Right before I went vegan, I made the best lasagna I had ever tasted. It was called Pesto Lasagna, and it contained eggs and three kinds of cheese. It was so rich and creamy that I never tried to recreate it as a vegan because a cheeseless, low-fat version seemed impossible.
I’m not usually one to shy away from tackling the impossible, but I didn’t want to tamper with the memory of a meal that had grown to mythic–and probably unrealistic–proportions over the years. But this week I decided not only to take on the pesto lasagna of my vegetarian days but also to do something I never would have dreamed of doing back then: substitute the noodles with spaghetti squash for a lighter, gluten-free, but still rich and creamy lasagna. And I’m so glad I did!
But before there was success, there was failure. My first attempt never really got past the spaghetti squash stage. I had bought a small, 2-pound spaghetti squash at the farmers’ market, and I roasted it, as I’ve done in the past. But when I cut it open, the insides were a wet, clumpy mess, not the individual strands of gold “spaghetti” I was expecting. I couldn’t even separate the seeds from the flesh because it was all one sodden pile of mush. I must have cooked it too long for its size, but that’s the problem with cooking a spaghetti squash whole–you can’t check it to determine when it’s done.
For my next attempt, I decided to cut the squash in half before cooking so that I could check its doneness. I went down to the grocery store and bought a medium-sized squash, a little over 3 pounds. I didn’t want to wait the hour it could take to roast the squash, so I decided as a short-cut to pressure cook it instead. I fitted my electric pressure cooker with a gadget I’d just bought, a silicone steamer basket, added a cup of water and the two halves of the squash, and then set the timer on high for 8 minutes. I figured that if it needed more time, I could always add another minute, but when I checked it, the squash was perfectly cooked, tender enough that I could scrape out the golden strands but not turning to mush.
The squash turned out perfectly and so did the lasagna. My husband raved at how good it was and told me that, frankly, he hadn’t been optimistic about spaghetti squash instead of lasagna noodles. But we both loved the creaminess of the sauce and filling which contrasted with the slight crunch of the “noodles.” And the fresh basil gave it a fresh, peppery zing. It was a complicated dish to make on a weeknight, but I’ll definitely make it again.
Spaghetti Squash Pesto Lasagna
- 1 medium spaghetti squash about 3 pounds
- 8 ounces sliced mushrooms
- 1 clove garlic minced
- 1 1/2 cups low-fat spaghetti sauce packaged or homemade
- 1 cup spinach optional
- salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 2 cloves garlic peeled
- 1 14-ounce package extra-firm tofu not silken
- 1 cup fresh basil packed
- 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
- 1 teaspoon salt if you use
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper optional
Cook the spaghetti squash. You can bake it, microwave it, or do as I did and pressure cook it. To pressure cook, cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds. Place a steamer basket in your pressure cooker, add 1 cup of water, and place the squash halves in the basket. Seal pressure cooker and cook at high pressure for 8 minutes. Release pressure, uncover, and allow the squash to cool until you can handle it comfortably.
Using a fork, scrape out the strands of “spaghetti.” It may take a little effort and going “against the grain.” Put the squash strands into a colander set over a large bowl and set aside. (You can cook the spaghetti squash ahead of time as long as you drain it well before using.)
Heat a medium-sized sauce pan. Add the mushrooms and 1 clove chopped garlic, along with 1 tablespoon of water. Stir and cover tightly. Cook, stirring every 60 seconds, until the mushrooms soften and exude their juices, about 3 minutes. Uncover and cook until most of the liquid evaporates. Season lightly with salt and pepper, if you like, and set aside.
Make the filling: Start your food processor and drop in the 2 cloves of peeled garlic. Process until finely chopped. Add the remaining filling ingredients and process until smooth, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl if necessary. Set aside.
Make the cheese sauce: Place all ingredients into a blender and blend until completely smooth.
Preheat oven to 375F. Lightly oil a 2 1/2 to 3 quart oblong casserole dish. (Mine is 9.5 X 6.5 X 3 inches deep.)
Assemble the lasagna: Spoon about 1/4 cup of the spaghetti sauce into the bottom of the dish, just enough to coat the bottom. Spread half of the spaghetti squash over the sauce, and sprinkle with salt and pepper if you like. Drop the filling over the squash by large spoonfuls and then spread it out evenly. Arrange the mushrooms over the filling, followed by the spinach, if you’re using it. Pour half of the cheese sauce over the spinach and mushrooms. Add the remaining squash, smoothing it into an even layer. Pour the remaining spaghetti sauce over the top.
Bake for 15 minutes. Then carefully, starting in the center of the pan, pour the remaining cheese sauce over the top, being careful not to splash the sauce onto the hot pan. Return to the oven and cook until the lasagna is bubbling all around the edges, about 30-40 more minutes. Remove from oven and allow to stand for at least 15 minutes–the sauce will thicken and the lasagna will be less watery the longer it stands. Serve warm.
Since spaghetti squash doesn’t have the starch of lasagna noodles to absorb and thicken the sauce, some liquid in the bottom of the pan is normal. But the lasagna will get firmer the longer it stands uncovered, so you can make it ahead of time and reheat it before serving.
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