Friday, April 22, 2011

Liven up your Lasagna!

Tips and tricks for creating exciting variations on vegan lasagna

It’s a perennial crowd pleaser.  It’s substantial, it travels and reheats well, it’s fancy enough to be impressive without being all that intimidating or difficult to put together, and last but not least, it veganizes well enough to be tolerated by most omnivores. It’s easy to see why it shows up on so many vegan menus.
That doesn’t means it can’t get boring or overdone after a while. So here’s what you can do if you’ve got a killer lasagna recipe in need of some spicing up.

1.   Change the structure

Did you know that most lasagna recipes can be easily modified into manicotti, cannelloni, stuffed shells and other recipes based on large filled or stacked pastas?
For example, if you had a spinach lasagna recipe that had alternating layers of tofu-spinach filling and marinara sauce, to modify it you would fill the inside of the manicotti tubes (cooked) with the tofu-spinach filling and put them on a bed of the marinara, then spoon more marinara on top before baking and serving.  The difference in texture and presentation makes it a whole new dish.

Tofu-Artichoke Manicotti, modified from a lasagna recipe

You can also make lasagna roll-ups, a beautiful variation.  You cook the noodles, lay them out, spread them with filling and then roll them up like cigars.  I like to cut the rolls in half and then arrange them ruffle side up, packed tightly so they don’t unravel, and then spoon tomato sauce over and around them. They look really pretty this way.

Various types of smaller pasta shapes can be layered in place of the lasagna noodles as well. It becomes kind of a baked ziti-like casserole that way.  Broken up lasagna noodles work too, and so does spaghetti.

You also don’t have to use pasta at all.  You could make a standard layered lasagna with thinly sliced eggplant or zucchini in place of the noodles for a moussaka-like effect. You could also layer in tortillas or crepes as well as matzo, toast, polenta, breadcrumbs or croutons. There are always combinations as well, such as half standard noodle and half zucchini, or a noodle layer at the top and bottom and croutons in the middle.

And if you enjoy miniatures, you could always take mini loaf pans and lasagna noodles cut into halves or thirds and make individual mini lasagnas. It’s cute and it eliminates serving difficulties.

2.   Change the sauces
Most lasagnas seem to have a three basic components: noodles, a thick, sometimes chunky filling, and a thinner sauce such as tomato in alternating layers.  Both the filling and the sauce can be changed and combined in different ways.
Here are some examples: 
  •  Basic Lasagna Bolognese, with a thick, meaty (or fake meaty ;) and slightly tomatoey ragu style filling alternating with a thin white sauce (usually béchamel) 
  • Florentine style, with a ricotta-like filling containing spinach (chard or other greens my be substituted) combined with layers of a thin tomato sauce 
  • Combinations of the above, such as the spinach filling with the béchamel for a sort of white lasagna, or a triple decker with the ragu, tofu ricotta, and béchamel all in one dish (very tasty but sort of elaborate)
  • Pesto Lasagna, with your favorite pesto either mixed into the tofu ricotta filling or thinned to replace the tomato sauce.  (FYI, while traditional pesto is made with basil and pine nuts, it can be made with any type of herb or green and any type of nut or seed or a combination.  My favorite is Kale-Almond-Walnut. Other types of vegetables, such asparagus or peas can also be used, and the nuts can also be omitted if desired. For lasagna I usually prefer a pesto that’s made with something other than basil so the leftovers don’t discolor.) 
  • Stroganoff lasagna, with a tangy and creamy mushroom filling (with or without a meat substitute added) and a white béchamel sauce
  • Pumpkin or Sweet Potato Lasagna, using a pumpkin sauce in place of the tomato. I like to flavor this one with cinnamon or nutmeg.  This is good at the holidays or for people with tomato or acidity issues.
  • The sauces and fillings themselves can also be modified: 
      • Your standard tomato sauce can be made with roasted or sun-dried tomatoes for a more intense flavor, spiced up with red pepper flakes, embellished with caramelized onions or roasted red peppers or even have the tomatoes replaced with tomatillos for a Lasagna Verde.
      • The béchamel may have herbs or spices added (nutmeg or dill would be nice), or be flavored with nutritional yeast and lemon juice to be more of a cheesy sauce, or it may be replaced with a richer and tangier alfredo style white sauce (I have a pureed white bean and roasted garlic alfredo that I like).
      • The ragu can be based on a number of things, including TVP, commercial sausage crumbles, seitan, mashed lentils, whole beans or chunky vegetables (cubed eggplant gets a particularly nice texture). Having meatballs swimming in sauce for a filling is a pretty cool variation too. The flavoring can be changed too—there can be a strong tomato base or just a small amount of paste, and the spices can be altered. I think a pinch of sweet spices such as fennel and/or cinnamon adds a really nice note, and of course hot spices may be added or the aromatic vegetables increased, changed, or prepared differently (such as roasting or caramelizing to deepen flavor or switching to sweet onions).  The flavor may be changed according a particular theme as well, such as using taco spices for a Mexican Lasagna, adding chocolate for a mole effect, or using you favorite Chili spice mix for a Chili Lasagna.
      • The ricotta style filling can be made with all kinds of things from pureed silken tofu or mashed firm tofu to beans to cauliflower, cashews, commercial or homemade non dairy cream cheese or sour cream products or any combination thereof. It can be made with varying degrees of tanginess and richness and different amounts and types of fresh or dried herbs.  It can be very vegetable heavy, or mostly creamy. Nutritional yeast may be added to increase cheesy flavor. Seitan can be added to approximate some of those chicken-based white lasagnas.

  1. Add-ins—There are a lot of things that can be added to lasagna, either as the featured ingredient or just sprinkled on top.  Here is a rundown:
    • Spinach and other greens—a classic, and one that tends to enhance the flavor of the ricotta flavoring. Fresh or frozen is fine.
    • Artichoke hearts, canned or marinated—this is one of my favorites. It adds great flavor and texture.
    • Olives—good in the tomato sauce or ragu fillings
    • Capers—can be mixed in or tossed on top
    • Roasted Garlic—good in white sauce or ricotta filling. Raw is good too.
    • Caramelized onions—or roasted or just plain sweet onion are good too.  Also anything in the same family such as shallots or chives.
    • Eggplant—This is good cubed into the ragu or tomato sauce, or sliced thinly in between layers.
    • Zucchini—best sliced thinly or shredded
    • Bell peppers—generally best in the ragu or tomato sauces.  Roasted can be tossed in as well or pureed into sauces or fillings.
    • Mushrooms—work anywhere. Can be sautéed first if desired.
    • Asparagus—either tips or chopped up
    • Potatoes—cubed, mashed, or even scalloped
    • Broccoli, Cauliflower, Squash, Carrots and other veggies—can be chopped, shredded, or sliced thinly and may be fresh or frozen
    • Salad Dressing—can be used to add flavor to the ricotta filling
    • Salsa—can be added to make sauces chunkier or improve flavor.  Excellent in Southwest-style lasagnas
    • Various marinated or pickled vegetables—adds tanginess
    • Non-dairy Cheese—I tend to just use this on top of the lasagna in a thin layer, if at all.  I find it just gets lost in the lower layers and since it’s expensive and high in fat I prefer to put it where it makes to most impact. Briefly broiling at the end of cooking time until slightly browned brings out its best flavor and texture.

4.   Change the method
A while back I tried an easier version of my basic recipe out of a combination of laziness, hunger and lack of ingredients.  I used frozen spinach instead of fresh, coarsely mashed the tofu instead of pureeing it, put the noodles straight in raw instead of boiling them first, and just sprinkled nutritional yeast on top instead of making a parmesan substitute or using soy cheese, and then just covered it with foil and slung it in the oven.
I ended up liking it better than the original!  And I definitely have been able to make it quite a bit more often. It’s great for unexpected guests because you can just throw it together and then go gab while it bakes.
My point is that sometimes small changes can make a big difference, and harder doesn’t always mean better.

I find that if the sauces and fillings are very moist and juicy, using dry, uncooked noodles (just regular ones—special no-boil noodles are not necessary) is a good way to firm up the final product and help it hold together better.  Make sure the sauce covers all the noodles and cover the pan with foil to keep the top noodle layer from drying out. This is also good way to save time and it’s less frustrating too.  Dry noodles tend to be easier to stack without flopping around or sticking together. If your sauce and filling are thick and dry, though, you’re better off precooking the noodles or they’ll get crunchy.

Other methods you can change are: whether you sauté you veggies first or just toss them in (a matter of preference and convenience), whether fillings and sauce are pureed smooth, left chunky, or somewhere in between, the order in which they’re layered, (can affect structural integrity, texture and flavor) how many layers there are, and the ratio of noodle to filling and sauce.

These are all things you can change for convenience, to try and improve a flaw, or just to see what happens.


 Sometimes it’s fun to try a familiar recipe in a whole new way.  I haven’t tried every single idea on this page (although when I went to count how many I had tried I was sort of shocked at how much lasagna I’d had over the years) but I do suspect I’ll end up trying most of them eventually. 

After all, anything worth doing is worth doing 97 different ways, right? ;-)

1 comment:

  1. Now, that's some lasagna! I LOVE the throw it an a pan variation -- with two little kids yelling while I cook, that's a lasagna recipe even I can do on a weeknight. :-) I like the variations with stuffed & rolled noodles...sounds like a very pretty dish that would work well on a holiday. Yum!