Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Roast vegetable lasagna

Lasagna: never the same twice
This is the lasagna of dreams: packed full of hearty and wholesome ingredients, it's a meal in itself. Not only does it make use of the late September harvest, it's a treat and a celebration. Lasagna's not just what's for dinner: the making of lasagna is an event.

How many people have ever walked into their kitchen and decided to make a lasagna without the benefit of a recipe? If you stick to the dense ingredients---cheese, meat, noodles---you'll probably do just fine. But then someone decides that lasagna's too indulgent and it needs some vegetables to redeem it. Crunchy, raw, watery, bland vegetables, stacked against the rich and tender joys of lasagna noodles, velvety sauce, and thick, molten mozzarella, make it look like a round of Good Cop, Bad Cop. It doesn't have to be like this. Roasted vegetables are a sought after delicacy, and a fine suitor for the layered marriage that is lasagna.

Just like when you wing it, I use no recipe. This is not a recipe for lasagna. This is a set of guidelines for making one kind of lasagna: the kind with lots of vegetables, meat, and cheese in it that eats like a meal.

The number one rule that new lasagna cooks don't seem to grasp is this: The lasagna doesn't cook your fillings for you. This seems so unfair. After all, you're going to bake the lasagna after you assemble it. Why can't you kill three or four birds with one stone?

There's no one good answer. It's a lot of answers, really, involving browning and moisture levels. If you're curious, get a subscription to Cooks' Illustrated, or watch some Alton Brown. The short answer is, meat and zucchini and spinach and onions won't all cook in the different ways they need to to taste their best, if you try to make them all do it from within the stuffy confines of a foil-wrapped lasagna. It's like trying to wash the bedding by taking all the layers off at once, from mattress cover to duvet, and throwing it all into the washing machine on High, only worse, because once you've made this bed, you have to eat it.

I made a very successful lasagna recently, using the abundance of our farm share: I managed to squeeze two large eggplants, a huge zucchini, and a bunch of other vegetables, including roasted tomatoes, into this lasagna. It came out creamy, dense but not heavy because so much of it is made of low-octane vegetables, and perfectly seasoned.

The way to ensure it all comes out is to make sure each layer is good before you assemble it. I figured out how to do it with as few pans as possible.

I start by preparing vegetables for roasting, following my usual instructions: don't fill the pan too full,  and expect it to take at least an hour to roast a big, full pan of vegetables at 350 degrees, tossing them every 20 minutes. I use a very large iron roasting pan that's about twice the size of the 9"x13" Pyrex pan I ultimately make a lasagna in, and filling it with a couple inches of cubed vegetables yields about the right amount for a lasagna. I started the pan out with eggplant and zucchini, and after 40 minutes added onions and tomatoes.

Roast the vegetables in small cubes---about 1/2-3/4"---for the maximum amount of surface available for roasting, quicker roasting time, and so the roasted vegetables will be tender, not crisp, and won't pull away from the lasagna when you're slicing it later. You want the texture to be all very similar throughout the lasagna: soft and dense, not crunchy or chewy.

While the vegetables are beginning to roast, brown the meat, if you're using it. I like to use about a pound each of ground beef and loose hot Italian sausage. Brown them together and drain it, reserving the fat drippings to saute onion and garlic in, or to toss with the roasting vegetables.

If you want to use a leafy green vegetable in your lasagna, chop it small, and steam or saute it until it wilts. Some other tender vegetables might be sauteed instead of roasted, such as white mushrooms and leeks. As with the roasted vegetables, make sure that it's chopped into small enough pieces that you won't be pulling it out of the lasagna when you slice or bite into it with the fork.

Make or procure a sauce. Traditional is a marinara or ragu.

When the vegetables are all roasted, they will no longer be watery. Taste for salt. If they're bland, flavor them up with a splash of balsamic vinegar, salt, grated parmesan cheese, and/or a handful of fresh, minced herbs: oregano, basil, and parsley are all good.

If you're using meat or greens, reserve half a cup of your tomato sauce and then blend the meat and/or greens into the rest. Taste that and adjust, especially for salt.

You can brown the meat separately, or to save a couple of steps and pots, do this: Break up the meat, if you're using it, and scatter it over the vegetables, and put it back in the oven to roast together for ten more minutes until the meat is well browned. You can also add the tomato sauce and greens to the roasting pan and stir it up, or mix the sauce and greens together as a separate layer.

The only ingredients I haven't yet addressed are the cheese and the pasta, which to some people, are the only components of lasagna that matter.  I think most people tend to go overboard on cheese, and it's often a compensation for watery or underseasoned fillings. An even coating of shredded mozzarella, a light dusting of parmesan, a dozen quarter-sized globs of ricotta per layer: that seems about right to me. You don't even strictly need cheese at all: roasted vegetables and noodles are very creamy, and contrasted against some kale or ground beef, it's all you really need. If you do want a cheese lasagna, you'll need a minimum of 8 oz of ricotta and a pound of mozzarella, and about an ounce of a good, hard grating cheese, for a modestly cheesy pan of lasagna.

When you're assembling the lasagna, start with a little bit of sauce on the bottom of the pan (the half cup you reserved), then a layer of noodles. I like to use the no-bake kind because they're so easy to use, but you can instead boil and carefully cool pasta, taking pains to keep it from sticking to itself.

On your first noodle layer, put down a generous, half-inch layer of roasted vegetables. Then lay down some cheese. Next, a very thin to quarter-inch or so layer of the sauce, depending on whether it's got meat or greens in it. A layer of noodles, and keep going. An 8 oz box of lasagna noodles will make one 9x13 pan of lasagna with three layers.Finish it with a layer of cheese so it melts appealingly on top.

Cover the pan tightly with foil and bake it at 350 for an hour.

Serves about 8.
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