17 March 2010

Lasagna the cute and easy way

What do you think of when people talk about lasagna?  For me, it conjures up memories of "high feast days" in my family.  I don't think a birthday is truly complete for my mom unless there is a lasagna at some point in the day!  Lasagna holds a revered place in our home, but as with any other object of reverence, it can sometimes become a bit intimidating.

Our traditional family recipe starts with making a tomato sauce that simmers with meatballs and Italian sausages for several hours.  Then, this rich, velvety sauce gets layered with noodles, ricotta, grated Parmigiano, shakes of salt, and grinds of pepper until we have a lasagna big enough to feed three families.  It's a lot of work, and I find it particularly irksome trying to estimate how much the noodles will expand during baking and then wrestling to fit them evenly into single layers in a pan whose dimensions don't necessarily lend themselves to the dimensions of my noodles!

The end result is that I rarely make lasagna.  It just strikes me as being too time-consuming!  But sometimes there's nothing better than a nice, steaming-hot slice of pasta, cheese, and sauce, and I think it would border on tragedy if I let my qualms scare me off from making any lasagna ever again.  Fortunately, inspiration struck, and a delicious, speedy, and homemade lasagna will now always be within my--and your--reach.  So what's the trick?  Making individual lasagna rolls!  Not only do rolls eliminate the headache of trying to get the ingredients into even layers, they also are fun, individually-sized portions edged with a cute pasta frill!  And while I must admit that homemade savory tomato sauce gets an incomparable boost from the slow-cooked meat, a quick and easy--yet rich and tasty--meatless sauce can also be made by using onion and carrot.

I decided to try out these ideas when I had only a couple hours to make something for a friend's recent birthday potluck.  Guests could take a single lasagna roll if they wanted just a taste, or two rolls and make this their entree for the night.  This was so much fun to make, and I think it worked out pretty well as a dish to share.

Since I wasn't using a meat sauce, and since I didn't have meatballs and sausages to serve alongside, I cast about for ideas on how to bump up the nutrition of this lasagna.  My sister has been making a fantastic spinach lasagna lately, so I decided to follow her ideas for making the filling.  Now, don't run away when you read what else is in the filling.  It is truly fantastic in flavor, perfect in texture, and it is NOT ricotta.  This recipe uses firm tofu instead!  Mixed together with Parmigiano and seasoned with garlic, salt, and pepper, it is hard to tell the difference.  (Something tells me that California has been rubbing off on my Italian sensibilities.  But hey, it works, and I think you will really like this!)

One of the things that makes this dish a beauty is the curly pasta.  Keep in mind that there are (at least) two types of lasagna noodles out in the markets these days: the flat-edged, no-boil variety and the curly-edged, pre-boiling-required kind.  For this recipe, you will definitely want the curly-edged kind, as the frilled edge not only helps keep the filling in place but also makes for great presentation!

After mixing the filling ingredients together, you'll spread a spoonful over the entire length of each noodle and roll up into a snug little roll.

There.  Isn't that cute?

Roll 'em all up and nestle them in the pan on a lush bed of tomato sauce.

The chopped spinach adds gorgeous color to the filling.  For this recipe, I prefer using frozen chopped spinach which gets thawed before being added to the tofu mixture.  Be sure to drain the spinach well, though, so that the filling doesn't get too soft and ooze out from between the pasta layers as you roll the noodles up.

How do you normally thaw and drain frozen spinach?  Honestly, draining thawed spinach used to be such a drag for me.  I'd microwave it in a bowl, press the spinach against the side of the bowl to release some of the water, tilt the bowl to pour off the water (hoping the spinach wouldn't decide to fall out), and repeat.  And still the spinach wouldn't be completely drained.  Then I went through a phase where I tried wringing the thawed spinach out in a kitchen towel or in paper towels.  Too much spinach ended up sticking to the kitchen towels, and the paper towels invariably burst open under the pressure.  Ah but then I got a fine-mesh sieve, and preparing spinach has become a breeze!   Simply thaw the frozen chopped spinach in the microwave, then transfer the spinach to the sieve and press down with a spatula to release the water.  So easy, no?  Here are two of my favorite kitchen utensils in action: 

Anyways, once you have your filling mixed up and rolls all assembled, just tuck the ten rolls into your pan...and there they all are!  You'll cover them with more of that great tomato sauce and bake them for about an hour, then top them off with some melted mozzarella cheese.  Not too bad, if you ask me!

Spinach Lasagna Rolls with Spicy Tomato Sauce
Serves 5

Spicy tomato sauce
1 Tbs. olive oil
1-2 cloves garlic
1/4 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp. dried basil flakes
1 (28 oz.) can crushed (or pureed) tomatoes
salt, to taste

Lasagna filling
1/2 lb. frozen chopped spinach, thawed and well-drained
1 lb. firm tofu
1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. dried basil flakes
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper

1/2 lb. (10 sheets) lasagna noodles, cooked according to package directions in salted, boiling water
1 cup (loosely-packed) grated mozzarella cheese

Start by making the tomato sauce: saute garlic, onion, and carrot in a medium-sized pot until onions are translucent, stirring occasionally to prevent browning.  Add red pepper and basil flakes and crushed tomatoes and bring to a gentle boil, then reduce heat and simmer covered on low, until carrots are soft.  Remove sauce from heat and puree with an immersion stick blender, then adjust seasoning with salt.

While sauce simmers, prepare the filling.  Thaw the spinach by microwaving, stirring occasionally to ensure even thawing.  Transfer spinach to a fine-mesh sieve and press out water with a spatula or the back of a wooden spoon.  In a large mixing bowl, combine all filling ingredients except for the spinach and blend until smooth with an immersion stick blender.  Fold in the spinach until evenly combined.

Cook the lasagna noodles in salted, boiling water according to package directions.  When done, remove noodles from water and separate noodles as soon as possible to prevent sticking and breakage.  (I like to hang my noodles from the edge of the emptied pasta pot and from the colander I use for draining.)  It's okay for the noodles to cool, but you will want to use them before they get too dry.

Spoon one-tenth of the filling mixture on each noodle and spread filling evenly along the entire length of the noodles.  Spread 2 cups of the sauce evenly over the bottom of an 8 x 10 - inch casserole dish and arrange the lasagna rolls in it.  Pour the remainder of the sauce evenly over the rolls, then cover the pan with aluminum foil.

Bake for one hour at 375 F, then remove the foil and sprinkle the grated mozzarella over.  Continue baking, uncovered, until mozzarella is melted and bubbly.  Serve lasagna rolls with extra tomato sauce from the baking dish spooned alongside.


shee shee said...

hey erica this looks fun to make and delicious to eat :) i agree they are so cute! i want to try making this sometime!

ph said...

You could also fill large shells with the "cheese" filling and bake with the sauce!

Anna said...

Beautiful Lasagna, you have a lovely blog.

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