Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Lasagna and Lessons Learned

Maybe the fact that the Vegetarian Lasagna recipe in Joy of Cooking calls for 6 pounds of eggplant and zucchini would phase some cooks. Not me. I didn't even bat an eye when I wrote 'eggplant (3 pounds) and zucchini (3 pounds)' on my grocery list. "Why?", you ask. Because I am devoted recipe-follower.

There are several reasons for this. First, I am my mother's daughter.

The second reason, and one I have only realized recently, has to do with this stage in my culinary life. Right now, I am learning how to cook. I am learning about techniques (Oh my, I love to chiffonade). I am learning about ingredients (What, you can make your own creme fraiche?). And I am learning about flavor combinations (Wait, peaches and tomatoes?). At the end of the day, I don't think I can become a better cook without understanding these basics of cooking. Before getting crazy and grating nutmeg all over everything, I should know why you use nutmeg, what recipes traditionally call for it, and what other ingredients it compliments. And one terrific way to learn is by following recipes from other cooks who have the experience and knowledge that I don't yet have.

Third, I like keeping track of what works and doesn't work, so one day I can have 'classic recipes'. You know, those tried and true recipes that you just own. If you follow a recipe once and you don't like it, you can keep track of what you didn't like and adjust it the next go round. I find when I just wing it, whether it works out well or horribly, it is incredibly difficult to repeat.

So, back to the lasagna that calls for 6 pounds of veggies... Well 6 1/2 pounds if you count the extra mushrooms I threw in. Apparently, 6 1/2 pounds of veggies may be a tad too much. In fact, there were so many veggies in this lasagna, I couldn't even fit in the last layer of pasta. But, this is good to know, next time I make veggie lasagna maybe I will shoot for 3-4 pounds of veggies. Consider my Joy of Cooking so annotated. See, isn't following recipes fun?!

Here's the making of it. I mostly followed the Joy of Cooking recipe, although I did take advice from a friend on the layering part. (She suggests that having veggies on the bottom provides more stability to the whole lasagna.)

First for the veggies. Did I mention there were 6 1/2 pounds of them?
I chopped them up.

Then it was time to roast them. I started to pile them onto my baking sheets. Only to quickly realize that if I wanted them to be in a single layer (which is a must for roasting), two sheets was definitely not enough.
Look at all that was left over.
So, in order to follow the recipe, I had to do two rounds of roasting,
and sauteed the mushrooms.
This ended up tacking on quite a bit of time. So lesson learned: when living somewhere without two ovens, only include the amount of veggies that will fit on two baking sheets. My guess is around 3-4 pounds.

While the veggies threatened to take everything over, I made the ricotta mixture. Have you met my cheese grater? This is the OXO Good Grips cheese grater. This is the best cheese grater ever. Because, you see that little box on the bottom? You perch your grater on top of that box, and it measures and catches your cheese as you grate it. Once you are done, remove the box, and you can either use the grated cheese, or pop the lid on the box and put it in the frig. Seriously, I love this tool.
For the ricotta mixture: ricotta, eggs, parmesan, salt, pepper, and nutmeg(!). See, if you read up on nutmeg, you learn that it loves things like ricotta mixtures.

Once I boiled my pasta, I got my assembly line ready.
Veggies, sauce, mozzarella, noodles, ricotta, repeat.

So, veggies.
Sauce. I always have the problem of under-saucing, and even this time, I used almost twice as much as Joy of Cooking called for and it still wasn't quite enough.
Mozza... oh wait, I misread the directions and did ricotta. Not dire, by any means, but it did get a little pink.
The mozzarella that was supposed to be ricotta.
And I repeated it until I got to what was supposed to be the final pasta layer. Much to my recipe-following chagrin, there was absolutely no room left for those last three noodles.
6 1/2 pounds of veggies will apparently do that to you. Then again, I did use a layering technique not in the Joy of Cooking, so perhaps I oughtn't blame the recipe.
So, I finished it off with some cheese, prayed that I wouldn't drop it, and popped/lugged it in the oven. 30 minutes covered with foil, 20 minutes without the foil. And, voila:
Come on, now. Look at that goodness.
Some lasagna, some salad (arugula with pear and gorgonzola), and an Italian red-blend: who wouldn't want this for dinner?
Garnished with some fresh basil, my 6-1/2-pounds-of-vegetables-lasagna was fantastic.
The many lessons learned:
-6 1/2 pounds of veggies is too much for a 13x9x2 pan. Include only as many vegetables as can be roasted on 2 baking sheets (about 3-4 pounds)
-if you do use 6 1/2 pounds of vegetables and you want all the layers of pasta in, try with the pasta on the bottom
-even if you can't include that last layer of pasta, this lasagna is delicious
-assembly lines for lasagna are brilliant
-you don't have to feel bound to eggplant and zucchini, you could use almost any vegetable that you wanted as long as it roasts well: peppers, summer squash, onions...
-if you want a sauce-y lasagna, don't follow normal directions; they call for very little sauce. For this lasagna, two 24-oz jars of marinara would have been ideal. Maybe a little less if you are doing fewer veggies
-when you cover your lasagna with tin foil, it helps to spray one side with Pam. This way, the melted cheese won't stick to the foil.

Roasted Vegetable Lasagna
(adapted from Joy of Cooking)
Eggplants (about 3 pounds), cut into 1/2 inch slices (I used Chinese eggplants, but if you use a globe eggplant, quarter it length-wise) (I would go with 1 1/2 pounds)
6 medium zucchini (about 3 pounds), cut in 1/2 inch slices (again, I would go with 1 1/2 pounds)
8 oz cremini mushrooms, sliced
4 cups shredded mozzarella
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 24 oz jars of marinara
15 oz ricotta
2 eggs
1/2 cup olive oil
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly grated black pepper
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg (or to taste)
1 pounds dry lasagna

Preheat the oven to 450. Grease a 13x9 pan. Toss the vegetables with 1/2 cup olive oil, 1 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp black pepper. Divide the vegetables between several baking sheets, spreading them in a single layer. Roast for 15 minutes. Toss the vegetables and continue to roast until well browned and soft, 15-2o minutes more. Transfer the vegetables to a large bowl.

Reduce the oven temperature to 375. Cook pasta in a large pot of salted, boiling water, stirring occasionally for 6-7 minutes, until barely tender. Drain the past and run cold water over it. Separate and blot it dry.

In a medium bowl, stir together the ricotta, eggs, 1/2 cup grated Parmesan, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp black pepper, and nutmeg.

Get all your lasagna components in a row. Spread a thin layer of sauce over the bottom of the prepared pan. Cover with a layer of pasta, slightly overlapping. Spread with one-third of the ricotta mixture. Sprinkle one-quarter of the mozzarella and grated Parmesan over the ricotta. Spoon one-third of the roasted vegetables on top and then add 1/2 cup of sauce (I added almost 1 cup). Add another layer of pasta and continue layering the lasagna until you have 4 layers of pasta and 3 layers of filling. Spread the remaining sauce on top and sprinkle with the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan. [see below for alternative layering technique]. Dot with butter (optional).

Spray aluminum foil with Pam , cover the pan with the foil (Pam side down), and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and continue to bake until golden and bubbly, 15-20 minutes. Let stand 15 minutes before serving. Garnish with basil or parsley.

Alternative layering technique: 1/3 of the veggies, about 1 cup of sauce, 1/4 of the mozzarella and Parmesan, pasta, 1/3 of the ricotta, 1/3 of the veggies, about 1 cup of sauce, 1/4 mozzarella and Parmesan, pasta, 1/3 of the ricotta, 1/3 of the veggies, about 1 cup of sauce, 1/4 of the mozzarella and Parmesan, pasta, sauce, 1/4 of the mozzarella and Parmesan. (Note: I did not get this last layer of pasta in).

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