add them to the vegetable sauce or the cheese-and-spinach layer. I'll report back, once I've taken a crack at it.