Cheesy Vegetarian Lasagna

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I really can’t explain what on earth possessed me, at 5 pm in Kroger, exhausted from working all day, to randomly pick up a few ingredients that would facilitate my creation of a lasagna, a dish that I know takes at least 2.5 hours to compile and cook. Maybe it’s part of the start-of-the-semester nesting that takes place every year, where I try to stock my freezer with individual portions of food, ready to grab & go for quick lunches or for those emergency nights where I just can’t bring myself to cook anything. Or maybe it’s because this weekend, when we went to Nino’s, I was secretly drooling over the lasagna one of our friends ordered (I held back on ordering something decadent since I decided, that day, to sign up for a triathlon the next – cheese, cream-based sauces and a 3 hour, 3 sport race don’t exactly mix, but my eggplant & tomato penne fueled me up just fine).

But really, I think I just *had* to make this lasagna because sometimes, the only thing that makes me feel better after a long couple of days at work is coming home and totally destroying my kitchen, blaring my “The Hollies” Pandora station, and getting totally lost in the creative act of throwing together something that may or may not work, from scratch, just for the fun of it. Luckily for both Dave and me, tonight, it turned out pretty delicious.

I learned something by making this particular version of lasagna, too: if you run out of homemade marinara sauce but you have extra homemade bechamel, you can substitute the bechamel for marinara and it works just fine. In fact, it works better than fine, because bechamel is basically cheese sauce, and I just don’t think there’s any such thing as a lasagna with too much cheese.

Cheesy Vegetarian Lasagna

First: cook 1 pound of lasagna noodles in salted, boiling water for about 5 minutes. (They’ll finish cooking in the oven.) Drain & drizzle with oil to keep them from drying out. Set aside while you continue your prep.

Second: make some homemade marinara sauce. Sure – use a jarred Barilla if you must. But I gave up on jarred sauces a while back – they just don’t taste as good to me anymore. Here’s my basic, go-to recipe:
* In a large saucepan over medium heat, sautee a small onion, diced, with salt & pepper.
* After a few minutes, add a few diced garlic cloves. Then add some dried oregano (or Italian seasoning blend).
* Then add 1 28-ounce can of tomatoes, pureed. Add some more salt & pepper to taste.
* Simmer for 15 minutes & set aside. Add fresh parsley & basil at the end if you’ve got it.
* See? That’s nothing. You can totally make your own marinara. You’re welcome.

Third: make your bechamel. This isn’t a perfect ratio, but it worked for me and is based loosely on Giada’s recipe:
* In a saucepan, melt 3 tablespoons butter.
* As soon as it’s melted, add a scant 1/3 cup all purpose flour
* Stir constantly for 2 minutes
* Whisk in 2 cups whole milk (or, if you’re like me and don’t keep whole milk, something like 1 cup heavy cream & 1 cup 2%, or some half & half… whatever you’ve got will work)
* Add some salt, pepper & freshly grated nutmeg (mmmm… fresh nutmeg)
* Bring to a simmer, whisking frequently. The sauce should thicken up & coat the back of a spoon.
* Set aside.
* Try not to eat it all before it goes in the lasagna.

Fourth: prepare your veggies. You’ll need:
* 1 package frozen spinach, thawed & drained
* a diced bell pepper, squash & zucchini, sauteed in olive oil
* about a pound of mushrooms, diced & sauteed in butter

Fifth: get your ricotta filling ready. I used:
* about 16 ounces whole-milk ricotta

* some grated parmesan (maybe 1/4 cup… whatever I had leftover from the last big parm purchase)
* 1 egg
* salt & pepper
* fresh parsley
* whisk all that together.

Oh, somewhere in there, you should probably preheat your oven to 375.

Sixth: assemble the lasagna. Here’s what I did:
* Spray a 9 x 13 pan with nonstick cooking spray
* Cover the bottom of the pan with half the bechamel
* Put one layer of semi-cooked lasagna noodles on top of the bechamel
* Put half the ricotta mixture on top of the noodles
* Put half the spinach, mushrooms & sauteed squash & pepper mixture on top of that
* Put a whole bunch of mozzarella cheese on top of the veggies
* Put at least half, up to 2/3 of the tomato sauce on top of all that
* Repeat the process as follows: noodles, ricotta, veggies, mozzarella, and then – the rest of the bechamel (mmmm)
* Top with another layer of noodles
* Then top with the rest of your tomato sauce and another large few handfuls of cheese
* Throw in the oven uncovered for 45 minutes
* Allow it to sit out at room temp for 15 minutes before eating

Yeah, I can’t believe I did all that after working all day either. This is more like a Saturday afternoon sort of meal, but it really did alleviate some of my stress.

Of course, if you absolutely must have meat in your lasagna, add some crumbled ground beef or Italian sausage, but I happen to prefer vegetarian lasagna to the meat-based one. This makes enough to feed a small army, so if you aren’t feeding a small army, have your Ziploc containers ready & freeze small portions for a rainy day.

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Caprese Pasta

I love caprese salad. My love for the combination of fresh tomatoes, crisp basil and soft, gooey, fresh mozzarella began on the day I moved to Lexington. Dave accompanied me on the journey to Lexvegas on a Friday night in early August, 2006. We actually brought the U-Haul to The Lexington “Luxury” (ha! right. I’m laughing.) Apartments early on a Saturday morning. After we got some of my stuff unloaded, we decided we needed a break, and I wanted to see part of the city. So, we ventured out to the Lexington Farmer’s Market, where I discovered a very happy thing that took place each Saturday morning in the summer and early fall.

We picked up some fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, fresh mozzarella, and a nice loaf of crusty French bread, took it back to the apartment and made the most delicious sandwiches I think either of us had ever had. I don’t know why they were so good, but they were. Maybe we were just tired, and needed something more refreshing than just leftover pizza. Or maybe it was a warm summer day and we needed cooling off, as these sandwiches are prone to do. Either way, we still talk about the sandwiches we made on that particular day as the epitome of a good tomato, basil & mozzarella sandwich.

A few weeks ago, I started making caprese skewers as appetizers for whenever I had company. They’ve been a huge hit so far, kicked up a notch by the addition of my homemade balsamic vinaigrette: about half and half of balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, whisked together with a pinch of brown sugar, salt and pepper. Who doesn’t love a good condiment? It’s my go-to salad dressing.

Yesterday, I had in my fridge some leftover fresh mozzarella, and on my counter some leftover basil and on-the-vine tomatoes, and couldn’t kick the thought of creating a caprese pasta for lunch. So I did. And it was yum-tastic.

Caprese Pasta (for 3 servings… odd, I know, but that’s how it turned out)

3 on-the-vine tomatoes, washed, cored, seeded and diced

couple Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

one big clove of garlic, chopped

salt & pepper

some fresh mozzarella (preferably packed in water – don’t even bother using shredded)

a good handful each of fresh basil & parsley, chopped

3 servings of bowtie, penne, or rotini pasta

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a handful of kosher salt, add pasta, cook until al dente.

In the meantime, heat a skillet over medium-high with some EVOO. Add the tomatoes, garlic, and salt & pepper. Sautee over medium heat until the pasta is ready, stirring regularly.

Drain pasta, add it to the tomatoes in the pan, and stir. Turn off the heat, stir in the mozzarella, herbs, and more salt & pepper to taste. Top with shaved parmesan cheese (not out of a green plastic container – freshly grated is much better).

Hope you enjoy this super easy, fairly healthy, springtime lunch or dinner.