Some months ago, I decided to cut gluten and most grains from my diet. This has meant learning to cook in new ways and with new recipes, and learning to adapt beloved ones, like lasagna.
I love pasta, and I miss it. It’s really about the only thing I haven’t yet figured out how to make from gluten-free flours. I hope I’ll have the time to work on that this winter. A few months ago, when the longing for Italian food got too strong, I went on the hunt for something to fill that craving. I found a recipe for eggplant lasagna, but the eggplant was there to substitute for the meat, not the pasta. I wondered: could oven-roasted eggplant take the place of the pasta in lasagna? Conveniently, I had eggplants in my greenhouse, so I was able to give the idea a try. And it’s delicious. I was surprised that I didn’t miss the pasta at all. The flavor of the lasagna is authentic, and it fulfills all my cravings for Italian food, without wheat. Cutting out the pasta cuts down significantly on calories and carbohydrates as well. This is a protein-rich dish that also contains a lot of vegetables, so while I usually serve it with a salad or another vegetable, we have been known to heat up a square and eat it by itself with no loss of satisfaction.
You can use any ground meat you like in this recipe. I have used ground beef, turkey, Italian sausage, and ground venison. You can mix ground meats, and frankly, mixing a little Italian sausage with any other meat is going to add extra flavor and succulence to your lasagna because it adds fat. You can control the fat in the recipe by using leaner or richer meats, and lower or higher fat cheeses. For the pictures for this post, I used bear sausage and ground turkey, because that’s what I had on hand. I also used shredded, low-fat mozzarella out of my freezer. I buy cheese on sale, shred it in the food processor, mix a teaspoon or two of cornstarch into it, and freeze it flat in Ziploc bags. The cornstarch keeps the cheese from sticking together, so I can use as much or as little as I want from a bag while it is still frozen.
I also make my own ricotta for lasagna because it is easy, and so flavorful, and so much cheaper. I make ricotta whenever I have milk about to sour or already gone bad, so I’m minimizing waste. Sour milk makes great cheese. After the whey has drained away from the cheese, I put the ricotta in the freezer, so again, it’s handy when I want to make a pan of lasagna. The whey can be saved and used in baking, particularly breads and cakes, instead of water. You can make your own ricotta out of any kind of milk, from low-fat to full-fat, or even out of half-and-half, if your coffee creamer has gone sour. But of course, you can buy ricotta cheese if you don’t wish to make homemade.
I’ve always made my own marinara sauce for lasagna, but you don’t have to. You can buy jarred marinara or spaghetti sauce from the store. If you do that, I strongly suggest that you add herbs to it to perk up the flavor. However, marinara is easy, cheap, and quick to make, as you’ll see from the recipe below, so I hope you’ll give it a try and see how much better it is than pre-made, store-bought sauce. I’m starting with the marinara sauce, because it can be cooking down while the eggplant is roasting.
Easy Marinara Sauce
You can start homemade marinara with either canned tomatoes or tomato sauce (or with fresh tomatoes, if you have the time). Making the red sauce with canned tomatoes takes a little longer than starting with tomato sauce, but it cooks down while the eggplant is roasting.
1 28 oz. can of whole or diced tomatoes or 2 cups of canned tomato sauce
¼ cup red wine (optional)
1 T. fresh basil, chopped, or 1 t. dry basil, crumbled (more or less according to your taste)
1 t. fresh organo, chopped, or ½ t. dry oregano, crushed (more or less according to your taste)
1 clove garlic, crushed and chopped
½ cup. onion, diced
1-2 tsp. sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
If using whole or diced tomatoes, whirl the contents of the can (or quart jar, if you can your own tomatoes) in blender until smooth. Place in large pot, add wine, herbs, garlic, onion, sugar and ½ tsp. salt and ¼ tsp. pepper (more or less to your taste) and cook on med. high heat until reduced by half. Watch out—it spits as it reduces! If you are starting with tomato sauce, just add the rest of the ingredients and simmer until onions are translucent. You can add more wine, more sugar, more herbs, more of anything you particularly like. You can use basil alone if you don’t like oregano, or vice versa. You can add a tablespoon of fresh, chopped Italian parsley if you have it. I use a larger quantity of herbs than I’ve specified in the recipe because I love the flavor of herbs, but these amounts are a good place to start. Play around with the sauce until it suits your taste. You want to end up with about 2 cups of marinara sauce, so don’t over-reduce.
That’s it! That’s marinara sauce. You can make it more complicated, roasting the garlic and adding shredded carrots and other ingredients, or you can buy it in the jar, but what’s the point, when this is so easy? It is delicious and can form the basis for many an Italian dish that calls for a red sauce. Now, on to the lasagna.
Roasted Eggplant Lasagna
2 large eggplants
Salt and pepper
Cut tops off eggplant and slice lengthwise into ¼ to ½ in. slices. Keep them uniform in thickness. Brush olive oil onto cookie sheet and lay out eggplant slices in one layer; brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast in 400 degree oven for about 20-25 minutes, or until very tender. Turn eggplant over half-way through cooking time.
While the eggplant is roasting (and your sauce is cooking down, if you made sauce), it’s time to season and brown the meat.
1 ½ lbs. ground meat (Italian sausage, turkey, venison, beef, bison—whatever you like or have on hand)
Salt and pepper
1 large onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 red or green bell pepper, chopped (optional)
2 cups sliced fresh mushrooms (optional)
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cups marinara or red sauce (see recipe above) or jarred spaghetti or marinara sauce
2 cups ricotta cheese
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
3 beaten eggs
Season ground meat with salt and pepper and garlic powder; brown and drain. Add onion, mushrooms, and bell pepper; cook until onions are translucent; add chopped garlic, cook for one minute. Set aside.
Mix eggs with ricotta and ½ cup of parmesan cheese, season with ½ to 1 teasp. salt and ¼ teasp. pepper. Reserve ½ cup of parmesan for top of lasagna. (As always with my recipes, start with the smaller amount of salt and add more to your taste. Salt is a highly individual seasoning.)
Place a couple of spoonfuls of marinara sauce into the bottom of an 8×12 or 9×13 pan and spread it around. (This keeps the eggplant from sticking to the pan.) Place one layer of roasted eggplant slices on top of sauce. Stir the meat mixture into the rest of the marinara. Spread half of marinara/meat mixture on top of eggplant slices. Top with half of ricotta/egg mixture. Spread half of shredded mozzarella on top of ricotta mixture. Top with another layer of eggplant, layer of meat mixture, layer of ricotta mixture, and mozzarella. Sprinkle reserved parmesan cheese on top. (I always seem to overfill my 8 X12 glass pan, so I put it on a cookie sheet to keep any potential spillage off the bottom of the oven.)
Bake at 350 for 40 minutes or until dish is bubbling and cheese is browned.
If you can keep your hands off it that long, cool slightly before serving, about 10-15 minutes. This allows the dish to set up a bit and makes it easier to cut into squares for serving.
This gluten-and-grain-free lasagna satisfies my every craving for Italian food. I don’t miss the pasta, and neither has anyone I’ve served it to, including my dear foodie friend, DeAnna, and my son, Joel. Joel said, “Mom, I’ve never had lasagna like that, but it’s killer! It’s lighter without the pasta. I don’t miss it at all.” If you try it, I bet you won’t either.