Eggplant + Zucchini Lasagna with Spinach "Ricotta"
Oh, how I wish you could smell my kitchen right now...I've got the beginning stages of my mom's sauce cooking and it *inhales deeply*...smells amazing.
I will forever love the smell of garlic and onions cooking together on the stove (do we think that scent is part of a Yankee Candle line somewhere?). It's so simple, but the instant I smell that delicious combination, I am flooded with familiarity. It's the smell that would greet us the moment we stepped foot into my grandma's house whenever my family would come down to the metro-Detroit area to visit. It's the smell I'd wake up to on the mornings of birthday parties or other celebrations in the the house that I grew up in as my mom busily prepared to host guests. It's amazing how much our sense of smell can impact us.
As an Italian, I am always down to eat Italian food 24/7. Obviously that might not be the best for my health and I have days when I want the smells and tastes of an Italian meal but I'm not necessarily in the mood for a plate of pasta, which is why I'm really excited to share this eggplant and zucchini lasagna recipe with you. As a kid, I never really loved eggplant, but as I'm finding more and more ways to cook with it, it's really growing on me. What I love about this dish is that it's hearty, filling, comforting, easy to make, and most of all, insanely delicious. Plus, you don't get that "heavy" feeling like you might experience after eating pasta.
As I mentioned before, I'm making my mom's tomato sauce recipe and it is one of my favorite things to make.
For this recipe, you will need:
4-6 cups of pasta sauce (preferably 6). If you don't want to make your own sauce, you can use any kind of marinara or tomato sauce that you prefer!
1 medium eggplant
2 - 4 medium zucchini -- I used two for this recipe, but in the future, I'll likely use three. Using 3 - 4 will allow you to make more layers throughout the lasagna.
15oz of your favorite ricotta cheese. If you're dairy-free like I am, I found THE BEST vegan ricotta "cheese" recipe from The Simple Veganista that I tweaked and will share with you below. Seriously, it's so good...I wrote it down and saved it with the rest of my favorite recipes in my kitchen, I love it that much. I grew up on Italian food and I truly believe that it has the same texture and taste as actual ricotta cheese. Yum!
1 1/2 cups raw cashews, soaked (for at least two hours - the longer you let them soak, the creamier your mixture will be).
3/4 cup water
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 – 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
2 garlic cloves (if you're like me and love garlic, add more!)
Dash of onion powder
Himalayan sea salt & cracked pepper, to taste
16oz fresh baby spinach
Let's Make It:
For the "pasta"
Wash and dry your eggplant and zucchini. Cut the ends off of your zucchini, and using a mandolin or a very sharp knife, carefully slice the zucchini length-wise. I used the thinnest setting possible on my mandolin, but next time, I'll likely use the next option up from that.
Once your zucchini is sliced, place the slices in a bowl and set aside.
Next up, cut off the ends and peel the skin off of your eggplant. Using your mandolin again, slice the eggplant lengthwise, making sure the slices are the same thickness of your zucchini.
If you've made any kind of "pasta" dish with zucchini and / or eggplant before, you know that both vegetables retain a lot of water and as a result, can make your dish really watery. Sad. :( We're going to make sure that we dry out our veggies as much as possible with a couple of easy steps:
Grab some cooling racks that you use to bake cookies and lay out your veggies in a single layer on the rack. Once your veggies are lined up, sprinkle some salt over them. If you don't have enough cooling racks to space out all of your slices, simply place a paper towel over the first layer veggies and add another layer of veggies on top of that, sprinkle with salt and repeat. The idea here with the salt is that it will help to draw out some of the water, causing the veggies to "sweat."
While your veggies are hanging out, preheat your oven to 400 degrees F for step two in just a bit.
For the "cheese"
I seriously can't tell you enough how much I love this "ricotta cheese." It is unreal to me how amazing it tastes. Grab your food processor or high-speed blender and throw in your soaked (and drained) cashews, water, apple cider vinegar, nutritional yeast, garlic cloves, onion powder, salt and pepper. Mix everything together on high or until you have a really smooth and creamy consistency.
Once your ricotta mixture is to your desired consistency and taste, scoop it out into a bowl and set aside.
As your oven is heating up and your veggies are sweating, grab your 16 oz of baby spinach and dump it into a large pan with some water in the bottom. Cover the pan and let the spinach cook / steam on medium-high heat for a few minutes until it has reduced in size and is a bright green color. Remove from heat.
Take a colander, place it in the sink and line it with a kitchen towel. Remove your spinach from the stove and pour the spinach into the dishtowel and let it sit for a few minutes to cool off. Once it's cool enough to handle, ring out as much excess water from the spinach as you can. Then, add your spinach to your ricotta mixture and stir gently to combine.
Okay. Back to our veggies again.
By now, your veggies should be pretty shiny from the water that they're releasing and if you've used paper towels at all, chances are, they're soaked. This is good! Line a few baking sheets with parchment paper and place your veggies in a single layer. It's okay if they overlap a bit - they'll shrink down in the oven. Give the veggies a light spritz of olive oil and pop them in the oven for just a few minutes. The heat will help evaporate more of the water. Keep your eye on them -- because they are so thin, they can burn easily (like some of mine did - oops!)
Once your veggies have browned up a bit, take them out of the oven and let them cool while you get ready to assemble your lasagna. In a casserole dish, scoop enough sauce to cover the bottom of the dish and then layer either some of your zucchini or eggplant. Spread some of your ricotta mixture on the veggies, top with a layer of sauce and then repeat. Repeat these steps until your veggies are gone, your ricotta is gone and you have just enough sauce left to add one final layer to the top. I added some fresh basil to the very top for some color.
Bake uncovered at 400 degrees for about 30 minutes until the sauce on top is bubbling and the sides have browned a bit. Remove from the oven and let sit for five minutes before serving.
I promise that you won't miss the pasta (or cheese!) in this recipe the moment you take your first bite. Enjoy! If you do try this recipe out, please let me know what you think!