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.

Rotini with Brown Butter Pumpkin Sauce

Ah, fall. It’s pretty much nonexistent in metro Atlanta and places further south than we are. But, about this time every year, I like to pretend I still live in Lexington – a place where fall is just beautiful, and the only place I’ve ever lived where there actually was a true fall – and act like the temps are cooler and the leaves are changing faster than they are.

Fall rituals help quite a bit in the “feels like fall” department. It starts with the most awesome ritual of all: college football season. You start out going to games where you feel like you’re melting, and end the season bundled up in your favorite Auburn hoodie.

The next big ritual is the purchase of delicious fall/pumpkin beers, my two favorites being Dogfish Head Punk’d and, my favorite adult beverage of all adult beverages able to be purchased in a bottle: Woodchuck Fall Cider. It’s only available in September and October. It’s seriously fall in a bottle. I get giddy when I know it’s in my fridge. Starting September 1, I call my local Total Wine daily until they tell me it’s in stock. For some reason, the Atlanta area was delayed in receiving their shipment this year (which meant I was really annoying to a lot of Total Wine employees this year), but my sweet husband found me some this week and left it waiting for me on the kitchen counter when I got home on Wednesday. It really did feel like Christmas day. I did a little happy dance and everything.

When Dave bought it, the person at checkout commented that they’d “been getting so many calls about this recently.” Dave responded that 90% of them were probably me.

Of course, Halloween rituals are the best of all. My first memory – yep, the earliest thing I remember ever happening – was Halloween 1984. I dressed up as a witch, and my aunts Leia & Sherry took me trick-or-treating. My mom was unable to take me that year because she’d just given birth earlier that day to my baby brother. I was so excited we were going to the hospital, because I thought we were going to get my candy x-rayed like they suggested on the public service ads I’d seen on tv.¬†Turns out, I was just going to see Heath. His Halloween birthday meant that Halloween for us every year was a HUGE deal. It always meant a party AND trick-or-treating. The end of October definitely has a special place in my heart.

(This is Heath and me, playing in our yard at home, I think in 1986. Mom always painted instead of carved a pumpkin every year. I wish I’d inherited her craftiness. Wasn’t Heath just the cutest little chunk muffin?)

Speaking of Lexington in the fall and Halloween rituals, did you know that every year, a local dance studio coordinates the reenactment of Michael Jackson’s Thriller on Main Street, starting at the historic Kentucky Theater? It’s the coolest thing ever. Zombies come out from the sidewalks and then they march in perfect choreography down the street! Fast forward to the 3 minute mark to see that. I like to think of it as the original flash mob; they’ve been doing it since 2002.

Another way I trick myself into thinking that it’s actually fall around here is by making fall meals. Last night, for example, I wanted something to complement my fall cider. So, I ended up with fall in a bottle AND fall in a bowl with this one. Curled up on the couch with this meal, the windows open, in pajama pants and watching the cat ignoring me, I have to say it made for a perfect fall Friday night.

It’s super hearty, so despite the cream and butter, I think this could technically be called a healthy meal, since you don’t really have to eat too much of it to be filled up. It’s also high in fiber, is quick to whip up (I’d do this as a weeknight meal), and it pretty cheap to make if you keep a stocked pantry.

Rotini with Brown Butter Pumpkin Sauce

for 2-3 servings, depending on how hungry you are

First: cook 2 servings of whole-wheat rotini (yes, I used whole-wheat. It was actually really good. I think Kroger brand pasta has changed their recipe of whole-wheat pastas so that they’re now pretty tasty) in boiling, salted water for 10 minutes or until al dente. Make sure to save some of the pasta water for later.

While that’s cooking, prepare your sauce. Brown 2 tablespoons butter, which means you cook it over medium high heat until it turns brown. You MUST use a stainless sauce pan for this to really work; you can’t tell if it’s brown or burnt in a nonstick pan. Unless you’re just that good. And if you are, why are you reading my amateur blog? It took my butter about 5 minutes of cooking to turn to the browned point. Remove from heat immediately upon the butter turning a light brown and set aside for later. It can go from “browned” to “burnt” and yucky in a matter of seconds, so watch it carefully. The point of bringing butter to the browned stage, instead of just melting it, is that when butter is browned, the flavor turns nutty, which is an incredible flavor addition that pairs really well with the heartiness of the pumpkin and complements the toasted walnuts you’ll add as a topping.

Dice about 1/2 cup onion, and sautee in some EVOO until translucent. Deglaze the pan with about 1/4 cup white wine. Cook until liquids are reduced by at least half, then incorporate 1 cup canned pumpkin. Add salt, pepper and a pinch of sage. Heat through, then add about 1/2 cup heavy cream. Combine, and bring to a gentle simmer. Stir in the browned butter. Take about 1/4 cup of the water you cooked the rotini in, and add it to the sauce to thin it out. You could also add half & half or more cream, but the water really helped to thin it out while also adding a nice carb-y flavor. I like carbs.

Toast some walnuts. In a nonstick pan, heat a handful of walnuts over medium heat, turning occasionally. As soon as you start to smell them (about 5 minutes), remove from heat and chop. Toasting the walnuts really brings out their flavor.

Drain pasta, combine it with the sauce, top with some parmesan cheese and the toasted walnuts, and you’ve got yourself a hearty, tasty fall meal.

Pasta Fail.

Sometimes, things just don’t work out the way you expect – especially in the kitchen. Even when you have the best of intentions, follow recipes, and have a foodie friend in the kitchen helping you out. Even when you and the aforementioned friend have been talking for months – literally, months – about how amazing it was going to be to make fresh pasta from scratch someday. Even when you watch, often with this foodie friend, hours and hours of Food Network, carefully observing how “real chefs” make their fresh pasta. This blog is, then, devoted to the “Pasta Fail” that Lindsey and I experienced on Friday.

Our goal was to make ravioli. We figured it wouldn’t be that hard. One reason: we’re both able to hold our own in the kitchen. We’ve attempted, successfully, recipes much more complicated than fresh pasta. We figured that we’d make up a couple sheets of fresh pasta, stuff it with a mixture of ricotta, goat cheese, parmesan, and herbs, topped with a marinara sauce: how bad could that be?

Pretty bad, actually.

Problem number 1: I couldn’t decide on a recipe, and didn’t do enough research to find out the “best” one to use. I had semolina flour, purchased specifically for the fresh pasta making, and I was determined to use it, even though most pasta recipes just called for plain old all purpose flour. So, the recipe I chose loosely followed Tyler Florence’s homemade pasta recipe (probably should’ve gone with Mario Batali’s, in hindsight, since he’s actually Italian). In my stand mixer, I combined: 1 cup semolina, 1 cup all purpose flour, couple glugs of olive oil, 3 eggs, and salt. While kneading the dough, I was clueless about what consistency would result in “good” fresh pasta. It was a little on the dry side, but I didn’t want it too wet, fearing it would make a mess of the cute little pasta maker we’d be using to roll out the sheets of dough. So, in hindsight, I should’ve added some water to loosen it up just a tad. This resulted in problem number 2:

Problem number 2: Our dough was too dry. Rolling it out was actually a lot of fun, and it took both of us to do it, since I couldn’t get my pasta maker sufficiently clamped to the counter. Though we were enjoying ourselves a little too much, tag teaming to develop beautiful, thin sheets of fresh pasta, it kept crumbling as we got it thinner and thinner. Another problem with it being too dry, is that it basically shattered whenever we tried to fold over our little ravioli pockets. It was at about this point in the process, a good hour and a half after starting the pasta making, that we realized there was no way we were going to be able to actually eat this stuff for lunch.


(see – you can tell how dry – and not pretty – these are)

Problem number 3: the dough wouldn’t stick together when we tried to seal up our ravioli. I was getting supremely frustrated, and I wasn’t even on “sealing” duty. We didn’t even care about making them pretty on the edges; we just wanted them closed up so they wouldn’t explode in the water when we attempted to cook them. Oh, but look what happened.

See all that foamy stuff? It’s exploded ravioli filling. At least the water was “well seasoned,” as Lindsey noted.

Problem number 4: we had no clue what we were doing and needed the services of an actual Italian grandmother to show us the way. She could’ve intervened at the dough-making stage and probably prevented the profuse amount of cursing that occurred as a result of our precious ravioli not working the way we wanted. Where’s Lydia Bastianich when you need her?

Bright side: look at the cute little amuse-bouche we got out of 2 hours of hard work.

Yep. That’s all that were edible. Out of all of this mess we made:

It wasn’t a total loss: the pasta tasted fine. And the filling was good. Our amuse were tasty. And none of the ingredients were particularly expensive, so I didn’t feel like I’d wasted a lot of money. So, for next time, we know that the basic recipe isn’t completely a bad idea – but we will think twice before executing a project of this nature without authentic Italian supervision.

Instead of our pasta deliciousness, we punted and went to Mellow Mushroom for beers. And pizza. And then came home and took naps while watching Everyday Italian reruns. And then drank iced coffee while watching more Cooking Channel. And we still had a fabulous day of fun.

And the next time I decide I want fresh pasta, I’m just going to go to Harry’s, purchase some premade ravioli, and cook them at home, at least until someone who knows what they’re doing is willing to come show me how to do fresh pasta correctly. Yes – that’s an open invitation to any of you blog readers who are expert pasta makers to come to Casa Dawmilam and help Lindsey and me redeem ourselves from the great pasta disaster.

Lasagna Confessions

Dinner tonight was lasagna (a pretty good one, if I do say so myself).

After we ate, I portioned it out into nice little serving-sized ziploc containers, ready for both freezer and fridge.

(I might be a little obsessive-compulsive about my leftovers, but I hate sending Dave off to work without a home-cooked meal for lunch. Wait, what’s that? 1952 called and they want their homemaker back?)

(Okay to be perfectly honest, I keep lunch portions in the freezer not just for my sweet husband who’s totally deserving of a home-cooked meal every day for lunch, but also because in my current line of employment, if I don’t bring my lunch – and sometimes breakfast, dinner and snacks – to work with me, I don’t eat, so it’s pretty much self-motivated, this whole keeping food around in ready-to-go containers thing. And if it’s a sad morning where I’m running late or didn’t plan out my meals appropriately enough to have adequate leftovers, I rely on the freezer to provide noms. Dave benefits from this odd form of OCD.)

Back to my story. After everything was all portioned out, there were little bits of lasagna noodles, ricotta/spinach filling, sausage, tomatoes and mozzarella left in the pan. A rational person would’ve just thrown the pan in the dishwasher after rinsing it off. However, this lasagna was special: there was beschamel sauce on the bottom. Mmmm, beschamel. And it was soooo. gooood. I just didn’t get enough of it, after eating my lasagna portion and licking the whisk that I used to, well, whisk up the sauce. So, I did what the irrational and perhaps emotional eaters among us (myself included, of course) would do: dug in with my fingers and scraped the pan, licking the bits of lasagna- and beschamel-y goodness right off my hands.

Really, I kind of went primal with that pan of leftovers. I basically ate like a 2 year old would. Closed my eyes and just devoured the tiny bits of leftovers in beschamel. And it was delicious. The should show stuff like that on the Food Network.

Just had to confess that to y’all.

Lasagna with Beschamel 

Beschamel:

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

4 teaspoons all purpose flour

1 1/4 cup milk (I used a combo of heavy cream & 2% – just because)

salt & pepper

freshly grated nutmeg (important to be freshly grated, really it is)

Melt the butter in a medium, nonstick saucepan over medium-high heat. Whisk in the flour, cook about 2 minutes, whisking constantly. Whisk in the milk; incorporate to the roux. It’ll start to thicken, eventually. At the last minute (after it’s thickened up some), whisk in the salt, pepper & nutmeg. Remove from heat and set aside.

Lasagna:

Bring a big pot of salted water to a boil, and cook about 13 regular old lasagna noodles for 6 minutes. They won’t be done, but that’s fine. Drain, and let cool so you can handle them.

While that’s going, cook 1/2 pound Italian hot sausage (pork is my favorite; turkey sausage works just fine) in a nonstick skillet. Make sure it’s crubmly and cooked. Set aside.

In the meantime, prepare the ricotta filling:

1 15 oz container of whole milk ricotta

some grated parmesan (this is one of only two times I use parmesan in the green plastic container – totally allowed here)

1 egg

salt & pepper

handful of mozzarella

1 10 oz package of chopped frozen spinach, thawed in microwave and squeezed dry

Just combine all that together in a bowl with a fork.

Get yourself 2 jars of marinara sauce (plain tomato & basil works really well) and about 2 cups of shredded mozzarella, and you’re ready to assemble.

Preheat oven to about 375. Spray a 9 x 13 pan with nonstick cooking spray.

Layer as follows:

Pour ALL the beschamel sauce on the bottom of the pan. Spread out as evenly as you can.

Yum.

Place one layer of lasagna noodles on top of the beschamel.

Then spread out half the ricotta/spinach mixture over the noodles.

Top with a handful (or two) of mozzarella.

Then half the sausage.

Then some marinara sauce (I don’t know how much, just enough to cover what’s in the layer).

Then top with noodles.

Then the rest of the ricotta.

Then some more mozzarella.

Then the rest of the sausage.

Then some more marinara.

Then noodles again.

Then sauce.

Then mozzarella & parmesan.

Cover, place on a baking sheet (prevents spillage from coming into your oven) and cook for 45 minutes, covered. Remove foil, then cook for 5 more minutes. Remove from oven, cool for 15 minutes, and dig in.

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.