Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Roasted Eggplant, Portobello and Kale Lasagna with Tofu Ricotta, Vegan Bechamel and Chunky Tomato Sauce

For millions of people, lasagna evokes home, comfort, and indulgence. Those are not qualities particularly identified with vegan cooking, but they are root of why I, and many people, love to cook and eat.

I am, actually, not one of the lasagna people - I don't remember having had it growing up, and I didn't like it very much the few times I had at a friend's house or wherever. So when Melody from Hollywood the Write Way told me that it was one of her favorite foods, I decided that I would take on the challenge of making a lasagna I did like.

As I've planned this recipe, I realized one great thing about lasagna, namely its flexibility. You can use any vegetables you have available, whatever is seasonal, whatever is in the fridge. You can do just a tomato sauce, a béchamel, both, or even a creamy tomato sauce. The basic requirement is lasagna noodles, and you can just go from there.

My choices for this lasagna were roasted eggplant and portobello with sautéed kale, a chunky tomato sauce, a tofu ricotta and a béchamel sauce. Mine is a somewhat complicated recipe (I'm just glad I didn't try to make the pasta from scratch like I had originally planned), but don't worry, this could be so much simpler. The ricotta is a snap to make, and the sauce is actually pretty easy to do from scratch, though you could certainly use store-bought sauce and just heat it up. From there, you could save a lot of time by using veggies that don't require any prep other then slicing. Also, you can make it ahead and bake it whenever you need to, so you have a hot, gourmet dinner with only the baking time... not so shabby, eh?

Roasted Eggplant, Portobello and Kale Lasagna

For tomato sauce:

1 large (28-30oz) can of diced tomatoes, or whatever consistency you like the best. If you want lots of sauce (not me! I just like it as a filling), then you may want as much as twice this much tomato, and adjust other ingredients to taste.
2 medium shallots
4 med. cloves of garlic
1 Tbsp. tomato paste or more to taste (optional - it will make the sauce richer, and will help if you want to make a lot of sauce)
1 large sprig of fresh basil
Fresh or dried oregano
Olive oil
Balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper

For the béchamel:
5 Tbsp. Earth Balance vegan margarine
3 Tbsp. flour
3 c. coconut milk, heated
1 large shallot
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. white pepper
1/8 tsp. nutmeg

For the tofu ricotta:
1 lb. firm silken tofu (aseptic will work the best - the kind that comes in the vacuum-sealed boxes; it has a different texture)
1/4 c. basil chiffonade
1/4 c. green onion
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tsp. tahini
1 tsp. sea salt
1/4 tsp black pepper

Other ingredients:
1 package lasagna noodles
1 large eggplant, or 3-4 Japanese or Chinese eggplants, if you can get your hands on them
2 large portobello caps
1 bunch of kale
2 cloves garlic

First, clean the mushrooms with a clean cloth or a mushroom brush. Don't wash mushrooms; they'll just absorb the water and lose flavor. When they're clean, slice them thinly to create nice mushroom cross-sections. Grease a cookie sheet and lay the slices of the mushroom in a single layer. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, then roast at 400 for 7-10 minutes, until aromatic and tender. Transfer to a bowl, cover and set aside.

Next, wash your eggplant(s). If you're using a large eggplant, slice it in half down the middle, and then slice each half in pieces about 1/8 inch thick. If you're using the Japanese or Chinese eggplants, just cut diagonally into medallions. In a large colander, place a layer of eggplant pieces, then sprinkle a layer of salt over them. Be thorough; the salt is going to be washed off, so it won't affect the flavor. Repeat with the rest of the pieces, making sure that every layer has been salted well. Put the colander in the sink or over a bowl, somewhere that it can drain. The eggplant will shed water and, more importantly, some of the bitterness they have. Heirloom and any non-commercial eggplants tend to be more bitter, so this is all the more important. Some recipes may not list it, but you should always sweat eggplant.

While the eggplants are sweating and the mushrooms are roasting, prepare the tofu ricotta. Crumble tofu in a bowl, add the rest of the ingredients, and combine until the mixture resembles ricotta, mashing with your hands or a fork. It should be pretty flavorful, so if it isn't, add more ingredients as needed. It will taste milder when cooked in the lasagna. Cover and refrigerate until needed.

Somewhere in this time range, you'll want to start your tomato sauce. Finely chop the 4 cloves of garlic and thinly slice the shallots. In a large saucepan, heat some olive oil to medium. When the oil is hot, add the garlic and shallots, and cook until translucent. Add tomatoes and stir in tomato paste, mixing thoroughly. Chiffonade the basil (make a stack of leaves, roll them up like a cigarette, and slice them thinly on the diagonal), then add to the sauce. Add oregano, salt and pepper to taste. Let the sauce simmer for 20 or 30 minutes, drizzle in some olive oil and mix thoroughly, then reduce and let it sit at low, stirring occasionally, until you need it.

After about 10-15 minutes of sweating, rinse the eggplant thoroughly. Roast in the same way you roasted the mushrooms, in a single layer on a greased cookie sheet, sprinkled with salt and pepper, for 7-10 minutes at 400. When they are finished, transfer to a bowl, cover, and set aside.

While the eggplant is roasting, prep your kale. Wash and drain it, then piece by piece, fold in half along the stalk, then cut off the stalk from top to bottom. Pull the kale into pieces about 1-2 inches across. Chop 2 cloves of fresh garlic. Heat a large pan with a little bit of oil to about medium. When hot, sauté the garlic for about a minute, then add the kale, mixing so that it cooks evenly. Just before it's done, which will only take 2-3 minutes, drizzle a little bit (2 Tbsp.-ish) of balsamic vinegar into the pan and mix. This will give the kale a nice touch of tang and will blend nicely with your other ingredients. When kale is fully wilted, remove to a bowl and cover.

Now, fill a large stockpot with plenty of salted water to boil the lasagna noodles. Turn it on high and, while you're waiting for it to boil, begin your béchamel sauce. The béchamel is the most needy of all the elements of the lasagna, so set out the ingredients first (Earth Balance, finely-chopped shallots, flour, warm coconut milk, salt, pepper, nutmeg, bay leaf) so that you won't have to stop whisking the sauce. First, melt the Earth Balance in a saucepan at about medium. When it has melted, add the shallot and cook for about 1 minute. Add the flour, sprinkling in a little at a time and whisking constantly. When the flour's all in and fully blended with the Earth Balance into a roux (it will puff; whisk vigorously), cook for about 3 minutes, whisking consistently to keep it from burning. The flour needs to cook to take on a nutty, toasty taste rather than a doughy raw-flour taste. After 3-ish minutes, add the warmed coconut milk in a stream, whisking to mix thoroughly. Add the bay leaf and bring to a boil over medium-high, whisking constantly, then reduce and simmer, for about 10-15 minutes, whisking occasionally to keep it smooth and prevent it from scalding. Whisk in salt, pepper and nutmeg. At this point the sauce should cling thickly to a spoon; if it isn't, you can use cornstarch or arrowroot to thicken it by pulling out a small cup of the sauce and adding the starch, whisking it together thoroughly, then adding it back and mixing it with the whole, letting it cook and thicken. When the béchamel is done, leave it on low and stir occasionally to prevent it from developing a skin until you're ready to use it.

When the pasta water has begun to boil robustly, add the strips of pasta one at a time, alternating to keep them from sticking together. Bring back to a boil, stirring occasionally with a slotted spoon to prevent sticking, but you don't want to disturb the boil too much. When they are almost done (fully flexible but not fully tender to the bite), pull them out, because they're going to get to cook more in the oven. Drain and lay out on an oiled tray so they don't stick together as they cool. Be careful with your hands, the large pieces of pasta hold heat much more so than spaghetti.

Oil a large casserole dish, and put some of the tomato sauce or béchamel in the bottom. I used the béchamel, but for me it seemed to act like glue, so I might try the tomato sauce. Either way, coat the bottom with the sauce and layer lasagna noodles on top of it. If you used the tomato sauce in the base, pour some of the béchamel onto the pasta. If not, leave it plain, then layer all your kale over it and place the portobello on top of the kale. Cover with a layer of pasta. Layer slices of eggplant, then generously cover with the tomato sauce. Cover with a layer of pasta, then add the tofu ricotta, spreading evenly. Cover with pasta, then pour the rest of the béchamel over the top. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for about 30 minutes at 350. Uncover, then bake for another 20-30 minutes, until the top is golden.

When the lasagna is done baking, let it sit for about 15 minutes, then cut and serve.

1 comment:

  1. Lasagna is one of my favorite things. It's easy to make and makes a lot of food! I always do different variations on the vegetables, but somehow mushrooms ans spinach always work their way into it. Oh, and I have made homemade pasta before- for a ravioli one time. The trick to that is to roll it super thin. Mine wasn't thin enough and tasted like dough. Now I just stick to store bought won-ton wrappers for ravioli.
    I think your cashew riccota would be superb in this dish.:)