Summer corn and zucchini lasagna

July 27, 2009 at 2:09 pm (B_, Derek's faves, My brain, Summer recipes, Vegetable dishes)

It’s been a year since I made this lasagne, but now that there’s finally corn in the market I can make it again!  Originally posted August 7, 2008.

When I saw corn at the market I felt a sudden desire to make a light, summery, white lasagna.  Rather than use tomato sauce, I thought I could top the lasagna with the slightly caramelized and jewel-like tomatoes that crown Cook’s Illustrated’s summer gratin recipe (recipe here). This was a great idea–it made a beautiful presentation and the tomatoes were delicious.  The rest of the lasagna turned out great as well–it held together perfectly, was very flavorful, and looked gorgeous.

  • 1 3/4 pounds ripe tomatoes (about 4 large), sliced 1/4 inch thick
  • 1 1/2 pounds zucchini or summer squash (you’ll need about 2 large or 4 small), sliced lengthwise into 3/16 inch long “ribbons”
  • salt
  • 2 Tbs. olive oil (half to cook the corn, and half to drizzle over the tomatoes)
  • 3 small red onions (about 10 ounces), sliced into thin rings
  • 3 Tbs. minced garlic (about 12 to 15 cloves)
  • 4 cups of corn kernels, from 4 ears of corn
  • 1/2 tsp. chili flakes
  • 2.5 Tbs. minced fresh thyme leaves
  • 2 Tbs. butter
  • 2 Tbs. arrowroot powder or cornstarch
  • 3 cups low-fat milk
  • black pepper
  • 16 whole wheat lasagna noodles + a few extra for tasting / tearing
  • 2.5 ounces parmigiana reggiano
  • 8 ounces of fresh Buffalo mozzarella (one large ball)
  • 1 can pizza sauce (about 1.75 cups)
  1. Step one, dehydrate the veggies:
    1. Slice the squash and tomatoes.
    2. Toss zucchini and summer squash ribbons with 1 teaspoon salt in large bowl; transfer to colander set over bowl. Let stand until zucchini and squash release at least 3 tablespoons of liquid, about 1 hour. Gently wipe the ribbons with a towel to remove any excess salt and moisture.
    3. Place tomato slices in single layer on a wire cooling rack and sprinkle evenly with 1/4 teaspoon salt; let stand 30 minutes. Turn the slices, sprinkle with another 1/4 tsp. salt, and let stand another 30 minutes.
  2. Step two, prepare the corn and white sauce:
    1. Slice the onions, mince the garlic and thyme, and cut the corn off the cob.
    2. Heat 1 Tbs. olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  When hot, add the onions and saute until just wilting and shiny, about 1 to 2 minutes.  Add the corn, garlic, and chili flakes and saute for about 3-10 minutes, until the corn loses it’s starchiness but is still crisp (this will depend a lot on how tender and fresh your corn is).  Add the thyme, about 1/2 tsp. salt, and black pepper to taste.
    3. Push the vegetables to the side of the pan.. In the free side, melt the butter.  Add the arrowroot and make a slurry.  When the slurry is bubbling and slightly thickened, pour in the milk, and whisk.  Bring to a simmer and cook until just slightly thickened, about 3 minutes.  Mix the vegetables with the milk and off heat.
  3. Step three (start this step only if the vegetables are done dehydrating): cook the noodles and assemble the lasagna:
    1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Salt the water, and cook the noodles according to package directions, but making sure to leave them just slightly on the too al dente side. The extra noodles are for tasting, or in case some break (Derek’s suggestion). When you take the noodles out of the water, make sure not to tear them, or let them stick together when they cool. Lay them over the sides of the bowls/colanders/pots you’ve already gotten dirty while cooking.
    2. While the noodles are boiling, grate the parmigiano and tear the mozzarella into pieces.
    3. Assemble the lasagna: add 3/4 cup pizza sauce to the bottom of a 9- by 13-inch baking dish (or use two 8x8x2 inch square dishes).  Lay down four cooked noodles, and top with strips of squash, so that the strips are touching and cover all available space.  This should use up half the squash. Add half the corn/milk mixture.  Add another layer of noodles, the rest of the pizza sauce (about 1 cup), and the mozzarella.  Then repeat the noodle, squash, corn layer, and lay down the final layers of noodles.  Top with a single layer of tomatoes, overlapping them very slightly on the edges, so there’s no uncovered spaces.  Brush evenly with 1 Tbs. olive oil, sprinkle with pepper, and evenly spread the parmigiana reggiano over the top.
  4. Step four, bake the lasagna:
    1. Prepare the oven: put one shelf in the lower-middle, and the other near the top. Preheat to 375 degrees.
    2. Bake for 50 minutes on the lower middle oven shelf.  Turn the heat to 400, move the lasagna to the top shelf and bake for another 10 minutes, to brown the parmigiana and tomatoes.
    3. Remove from the oven and let stand for 15 minutes.

Makes 8 very large servings or 12 smaller servings.

Timing: Plan ahead if you want to make this recipe–you’ll need to start the process probably 3 hours before you want to serve dinner.  It’s definitely labor intensive, but it’s a nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and the last hour (when the lasagne cooks) is mostly hands-off.

Sauce: In the end,  the lasagna didn’t end up totally white–when putting together the lasagna, Derek objected to a tomato sauce free lasagna, so we ended up adding a bit of leftover pizza sauce.  I think it was a nice addition–it didn’t make the lasagna taste too traditional, but added another layer of flavor. We’d been eating a lot of tomato / basil dishes lately, so I decided to mix it up and go with fresh thyme as my herb instead of basil.  The thyme was nice, but I ended up garnishing the lasagna with a few ribbons of fresh Thai basil, which were lovely.

Noodles: I wanted a thin, fresh noodle, like the one shown in 101 cookbook’s 1000 layer lasagna, but I never made it to the noodle shop in the Disconto Plaza, so I ended up buying whole wheat lasagna noodles at the local Biofrischmarkt. They were a bit of a pain because I decided I should cook them first, but they weren’t too heavy or strong-tasting, as I had feared, but added a nice earthy base for all the summer veggies.  It’s possible I could avoid cooking them if I left my white sauce really soupy and covered with tin foil, but then the tomatoes wouldn’t have a chance to carmelize.

Derek contributed the round of fresh buffalo mozzarella from the local cheese shop, and parmigiano.  The final lasagna ended up being a bit too greasy, but I didn’t measure ingredients very well.  Everything above is very much a guess.  I’m going to have to make it again and measure more carefully, to get the right proportions of veggies, salt, and fat.  I actually only made an 9×9 lasagna, using 8 lasagna noodles, which made 4 very large servings.  As a result, I had to guess at some of the amounts above.  More or less veggies and cheese might be needed. However, it was so much work it was silly to make such a small lasagna.  When I make it again I’ll definitely use a 9×13 pan instead.

Rating: B

Derek: A-

Derek wants to try this recipe without any mozzarella, since he said he couldn’t really taste it in the final dish.  It’s certainly not enough mozarrella to see strings between the layers of noodles.  I think if we do cut the cheese we should add a bit more fat, perhaps another half Tbs. of olive oil each for the tomatoes and corn.  Derek also thought that the tomatoes could use more parmesan–he suggested doubling it to 5 ounces.

Second attempt July 27, 2009:

This time I made one pyrex 8×8 pan and one non-stick 9×9 pan, and I had pretty much the right amount of filling. However, the lasagna in the dark non-stick pan was a little browned on the bottom.

I bought Denree whole wheat lasagna noodles at the bio store and I had major problems cooking them.  They all instantly stuck together, and they seemed to take forever to cook.  When I pulled them out most of the noodles tore.  I don’t remember that happening last time.  I’m not sure why–maybe I didn’t have enough water for the number of noodles?  Last time I only made one pan so I only had to cook half the number of noodles.  Maybe I have to do them in two batches?  Since so many of my whole wheat noodles fell apart I made the second pan with white no-cook Barilla noodles.  I was worried that the white sauce was too dry for the no-cook noodles (it had thickened substantially while sitting).  So I added a bit more milk to the white sauce to make it more liquidy.  In retrospect, although this was fine for the no-cook noodles, this was a bad idea for the pre-cooked whole wheat noodles.  The extra moisture made the lasagna a bit soupy and it didn’t hold together well.  What I should have done was soak the no-bake noodles in hot tap water for 10 minutes (according to CI).  The lasagna with the white no-cook noodles held together better and was less soupy, but the noodles were not nearly as flavorful.  Cooks Illustrated described the Barilla noodles as “Like fresh pasta” but “a little too thin” and “slightly limp.”  I think that’s an accurate description, if you add “lacking in wheaty flavor.”  Also, strangely, the whole wheat pasta lasagna tasted significantly spicier; I have no idea why.  I forgot to garnish the top with fresh basil.  Everyone loved the tomato topping–the best part, we agreed.

I also had  trouble this time pushing the corn mixture aside to make the white sauce.  Even in my 12 inch skillet there simply wasn’t enough room.  Next time maybe I will make the bechamel in a separate pot.  I didn’t have any arrowroot, so I used potato starch.  Next time maybe I’ll just use white flour as the thickener.

Step 2 took me basically an hour to do.  Prepping the thyme is particularly labor intensive.  So as soon as I was done with the corn white sauce I moved on to boiling the noodles.  I should have been bringing my water to a boil as soon as I started sauteing the onions.

Derek said it wasn’t as good as last time (we’re not sure why), and dropped his rating to a B.  Maybe I used more oil or cheese last time?  The first time I made the lasagna I noted that it was “just a tad greasy,” but this time the lasagna didn’t taste greasy or extremely rich.

We served this with a harissa flavored salad from Berley’s cookbook Fresh Food Fast.  The salad had green beans, yellow was beans, chickpeas, and red onions in a lemon, garlic, cumin, cayenne dressing.  It was pretty tasty, and went okay with the lasagne.

3rd attempt June 2011:

I used whole wheat Denree brand noodles, which fell apart again.  What a pain.  I used a whole pound of mozzarella and whole milk (but 3 cups instead of 4 since I didn’t use no-boil noodles).  I sadly didn’t have any thyme, which was a real loss.  The lasagna needs some kind of herb, and the thyme goes really well with the other flavors.  I thought my white sauce, even when made with whole milk, ended up kind of bland.  I need to find a better white sauce recipe.  I cut the zucchini a 1/4 inch thick this time and they didn’t get as soft in the lasagna, but the slight crispness didn’t add anything.  In fact the zucchini just tasted bland. I wonder if it would be better to chop it up and saute it with the corn? Despite using a whole pound of mozzarella the lasagna didn’t seem at all cheesy.  How much cheese do they use in restaurant lasagnas? I also was surprised that with all that cheese and milk the lasagna wasn’t more filling.  I’m sure one piece had a lot of calories, but it wasn’t as filling and satisfying as I expected.

The lasagna pan ended up really full, and when baking it bubbled up and over the sides, making a mess on the bottom of the oven.  I really need a deep dish lasagna pan.  A regular pyrex pan just isn’t tall enough.

Derek really loved this lasagna, eating it every day until it was gone (and it was a big lasagna).  His favorite was the layer of tomatoes on the top.  I like the idea of it but thinks the implementation needs quite a bit of work.

4th attempt August 2011:

This time I combined my recipe with another summer vegetable lasagna recipefrom Cook’s Illustrated.  Their recipe calls for eggplant, but I don’t care for eggplant so used corn instead.  Rather than adding raw zucchini to the lasagne, they suggest sautéing it in garlic-infused oil.  Rather than my typical can of pizza sauce Cook’s Illustrated recommends making a no-cook tomato sauce, because it keeps its brightness even after baking and cooling and adds a little acidity. Rather than make a béchamel sauce or add ricotta cheese, they recommend making a no-cook sauce from cottage cheese, heavy cream, Parmesan, garlic, and cornstarch (to prevent clumping).  I also tried their suggestion of adding a handful of chopped kalamata olives, which supposedly add meaty texture and a briny jolt of flavor. Cook’s Illustrated recommends adding sautéed baby spinach for freshness, but I couldn’t find any baby spinach so I left that part out.

INGREDIENTS

No-Cook Tomato Sauce

  • 1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (I left this out)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

No-Cook Cream Sauce

  • 4 ounces Parmesan cheese , grated (2 cups)
  • 1 cup whole-milk cottage cheese [I used a lowfat cottage cheese]
  • 1 cup heavy cream (I had a bit less than a cup)
  • 2 garlic cloves , minced
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper

Vegetable Filling and Topping

  • 1 1/2 pounds tomatoes (about 6 medium), sliced 1/4 inch thick [not in the CI recipes]
  • 1 medium red onion, cut into rings [not in the CI recipe]
  • 4 cups corn kernels (cut from about 4 ears of corn) [I swapped this for eggplant in the CI recipe]
  • kosher salt and ground black pepper
  • 2 pounds zucchini or yellow squash, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 8 cups)
  • 5 Tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil [I used 3.33 Tablespoons I think]
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced [I used about 2 Tbs. chopped garlic]
  • 1 Tablespoon minced fresh thyme [I used about 3 Tbs.]
  • 12 ounces baby spinach (about 12 cups) [I left this out]
  • 12 no-boil lasagna noodles
  • 1/2 cup minced pitted kalamata olives
  • 12 ounces low-moisture whole-milk mozzarella cheese, shredded (about 3 cups) [I used less, maybe 8 ounces.]
  • 2 Tbs. chopped fresh basil (as a garnish)

Instructions:

  1. FOR THE TOMATO SAUCE: Whisk all ingredients together in bowl; set aside.
  2. FOR THE CREAM SAUCE: Whisk all ingredients together in bowl; set aside.
  3. FOR THE FILLING: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees.
  4. Combine 1 Tablespoon oil, garlic, and thyme in small bowl. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add half of zucchini, ¼ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper; cook, stirring occasionally, until zucchini are lightly browned, about 7 minutes. Push vegetables to sides of skillet; add half of garlic mixture to clearing and cook, mashing with spatula, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir to combine garlic mixture with vegetables and transfer to medium bowl. Repeat with remaining zucchini, 2 Tablespoons oil, and remaining garlic mixture.
  5. Return skillet to medium-high heat, add remaining teaspoon oil, and heat until shimmering. Add spinach and cook, stirring frequently, until wilted, about 3 minutes. Transfer spinach to paper towel–lined plate and drain 2 minutes. Stir into zucchini mixture.
  6. TO ASSEMBLE: Spray 13 by 9-inch baking dish with vegetable oil spray. Spread 1 cup tomato sauce in bottom of baking dish; shingle 4 noodles on top of sauce. Spread half of vegetable mixture over noodles, followed by half of olives, half of cream sauce, and 1 cup of mozzarella. Repeat layering with 4 noodles, 1 cup tomato sauce, remaining vegetables, remaining olives, remaining cream sauce, and 1 cup mozzarella. Place remaining 4 noodles on top layer of cheese. Spread remaining 1 cup tomato sauce over noodles and sprinkle with remaining 1 cup mozzarella. Lightly spray large sheet of aluminum foil with vegetable oil spray and cover lasagna. Bake until -bubbling, about 35 minutes. Cool on wire rack 25 minutes. Cut into pieces, sprinkle with basil, and serve.

My notes:

I started by salting and dehydrating my tomato slices a bit on a wire rack (as described above).  I had so much garlic and thyme that 1 tablespoon really wasn’t enough oil to cook it in.  I had to just quickly mix it with the zucchini to keep it from burning.  With my zucchini I added the rings from one red onion.  I boiled my corn for a few minutes before cutting off the kernels, but you could also cook the kernels in the skillet with a little water, after step 4.  I assembled my lasagna with the zucchini and olives and tomato sauce in one layer and the corn and white sauce in the other.  Over the top layer of noodles I spread a little more tomato sauce and the sliced tomatoes, which I brushed with about a teaspoon of olive oil.  I didn’t try to cover the lasagna with tin foil because I wanted the tomatoes to dry out.   So I cooked the lasagna a bit longer–50 minutes rather than 35 minutes.  It was definitely done after 50 minutes baking and 25 minutes cooling.  It was so done that it had actually bubbled up over the sides of the pan, making a mess (again).  I really need to get a proper, deep lasagna pan.

The lasagna turned out well.  Neither Derek nor I would have known it had cottage cheese instead of ricotta.  Surprisingly, despite all the fat, it didn’t taste rich at all.  I actually wished it tasted a little bit richer.  It did end up tasting too salty.  Next time I’ll cut the salt down quite a bit.  I might leave out the olives too.  Derek liked them but I thought they conflicted with the summery flavors.  I couldn’t really taste the zucchini, but it added texture. Derek said that overall he liked this recipe better than my old version (above), but he wished I had saved a little of the parmesan for sprinkling over the tomatoes.

My main complaint about this recipe is that it took forever and a day to make.  Even using the no-cook noodles (which I still find quite bland), it was labor and pot intensive.  One of the most time consuming steps was prepping the garlic, thyme, basil, and olives. There’s got to be an easier way to make a summer lasagna.

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