Delicioso! Variations on Vegan Lasagna

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Is anyone else out there totally flummoxed about whether pasta is good for you and should be ingested in large amounts, or whether it is of the Dark Side and to be avoided at all costs?  I suppose it depends on where you align yourself in the never-ending carbohydrate debate.

I’ve always heard it is important to “carb load” during training and especially the night before an athletic event (such as watching friends compete in “Iron Man”), but is it really necessary?   It’s easy to find testimonials from herbivores to carnivores about the best diet for optimal health and energy, and here’s mine: I have trained for two long runs in my life, a full marathon in 2006 and a half-marathon in 2012.  While training for the Rock n’ Roll San Diego Marathon (the only kind of marathon I’d ever want to participate in again, it really was as fun as running straight for almost 5 hours can be), I certainly ate a lot of carbs and dairy products, and along with gaining experience and a few new friends, I also gained . . .12 pounds. Pure muscle, I’m sure. (I was raising money for leukemia research with Team in Training, and I remember joking with my sister Em, who I finagled into running with me, that I also needed to raise money for new jeans.)  I didn’t mind the extra poundage as much as the way I felt on those long runs. Runner’s high? Please. Try runner’s low. I never knew when I’d get a debilitating side ache, I just knew to expect one at some point. Plagued with IT band pain, I had to finish my regime on the treadmill. Lame. The only way I finished the actual marathon at all was due to my sister’s encouragement and the guy sporting a Speedo and sombrero at mile 22. Thanks, man. 

Flash forward to the winter of 2011-2012 and preparing for the Hippie Chick Half Marathon in Portland. Granted, it was half the distance, but I felt twice as good while training. I don’t remember getting even one side ache, and I didn’t gain one pound.  I easily (okay, that’s an exaggeration, but I felt good) ran the entire race with my speedy friend, Jennifer, only stopping to use the port-a-potties 6 times like all the other ladies!  Seriously, though, I am absolutely positive that diet made all the difference — particularly, for me, eliminating dairy and reducing my dependence on empty carbohydrates like french bread and processed cereals. 

This is not to say I abandoned my love of pasta, pizza, and all things carbolicious when I became a vegan. I didn’t. But eating spaghetti without the parm, pizza and lasagna without the cheese?  These dishes just weren’t so tempting anymore, and I gradually ate less pasta.  There’s an innate and abiding love between children and noodles of all sorts, however, and I’ve had to figure out how to work more pasta dishes back into my repertoire.  In the process, I’ve rediscovered my own dormant affection, and realized that if I use pasta mainly as a vehicle for vegetables, herbs, and spices, we’re all happy.    

Lasagna has always been one of my favorite Italian dishes.  So versatile!  And, unlike other pasta dishes, you don’t have to worry about draining hot water as your guests arrive or keeping the noodles warm and unstuck. Your masterpiece is done, and it looks lovely.  (Of course, there is always the chance of serving up a dry, something-went-wrong lasagna, and it’s too late to do anything at that point but offer your guests more vino.)

I was thrilled to discover that tofu can quite successfully take the place of ricotta cheese in texture and taste.  And, like all lasagnas, vegan lasagna can be transformed in myriad ways. Add your favorite veggies, spice up your marinara sauce, add a layer of pesto, use gluten-free noodles; get creative.  You can have your lasagna and eat it, too!

Vegan Lasagna with Roasted Cauliflower, Garlic, and Spinach (adapted from Appetite for Reduction)

  • 1 head of cauliflower, chopped into small pieces
  • 1 box lasagna noodles (GF works well, too)
  • 2 t. olive oil
  • 3/4 t salt
  • 1 1/2 packages extra firm tofu (about 16 oz,)
  • 1/3 cup nutritional yeast flakes
  • 1/2 lemon
  • black pepper, to taste
  • 1 28 oz can, and 1 14 oz can crushed tomatoes w/ basil
  • 1 T dried thyme
  • 2 t. oregano
  • 1 head garlic
  • 2 cups fresh spinach
  • 1/2 cup sliced black olives
  • 1 cup sliced mushrooms

1. First, roast cauliflower and all but 3 cloves of garlic (drizzled with olive oil and salt and pepper) at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, flipping over once to brown evenly. 

2. Boil noodles according to directions. Rinse in cool water, set aside (or right in front of you, whatever works!).

3. In a large bowl, crumble tofu, add nutritional yeast flakes (buy in bulk at grocery store, and don’t tell me you can’t find any, I live in SE Idaho), salt and pepper, lemon juice, 1 clove garlic (minced), and roasted cauliflower (set aside roasted garlic, slice when cool). Smash everything together with a potato masher, or in food processor if you want to get as many dishes as possible dirty.

4. In a large saute pan, add 2-3 cloves of garlic to a little oil and saute over medium heat for 1-2 minutes. Add mushrooms here if you’d like, or wait and layer fresh ones with the spinach.  Add tomatoes and thyme and oregano (or whichever spices you prefer), heat through and turn off heat.

5.  Layer your lovely lasagna, love! Begin with a bit of tomato sauce, then noodles, tofu/cauliflower mixture, spinach, sliced roasted garlic, mushrooms, tomato sauce, and repeat.  Leave spinach and veggies off the top layer (it will burn and be weird), so just put tomato sauce, tofu mix, and olives on top.  

6.  Bake at 350 for about 45 minutes.  Serve warm and top with fresh basil to really impress everyone, although they will already be blown away by your mad cooking skills!

Now get out there and run a marathon. 🙂

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