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Everyday Italian: Individual Vegetable Lasagnas

Frankly, this isn't the best vegetable lasagna I've ever had. While the flavors are good, the texture is way too dry, and some of the technique is unnecessarily fussy. With a couple of simple changes to the recipe, the lasagna was much tastier, as well as easier to make, and to eat.

The main problem with the recipe is in the layering. Giada De Laurentiis layers the vegetables and pasta together without using any sauce or cheese until the very top. This means that the bottom and middle layers don't have any liquid ingredients to help bind them together, so they turn out somewhat dry. In my modified recipe, I've increased the amount of marinara sauce by a full cup, and added some additional cheese in between all the layers of the lasagna. This made for a much creamier texture.

As is obvious from the recipe title, this lasagna is meant to be cooked in individual dishes. After testing, however, I've decided that it's more trouble than it's worth to make 6 gratin dishes of lasagna. The novelty of the individual presentation doesn't trump the fact that it's a lot more work to prepare the dish this way. I advise you to scrap the idividual dish idea altogether and make this lasagna in one 9-by-13-inch pan.

De Laurentiis uses fresh lasagna sheets in this recipe, and has the cook boil them for 4 minutes before layering the lasagnas. I thought this might be problematic, and indeed, the cooked fresh pasta stuck together even though it was cooked with oil in the boiling water, and rinsed after draining. The only way to be absolutely certain that your pasta won't stick together is to cook it just before you're ready to assemble the lasagnas, and to quickly pull the sheets away from each other and lay them in one layer on a work surface as soon as you drain them. If the lasagna sheets spend any time sitting and waiting in the colander, their starch will cause them to stick together.

Some recipes that use fresh lasagna don't require that it be par-cooked before assembly, but I don't believe that this recipe has enough sauce to ensure that the lasagna will cook thoroughly in the oven. And even though the fresh pasta tastes great, it's a bit of a pain in the neck to use, since you have to be so careful with it. As an alternative, you could easily substitute dried lasagna noodles. These also have to be precooked, but they are much less likely to stick irrevocably together after draining, making them much easier to use. I don't recommend no-boil lasagna noodles, since the lack of a lot of sauce is just as problematic for them as it is for fresh pasta. A caveat, however: if you're going to go ahead and make individual lasagnas, you won't have the right-sized pasta to make 6-inch diameter circles if you use dry noodles. You can either fiddle with the pasta (slicing it to get pieces that you can fit into the gratin dishes for even coverage), or if the individual-serving presentation is really important to you, go ahead and use fresh pasta. Just be sure to follow my modified instructions about how to handle the pasta so the sheets don't stick together.

I made short work of the onion, carrots, squash, and zucchini by chopping them in a mini-chopper. If you chop them by hand, make sure that they are uniform and very fine, since large chunks of veggies can cause the lasagna not to cohere properly.

You can prepare the lasagna up to 1 day ahead. Once it is completely assembled and ready for the oven, cover and refrigerate. Remove the plastic wrap before baking.

Prep Time: 45 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes for individual dishes, 35 minutes for one large lasagna
Yield: 6 to 8 servings

2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 pound fresh lasagna sheets, OR 9 dry lasagna noodles (about 8 oz.)
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 large carrot, finely chopped
1 large zucchini, finely chopped
1 large yellow summer squash, finely chopped
1 bunch of asparagus, steamed and cut into 1/4-inch slices
3/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 cups Marinara Sauce (substitute purchased marinara sauce if desired)
15-oz. can white beans (cannellini, Great Northern, etc.), drained and rinsed
2 packages (10-oz. each) frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
2 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into pieces (optional)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the vegetable oil. If using fresh pasta, do this step after you have all your other ingredients prepped and ready to assemble: add the pasta sheets and cook about 4 minutes, then drain and rinse under cold water. Place the pasta sheets in an individual layer on your work surface and cut into 6-inch-diameter circles immediately.

If using dry pasta, cook the lasagna noodles until nearly al dente, about 9 minutes. Drain and reserve.

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 3 minutes. Add the carrot and cook another 5 minutes, then add the zucchini and squash and cook for another 2 minutes. Add the asparagus, season with 1/2 tsp each salt and pepper, and stir to combine. Remove from heat and set aside.

To make individual lasagnas: Using a 6-inch diameter cookie cutter, cut the lasagna sheets into 18 circles. Coat the bottom of each of six 6-inch diameter gratin dishes with 1 tsp marinara sauce. Place 1 pasta circle in the bottom of each dish. In a medium bowl, toss the beans with 1/4 tsp each salt and pepper, then arrange the beans and then the spinach over the pasta circles in the dishes, dividing equally. Top each with about 2 Tbsp marinara sauce and sprinkle with about 2 Tbsp mozzarella. Top with another pasta circle, then spoon the sautéed vegetables over, dividing equally. Top with about 2 Tbsp marinara sauce and 2 Tbsp cheese. Place a third pasta circle atop each dish and spread equally with the remaining marinara sauce and cheese. Dot each dish with the butter. Place the dishes on a foil-lined baking sheet and bake until the filling is bubbling and the cheese is golden, about 20 minutes.

To make 1 large lasagna: Spread about 1/2 cup of marinara sauce over the bottom of the pan. Place 3 of the cooked lasagna noodles in the bottom. In a medium bowl, toss the beans with 1/4 tsp each salt and pepper, then arrange the beans and then the spinach over the pasta. Top with about 1/2 cup of marinara sauce and 1/2 cup of mozzarella. Place 3 more noodles over the top, then spread the sautéed vegetables evenly over the noodles. Top with about 1/2 cup of marinara sauce and 1/2 cup of mozzarella. Place the remaining 3 noodles on top, and spread the remaining 1 cup of marinara sauce over them. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 1/2 cups of mozzarella, and the Parmesan. Dot with butter if desired (this step isn't really necessary), and bake until the filling is bubbling and the cheese is golden, about 35 minutes.



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