Ah! The perfect lasagna! As with all Italian classics, a good lasagna must hit that perfect balance. You want to taste all its components individually, of course, and you should be able to cut through it with a fork without having the sheets of pasta follow your fork down to the bottom of the plate dragging all the layers of condiment down with it. The sauces should complement each other while good enough to stand on their own; layered onto each other but not blended into each other, smooth and yet thick enough to hold in place between the layers of pasta until the end. It should be sweet, savory, light, and hearty. Its fragrance should fill the entire house – unmistakable and seductive. The mother all of comfort food, lasagna is a complete meal, a full experience. It’s appetizer, entree, side dish, and dessert all in one. At least that’s how it should feel. Once the plate is clear, it should always keep you coming back for more, and while it’s easy enough to skip the entrée, it should require considerable effort to “leave room for dessert”.
As a vegan, I’m not going to do without lasagna. And while I have made numerous versions of it and seen many more around the internet, I just had to make one that emulates the traditional recipe as closely as possible. The obvious challenge here would be the meat ragout and as vegans well know, in order to replace meat it’s essential to create the flavor environment, the textures, the color, and fragrance and what else is there? Oh, yeah, no dead animals! That’s always good news.
I’m very happy with how the ragout turned turned out. It’s great to stand on its own. You might have a some left over to add to a pasta dish, gnocchi, rice, or just finish it with a spoon while you bake the lasagna. Red lentils provide the protein and are cooked “al dente” or else they’ll turn into mush in no time and miss their purpose blending all flavors into one thick soupy sauce much like Indian Dal (which I love but this is not what we’re after, obviously). You could use another type of lentil just be sure to cook it a little bit longer (green lentils typically cook in 15-20 minutes but as they tend to melt like red do, I would simmer only 12-15 minutes to keep them well ‘al dente’; Du Puy lentils take up to 30 minutes so keep them at 25 though they do hold their cooking a lot better than green or red lentils). The mushroom is an important addition as they add the umami meat flavor along the soy sauce for the same purpose. You can use virtually any mushroom and you can just slice them if you like to have the, visible in the sauce which is also very nice. I chop them because I want the flavor to spread all the sauce.
The béchamel is based in almond milk and cauliflower but you can use any plant based milk. If you’re vegetarian and don’t mind using cow’s milk, you might want to skip the cauliflower as it might turn out just too heavy, and increase the amount of roux according to any béchamel recipe. I used the cauliflower to give the béchamel that same rich, rounded taste as it would be with cow’s milk. It’s lighter and you’ll love the cauliflower flavor accented by the nutmeg.
The greens and tofu ricotta are there to add nutrients, richness of flavors, and height to the layers. I made before without them and it just seems to call for more; the layers were too close to each other and the entire lasagna too dense. This way there’s plenty of nutrients and flavor, looks great, and you don’t miss on your greens on this meal either – which is always a big plus!
You can can eat the whole pan of this lasagna and feel nourished. It’s tasty, light, and nutritious. And it’s snappy to make! If you really want to take it easy, get all the components done ahead of the two sauces. That way it’s a breeze. But if you’re a ninja house cook you can get this done in one sitting under 3 hours.
And nothing screams weekend more than lasagna! So get your shopping done in the evening and get up in the morning ready to cook a lunch you’ll want to have again and again.
So without further ado…
RED LENTIL RAGOUT LASAGNA
This recipe includes gathering and preparations for the following lasagna components:
Red Lentil Ragout (30 minutes)
Cauliflower Béchamel (20 minutes)
Cashew Parmesan (5 minutes)
Tofu Ricotta Cheese (10 minutes)
Steamed Kale or Spinach (10 minutes)
Vegan Mozzarella Cheese (store bought)
No Boil Lasagna Sheets (make sure it’s eggless, if vegan integrity is of concern to you)
Assembling time: 15 minutes
Baking time: 60 minutes
Total time: 2 hours and 30 minutes
Red Lentil Ragout
1 Tbsp Olive oil
1 Tbsp vegan Butter
2 tsp Garlic, minced
1 cup Onion, chopped
¼ cup Carrot, chopped
¼ cup Celery, chopped
1 tsp Thyme leaves
1 tsp Rosemary, chopped
½ Bay leaf
1 Tbsp Tomato concentrate
2 Tbsp all-purpose Flour
3 cups vegetable Broth
3 cups Tomato sauce
1 Tbsp Olive oil
8-10 Crimini OR Button Mushrooms, minced (you can pulse in a blender)
3 Tbsp Tamari OR any Soy sauce
2 tsp sea Salt
½ tsp black Pepper
1 cup Red Lentils
Heat the butter and oil in a heavy sauce pan over medium heat. Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds before adding onion, celery, and carrot. Cook for two minutes stirring frequently to avoid any color. Add herbs, stir, and add tomato paste. Cook paste one minute then add flour and cook for another minute stirring constantly as the result should be rather sticky so be careful to not burn the bottom – lower the flame if necessary. Gradually add broth and tomato sauce stirring to avoid lumps. Bring sauce to a simmer while you sauté the minced mushrooms in olive oil. Cook the mushrooms for 2 minutes then add the tamari soy sauce, cook for a few minutes and add to the sauce. Check seasoning before adding the lentils to the sauce, simmer for 5 minutes and set aside.
Don’t worry that the lentils are still “al dente”; a little consistency is important to accomplish the ground meat aspect of the ragout and besides they will cook some more in the oven.
1 head Cauliflower, broken in individual florets
32 oz. (1 carton) or 3 cups Almond milk OR any plant based milk
¼ tsp Nutmeg, grated
1 tsp sea Salt
¼ tsp white Pepper
3 Tbsp. vegan Butter
3 Tbsp. all-purpose Flour
Begin by steaming the cauliflower florets to an “al dente” consistency. Add cauliflower to almond milk, nutmeg, salt, and pepper; bring to a simmer, and cook until tender. Put the cauliflower milk in a high-speed blender until completely smooth. Meantime, melt the butter in a stock pot (I use the same pot where I steamed them), add the flour and cook for one minute over medium low heat. You should have a somewhat thick roux. Gradually, add the cauliflower milk being careful to break any lumps with a whisk. Bring the béchamel to a simmer for two minutes then set aside.
¾ cup Cashews, raw
3 Tbsp Nutritional Yeast
¾ tsp sea Salt
¼ tsp Garlic powder
Blend all ingredients to a fine ground.
1 lb. block firm Tofu, crumbled and drained (or squeezed through a cloth)
1 Tbsp Garlic powder
1 tsp Oregano
1 tsp Lemon juice
1 tsp sea Salt
1 Tbsp Olive oil
In a bowl combine all ingredients and let sit for 10 minutes
Steamed Kale or Spinach
1 head of Kale leaves, stemmed
1 bag/head of Spinach
1 tsp sea Salt
1 tsp Olive oil
Steam Kale leaves or Spinach. Squeeze excess liquid and roughly chop. Season with Salt and Olive oil.
1 lb. bag store-bought vegan Mozzarella cheese
1 box no-boil Lasagna sheets (I use whole wheat)
ASSEMBLE THE LASAGNA:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Lightly grease a 13×9” baking dish and spread a thin layer of béchamel on the bottom; then:
Layer components in the following sequence making sure to spread each sauce evenly without mixing them into each other before adding the cheese components.
3 Pasta sheets (or however many necessary to cover the surface without overlapping)
1/3 cup Béchamel
½ cup Ragout
¼ cup Kale OR Spinach
¼ cup Ricotta crumbles (sprinkle, don’t spread)
¼ cup Mozzarella
2 Tbsp Parmesan
Repeat the sequence 5 times, reserving extra Mozzarella cheese for the top.
Cover baking dish with a sheet of aluminum foil and bake for 60 minutes. Without removing foil, remove dish from oven and, if serving immediately, let sit on a cooling rack for 15 minutes before cutting into 6-8 portions. If preparing one day ahead, refrigerate as soon as cool enough. The next day cut into 6-8 portions and reheat 30 minutes at 325 in the oven. Individual portions reheat in 5 minutes in the microwave.
Optionally you could brown the top of your lasagna by placing it under the broiler for a few minutes. However, be mindful that the parmesan cheese is nut-based and will burn rather quickly – so keep a close eye on it.