Adapted from a Cook’s Illustrated recipe
A friend of ours had a reoccurrence of her cancer, an all too familiar event in our lives. She is so sick that it is hard for her to cook, so I am making one of my mitzvah lasagnas. When a person is on chemo they tend not to be concerned with eating. I unfortunately know this from personal experience. This dish is designed to tempt you into eating at least a bite or two to keep body and soul together.
After the lasagna has cooled I divide it into two person portions and freeze them. The sick friend and their caretaker then have 8, quick, ready-to eat meals to pop in the microwave and lighten their load. For someone who’s going through chemo the high fat and carbohydrates is actually tempting and sustaining, even if the nausea only allows you to take a few bites.
There are no bad lasagnas, only good and better lasagnas. I am not a food fascist. While I do feel that fresh is better, it is not always necessary. If you are planning to freeze something, the prana of freshness will be lost anyway. I have posted how to make my meat lasagna using only fresh ingredients, with only a comment on how to make it vegetarian. Today, I am posting the shortcuts version of the lasagna, but I am also packing it with as many sustaining vegetables as I can.
While each step of building a lasagna is not particularly difficult, there are a lot of steps to the process. I use the term building, rather than making, because unlike most dishes where you put all of the ingredients in and stir, good lasagna is build layer by flavorful layer. While very delicious, lasagna should not be mistaken for a health food. Even my low fat version is relatively high in fat (lots of cheese) and high in carbohydrates, but for someone who’s appetite is suppressed by chemo this is what is needed.
3 Tbs. olive oil
2 Portobello mushrooms, sliced
1 large onion, diced
2 stalks celery, minced
6 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tsp. oregano, dried
Pinch red pepper flakes, crushed
1 tsp. black pepper (separate uses)
24 oz. tomato basil spaghetti sauce (like Barilla)
2 cups Water
20 Fresh basil leaves, chiffonade (separate uses)
2 lbs. baby spinach, frozen
16 oz. Mozzarella cheese, low fat, shredded
16 oz. Ricotta cheese
1¼ cup Parmesan cheese (separate uses)
¼ tsp. salt
18 no-boil lasagna noodles
1. Remove the stem and scrape away the dark gills under the Portobello caps. Slice the mushrooms into 3/8 inch thick slices.
2. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to a large pan and sauté the Portobello mushroom slices (you may need to do it in two batches). You are trying to just get a little color, not cook them completely. Set them on a plate and refrigerate until you are ready to assemble the lasagna.
3. Finely dice a large onion (you want about 1½ cups) and the celery.
4. Without cleaning the pan, add the rest of the olive oil, onions and celery. Sauté until the onions are well caramelized (about 15 to 20 minutes).
Tip: Be careful to keep stirring the onions, so that they do not burn.
5. Add the garlic oregano, pepper flakes and ½ tsp. black pepper and sauté 2 minutes more.
6. Add the 24 oz. jar of Sweet Basil Spaghetti Sauce and 2/3 of a jar of water. Bring the pan to a boil, stir to combine and remove from the heat to cool completely.
Tip: This sauce may seem a bit “watery” but this is necessary for this dish, the no-boil noodles, which will absorb most of the excess fluid. If you are planning on using boiled noodles, do not add the extra liquid.
7. While the sauce is cooling, bring a large pot of water to a boil and place a bowl of ice water in the sink. Blanch the spinach for 1 minute and then place it in the ice water to stop it from over cooking. Drain the water and taking a fist full of spinach squeeze as much water out as you can. Repeat until all of the spinach is dry and you have several ‘sausages’ of spinach. Slice the spinach ‘sausages,’ fluff the spinach slightly and return it to the bowl. Refrigerate until you are ready to assemble the lasagna.
8. Shredded the Mozzarella cheese and refrigerate until you are ready to assemble the lasagna.
9. Chiffonade the basil leaves.
Tip: Wash, dry and stack several large basil leaves. Roll the leaves into a “cigar” and then take very thin slices to make very fine shreds of basil.
10. Place the Ricotta cheese, ½ cup of Parmesan cheese, the egg, the basil, ½ tsp. black pepper and the salt into a bowl and mix into a smooth paste. Refrigerate until you are ready to assemble the lasagna.
11. When you are ready to assemble the lasagna, preheat oven to 375°.
12. To assemble the lasagna:
a. Spread ½ cup of sauce in the bottom of a 9×13 inch baking pan.
b. Arrange 5 overlapping noodles crosswise over the sauce. (Barilla no-boil noodles are only 8 inches long, so I usually split one lengthwise and lay them lengthwise to fill the gap that remains on one side of the pan. I also alternate the side of this filler for each layer of the lasagna.)
c. Gently spread half of the Ricotta mixture over the noodles. The mixture does not need to cover every inch.
d. Scatter half of the spinach over the ricotta mixture.
e. Set aside ¾ cup of the Mozzarella. Scatter ½ of the remaining cheese over the spinach.
f. Sprinkle ¼ cup Parmesan cheese over the Mozzarella cheese.
g. Pour 1 cup of the sauce evenly over the cheeses.
h. Repeat steps b, c and d.
Tip: After laying down the dry noodles, gently press down on them to even out the wet layers underneath. Be careful not to break the noodles.
i. Arrange the Portobello mushrooms evenly over the spinach.
j. Scatter remaining ½ of the Mozzarella cheese over the mushrooms.
k. Sprinkle ¼ cup Parmesan cheese over the Mozzarella cheese.
l. Set aside ¾ cup of the sauce and pour the rest evenly over the cheeses.
m. Repeat step b (laying down the no boil noodles).
Tip: After laying down the dry noodles, again gently press down on them to even out the wet layers underneath. Be careful not to break the noodles.
n. Pour the remaining sauce over the top layer of noodles.
Tip: If there does not look like there will be enough sauce to cover all of the noodles add a little water to the sauce before you start.
Note: you should have ¾ cup of Mozzarella cheese and ¼ cup of Parmesan cheese remaining.
13. Cover the baking pan with foil and place on the middle rack of a 375° oven for 25 minutes.
Tip: It is a good idea to have a large lipped baking pan on the rack under the lasagna, because it tends to bubbles over and drip.
14. Remove the foil and sprinkle the remaining cheeses over the lasagna. Continue baking for about 25 minutes, until the cheese is spotty and brown and the sauce is bubbling.
15. Cool uncovered for 15 minutes before serving with a green salad on the side.
Note: For this lasagna I will divide it into eight pieces and individually wrap and freeze them for our sick friend and her caretaker.