Let me put in a plug for my mother's Moroccan vegetable stew--it really is one of my favorite dishes. Very simple and very easy to change for the seasons. So continuing on the subject of hearty vegetarian meals, here's the newest one that makes me really happy: lasagna!
The beauty of lasagna is that it is so easy to modify based on what is in season or even just what is in your refrigerator. The staples are large flat sheets of pasta, sauce, and cheese. Other than that, it's all up to you. A winter lasagna might have layers of butternut squash and onion while a summer dish might include zucchini and pesto. Play around! Be inspired by whatever looks good at the market! My spring lasagna included mushrooms, red onion, sweet potato, spinach, and lots of garlic, all held together with tomato sauce.
What really made it special, though, was the noodles. I've been experimenting with making my own pasta recently, and it's never easier or quicker than making lasagna noodles--there's no extra cutting step involved! There's something very delicate about fresh pasta that you just can't get from dry. A hand-crank pasta roller is very inexpensive, although it's a bit easier to use an automatic roller like the attachment for the Kitchen Aid stand mixer. If you don't want to go to the trouble of making your own, you can easily get fresh pasta sheets in the refrigerated section of your grocery store. I saw a pack in Whole Foods for $3. I promise they're worth it.
The following recipe is what I did to make my lasagna, although my measurements are generally estimates. This recipe is easy; don't worry too much about the specifics. Whatever fillings you choose, make sure to pre-saute your veggies before layering. It will help them cook all the way through in the oven and make them taste all that much better.
Sweet Potato Mushroom Lasagna
thinly-rolled lasagna noodles (see recipe below or buy the thinnest you can find fresh)
1 red onion
~2 C sliced mushrooms
1 sweet potato
a handful of garlic
1 jar of your favorite pasta sauce
1 big can diced tomatoes
salt and pepper
5 oz. spinach leaves
small tub ricotta, ~14oz
Make the fillings:
Cut the red onion in half and slice it into 1/4 inch strips. Saute in a skillet over medium heat with the sliced mushrooms until onions are soft and golden. Meanwhile, peel the sweet potato and slice into very thin strips. I used a cheese grater, on the side that makes big thin slices of cheese (not the grating side). Peel and chop as much garlic as you'd like; I used about 8 cloves. When your mushrooms and onions are finished cooking, pour them out into a bowl. Add a bit of olive oil and the garlic to the pan, cook about one minute. Add the sweet potato strips and cook until the potatoes are slightly soft but keeping their shapes, nowhere near mushy.
Make the sauce:
In a large bowl, stir together the can of pasta sauce and the diced tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Spread olive oil on inside of a 9" x 13" pan. Lay down two to three noodles to cover bottom of pan. Spread a bit of the mushroom mixture, then a bit of the sweet potatoes, then a few spoonfuls of ricotta cheese, then a large handful of spinach. Pour a few ladle-fulls of sauce over everything. Don't worry if each layer doesn't cover every section of the dish; it's okay for each bite to be slightly different. The key is really thin layers. Repeat layering: pasta, fillings, cheese, spinach, sauce. I think I fit about 4-5 layers of this into my glass baking dish. Top the lasagna with a layer of pasta, a nice covering of cheese, and the last of the sauce. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes, until the top is golden and the kitchen smells delicious.
Basic Homemade Pasta
1 1/2 C semolina flour (Bob's Red Mill brand is in most grocery stores)
1/2 tsp. salt
2 T water
2 T olive oil
Mix flour and salt in a large bowl. Add eggs, water, and oil and stir until mixed through. Knead briefly, cover with a damp towel, and let sit for 20 minutes. (This is to let the glutens develop and make the dough easier to roll.)
Rolling out your noodles will depend a bit on what type of pasta roller you have. Begin by flattening a ping-pong ball sized piece of dough with the palm of your hand. Set the roller to the widest setting and roll through so it forms a long wide noodle. Fold in half, rotate 90 degrees, and roll through again. Move your setting one notch thinner and repeat: fold (in half or thirds, depending on the length), rotate a 1/4 turn, roll through the roller, and move the setting one notch thinner. Stop when the pasta is very thin and translucent, but not so thin that it breaks in your hands. For me, that's at setting 7-8.
Make each noodle as you need it to layer into the lasagna, so you don't have to worry about the noodles sticking together as they sit.
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