Monday, March 29, 2010

Double dare, physical challenge: vegan lasagne comes up trumps

Some cooks moan about how fiddly and time-consuming it is to make lasagne from scratch, but I say it should only take as long as it takes to cook the Bolognese sauce/tomato sugo down (ideally, about an hour). Oh – plus 45 mins in a moderate oven (180 degrees) to cook it all.

Homemade Bolognese and bechemal lasagne was SUCH a highlight when I was little – I requested it most years for birthday dinners, I think mostly because my dad hated it – but these days I couldn’t eat a plate if you paid me. Indigestion city. Throw some garlic bread and red wine into the mix and I’ll literally be awake all night, screaming for Quick Eze like a junkie gone cold turkey.

Vegetarian lasagne, however, is a different story. It’s such a good dinner party/communal dish because you can make it the day before and feast on leftovers for days. The highlight of my show-stopping version (even if I do say so myself…) is layers of spinach and ricotta mix – same as what you’d stuff cannelloni with – in between the pasta sheets and tomato sugo. As such, I didn’t hold high hopes for veganising this dish – the prospect of replacing ricotta with a variety of soy products seemed wrong on so many levels. Normally I’d incorporate some vegetable layers into the mix – par-cooked sweet potato and/or pumpkin slices (steam or boil), and char-grilled eggplant and/or zucchini (brush them with olive oil and brown them under the grill). But for this first crack I just concentrated on the spinach and tofu mix, with pasta sheets and tomato sauce.

What else… Oh – I picked up a tip from my mate Clare for topping a vegetarian lasagne if you’re not keen on a rich, cheesy lid – spread a layer of hand-torn breadcrumbs (you don’t want them too fine) interspersed with knobs of butter. A nice stale ciabatta or casalinga would have been preferable to the only bread we had the house – Hovis Granary original… hello, grainy high-fibre breadcrumbs on a vegan lasagne – could this be any more of a gross vegan cliché?! Anyone for gluten-free carob-chip cookie…? YUCK. I tried to explain the wrongness of this to vegan boyfriend, but didn’t get the reaction I’d hoped for: “What’s wrong with grainy bread? Sounds awesome.” Yeah. But then so does Heinz tomato sauce all over it, doesn’t it.

3 cans of tinned tomatoes
3 small onions, halved and sliced vertically
4 cloves garlic, crushed – half for the tomato sugo and half for the spinach mix
I packet (250gm) lasagne sheets
I small bowl of pureed spinach – vague, I know – if using those little bricks of frozen spinach, thaw out 8 or 10 and squeeze out any extra liquid
125gm tofu (half a block of cauldron organic tofu), chopped very finely or crumbled
2-3 tsp1 miso soup mix – to mask that manky plasticky soy smell; I’d have loved to try squirt of umami paste or a few teaspoons of red miso paste would have been ideal, but I was too much of a tighter$e to pay £4 for a little jar of the organic stuff at Sainsburys.
3 tbsp Alpro natural yoghurt
1 container Alpro long-life pouring cream
2 slices crusty white bread (e.g. casalinga), crumbed into breadcrumbs
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

1. Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees, and grease a relatively deep, small-to-medium-sized baking dish with olive oil. I found a deep rectangular dish for 67p at a pound shop; it looked suspiciously like a planter box you’d grow herbs in, but despite our fears it did the job and didn’t break in the oven. Who needs Le Creuset, I ask you.
2. Sautee onion and garlic in olive oil for 3 mins, add tomatoes, bring to boil and simmer gently for as long as you can (at least 40 mins). Season with salt and pepper. Add a little sugar if it’s a bit too sour.
3. Thaw and drain water off frozen spinach (jiggle in a sieve, not a colander, if you’ve got one). Stick in a bowl.
4. Add crumbled tofu, crushed garlic, miso powder/paste/whatever, yoghurt, and 3 tbsp of cream. You want it to be reasonable sloppy (and the award for evocative food writing goes to…) so if in doubt, add more cream. Sniff for nasty soy smell – if in doubt, add more garlic, miso, or fresh herbs, if you have them.
5. Now – the assemblage. It’s going to be tomato – pasta – spinach – pasta – tomoto – pasta - spinach… you get the idea. You don’t need too much tomato into the bottom, just a covering. Break and rearrange the pasta sheets to fit the dish, but don’t worry if you have gaps – the pasta swells and warps as it rehydrates, and noone’s going to see how neat the inside layers are.

6. Spoon and spread the spinach and tofu mix ontop of the pasta sheets, and douse with some of the cream, if you’re a fan of rich and creamy bechemal sauce. Probably a good idea to do this on every second spinach layer so it’s not too dry.

7 Keep layering until you build it to a reasonable height, and finish with a tomato layer.
8. Spread the breadcrumbs on top and, in lieu of butter, drizzle with olive oil (do it fast and from height so you get a very fine line) and cream, and salt and pepper.
8. It’s handy if you have leftover tomato sugo – you can always heat it up and serve it with leftovers to make them extra saucy. Or, like, you could just be a total bogan and squirt Heinz tomato sauce all over it...

1 comment:

  1. If you can venture beyond your local Sainsburys to a Asian grocers(as in South-East Asian - I refuse to say "Oriental" in this post-colonial era), look for some silken tofu which has a more slippery, custardy texture than the rubbery firm tofu I used. Silken tofu is what you (should?) find in miso soup. It can be more easily mushed up and would probs combine better with the spinach, perhaps relieving the need for so much yoghurt and cream in the mix.