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Friday, February 5, 2010

Dairy-Free Lasagna

 Nutritional yeast is something that used to really scare me. It's a vegetarian supplement, made from little yellowish flakes of yeast (obviously.) I kept running into it in vegan-friendly recipes, mostly worked in as a cheese flavoring. I kept avoiding it, however, because not only did it seem a little too weird for me, it also seemed unnecessary. Plenty of cheese substitutes were easily available around me, and they worked just fine. Macaroni and cheese? All I needed was some soymilk, some margarine, and some shredded soy "cheddar". Pizza? Shredded soy mozzarella worked just fine. Tofutti makes a pretty good "cream cheese" and "sour cream". Still, there was one problem I kept running into: ricotta. Nobody sells a non-dairy ricotta, and if they do, I have no idea how to get a hold of it.

So many of my favorite foods rely on ricotta cheese, and living without those foods would kind of suck. There's baked ziti, stuffed shells, ravioli, and perhaps the most craveable one of all: lasagna. I racked my brain trying to figure out how to make a lasagna without ricotta, but all paths led to a very sad lasagna indeed.

I often turn to vegan recipes for inspiration, mostly because any vegan recipe I make doesn't have to be adapted to be non-dairy. A while back, I purchased a cookbook called "The Veganomicon." Lo and behold, the cookbook contained not just one ricotta substitute recipe, but two: one based in pureed cashews, and the other made from tofu. I decided immediately that I needed to try and make my own "ricotta," but then I saw that fearful ingredient on the list. Should I suck it up and try the damn nutritional yeast already? There didn't seem to be another alternative.

After trying the tofu-based recipe, I was so impressed that I never tried the cashew ricotta. Not only does the stuff look and feel exactly like ricotta cheese, it tastes awesome and is really simple to make. It replaces that missing substance and texture in ricotta-containing recipes that really weren't worth trying to replicate before.

This lasagna recipe is very basic and straightforward. The proportions here make a lasagna for two (baked in a loaf pan), but you could easily make a full sized lasagna with these ingredients. The sauce is also pretty basic, and if you have a preferred meat-sauce, you can substitute that right in. I've made this into a veggie lasagna in the past by using chopped eggplant, zucchini, carrots, and peppers, and I've also used smart-ground in place of the ground beef (surprisingly delicious.) If you have some leftover sauce, don't try to cram it into the lasagna. Since this recipe is a combination of a bunch of different recipes I've read in the past, I'm still not the greatest at having the right proportions of everything. Leftover sauce is actually really good on pasta for lunch the next day.

Lasagna (dairy free)

1 recipe of veganomicon tofu ricotta (recipe below)
6 regular sized lasagna noodles or 3 noodles that are wide enough to cover the area of a loaf pan (you can also use more noodles to make more layers, but I like my lasagna to be super gooey)
6oz shredded non-dairy mozzarella
1 lb ground beef
1 small yellow onion, chopped
15 oz can of stewed tomatoes
8oz can of tomato sauce
A few leaves of chopped fresh basil
1 tbsp chopped fresh oregano
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
salt and pepper

Preheat your oven to 375º and grease a loaf pan. Cook the lasagna noodles according to the package directions.
Brown the ground beef in a large skillet or saucepan and drain. Add the onion and stir a few minutes more. Add the herbs, tomatoes and sauce, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring this mixture to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes more. Try to break up some of the bigger chunks of tomato with a fork.

Add 2 noodles, side by side, to cover the bottom of the loaf pan (or one noodle if you were able to find some wide enough.) Cut the noodles to fit if necessary. Add enough meat sauce to the mixture to cover the noodles. Add a layer of "ricotta" on top of the beef. Sprinkle this layer with "mozzarella" shreds. Layer two more noodles into the loaf pan and repeat this pattern. Add two more noodles on top, and sprinkle with more "mozzarella" if you'd like. The mozzarella substitute I used melted together beautifully on the inside, but the layer on top kind of stayed separate and got slightly crispy (it was still tasty.) Bake in the oven for about 20-25 minutes. Allow the lasagna to sit for a moment or two before you cut into it. I served mine with garlic bread made from some leftover rolls, margarine, garlic, and herbs that I stuck under the broiler for a few minutes.

Tofu Ricotta (from the Veganomicon)

1 lb extra-firm tofu, drained well (I actually used firm tofu this time around and it was still fine)
2 tsp lemon juice
1 clove of minced garlic
1/4 tsp salt
A pinch of pepper
About 10 leaves of chopped fresh basil
2 tsp olive oil (I used some fancy garlic infused stuff, but it really doesn't make too much of a difference)
1/4 cup nutritional yeast flakes

Mush the tofu in a bowl for a few seconds until it's crumbly. Add lemon juice, garlic, salt, pepper, and basil. Mush again with your hands. This step is kind of fun in a gross way because it smooshes through the spaces between your fingers. Do this until the tofu begins to look like ricotta. Add the olive oil and nutritional yeast. The veganomican advises you at this point to stir the mixture with a fork because it gets very sticky. Stir until combined.

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