Spinach and Mushroom Lasagna with Homemade Tomato Sauce

March 3, 2007 at 11:23 pm (B plus (3 stars, like a lot), Cook's Illustrated, Dark leafy greens, Pasta, Starches, Tofu)


I have always, always loved lasagna, and I have no idea why. But whenever I see a vegetarian lasagna on a menu I always order it…. and I’m always sorely disappointed, if not utterly disgusted. They’re often greasy, or bland, or just taste terrible. Is it that hard to make a vegetable lasagna? I must admit, whenever I tried to wing it in the past I’d never done so well. So when I saw a recipe for vegetable lasagna in Cook’s Illustrated Cooking Light cookbook I had to give it a shot.

They said when using no-boil noodles to leave the tomato sauce a little watery so that the noodles can absorb water without drying out the dish. They also say “One important aspect of cooking lasagne made with either conventional or no-boil noodles is controlling the amount of moisture added by the vegetables. Precooking (usually sautéing or roasting) vegetables is the way to do this, and it boosts the flavor of the final cooked dish as well.” Is it just me, or does it seem a bit strange that they stress leaving the tomato sauce a bit watery, then say to make sure you get all the liquid out of your veggies by pre-cooking them?

The original recipe called for broccoli, mushrooms, and zucchini. I have never liked broccoli in lasagne, and I don’t normally buy zucchini in December. So although Cook’s Illustrated said their taste test with spinach had been less than stellar I decided to make spinach lasagne despite them, or maybe to spite them. (Why do I love to spite Cook’s Illustrated so much? Maybe it’s because they’re so meat and dairy centric? Or because their recipes are so consistently, mind-numbingly, repetitively, American? Of course, here I am making a cheese-based traditional American lasagne, so maybe I shouldn’t be pointing thumbs… or rolling noses… or whatever.)

I recommend making the tomato sauce ahead of time, as otherwise this is quite an endeavor with lots of dirty dishes. It seems less of an undertaking if you already have the sauce done.

Sauce:

  • 1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes (preferably Muir Glen)
  • 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes (preferably Mui Glen)
  • 1 medium onion, minced (8 ounces)
  • 1 tsp. olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 6 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed (about 2 Tbs.)
  • 2 Tbs. tomato paste
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1 cup vegetable broth or water
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 cup minced fresh basil leaves
  • ground black pepper
  1. Combine the onion, oil, and salt in a 12-inch non-stick skillet. Cover and cook over medium-low until softened, 8 to 10minutes. Stir in the garlic, tomato paste, and pepper flakes and cook until the garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the broth, pureed tomatoes, diced tomatoes with their juices, and bay leaves. Bring to a very low simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the flavors are blended and the sauce is thickened, about 45 minutes.

Filling and pasta layer

  • 2 pounds cremini or white mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 tsp. olive oil
  • 2 pounds frozen spinach (preferably in loose bags, not pressed in boxes)
  • 1 pound firm tofu, pressed
  • 2 ounces parmigiano-reggiano (about 1 cup grated)
  • 12 ounces flavorful and maybe a little pungent hard cheese (such as Parrano, gruyere, sharp cheddar, etc.) (about 3 cups grated)
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup fresh basil
  • 1/2 cup tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/4-3/4 tsp. salt
  • 12 no-boil lasagna noodles from one 8-ounce package (CI recommends Ronzoni, Skinner, and San Giorgio brands)
  1. Combine the mushrooms, 1 tsp. of the oil, and 1/4 tsp. salt in a 12-inch nonstick skillet. Cover over medium-low heat until the mushrooms have released their liquid, about 8 minutes. Remove the cover and continue to cook until all the liquid evaporates, about 5 minutes. Add the frozen spinach, and cook until the spinach is defrosted and all the liquid evaporates, about 5? more minutes.
  2. Mix together the tofu, 2 cups of the hard cheese, the parmesan, the egg, fresh basil, pepper, the cheese, 1/2 tsp. salt (optional), and pepper in a large bowl. Make sure the tofu is mashed well. You should have about 3 cups of filling.
  3. To assemble and bake: adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 375 degrees. Spray a 13 by 9-inch baking dish with vegetable oil spray. Spread 1.5 cups of the sauce evenly over the bottom of the baking dish.
  4. Repeat three times: Lay 3 lasagna noodles on top of the sauce, spaced evenly apart. Place 1/3 cup of the filling on top of each noodle and spread it out evenly over the entire noodle using a rubber spatula. Scatter 1/3 of the vegetables evenly over the filling, then spread 1 cup of the sauce evenly over the vegetables. Repeat this layering twice more.
  5. Lay the remaining 3 noodles over the top, and spread the remaining 1.5 cups sauce evenly over the noodles, making sure to cover the edges. Spray a large piece of foil with vegetable oil spray and cover the lasagna tightly. CI says that the baking dash will be quite full, and the lasagna may rise a bit above the rim of the dish when baking, but as it rest, it will settle back into the dish.
  6. Place the lasagna on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 45 minutes. Remove the foil and sprinkle the lasagna evenly with the 1 remaining cup of grated hard cheese. Continue to bake, uncovered, until the cheese is bubbling and slightly brown, 15 minutes longer. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack at least 15 minutes before serving.

My Notes:

I didn’t quite follow the sauce directions. I only had one can of crushed tomatoes, so I subbed a quart jar of diced tomatoes and basil I had canned two summers ago with tomatoes from my CSA. I’m not sure if I ended up with the right out of tomatoes or liquid, and I certainly didn’t have enough basil, but in the end the sauce tasted quite nice–very fresh and tomato-y I thought. I also upped the red pepper flakes from 1/8 tsp to a whole tsp., because Cook’s Illustrated chefs are writing for average Americans. After sitting in the fridge overnight the sauce was quite thick. It didn’t seem like enough sauce either. I had to really stretch it to make it cover the top layer. It’s probably because of my substitution though. When I was done the lasagna looked too dry though. C.I. says the sauce is supposed to be a bit watery to let the no bake noodles cook completely, so after I had assembled the lasagna I poured in a little of extra juice from some other tomatoes I had opened.

The first time I made this I followed their instructions and used reduced-fat mozzarella, but I didn’t buy enough mozzarella it turns out. I only bought 8 ounces, which makes 2 cups shredded, not three. So I doubled the parmesan and hoped for the best. I defrosted 2 bags of Whole Foods frozen spinach and put them in a sieve to strain, making sure to push as much of the water as I could out. Actually, it made quite a mess in my sieve. Next time maybe I’d use paper towels to wring the spinach out? Or just saute it a bit with the mushrooms at the end? I mixed the spinach with the cheese mixture. I didn’t have any fresh basil, so I left that out.

I was skeptical, but I bought the no-bake lasagne noodles they called for. They’re kind of cool–they come in this tiny little box that didn’t look like it would be enough for a whole lasagne. And they’re really short. They didn’t reach the ends of my pan, even position cross-wise rather than long wise. So I spaced them out evely as C.I. said and just tried to ignore the large canals in my lasagne. In the end it seemed to work out okay. The cooked lasagna filled up the pan pretty well, so it wasn’t too much of an issue, although the corner pieces were almost pasta-free. Although the pieces at the ends didn’t really seem to contain much noodles (if any).

In the final lasagna I didn’t like the noodles that much though. The texture was fine but I found them pretty tasteless. I really prefer whole wheat pasta. Next time I’m just going to make lasagna with regular whole wheat lasagna noodles. Maybe I’ll soak them a bit first to soften them up, but I won’t cook them ahead of time–too much extra work, and not necessary I don’t think. (If any of you have experience using whole wheat lasagna noodles without boiling them first please do let me know how it turned out.)

Okay, finally we get to the tasting part. The lasagna held together reasonably well. Probably if I had the extra cup of mozzarella it would have held together even better. The flavor is good. It still has that fresh tomato taste, and you can taste both the spinach and mushrooms. The browned cheese on top is nice as well. I’d say the recipe works well, but in the end it is a light lasagna. It just doesn’t have that decadent, swimming in cheese personality that I think is what makes me love lasagna. Ah well, it’s probably for the best. Given that it’s not dairy-fat-luscious, I think if I make this again I will substitute blended, seasoned tofu for the ricotta, and 2 cups of a stronger full fat cheese for the low-fat mozzarella. Maybe smoked gruyere would be good? Or fontina? Any other suggestions? I would also increase the mushroom amount a tad I think, to a pound and a half or two pounds. You can’t have too many mushrooms.

Besides using a slightly snappier cheese, and whole wheat noodles, and more mushrooms, I feel like this recipe needs one more thing to perk it up and make it go from fine to exciting. But I’m not sure what it’s missing. Maybe if I had used the fresh basil? Kalamata olives? Capers? I don’t want to turn it into some weird exotic lasagna. I do just want a basic spinach lasagna, but with just a tad more excitement to it. Oh blog readers, I’m relying on you to help me construct that perfect lasagna of my imagination. Help!

Cook’s Illustrated says this makes 10 slices, but I cut mine into 12 smaller pieces or 9 large ones.

One last comment. This lasagna was salty. I’m not sure why exactly. Maybe there was just enough salt in each individual ingredient that it added up to an awful lot. It was restaurant-salty, so not inedible but I definitely noticed it after having a whole piece. I think maybe next time I won’t add the salt in the tofu/cheese mixture, as the cheese is already salted. Or maybe I should leave it out of the sauce, since the Muir Glen tomatoes are salted a bit.

Update from second try: I used a mix of parrano and gruyere, which was very nice. I also added about 20 kalamata olives, which were good as always. I think one reason it didn’t hold together very well is that I upped the vegetable quantity quite a bit, which CI says makes it quite a bit looser. I think maybe the trick to having this lasagna hold together (without adding a lot more cheese) is to let it really cool off quite a bit. Ideally you’d let it cool off completely, then re-heat it even?

Also, CI says to put each vegetable in a separate layer. I was too lazy and just ended up mixing my vegetables together in the same pan, but I might try this next time.

Rating: B+

Derek: B+

5 Comments

  1. pennylane said,

    I hate the no-boil noodles. I could never put my finger on it but I think you’re right – they’re kind of tasteless. Also, I don’t know if yours are the same, but the kind available here (France) doesn’t have those crinkly edges. To me that’s what lasagne is all about! It’s actually really hard to find anything but the no-boil kind over here now. Aggravating!

  2. Maria Gatti said,

    Pennylane, try an organic foods shop – plenty of them now in France. Or an Italian grocery.

    In Italy, lasagne is often made with besciamella – of course you can make it with soya milk; just don’t use one that is too sweet or too “beany” tasting.

    I hate broccoli in lasagna too – that is one combination NEVER eaten in Italy. Rapini (more common than the big broccoli) is always served as a separate veg dish – a contorno.

    I’m not really vegetarian, but don’t eat much meat, so I’d usually order the primo (pasta, gnocchi, risotto etc) and then a contorno as a second dish. If you are strict about vegetarianism you have to be careful about little bits of ham, anchovies, etc, and explain what you don’t eat.

  3. Clare said,

    This is my favourite vegetarian lasagne recipe. It’s from “more nature’s superfoods” availablle from http://www.sanitarium.com.au You could probably add fresh baby spinach leaves in at step 3.

    Ingredients:
    1 medium eggplant. 2 yellow capsicums (peppers). 2 zucchini. 4 cloves garlic. 1 tbspn olive oil. 15 pitted kalamata olives, chopped. 300g fresh low-fat ricotta. 200g low-fat fetta cheese. 5 large lasagne sheets. 425g tub commercial pasta sauce*. 2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese.
    *you can make your own napoli sauce instead.

    Method:
    1. Chop eggplant, capsicum and zucchini into 2cm cubes and place in a roasting pan. Add cloves of garlic and toss through oil. Bake in a moderate oven, 180C for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
    2. Remove roasted garlic from pan, mash and return to vegetables.
    3. Stir through olives.
    4. Combine ricotta and fetta in a food processor and process until smooth.
    5. Place lasagne sheets in the base of a lasagne dish. Spread with 1/2 the vegetables and 1/2 the sauce. Repeat with lasagne sheets, vegetables and sauce layers.
    6. Spread ricotta mixture over top. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese.
    7. Bake in a moderate oven, 180C for 45 minutes.

    Serves 8.

  4. captious said,

    Clare, thanks for the suggestion to try feta in the lasagna. I don’t think I’ve ever tried it before, but it sounds like an excellent idea.

  5. A lasagna for every season « The captious vegetarian said,

    […] Spinach and mushroom lasagne with homemade tomato sauce.  Veggies are spinach and mushrooms.  Herb is basil. The labeling of seasons isn’t […]

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