Why It Works
- Cottage cheese that's been pulsed in a food processor is a tangier, creamier alternative to typical store-bought ricotta.
- Soaking lasagna noodles for 15 minutes before assembly allows you to skip the tedious cooking step while keeping the moisture level of your fillings consistent.
It was 2 a.m. on a chilly fall morning in my New York apartment when my wife was suddenly awoken from her sleep by a loud clatter. She wearily dragged herself out of bed, narrowly missing stepping on the dog in her bleary-eyed walk out of the bedroom. I thought I'd gotten away scot-free when my wife walked in and caught me just as a drop of creamy sauce fell off my finger to the floor.
"What are you DOING at two in the morning?!" she asked in her I'm-not-really-yelling-but-I-am-in-my-head voice.
"Um...," I stammered. "Uh..." I knew she'd never believe me if I told her the truth, so I decided to use my previously successful tactic of offering her an excuse before I offered an explanation. "Er... I couldn't sleep!" That should satisfy her curiosity.
"Yes, but what are you doing, and why are you making so much noise, and why does it smell like bechamel and creamed spinach in here?"
"Well... I couldn't sleep so I decided to make a lasagna."
She stared at me blankly for a moment, turned around, and shuffled back to the bedroom, muttering, "What did I marry?" under her breath.
If she had given me a longer chance to explain, I would have been able to foist the blame squarely on the shoulders of Serious Eats community member KarmaFreeCooking, who started up a Talk thread titled, "Vegetarian Lasagna Throwdown—Ideas To Win Over Any Meat Eater", explaining that she'd been issued the challenge of bringing a vegetarian lasagna good enough to compete with a meaty lasagna to a lasagna party.
I was not invited to this party, nor was I officially challenged, but challenge accepted anyway.
One night and a whole lotta cookin' and tweakin' later, here's what I got. It's not strikingly original in its flavors, but damn if it ain't rich and delicious.
Preparing the Fillings
We start with a base of lightly creamed spinach. I considered going the easy route with frozen leaves, but figured that if the ultimate version is what we're after, and we're already putting in the not-insignificant amount of work required to construct a lasagna, using fresh spinach was not asking too much.
Some spinach lasagnas will have you blanch the leaves in water, then ring out the excess. Far easier is to just wilt them in a pot along with some sautéed garlic and olive oil. From there, a hit of heavy cream and a grating of nutmeg is all they need.
Ricotta is a classic ingredient in an Italian-American lasagna, but I personally find the texture to be grainy and bland once cooked (mostly because store-bought ricotta just stinks). Instead, I use a trick I learned from Cook's Illustrated: Replace the ricotta with some whole fat cottage cheese pulsed in the food processor. It stays moist during baking and adds some great tang to the finished dish. I added the pulsed cottage cheese along with some chopped spinach and an egg to the spinach layer.
For the mushrooms, I made a classic duxelles by cooking the chopped button mushrooms down with butter, shallots, thyme, and heavy cream. A dash of soy sauce adds some meaty depth to them, while lemon juice brightens things up.
For the final component, I made a bechamel (that's white sauce to us Americans, or besciamella, if you're of the Italian persuasion), a simple sauce of milk thickened with flour and butter. I stirred in some grated mozzarella and Parmesan for an extra cheesy flavor. (It's best to stir the cheese in off-heat so that it doesn't curdle)
I used to go through the tedious process of par-boiling thick lasagna noodles before constructing my casserole, but made the switch over to no-boil noodles a few years ago. The only problem with them is that if you use them straight out of the box, they absorb liquid as they cook, making it difficult to gauge how moist your layers need to be before baking. The solution? Soak the noodles in water before baking. By separating the soaking and the cooking phases of the noodles into two distinct steps, it's much easier to tell what the finished texture of the lasagna will be like before you bake it.
And, dear wife, I hope you like the results, because it's gonna be your lunch and dinner for the next four days.
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for greasing baking dish, divided
3 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 1 tablespoon)
2 pounds washed fresh spinach leaves, roughly chopped
1 pint (2 cups) heavy cream, divided
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound cottage cheese
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley, divided
1 package (15 sheets) no-boil lasagna noodles
24 ounces button, cremini, or shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, finely chopped (see notes)
2 medium shallots, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons fresh juice from 1 lemon
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups whole milk
12 ounces whole milk mozzarella, grated, divided
2 ounces Parmiggiano-Reggiano, grated
Adjust an oven rack to the upper-middle position and preheat oven to 400°F (200°C). Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat until foaming subsides. Add garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add spinach in batches, allowing previous batch to wilt before adding next. Once all spinach is added, add 1 cup heavy cream. Bring to a boil, and reduce to a strong simmer. Cook, stirring frequently, until thick and reduced, about 15 minutes. Add nutmeg, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
While spinach is cooking, combine cottage cheese, egg, and 6 tablespoons parsley in the bowl of a food processor. Process until combined and cottage cheese is broken up to the texture of ricotta cheese, about 5 seconds.
Combine cooked spinach and cottage cheese mixture in a large bowl. Meanwhile, place lasagna noodles in a 8- by 13-inch baking dish and cover with warm water. Allow to soak, agitating occasionally to prevent sticking, until lightly softened, about 15 minutes. Transfer in a single layer to a clean kitchen towel to dry.
While noodles soak, wipe out spinach pot and return to medium-high heat. Add 3 more tablepsoons butter and heat until melted. Add mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid evaporates and mushrooms start to sizzle, about 10 minutes. Add shallots and thyme and cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant and softened, about 2 minutes. Add soy sauce and lemon juice and stir to combine. Add remaining heavy cream. Bring to a simmer, and cook until lightly thickened, about 3 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer mixture to another bowl.
Wipe out pot and return to medium-high heat. Add remaining 2 tablespoons butter and heat until melted. Add flour and cook, stirring constantly with a whisk, until light golden blond. Slowly pour in milk, whisking constantly. Bring to a simmer, then remove from heat. Stir in 2/3 of mozzarella and Parmesan, then season to taste with salt and pepper.
To assemble lasagna, dry the 8- by 13-inch baking dish and grease with butter. Add 1 cup cheese sauce to bottom of dish. Lay three sheets of noodle on top of it, spacing them evenly across the bottom of the dish (there will be about 1/4-inch gap between each sheet of noodle and the edge of the pan. This is fine). Top noodle evenly with half of mushroom mixture, then top with another three sheets. Top with half of spinach/cottage cheese mixture, then top with another three sheets of noodle. Repeat layers with remaining mushroom mixture, spinach mixture, and noodle, ending with a layer of noodle. Pour remaining cheese sauce over top and spread evenly. Sprinkle remaining 1/3 of grated mozzarella evenly over top.
Bake until lasagna is bubbling around the edges, about 20 minutes. Switch broiler on and broil until top is lightly browned, about 5 minutes longer (if you have an under-oven broiler, you'll have to transfer it to the broiler after baking). Let cool for 10 minutes, then slice and serve, garnish with chopped parsley.
Mushrooms can be chopped with a knife. Alternatively, break them with your fingertips, or pulse them in a food processor. They should be chopped until no pieces larger than 1/4-inch remain.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 6 to 8|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 55g||70%|
|Saturated Fat 32g||160%|
|Total Carbohydrate 38g||14%|
|Dietary Fiber 7g||24%|
|Total Sugars 12g|
|Vitamin C 21mg||103%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|