When good friends of ours welcomed their little baby girl into the world this last week, the second thing I thought of was vegetable lasagna.
No wait, it was the third thing.
The first thing I thought of sounded something like the rabid, gleeful squeal of a ten-year-old at American Girl Place, and was followed by much clapping, and some jumping up and down.
The second thing I thought of was: FREEZER FOOD. Actually, were Danny and I in the same room (we weren’t – I was in Omaha and he was in Chicago), we would have immediately looked up from our Facebook feeds, whipped around to face each other, and like two main characters from a makeover montage in some weird Clueless knockoff, would have cried, “Freeeezerrrr foooood!” But we weren’t, so we didn’t. If you can imagine a text exchange approximating that, that’s pretty much what we did.
Now, it surprised even me for a second, because there’s a lot about vegetable lasagna that, in my mind, seems unappealing. My prejudice is totally unfair and suggests that I don’t eat or even like vegetable lasagna, which is completely false. I dig it. Many is the time I have had vegetable lasagna and felt it superior to various meaty or just-cheese versions I’ve encountered.
It’s when it’s called veggie lasagna that the trouble starts.
When I think “veggies,” I think of withered crudités and ranch. I think of the things that people believe in their deepest souls and most devout hearts must be smuggled onto or into something in order for children to get appropriate nutrition. I think of little unthreatening baby florets of broccoli, tossed raw and without a second’s consideration onto a pizza, or wisps of carrot or zucchini threaded into “bread” (cake) and treated as a wholesome breakfast item. When you call it a veggie, it is cute and cannot harm you. It has a cartoon face. In small pieces, in an application that is either very securely sweet or savory, a veggie will go undetected and unopposed by picky eaters everywhere, and this is somehow a victory.
Veggies are for the childish. Vegetables are for the grown & sexy.
So I thought of lasagna, and specifically vegetable lasagna, for various reasons:
- Lasagna freezes remarkably well
- As we phase out plastic receptacles for food storage in our kitchen, containers we don’t mind never seeing again are hard to come by. And if you’re making food to give to someone, rule number one is to give it to them in a container you wouldn’t mind never seeing again. We figured we could pick up a couple of inexpensive metal pans and wave those lasagnas goodbye.
- I could not in good consciousness give a brick of meaty, cheesy craziness to:
- A woman whose cravings for probably-not-vegetables in the last 9 months have – I can only imagine – driven her simultaneously to the edges of frustration and glee.
- Anyone while we sit here on the endless cusp of Spring. (I still believe it will happen!)
I had visions of delicate green things. It’s not time yet for (good) asparagus or English peas or fiddleheads or anything, but I thought it was safe to venture outside Hardy Winter Vegetables like kale and squash and beets. I wanted things that could stand up to tomato sauce without causing too much of a commotion. Reassuring and heartening, even elegant; not zesty. I wanted to give them an edible reminder that everything’s groovy and that I’m always available to dance that baby around the living room should someone need to go have a lie-down.
So then I did what I always do when I’m inspired but in the wind, in terms of a recipe: I looked for what looked good. These little baby zucchinis looked good. And the broccoli rabe looked very sure of itself. The leeks would add some sweetness. And so then, I thought, some nice ricotta, maybe laced with a little fresh garlic and some funky fontina. And – let’s go crazy on this quasi-healthy food thing – whole wheat lasagna noodles. Even better, we found the no-boil variety, which meant all we had to do was slap together some lasagnas, and time and a hot oven would do the rest.
We toted our groceries, and a couple of pots and knives, and some bits & bobs from the refrigerator, to the kitchen of our friends Karl and Cindy. We had decided to spend Saturday afternoon together, cooking for the new parents, Doug and Anita. Cindy was going to make lugau, sort of a Filipino version of congee, and one of Doug’s favorites. I was thinking lasagna and maybe a big gorgeous pot of nicely flavored beans for the parents to throw into whatever as needed. Cindy and Karl also had some leftover smoked pork from a previous pig roast and Cindy informed us she intended to make tamales with it.
So let’s quickly pause here: cooking with friends, for other friends, with the knowledge that somewhere in this city there’s a new little baby girl who we get to meet very soon, and further knowledge that we’d be stuffing her parents’ freezer with good things to eat so they could take it easy and enjoy this little baby and maybe sleep a little more (which overall just felt rather like the Christmas spirit), AND THEN YOU TELL ME YOU ARE GOING TO TEACH ME HOW TO ROLL TAMALES?!!?!!!
I about passed out.
And I will have to share with you Cindy’s tamale recipe another time. (Mini spoiler alert: it is way easier than I thought, and homemade tamales are way better than any that you can find anywhere, ever.)
For now, I share with you a really thrown-together idea for lasagna that will not leave a brick in your stomach, and make you feel grateful for and look forward to things growing out of the ground.
- One 9×13 baking pan, or two 6×6(ish) square baking pans – nice to split across two so you’re not sitting on a huge tray of lasagna that clearly must be eaten as soon as possible, especially in a small household.
- One box whole-wheat no-bake lasagna noodles
- 3 cups marinara sauce – either homemade (I like Mario Batali’s simple recipe) or jarred (Rao’s is the house favorite)
- 16 oz good quality ricotta, or you can make your own
- 8 oz fontina – Fontal or Val D’Aosta (Fontal melts a little nicer, but if you want to make this special, you could use the Val D’Aosta0
- 2 large or 4-5 small zucchini
- 2 bunches broccoli rabe
- 2 leeks
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced and divided
- salt & pepper
- olive oil
Preheat the oven to 350F if you’re going to be baking this off right away.
Have your husband/friend/child/neighbor strip the leaves and florets from the broccoli rabe. Stems have no place in this, I feel, though you can save for soup or other uses. Meanwhile, slice the zucchini in about 1/4-inch slices, on a slight bias if you’d like to get fancy with it. Clean your leeks and slice them into quarters, then chop. (Ever since I saw Jacques Pepin clean leeks on TV once, I have always done it like this.)
Now chop roughly the broccoli rabe. While you’re doing this, have your kitchen buddy shred the fontina. Once your vegetables are all prepped and the cheese is shredded, you’re ready to rock.
Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat, and add a couple teaspoons of olive oil. Get it nice and hot, then add your onion and leek. Stir thoroughly to make sure the oil is distributed and the onion and leek are getting golden on all sides. Once the whole pan has turned a little more golden and everything is sweated, turn the heat to medium and stir every few minutes until the whole thing is about halfway caramelized. You don’t want to make goopy onion jam, you just want to build a nice layer of flavor for the lasagna. Empty into a bowl and set aside.
Return the pan to the heat, add a couple teaspoons more oil, add 1/3 of your garlic, stir briefly, then add the broccoli rabe. You may have to do this in batches to let the leaves wilt down. Trust me, you will wonder where it all went by the time it’s cooked down. Add salt & pepper to taste (but go on the mild side since you are salting each component), and continue stirring until all of the broccoli rabe is cooked down. Add the broccoli rabe to the bowl with the onion and leek.
One more time, put the pan on the heat, add oil and 1/3 of the garlic, and saute the zucchini until tender and golden brown. Salt & pepper as desired, but go easy – same as above. Once the zucchini are finished, add them to the bowl of broccoli rabe and onion and leek. Mix the vegetables together in the bowl.
In another medium bowl, mix together the ricotta, half the fontina, and your last 1/3 of garlic. Add a little salt and plenty of pepper to the mixture. Taste to check it – if it tastes good alone, it will be fabulous in the lasagna. If it needs something – trust it, it needs something. Leave the other half of the fontina to sprinkle on top of the lasagna at the end.
Now all you have to do is layer! Add a large spoonful of marinara to the bottom of the pan and spread it around evenly. Don’t add a ton here – just enough to coat the bottom of the pan so nothing sticks. Then add a layer of lasagna noodles, another couple spoonfuls of sauce, then a layer of vegetables – about 1/3 if you are using a large pan (and 1/6 if you are using two small pans). Similarly, add about 1/3 of the ricotta mixture in tablespoon-sized dollops around the pan. Add another layer of noodles, then sauce, then vegetables, then cheese, and repeat. For the final layer, do a layer of noodles, a layer of sauce, then sprinkle the fontina on top.
Bake under foil for about 35 minutes, then take off the foil for another 15-20 minutes, or until the pan is golden & bubbly. If you’re freezing it, just make sure to seal it tightly under foil, a plastic cover, or load it into a Food Saver bag and do what I plan to do after my next birthday or Christmas or major gift-receiving special day – vacuum seal that bad boy and freeze until ready to eat! Just make sure it’s thawed before you bake it.