Creative Cooking: Vegan Gluten Free Lasagna

“It’s what you choose….”

Last week, a woman starting walking across the space I was going to pull into at the grocery store parking lot. Having been raised to be both courteous and safe, I put my blinker on to let people behind me know what I was doing and then patiently waited for the woman to finish crossing. Just as she finished making her way across, a car came from the other direction and pulled into the spot, narrowly missing hitting the front fender of my car.  As you can imagine, I was a bit perturbed, but the spot was taken, and I chose to believe that maybe the gentleman hadn’t seen me waiting for the spot. After all, no good would come of doing anything other than moving on.

As I put my car into drive and started to move forward, though, I noticed that several of the folks who had witnessed what happened were shaking their heads at the driver in the other car and giving me sympathetic looks, which seemed to annoy the gentleman based upon the look he had on his face. One man who had apparently been walking to his car, pointed to me, to himself, and then to a car in the next row to my right, as if to say that I should follow him and take his spot. I smiled at him and waved, “Thank you,” but indicated that I had seen a spot which was already open in the row to my left and would be taking that.  He nodded at me, and we both continued on our paths.

We make decisions every day about how we are going to react to any given situation. Sometimes we act in manners which we may not want to admit in public to; other times we are proud of how we behaved. At times, life situations weight us down; at other times, we are able to rise above them.  When it comes to food allergies, it is easy, I think, to sometimes be upset about the foods we can’t eat or the ways restaurants may not be accommodating or how extended families may forget that we can’t eat certain foods or about recipes which simply don’t work.

I had dinner with friends the other night, and we talked about my constant reworking of a vegan, gluten free lasagna recipe. For years I have been trying to figure out how to make nondairy cheese crust up the way that mozzarella does on top of a lasagna. It was so disappointing to bite into a lasagna and not have that crispy, gooey top layer. Another friend had recently used the word “bulldog-ish” to describe me. I’d choose tenacious, but either way, my tenacity finally paid off, and my friends told me I should write a cookbook. Since I don’t want to write a cookbook but have this blog, I’m going to share my recipe with you instead.

Vegan, Gluten Free Lasagna

Ingredients:

Topping:

8 oz vegan mozzarella (I use the Daiya brand)

4 oz vegan parmesan (I use the Follow Your Heart brand)

4 oz nutritional yeast (I use the Bragg brand)

finely chopped onions to taste

finely mince garlic to taste

herbs to taste (I use basil, oregano, and thyme)

2 to 3 tsp extra light olive oil

Filling (Homemade Vegan Ricotta):

8 oz extra firm tofu

herbs and seasonings to taste (I use black pepper, basil and oregano)

minced garlic to taste

chopped onions to taste

2 tbsp lemon juice

2 tbsp nutritional yeast

1 tbsp white miso paste

1/2 to 1 cup vegan mozzarella (depends on how “cheesy” you want the filling; I use the Daiya brand)

2 tbsp to 1/4 cup vegan parmesan (depends on how “cheesy” you want the filling; I use the Follow Your Heart brand)

Tomato Sauce:

one eggplant, finely diced

two zucchini, finely diced

one small jar roasted red peppers, finely chopped (depending on the brand, 8 to 12 oz size)

minced garlic to taste

chopped onions to taste

black pepper to taste

herbs to taste (I usually use oregano, basil and marjoram)

14 oz can petite diced tomatoes

8 oz of your favorite chorizo style vegan sausage (I usually just buy whatever is on sale)

two jars of your favorite spaghetti sauce, reserving about a cup for the bottom of your lasagna pan (24 oz size jars will usually do)

Pasta:

1 to 2 boxes of your favorite gluten free no boil lasagna noodles (how much you use depends on the size of your pan and number of layers you make; I usually use the Barilla brand oven ready gluten free noodles because they’re flat and smaller, so much easier to layer and use)

Cooking Instructions:

  1. Ready the topping by mixing the mozzarella, parmesan, nutritional yeast, onions, garlic and herbs together in a bowl. Add the olive oil and mix until all ingredients are sufficiently covered with the olive oil. Set aside.
  2. Ready the ricotta filling by pureeing in a blender or food processor the tofu, herbs and seasonings, garlic, onions, lemon juice, nutritional yeast and miso paste. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and stir in the mozzarella and parmesan. Set aside.
  3. Ready the tomato sauce by sauteing the eggplant and zucchini with a little bit of olive oil over medium-low heat. Just as they are softening add the roasted red peppers, garlic, onion, black pepper, and herbs. Cook for a minute and add the diced tomatoes. Let the mixture cook for several minutes until the tomato juice has evaporated. Turn off the heat and add the chorizo and the spaghetti sauce (minus the cup you are reserving).
  4. Preheat your oven to the temperature your no boil noodle package says it needs.
  5. In a large, deep pan, spread the reserved spaghetti sauce to completely cover the bottom of the pan. Lay down one layer of noodles. Completely cover every inch of the noodles with some of your tomato sauce.
  6. Lay down another set of noodles, going in a different direction from the previous layer of noodles and again, completely cover the noodles with some of your tomato sauce.
  7. Carefully drop spoonfuls of the ricotta mixture all around on top of the sauce and then spread the ricotta filling to cover the noodles. (If your pan isn’t deep but large in width, use all the ricotta in this layer. If your pan is deep and small in width, use half here and do another layer of noodles, sauce and ricotta before moving on to the next step.)
  8.  Lay down another set of noodles, going in a different direction from the previous layer of noodles and again, completely cover the noodles with the rest of your tomato sauce. (If your pan isn’t deep but large in width, this will be your last layer of noodles. If your pan is deep and small in width, you may need to add another layer of noodles and sauce before moving on to the next step.)
  9. Sprinkle the mozzarella topping mixture over the top of the sauce to completely cover the noodles. Use all of the mixture.
  10. Cover the pan with two layers of aluminum foil. Be sure to spray or grease the first layer of foil before laying it down or your cheese will stick
  11. Bake the lasagna with the foil on for the time indicated on the pasta box. After the allotted time, regardless of what the box says, remove the foil and bake uncovered for another 10 to 20 minutes until the topping has bubbled up, browned and is crusty.
  12. Remove the lasagna from the oven and let it sit for 20 to 30 minutes before serving so it can set completely.
  13. Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cooking Techniques: Allergy Friendly Lasagna

website lasagna

“You know, the lasagna song!”

Several years ago, a friend shared a funny story about her youngest. Her daughter was in preschool at the time, and one day she asked her mom to help her sing the lasagna song from church. My friend was a bit confused, and she explained to her daughter that she didn’t know what song her daughter was referring to. Her daughter got exasperated and said, “You know, the lasagna song! The one we sing every Sunday at the end.” My friend finally figured out that her daughter was talking about the “Hosannah” song which to her daughter’s young ears sounded like “lasagna”.

Ever since my friend related that story, I can’t think about, make or eat lasagna without chuckling and singing to myself, “Lasagna in the highest!”

As funny as my friend’s anecdote is, people don’t tend to laugh when they are trying to make something as wonderfully rich and gooey and tasty as traditional lasagna with substitute ingredients. Often they get frustrated because “it’s just not the same”, which is what the email I received this week said.

When it comes to substituting for anything, whether it’s lasagna or something else, the two main things people look for are whether the taste and the texture resemble the original. If one or both don’t, then folks consider it a failure. While I would argue in general against this litmus test for success, the fact remains that people continue to judge food on these two criteria. As such, if you are going to serve someone lasagna that is dairy and gluten free, you want to be sure that people will enjoy it. Below I’ll share some tips for making delicious allergy friendly lasagna. The tips are helpful for making traditional lasagna as well.

Tips for Allergy Friendly Lasagna:

1. The pan: You can make any type of lasagna in just about any size, depth or shape pan, but if you want to make your life easier, invest in a nice lasagna pan which usually is 11 by 14 x 3. This is the perfect size for lasagna noodles. They fit both width-wise and length-wise, and perfectly fits a lasagna made with two boxes of noodles. You’ll save yourself the hassle of having to cut and size your noodles which will also save time in your assembly of the lasagna.

2. The noodles: Whether you are using regular, whole wheat, or gluten free lasagna noodles, the tips remain the same.

a) For the best taste and texture, you do want to cook the noodles on the stove top first. Yes, you can use the no-cook method (which I do indeed utilize sometimes!), but the texture and the taste definitely will reap the consequences. The better method is to cook the noodles before using them.

b) Do not overcook the noodles. You want to actually under cook your noodles by two minutes. When your lasagna is cooking in the oven, the noodles will continue to cook, so if you don’t under cook your noodles on the stove top, they’ll become mushy while cooking in the oven.

c) To preserve the texture of the noodles, you should immediately rinse your lasagna noodles with cold water to stop the cooking when you’ve drained them from the stove top water. Pat them lightly dry and line the noodles on a surface for easy use when assembling the lasagna. You don’t want to leave the noodles on top of each other, because then they’ll stick to one another and you’ll have a big mess on your hands. What I do is I line one of my large cookie sheets with plastic wrap or parchment paper and line the noodles side by side on the cookie sheet so I can simply reach for them as needed.

3. The filling: Traditionally folks use ricotta cheese or cottage cheese or a combination of both as the lasagna filling. For folks who have dairy allergies, though, you can use tofu or a nut “cheese”. I like to use the silken tofu, because when I mash it with my potato masher, the silken tofu has as similar texture as the ricotta and cottage cheese. Also, I’m allergic to nuts. If you aren’t allergic to nuts, though, and are allergic instead to soy, there are some good recipes online for nut “ricotta cheeses” which are basically pureeing soaked nuts such as cashews, almonds and walnuts (about 1 1/2 to 2 cups) with water (1/2 cup), lemon juice (1tbsp) and garlic and herbs.

Regardless of whether you’re using real ricotta or tofu or a nut cheese, the hint for creating delicious lasagna is to flavor the “cheese”. I cook up a small amount of Italian chicken sausage and make a paste in my food processor with fresh basil, oregano, garlic, black pepper, and onions. I add both the sausage and the herb paste to the tofu and let it sit covered in the fridge while I’m working on the noodles, vegetables and sauce, so the flavors can meld.

If you’re like me and want something a little more to your lasagna, you can also add vegetables to the “cheese” before you assemble your lasagna. I like to roast vegetables like zucchini, squash and eggplant or saute spinach and mushrooms. After the flavors have had a chance to meld in the tofu, I gently mix the vegetables into the tofu. If I want a meat lasagna, then I cook up more than just a small amount of chicken sausage or some ground turkey and add that instead of the vegetables. For both the meat and vegetables, you should be sure to season and flavor them with spices, herbs, garlic or onions and black pepper as you cook them. Even though your “cheese” has flavor, adding bland vegetables and meat to the cheese will simply dilute the flavor you worked to incorporate.

Finally, if you are not allergic to eggs or are not vegan, if you mix up a couple of eggs with a fork and then blend it well with the tofu or nut cheese mixture, it will make your filling a bit creamier like ricotta as well as lend some stability to the lasagna.

4. The sauce: I like to make my own tomato sauce when I can, but I also use a no-sugar added jar sauce on occasion, too. The important tip to keep in mind for a good lasagna is to make sure your sauce is a thick sauce. A thin, runny spaghetti sauce is a definite no-no for lasagna. Since I’m of the opinion that more vegetables are always better, I tend to keep aside some of the lovely roasted or sauteed vegetables I made for the cheese, chop it more finely, and add it to the sauce as well. This not only adds more texture, but more taste — especially if you’re using a jarred sauce.

If you are making your own sauce, be sure to cool it before assembling your lasagna. Since we don’t want to affect the texture of our cooled noodles, we want all our ingredients to be at least at room temp before assembling so that the only additional cooking of the noodles will occur in the oven.

5. The assembling process: It’s important to “build” your lasagna so it’ll be stable for eating. The best way to do this is to alternately lay each layer of noodles opposing to one another. So, if you put all your noodles width-wise the first time, then layer them length-wise the second and so on. I find that the best lasagnas follow the pattern of sauce, noodles, sauce, noodles, then half of the filling, noodles, second half of filling, noodles, sauce, cheese.

For the sauce, it’s important that you completely cover the bottom layer of the lasagna pan with sauce before laying down your first set of noodles. Whether you want to have sauce on top of your cheese filling or not is up to you. If you don’t add sauce on top of the cheese filling, you’ll have a drier lasagna, which a lot of people prefer. If you want a moister lasagna or like the flavor of the tomato sauce melding with your cheese filling, which is the way I like it, then you should layer the tomato sauce on top of the filling before layering another set of noodles.

It’s also important to put sauce on top of the last layer of noodles. You can certainly simply put your cheese on top, but then the top layer of noodles will cook into a crispy top layer instead of being moist and soft for eating.

6. The cheese: Most people put mozzarella on top of the last layer of noodles and sauce. For folks with dairy allergies, Daiya makes a mozzarella which tends to melt almost like mozzarella. Taste-wise, though, it can have a little off-flavor which puts people off. So, what I do is I flavor the Daiya cheese with the same herb paste I used for the filling. I puree a blend of fresh basil, oregano, garlic, onions, and black pepper and mix it in well with the “mozzarella” cheese. I put it in the fridge while I’m working on the other parts of the lasagna, so that when I’m ready, I have a nice flavored cheese for the top of my lasagna.

The tip for the top layer of cheese is to put the cheese on when you’re done assembling your lasagna so it can be melting while the lasagna cooks, but to be sure to grease the aluminium foil before placing it down on the lasagna. This will prevent the mozzarella from sticking to the foil when you remove it.

After you’ve cooked your lasagna, if you’re using the Daiya cheese, you should broil it for 2 to 4 minutes, watching it closely, because this will give your “cheese” that golden brown toasty top that you would normally get from mozzarella cheese.

7. Cooking the lasagna: Most lasagnas will cook for about 45 minutes in a 350 degree oven. You should double-fold a piece of aluminium foil and cover your lasagna, being sure to grease the underside before putting it on top of your mozzarella. This will insulate your lasagna more evenly by matching the sides and bottom of your pan in width. After 45 minutes, you should remove the foil and cook the lasagna for another ten minutes to help the cheese brown. If you are using the Daiya cheese, be sure to broil it after those 10 minutes.

When your lasagna is done, it’s important to let it sit for ten to 15 minutes before serving. You can absolutely serve it immediately if you want, but be warned that your pieces will fall apart as you remove them from the pan. If you let the lasagna sit before serving, however, you’ll be able to cut nice solidified squares or rectangle pieces.

Eating Out: Can We Do It?

website lasagne

Where’s the shark? I want to see it!”

For several years gracious and generous friends of ours have allowed us to vacation as a family at their home on Cape Cod.   We have come to relish our times there, swimming at the both the ocean and bay beaches in Eastham, watching movies at the old-fashioned drive-in theater in Wellfleet, biking the Cape Cod rail to trail paths, and walking along the shops in Provincetown. This past week, however, we had our first experience with a great white shark, which fortunately to my mind but to the children’s dismay, we did not see up close.  The shark effectively put an end to our day at the beach as life guards blew their whistles and ran up the red warning flag, waving us all back onto the beach and out of harm’s way.

While we had remained safe from the shark that particular day, I unfortunately found myself in harm’s way later in the week due to my food allergies.  Despite my vigilance about what I eat and where I eat, I had an anaphylactic reaction one evening, presumably to some sort of cross-contamination of food from the restaurant we had eaten our dinner at.  I had ordered a dish which did not contain anything I was allergic to as its ingredients, and I had informed the server of my allergies and need for prevention of cross contamination.  Despite being proactive, however, I still found myself at the mercy of my allergies once again.

Unfortunately for those of us with food allergies, it’s all too common that we have to refrain from enjoying some of the pleasures of life, like eating out at a restaurant, because doing so can put our lives at risk. For many, this can be frustrating.  Who wants to have to cook all the time?  Whom of us wouldn’t enjoy a night out with friends?  And sometimes you just want a dish you would never make yourself.  The reasons for wanting to eat out are endless, and to be restricted by food allergies can be downright depressing at times.

So what can we do?

1.  Don’t lose hope:  The times are “a’changing” as they say.  More and more restaurants are getting on board with the program.  Even this week at the Cape we discovered an ice cream shop (the Ice Cream Cafe in Orleans) which is now serving gluten, dairy, and nut free frozen dessert options.  Granted, I only had three flavor choices as opposed to fifty ice cream flavors, but I had a choice. Yay!  The number of restaurants that cater to allergies has grown just in the past five years alone.  So as more folks begin to understand the need, our options will continue to increase.

2.  Cultivate relationships:  If you have a restaurant that you really like which you know you’ll frequent a few times a year, take the time to introduce yourself to the management and waiters when you arrive.  Explain that you have food allergies but you really want to be able to eat at their restaurant because you enjoy their food.  I have four places near my home where I know I can safely eat because they’ve gotten to know me and know that I will eat there as long as they accommodate my allergies.

3.  Create your own recipes:  Sometimes it’s not about going out but being able to eat a particular dish you really like.  Nowadays you can find the recipe for most restaurant dishes online.  Simply type in the restaurant name and add “recipes”, and you’ll find what you want.  Then you can adapt the recipe to fit your dietary needs and enjoy the dish in your own home without the worries of cross contamination.

4.  Practice being proactive:  Research restaurants before you go.  With online resources you can view their menus and ingredients without even leaving your home.  For example, I know that as someone with a dairy allergy, I cannot go to Olive Garden.  Every single dish except two (a garden salad and their meat spaghetti sauce) is made with some sort of dairy.

If you haven’t researched a restaurant ahead of time, ask your waiter if they have a sheet which tells you what ingredients are in their foods.  Many restaurants nowadays have forms which highlight dishes which are gluten, dairy, egg, soy or nut free.  If they don’t, ask the waiter to ask whether a particular dish has whatever you’re allergic to.  Most waiters are more than happy to oblige.

5.  Be prepared:  Sometimes, despite all the above, things go awry when you’re eating out, so make sure you have your epi-pen or benadryl with you at all times. Though, you never want to have to use them while enjoying a meal out, it’s always best to have them if you do need to use them.

One of my favorite restaurants is Not Your Average Joe’s.  They are always willing to work with my allergy restrictions, but some dishes I just have to make for myself at home.  Their lasagna is one.  Below is their recipe and my recipe, adapted for my particular allergies.

Their Ingredients:                              
Lasagna Sheet 1 each
Basil Pesto 2 tbsp
Ricotta Cheese 3 oz
Crumbled Goat Cheese 1 oz
Sautéed Spinach 3 oz
Grilled Summer Squash 3 slices
Grilled Zucchini 3 slices
Cooked Asparagus 2 slices

Shredded Mozzarella ¼ cup

Grate Romano cheese 3 tbsp

Marina Sauce 2 fl oz

My Ingredients:
One sheet gluten free noodle
4 tbsp chopped fresh basil
2 tsp minced garlic
4 oz silken tofu
Sautéed Spinach 3 oz
Grilled Summer Squash 3 slices
Grilled Zucchini 3 slices
Cooked Asparagus 2 slices

1/4 cup vegan mozzarella

1/4 cup vegan parmesan

Marina Sauce 2 fl oz

Cooking Instructions:
1.  Spread pre-cooked pasta sheet the long way in front of you out on table.

2.  Spread pesto on bottom 3rd of sheet and pipe ricotta and goat cheese over pesto. (I mix the basil and garlic with the tofu and spread half of that instead — you’ll use the second half when you “repeat the process below.)

3.  Top with 1 1/2 each of squash and zucchini, 1 each asparagus and 1 1/2 oz of spinach. Fold over lasagna sheet and repeat process.

4.  Place lasagna on a plate and top with mozzarella and romano cheeses. (I use the vegan versions.) Place in microwave for 40 seconds.

5.  Place in an ovenproof dish and bake at 375 degrees for 6 minutes until heated through and golden brown. Remove from oven and drizzle with sauce around lasagna.