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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Spaghetti Squash Casserole

A couple of weeks ago, in an attempt to branch out and cook vegetables that aren’t in current rotation at my house, I bought a spaghetti squash without really knowing what I’d do with it. I’ve always been a little fearful of them – they seem so strange, don’t they? A squash that cooks up like spaghetti strands? Without the carb-y goodness of actual pasta? Wouldn’t I eat it with regret, wishing I had just made spaghetti instead?

With all my fears and concerns in the back of my mind, I searched for a recipe that would allow the squash to be a stand-alone meal. I didn’t want it as a side dish; I was determined to eat this as a relatively carb-free meal, just to see if I would miss my beloved carbs. I came across this recipe from epicurious.com, which sounded hearty enough for a meal yet still odd because there were so few carbs included. It kind of goes against my nature to have a carb-less meal, so I proceeded with caution, telling myself that sausage and peppers would make the meal so tasty, I wouldn’t miss my starches.

With a few swaps for aesthetics (and practical reasons – my spaghetti squash shells weren’t in any shape to hold anything after I got done scraping the flesh out) and a hearty sprinkling (okay, heavy-handed slathering) of mozzarella cheese on top, I think I created a winner.

Spaghetti Squash Casserole

1 large spaghetti squash

about 1/3 pound spicy Italian sausage

1 onion, diced

1 green bell pepper, diced

some chopped garlic

1 1/2 cups marinara sauce

1/2 cup grated parmesan

shredded mozzarella cheese

Preheat oven to 375. Slice open the spaghetti squash and lay flesh side down on a lightly oiled roasting pan. Cook for 45 minutes – 1 hour, until the flesh is cooked. Remove seeds. (Are you supposed to remove the seeds before or after you cook it? I didn’t know, so I just removed them post-roasting.) As soon as your squash is roasted, let it cool while you prepare the filling. In a large pan, cook the sausage, onion, bell pepper & onion with a couple tablespoons of olive oil, until the sausage is cooked through and the vegetables are tender. Add the marinara, and stir in the flesh of the squash by raking it into the pan with a fork. Stare in amazement as it turns into spaghetti-ish strands. Remove from heat. Stir in parmesan, and salt & pepper to taste. Pour in greased baking dish, top with mozzarella, and bake at 350 for 25-30 minutes.

This was delicious by itself. I loved the cheese on top (of course), and ate it for about 4 meals in a row. I really didn’t miss the carbs in this one, since the sausage and tomato sauce gave it a great heartiness.

Don’t ask how I found this out, but I realized that it’s even better if you crumble some Stacy’s sea salt pita chips on top of it before digging in.

Southern Style Green Beans

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Right now, on the side of my refrigerator, there is a list that reminds me of everything I need to do, and on what day I need to do it, in order to pull off a successful Thanksgiving dinner. It’s posted right next to my calendar where I schedule my weekly meals.

For me, Thanksgiving preparation is a 3-day process, and this year, I’m not even cooking a turkey – we’re cheating and purchasing a Honeybaked Ham. Random aside: this means it’s been 2 full years since I’ve used my bathtub, since I didn’t do a turkey last year, and the only time I use the tub is when I have to defrost a big bird. It’s the only vessel in my house that’s large enough to hold a cooler with the turkey and provide a source of constantly running cold water for 24 hours that’s needed to get the bird defrosted in order to brine it for another 24 hours and then pop it in the oven. Turkeys take a lot of work and are not for the faint of heart.

I realize that 3 days is nothing compared to those who start freezing things for the big day back in October, but there are very few meals for which I will devote the better part of 3 days of my time. It’s worth it – I hope! – to make my little family happy.

Let’s start with the side dish that has caused the most discussion and controversy: green beans. The first year I made green beans for Thanksgiving, Lindsey assisted with all of my meal prep. With very little discussion, we both agreed that the best way to prepare them was to take fresh green beans, trim the ends, cook in boiling, salted water for about 2 minutes, then shock them in ice water, toss them with a little salt & butter, and top with roasted almonds. They were delicious, classically prepared green beans. Dave, Lindsey and I loved them. Simple and perfect!

Little did I know that the in-laws hated this version, until they sent word about the situation through Dave. Puzzled, I called in the big guns – my mom – and asked, “how else am I supposed to cook green beans?! I mean, if they want them softer, I should just used canned instead of fresh.” Carla’s response? “Yep, that’s what I always do. Why are you using fresh green beans? Just get canned, and add some bacon & onion when they’re cooking. You would’ve known this if you ate my green beans, instead of just macaroni & cheese, while you were growing up.”

Sometimes, it definitely pays to listen to your mom. These “southern style” green beans were exactly what the in-laws had been expecting in the first place, and they’re actually easier than going through the trouble of chopping the ends off haricovert, blanching & shocking, and dressing fresh ones. However, they are controversial, especially for the purists (like Lindsey) who would cry if I served them overcooked, oversalted, green beans out of a can for Thanksgiving.

My personal theory? Both are good, and both have their place at my table. These have bacon grease, so they get a slight advantage for the use of pork fat. However, I wouldn’t make these just for myself – I reserve them only for people who “appreciate” the southern style, like my very southern in-laws.

Southern Style Green Beans (serves 4)

2 15 oz cans green beans, with juices

4-5 slices of bacon

half a yellow onion, diced

salt & pepper to taste

In a medium nonstick saucepan, cook the bacon until all the fat is rendered out but the bacon isn’t overly crispy. Remove the bacon & save. Cook the diced onion with salt & pepper in the rendered bacon grease until the onion is translucent, about 8 minutes. Pour in the 2 cans of green beans, crumble the bacon into the pot, and bring to a simmer. Salt & pepper to taste, then serve.

Coconut Curry Stir Fry

Before the recipe: I must report that Chloe the Cat is thoroughly enjoying her summer. She’s exhausted from chasing chipmunks and protecting her backyard from stray cats, though.

Now, back to the recipe story: I don’t own a wok. Don’t really care to, either, at this point in my life, since I feel like it would just clutter up an already cluttered pots & pans cabinet. I know that a wok is pretty much crucial for successful, authentic stir fry dishes, but I’ve made do just fine with my trusty, most favorite, All-Clad stainless steel saute pan that I wouldn’t want to live without. I use it multiple times every week, and have for years. It’s an investment, for sure, but it should last a lifetime or two.

The only problem with using that particular pan for stir fry, I have found, is that I can’t just dump all my veggies into it at once and expect greatness. Stir fry veggies are supposed to have a little crunch to them, and in the past when I’ve overloaded the pan (i.e. all the time) for this particular dish, the veggies end up sort of steaming and getting kind of mushy. I finally figured out this week that if I saute the veggies just a little at a time, the results are much better.

I also tend to make a different stir fry sauce every time I make stir fry. Back in A-50, I tried my hardest to recreate Steve’s “best stir fry ever” for Rose, but with no luck. And finally, one night, we convinced him to make it for us. Not only was it crazy spicy (I never could quite get it spicy enough for Rose, I’m afraid!), it was deee-licious. I had to admit: it was the best stir fry ever. When I asked for his recipe, he spouted off a list of ingredients that amounted to “whatever I happen to have on hand that sounds like a stir fry.” So, I took a cue from him and started just playing around with ingredients whenever I wanted to whip up stir fry. This particular dish relied on coconut milk and pre-made red curry paste, since I wanted a shortcut. But I’ve been known to blend up exotic combinations of Sriracha, vinegars, peanut butter, coconut milk, cilantro, garlic, ginger, orange juice, brown sugar, honey, and soy sauce so that no two sauces are exactly alike anymore.

This stir fry was good – filling, healthy and simple – but after eating, I realized it needed more acidity to balance out everything. Some lime juice or rice wine vinegar would’ve done the trick here, so add it in if you make it.

Coconut Curry Stir Fry (4 servings)

First: bake some chicken. Preheat an oven to 350. Cook one chicken breast that’s been covered with oil, salted, peppered, and dashed with Chinese five spice seasoning until it’s done. Set aside to cool down enough so that you are able to dice it into small chunks.

Preheat a sautee pan to medium high heat. Add some oil (vegetable is best). Saute a sliced onion and 3 carrots, peeled and cut on the bias, with salt & pepper until just cooked, about 8 minutes. Remove from pan; set aside. Return pan to heat, add more oil, cook some broccoli florets & cauliflower for about 2 minutes, then add a tablespoon each of diced garlic and diced fresh ginger. Cook about another 2 minutes; add a couple tablespoons soy sauce, cook for about a minute, then add back the onion and carrots. Then add the chicken. Stir in 2 tablespoons prepared red curry paste, a sprinkle of brown sugar, another glug of soy sauce and a 14 ounce can of coconut milk. Bring to a simmer, and remove from heat. Serve over white or brown rice.