There's no reason why a vegetable lasagna made with the classic trio of eggplant, zucchini, and summer squash should be any less satisfying than a meat-based casserole, especially when the produce is in season and locally grown.
But we've rarely cooked one that we've been moved to make again. Some versions look tempting enough with a topcoat of bubbly cheese and thick tomato gravy, but cutting out a square of it invariably reveals trouble at the core. Often placed between the pasta sheets raw, the zucchini and squash turn out steamy and limp, flooding the dish with their juices — or, in some instances, undercooked and crunchy.
Then there's the eggplant, which is typically not only soggy, but greasy from pre-frying. Add to that the usual patches of dry, grainy ricotta and it's a wonder this dish ever became an Italian American standard.
So what would it take to make a full-flavored lasagna with vegetables that could stand up to — not wash out — the cheese and sauce? Ridding the produce of some of its moisture and boosting its flavor before adding it to the dish would be steps in the right direction.
Start to finish: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Part-skim mozzarella can also be used in this recipe, but avoid pre-shredded cheese, as it does not melt well. We prefer kosher salt because it clings best to the eggplant. If using table salt, reduce the amounts by half.
One 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
8 ounces (1 cup) whole-milk cottage cheese
4 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated (2 cups)
1 cup heavy cream
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
FILLING AND NOODLES:
1 1/2 pounds eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
Kosher salt and pepper
1 pound zucchini, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 pound yellow summer squash, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
5 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
12 ounces (12 cups) baby spinach
12 no-boil lasagna noodles
1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives, minced
12 ounces whole-milk mozzarella cheese, shredded (3 cups)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
For the tomato sauce: Whisk all ingredients together in a bowl; set aside.
For the cream sauce: Whisk all ingredients together in the second bowl; set aside.
For the filling and noodles: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 F. Toss eggplant with 1 teaspoon salt in large bowl. Line large plate with double layer of coffee filters and lightly spray with vegetable oil spray. Spread eggplant in even layer over coffee filters; wipe out and reserve bowl. Microwave eggplant until dry to touch and slightly shriveled, about 10 minutes, tossing halfway through microwaving. Let cool slightly. Return eggplant to bowl and toss with zucchini and summer squash.
Combine 1 tablespoon oil, garlic, and thyme in small bowl. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add half of eggplant mixture, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are lightly browned, about 7 minutes. Push vegetables to sides of skillet. Add half of garlic mixture to center and cook, mashing mixture into pan, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir garlic mixture into vegetables and transfer to medium bowl. Repeat with 2 tablespoons oil, remaining eggplant mixture, and remaining garlic mixture; transfer to bowl.
Heat remaining 1 teaspoon oil in now-empty skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add spinach and cook, stirring frequently, until wilted, about 3 minutes. Transfer spinach to paper towel-lined plate and let drain for 2 minutes. Stir into eggplant mixture. (Filling can be refrigerated for up to 24 hours.)
Grease 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Spread 1 cup tomato sauce evenly over bottom of dish. Arrange 4 noodles on top of sauce (noodles will overlap). Spread half of the vegetable mixture evenly over noodles, followed by 1/4 cup olives. Spoon half of the cream sauce over top and sprinkle with 1 cup mozzarella. Repeat layering with 4 noodles, 1 cup tomato sauce, remaining vegetable mixture, remaining 1/4 cup olives, remaining cream sauce, and 1 cup mozzarella. For the final layer, arrange remaining 4 noodles on top and cover completely with remaining tomato sauce. Sprinkle remaining 1 cup mozzarella evenly over tomato sauce.
Cover dish tightly with aluminum foil that has been sprayed with oil spray and bake until edges are just bubbling, about 35 minutes, rotating dish halfway through baking. Let lasagna cool for 25 minutes, sprinkle with basil, and serve.
Nutrition information per serving: 537 calories; 296 calories from fat; 33 g fat (14 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 68 mg cholesterol; 928 mg sodium; 42 g carbohydrate; 6 g fiber; 9 g sugar; 25 g protein.
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