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Adapting lasagna and loving every noodle of it

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Traditional lasagna with its oozing cheese and rich meat sauce is a vestige of a simpler, nutritionally innocent time. The various constructions -- lasagna studded with sausage or sliced egg, lasagna layered with seafood or vegetables and cheese -- are as evocative of their time and place as ancient architecture.

Today, the thick bricks cut from a traditional lasagna set off a dietary alarm. Nevertheless, the yen for a dense pie ribboned with noodles remains. And the idea of lasagna is as appealing to time-pressed cooks as the traditional recipes are shocking to the diet-conscious. It is a one-dish meal that can be made ahead of time, and the flavor actually improves as it sits. Fortunately, as generations of Italians have found, lasagna is endlessly adaptable.

Although it has been a repository for meats and cheeses, there is no reason to limit lasagna to these fillings. Vegetables and legumes can make rich, dense fillings and create unexpected variations in the well-worn lasagna theme.

Lasagna with dal and spinach

Serves 8

1 16-ounce container plain, nonfat yogurt

1 pound yellow split peas, picked over and washed

1 large jalapeno, with seeds, minced

2 teaspoons ground cumin

3/4 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

12 lasagna noodles

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

2 teaspoons mustard seeds, preferably black

3 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced

1 medium onion, peeled, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes, drained and coarsely chopped

5 teaspoons kosher salt

3 10-ounce packages frozen leaf spinach

2 teaspoons ground cardamom

freshly ground pepper to taste

1/4 cup toasted pine nuts

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

Place yogurt in a paper towel-lined sieve over a bowl and le drain for 1 1/2 hours.

Meanwhile, place split peas in a large pot with 7 cups water. Stir in the jalapeno, cumin, turmeric and cayenne. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover partly and simmer until peas are soft, about 45 minutes.

While the peas cook, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add noodles and cook for 10 minutes. Drain and separate noodles, and spread out in a single layer on wax paper to prevent sticking.

Heat oil in a large, nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add mustard seeds and cook, stirring constantly, for 20 seconds. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Add onion and cook until softened, about 7 minutes.

Add ginger and cook for 2 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and cook for 5 minutes. Stir the mixture into the cooked split peas with 2 1/2 teaspoons of salt.

Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a large pot. Add the spinach and return to boil. Cover, and cook until tender, occasionally breaking up the block of spinach with a spoon, about 10 minutes. Drain, pressing out as much water as possible.

Place spinach in a food processor with the yogurt solids, the cardamom and remaining salt. Pulse until coarsely pureed.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spread 3/4 cup of split pea mixture, or dal, in the bottom of a 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Cover with a layer of 4 noodles, overlapping them slightly.

Spread with half of the spinach mixture and one-third of the remaining dal.

Put down another layer of noodles, the rest of the spinach, and then half of the remaining dal. Sprinkle pine nuts over the top, and cover with a layer of noodles. Spread remaining dal over the top.

Cover with aluminum foil and bake until heated through, about 45 minutes. Sprinkle with cilantro before serving.

Approximate nutritional analysis per serving: 520 calories, 5 grams fat, 1 milligram cholesterol, 1,625 milligrams sodium, 30 grams protein, 90 grams carbohydrate.

Lasagna with eggplant, peppers and tomatoes

Serves 8

5 large eggplants

12 lasagna noodles

1/2 pound sun-dried tomatoes, not packed in oil

1 teaspoon dried thyme

3 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste

freshly ground pepper to taste

4 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced

1/3 cup chopped Italian parsley

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

3 red and 3 yellow roasted bell peppers, peeled, seeded, deveined and diced

1/3 cup finely crumbled feta cheese

10 medium green olives, pitted and chopped

1/4 cup basil leaves, cut across into thin strips

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Place eggplants on baking sheet and roast until soft and collapsed, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the noodles and cook for 10 minutes. Drain and separate noodles to prevent sticking.

Place the sun-dried tomatoes in a large saucepan, and cover with water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat, and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain, reserving the liquid.

Place tomatoes in a food processor, and process until pureed. Add 2 1/2 cups of the liquid and puree until smooth. Add thyme, pepper to taste, and salt, if needed. Scrape into a bowl and set aside.

Cut eggplants in half and scoop the flesh into a sieve. Press out as much liquid as possible. Place the sieve over a bowl and let drain for 10 minutes.

Place the eggplant in a food processor, and pulse until coarsely pureed. Scrape into a bowl, and stir in garlic, parsley, lemon juice, 3 teaspoons of salt and pepper.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spread a third of the sun-dried tomato puree in the bottom of a 13-by-9-inch baking dish.

Cover with a layer of 4 noodles, overlapping them slightly. Spread with half of eggplant mixture, and top with half of the roasted peppers.

Repeat with the noodles, remaining eggplant and remaining peppers. Sprinkle the feta over the top, and cover with a layer of noodles. Spread the remaining sun-dried tomato puree over the top. Sprinkle with the olives.

Cover with aluminum foil and bake until heated through, about 30 minutes. Sprinkle with basil before serving.

Approximate nutritional analysis per serving: 425 calories, 6 grams fat, 9 milligrams cholesterol, 1,630 milligrams sodium, 15 grams protein, 85 grams carbohydrate.

Roasted vegetable lasagna

Serves 8

5 pounds onions (about 15 medium), unpeeled

2 heads garlic, smashed lightly

12 lasagna noodles

olive oil spray

10 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2 -inch dice

12 large parsnips, peeled and cut into 1/2 -inch dice

5 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2 -inch dice

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

2 3/4 teaspoons salt

freshly ground pepper to taste

3 1/4 cups vegetable or chicken broth, homemade or low-sodium canned

pinch of cayenne

4 teaspoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place onions and garlic in 1 large or medium roasting pans. Add 1 cup water to each pan used. Cover with aluminum foil, and roast until garlic is soft, about 1 hour. Remove garlic, and continue roasting until onions are soft, about 30 minutes longer. Set aside.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add noodles and cook for 10 minutes. Drain and separate noodles to prevent sticking. Spray 3 large baking sheets with olive oil. Place carrots and parsnips on 1 of sheets, and divide sweet potatoes between the others. Roast, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are soft, about 35 minutes for the sweet potatoes and 1 hour for the carrots and parsnips.

Meanwhile, peel garlic and onions, and place in a food processor. Pulse until coarsely pureed. Mix in rosemary, 2 teaspoons of salt, and pepper. Scrape into a sieve, and place over a bowl to drain for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Place 1 cup of sweet potatoes and 2 cups of the carrot and parsnip mix in a food processor, and process until pureed. Add 3 cups of broth, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, pepper and cayenne, and pulse until combined. Scrape into a large bowl. Take out 1 1/2 cups, place in a bowl and stir in the remaining broth, salt and Parmesan; set aside. Stir the remaining vegetables into the rest.

Place 4 noodles in the bottom of a 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Spread with half of the onion mixture. Top with half of the larger vegetable mixture.

Repeat the layers and top with noodles. Spread the Parmesan mixture over the top. Cover with aluminum foil and bake until heated through, about 30 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley before serving.

Approximate nutritional analysis per serving: 620 calories, 3 grams fat, 1 milligram cholesterol, 895 milligrams sodium, 20 grams protein, 135 grams carbohydrate.

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