Let’s cut to the chase and be honest here – although we can pretend otherwise, we are all as obsessed with lasagnas as Garfield is! The layers of soft noodles, amazing sauce, fresh herbs, and most commonly lots and lots of ground meat and soft cheese. All this means that lasagnas are not the healthiest thing on the menu. Having said that, there is no reason to ban lasagnas from your plate; you just need to learn how to keep it healthy and plant-based, and I think I can help you to troubleshoot both of those problems.
Keeping lasagnas meat-free seems to be the problem many have tackled, usually by overloading lasagna with cheese, cheese and eggs, or cheese and a selection of vegetables, like mushrooms, and increasing the amount of tomato sauce and making it chunkier. But, really the most prominent ingredient in majority of meatless lasagna recipes is the cheese. When I was developing this lasagna recipe I did not want to give up on idea of “meat”, so what I came up with is a hearty, meaty, and flavorful walnut and brown lentil “meat” ragù base. My thinking was inspired by my previous, wildly successful Meatless Shepherd’s Pie, which I served for Easter this year as a substitute for a more traditional, lamb-based dish. In that recipe, lentils, mixed with ground mushrooms and cooked with rosemary and thyme, made for an amazing feast.
Here, I wanted to recreate the traditional meat ragù and went for a combination of chopped walnuts and dark lentils. The trick is too cook the lentils separately and add them to the rest of the ragù when they are fully cooked. Also, chop your walnuts into pieces that are about the size of what ground meat pieces may look like. I chopped the walnuts by hand, just by going over walnut pieces with a knife few times, back and forth. You can buy whole walnuts, or walnut halves in store and start from there, but for this a bag of walnut pieces will make your life easier and make the dish cheaper. Walnuts work really well in this lasagna, because they add some of their natural crunchy texture, protein, and a bit of fattiness to the otherwise very lean recipe. Worried about this extra fat? Walnuts are known for having a lot of unsaturated fat, which is the good kind, so don’t skip it! The meatiness of the ragù is further enhanced by a good amount of tomato paste and crushed tomatoes and letting the ragù simmer for a while.
The preparation of any lasagna happens in several stages and this one is no different. In order to make the process more efficient I recommend that you start roasting the zucchini at the same time you start making the ragù, and then start boiling the lasagna noodles when zucchini is just about done. In that way you don’t even need to turn the oven off, you can just lower the temperature from roasting to baking and be ready for lasagna to go in immediately. Please note that I don’t use zucchini as a complete lasagna noodle replacement. I suppose you could, but then you’ll end up in a more of a Zucchini Mousaka territory than lasagna paradise. If you are concerned about gluten, there are now many gluten-free lasagna noodle options for you to choose from and most of them work perfectly.
The final touch on this lasagna is the Béchamel sauce (besciamella), which is a white sauce traditionally made with milk, butter and flour. In this case, the quick white sauce I put together requires only a blender, some soft, silken tofu, a squeeze of a lemon, and a bit of nutritional yeast. It is very much the blend-and-pour type of sauce, so you can do it a in a blink of an eye. The sauce adds a nice, slightly cheesy flavor to this very rich lasagna, and makes for a nice, almost golden glaze.
Zucchini Lasagna with Walnut and Brown Lentil Ragù
What you’ll need (for 9 x 13 in (23 x 33 cm) baking dish):
8-10 lasagna noodles, gluten-free if preferred
1 lbs (450 g) brown lentils
3 zucchinis, cut lengthwise into long strips
2 large carrots, diced
3 stalks celery, diced
1 cup raw walnut pieces, chopped
1/2 yellow onion, diced
1 can (28 oz, 800 g) crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon crushed garlic
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil
3 tablespoons fresh Italian (flat leaf) parsley
1 lbs (450 g) silken tofu
2 tablespoons lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1 tablespoon nutritional yeast
Cooking oil spray
What you’ll do:
- Preheat oven to 425 F (220 C).
- Prepare the lentils according to the instructions on the bag. Basically, bring 4 cups of water to boil and add the lentils that have been washed and picked over to remove any impurities that may have made their way to the lentils. Bring the lentils back to boil than lower the heat to a gentle simmer, and cook for 20 minutes or so, until lentils are completely cooked. Drain the lentils from excess water and set aside to cool.
- While the oven is preheating, and lentils are cooking, prep your veggies. Peel, wash, and dice the onions and carrots, and wash and dice the celery. Wash the zucchini well, remove the ends, then cut into long, thin strips. You can use a mandolin slicer for this, but cutting by hand also works. The zucchini slices should be as close to the thickness of the lasagna noodles as possible, but you don’t need to go crazy here – just keep in mind that a bit thinner is better.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, place the zucchini slices on and spray with cooking spray. You may need to use two baking sheets, since you may discover that you can’t manage to have all your zucchini slices arranged in a single layer. Don’t pile the zucchini on top of each other and do roast in batches if needed. Place the zucchini “lasagna noodles” into the oven to roast. The roasting will take anywhere between 15 and 25 minutes and will depend on the thickness of your zucchini. Keep an eye on the oven and if you are roasting two pans of the zucchini at the same time do rotate the pans mid way through the roasting. You will know that the zucchini is done when the edges are slightly brown and the middle is golden. Once you take the zucchini out, decrease the oven temperature to 350 F (175 C).
- While the zucchini is roasting, start your the ragù. Spray the bottom of a Dutch oven, or another type of heavy pan, with cooking spray and heat up over the medium to medium high heat. Add carrots, onions and celery and let them brown for 10 minutes. Add chopped walnuts and let them pan roast for about 2 to 3 minutes. Add garlic, oregano, and basil, and let the flavors develop for a minute. Next comes tomato paste – add it to the pan, mix well and let brown just slightly. This takes about 2 minutes or so. Add the cooked lentils and the crushed tomatoes, and mix well. Let the ragù simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Turn the heat off, add the fresh parsley and mix well to combine.
- Once the ragù is simmering, it’s time to start cooking your lasagna noodles. Most varieties ask for a large pot of boiling water and about 10 minutes of boiling time. The noodles don’t need to be cooked all the way through as they will continue to cook in the oven but they do need to soften quite a bit, so 8 to 10 minutes should be enough to achieve that. Drain the noodles and use immediately.
- Combine tofu, lemon juice and nutritional yeast in a blender and blend until smooth. Set the besciamella to the side.
- Spray the bottom and sides of your 9 x 13 in (23 x 33 cm) pan with some cooking spray. Cover the bottom liberally with the ragù (use about a half of the amount you made), layer the first set of noodles (for me that came to about 5 noodles per layer), then layer the zucchini in a single layer, pour the rest of the ragù, and top with the remaining noodles. Pour the besciamella over and cover with foil.
- Place the covered lasagna into the 350 F (175 C) oven and let bake for 30 minutes covered and then about 10 minutes uncovered. Let the lasagna sit for about 10 minutes before serving. I like to add some freshly ground black pepper or a mix of black pepper and red pepper flakes to my lasagna just before enjoying, but you can also sprinkle some fresh parsley, or fresh basil. Have fun!
Copyright © Eat the Vegan Rainbow, 2017