I was not expecting to do lasagna this week, but then I saw that eggplant was on sale for a dollar each. That being a great deal, I had to come up with a way to use it. I thought around and decided that lasagna is one of my favorite ways to have it, so that is what I went for. I’m not such a huge fan of eggplant if it hasn’t been roasted, or some other way browned. Even if you cook it another way (like by putting it raw into a lasagna) I’m not such a fan. But through my infatuation with baba ganouj, I discovered that it has a much better flavor if it is roasted first.
For once we have a food that is not a product of the new world. Instead, the eggplant originated in India. Like most foods, it has an interesting history. It was not known to Europe until the middle ages. While the Chinese wrote about it in about 500 AD, and there are many Arabic and North African names for the fruit, the Romans and Greeks had no word. This suggests that the eggplant was brought to Europe by those conquering hoards of Muslims in the early middle ages.
As I learned in my gardening research, it is a member of the night shade family, related to tomatoes and potatoes. Because of that, you shouldn’t plant them where either of those have grown recently to avoid bugs and disease. Also because of the relationship, many Europeans though it was poisonous for a long time. The things they missed out on because of a silly fear of poison. I was surprized to find that it is also related to tobacco, that is why the seeds are bitter, because they contain a form of nicotine (why haven’t I cooked with this before?) Another surprize is that it is technically a berry because of how the seeds are contained in fleshy bubbles (for lack of a better word) inside the fruit.
Eggplant is such a strange word. Particularly when the fruit looks nothing like an egg. While I have had eggs whose shells are white, brown, green, and blue (thanks to our neighbors Ameraucana hens) but never purple. It turns out that the original varieties were white or creamy colored, and resembled an egg shape (which you can imagine if you squint at one today). But as they were cultivated and changed, they became what we commonly know now–dark purple and much larger. You can find all kinds of heirloom seeds that come in white, purple striped, even orange.
Eggplant is the perfect substitute for meat in lasagna. Much like tofu, eggplant doesn’t taste like much when it is just itself. Instead, the spongy flesh absorbs any sauces or meat drippings around it. This means that it can blend into just about any type of casserole, dip, or saucy creation. But make sure to drain your extra fat off your meat if you are going to use it in conjunction. It will soak that stuff right up, which is good if you want great taste, not so good if you want a thin waist. (I just made that up! Ha!)
I was originally going to make this a vegetarian lasagna, but then I realized that I didn’t have enough veggies to make sufficient “meat” layer, so I threw in a pound of beef. Make sure that if you aren’t using meat you have enough veg to fill er up. You can add in all sorts of things. I used spinach (I had already planned that, I love spinach in lasagna), you can also use black beans for an unconventional twist. Or any kind of veggie that sounds good. Just make sure that you cut it into bite size pieces before you put it in. You don’t want to have to ruin your pretty lasagna with hacking through huge pieces of things.
Vegetarian (or not) Lasanga
- 2 eggplants (if you aren’t using any meat)
- 1 bag of spinach (you can also get a bunch, but I can never rinse off all the dirt and it drives me crazy. So I pay the dollar for my sanity. I think it’s a good bargain.)
- 1 lb ground beef (if you want)
- 1 onion, chopped
- Whatever else veggies you want
- 2 tsp minced garlic (probably 4-5 cloves)
- 1-2 jars pasta sauce or tomato sauce
- 1 large container low fat ricotta cheese (there is a good, though less flavorful, substitution here. You can actually use fat free cottage cheese for a similar texture and less fat. But I recommend that you do half cottage cheese, half ricotta if you’re going to do that)
- 3 cups mozzarella, divided
- 1 cupish hard, sharp italian cheese. You can use Reggiano, or real parmesan. I was reduced to using parmesan from a can because I forgot to get any good stuff. So I used 1/2 cup fake parm, and made up the rest with mozzarella.
- 2 tsp parsley (I had to use dried. If you are lucky enough to have fresh, use a couple of Tbsp chopped fresh)
- 1 tsp dry basil (see dry/fresh comment above)
- 1 tsp dry thyme (“)
- 1 tsp dry oregano (“)
- 1/2 tsp (more or less depending on taste) of red pepper flakes (like you put on pizza).
- Lasagna noodles (make sure you pay attention if you have to cook them first, or if you can put them in raw.)
- In a large bowl, mix the ricotta, 2 C of mozzarella, and the hard cheese of your choice together. Add in parsley, thyme, oregano, pepper flakes, and basil. Mix well.
- Roast the eggplant. Slice it into 1/2 in wide slices. If it’s warm you can do it on the grill, just brush both sides with olive oil. If it’s cold, or you are too lazy to turn on the grill, put a large sautee pan on the stove, and preheat with a misting of olive oil inside. I use my Misto which I love. It takes pure olive oil and makes it into a spray. You can also use Pam Olive Oil spray, but there are a bunch of added chemicals. Once the oil and pan are hot, start roasting your eggplant. Put slices down, and then spray the top with more oil. Turn when brown.
- Once you have roasted your eggplant, cut it into bite size pieces and put in a large bowl.
- Sautee your spinach. Put either oil or water in the same sautee pan. With spinach you can use water instead of oil because you aren’t trying to brown it, just wilt it. Put in a handful at a time and wilt it down until just soft, not until black and ug. Don’t try to do the whole bag at once, been there, it failed. Put it all in the bowl with the eggplant.
- Cook the onions. Put a little oil in the bottom and when it is hot toss in your onion. If I am cooking the onion with meat I like to start with the onion first. That way the onions carmelize and develop their own sweet oniony flavor before you put in the meat. (How is it that a veggie that is so viscious that it makes you cry becomes so sweet?) If you do meat and onions at the same time, the onions just get white and soak up the fat, and don’t have any flavor of their own. If you’re doing just veggie, just carmelize the onions and put them in the bowl with other veggies. If you’re adding meat, once they are half way to carmelized, put in your beef (or pork, or whatever) and cook until mostly browned. Still add to the bowl.
- Add in the tomato or pasta sauce with the veggie/meat mixture. If you are using pasta sauce that is already seasoned, don’t worry about adding more seasoning. But if you are using plain pasta sauce, you’ll want to season to taste.
- Cook your lasagna noodles (if you need to).
- Now layer your lasagna. “Meat” layer on the bottom, cheese layer (I usually then toss on a little more mozzarella), noodle, meat, cheese etc. Always end on a meat layer. Top with the shredded mozzarella. Bake at 350 (or 375 at high altitude) for 45 min.
- Make sure to let it sit for at least 10 minutes before serving. If you have had sloppy lasagna it’s because there was either too much liquid, or you didn’t let it firm up.