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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Yes, Virginia, There Is A Delicious Gluten-free Lasagne

 So... a new year has begun, and you have decided for any one of innumerable reasons, you want to try a low-carb, low-glycemic diet. Something that eschews the daily consumption of tortilla chips and foot-long subs.

You have one of the following:

Adult Onset Diabetes


An allergy to gluten


Your 20 year high school reunion and you want to show those guys who used to snap their towels at you in the locker room during gym how well geeks hold up over their beefier muscle headed counterparts.


You are one of those naturally skinny bitches, but you have finally had an epiphany and realized that Pop Tarts and Diet Coke do not extend nor enhance your health over the long-term despite a nuclear holocaust surviving shelf life due to their remarkable preservative-laden ingredients.  


None of the above 

(Look, don't judge me, okay? I'm trying to write an introduction to be whimsical and amusing, though I am failing mightily. I mean, just posting straight recipes is so Martha Stewart and I may be a bored privileged hausfrau with no life to speak of, but I have my artistic integrity. Just ask my Yoga instructor, she says I flow like the Ganges. ) 

Now, you figure you can easily sacrifice the rice, the bread, the chips and - if push came to shove - all those raw carrots and beets you were always meaning to eat for their Vitamin A content.


There is one food, you simply cannot do without...
I mean, hell, Columbus practically drowned the Spanish Armada bringing it back from China to Europe. HOW could any civilized person expect you to give up that staple food of  Italian cuisine; that delicious belly-warming, chewy, tongue tantalizing thing of sensual pleasure that even the Taccuino Sanitatis of 15th century fame devoted a chapter to?

What am I talking about?

What else?


(What do you think put the smile on the Mona Lisa?)


Well, sadly, you must give it up,
BUT here's one way to eat a classic pasta dish without using the pasta!

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus and he is keeping the lasagne flying sans noodles but with oodles of luscious silken eggplant,  Italian sausages, and acres of CHEESE!!!

Eggplant Lasagne: Even better than the real thing

Yes, Yes, YES!!!
Eggplant slices definitely satisfy both the palate and the dietary considerations in this dish.
So... let's dig in, shall we?

Firstly, it is lasagne with an "e"; like Liza with a "z", but even more delicious.
You can, however, spell it anyway you like, some things are more important than pedantry.

It's really just an assembly line dish. 
Very simple to make and requires no real cooking skills.
Once you've cooked the eggplant, the sausages, the tomato sauce, shredded the mozzarella, and prepared the ricotta, you just slap it together in a nice baking dish.

Wikipedia spells it wrong, but says this about the dish:

"... The word lasagna comes from the Greek λάσανα (lasana) or λάσανον (lasanon) meaning "trivet or stand for a pot", "chamber pot". The Romans borrowed the word as "lasanum", meaning "cooking pot" in Latin. The Italians used the word to refer to the dish in which lasagna is made. Later the name of the food took on the name of the serving dish."

So there's part one of your history lesson for the day!

Eggplants are great this time of year.  I am using "Globe" eggplants which are large and nearly round. I slice them lengthwise into 1/3" to 1/2" thick slices, so that after I saute them, they approximate the size of a cooked lasagne noodle. When in doubt, err on the side of slicing them more thickly. Do NOT cut it into rounds.

You can use Japanese eggplant, too, obviously, but they are more expensive, quite small and have more (bitter) skin to (tender) flesh ratio, which means you would spend a fortune buying a bushel of them. Not that eggplants are sold in bushels, but you get my point. Actually, eggplants are the perfect edible medium for exploring the human story of agriculture, technology, immigration, politics, economics, linguistics and taste.

"Eggplant...the familiar dark purple, ovoid form sometimes called the 'Japanese Eggplant.' In West Africa, eggplants ...[are] called 'garden eggs.' the West Indies...a variety of names including 'gully bean,' "susumber,' and 'pea aubergine.' Known in much of the world as "aubergine" and in the Middle East as "poor man's-caviar,"...Common names and synonyms: Apple-of-love, Asiatic aubergine...brinjal...Guinea squash...Italian eggplant...melanzana, melongene...pea apple, pea aubergine...terong..."
~~Cambridge World History of Food, Kenneth F. Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas [Cambridge University Press:Cambridge] 2000, Volume Two (p. 1770)

When Europeans first encountered the fruit, it had gained an intimidating reputation due to its relationship to the nightshade family.  Its cousins, the poisonous Jimson weed or Datura as well as Belladonna, are poisonous and sometimes called Deadly Nightshade. Even after the eggplant received acceptance, it was still called mala insana, meaning "bad egg, mad apple, or apple of madness."

"Mandrakes, like most nightshades, were poisonous, so at one time, people thought that eggplants made those who ate them insane. The myths and legends surrounding eggplant substantiated the fears the people had of eating them. Some scholars have identified eggplants as the Dead Sea fruit of the Bible and of John Milton's Paradise Lost, in which fallen angels wandered by the Dead Sea in hunger and found purple fruits that looked delicious, but upon eating them discovered that the pulp of the fruit turned to ashes. 

This strange legend may have had a factual basis. Eggplants indeed grew along the Dead Sea near Sodom, the biblical city of sinners that God destroyed, and while the eggplants of Sodom appeared plump and ripe on the outside, an insect invaded the inside, causing the pulp to decay and create a powdery substance inside the seemingly perfect skin. Farmers later learned what destroyed these fruits and how to combat the insect infestations; but early on, people could only speculate on the cause. They knew that God reduced the evil city of Sodom to ashes, so they easily attributed a similar evil to the ash-producing fruits they found growing there."
~~Nectar and Ambrosia: An Encyclopedia of Food in World Mythology, Tamra Andrews [ABC-CLIO:Santa Barbara] 2000 (p. 85)

Historians believe the eggplant may have its origins in India, but early written accounts from a 5th century Chinese record on agriculture called the Ts'i Min Yao Shu indicate its cultivation in China, but it was the conquering Moors who brought it to the continent during their invasion of Spain in the 8th century. Louis XIV, King of France during the 1600s, took great interest in impressing diners at his royal table with new plant foods and was the first in France to introduce aubergine (eggplant) into his garden. The fruit was not universally enjoyed with the following description: "fruits as large as pears, but with bad qualities." The urban legend of the time was that eating eggplant caused fever and epilepsy.

When the first eggplants were brought to Northern Europe during the 1600s, they were not the beautiful, purple, plump one-pounders we find in today's supermarket bins. John Gerard, a 16th century horticulturist, saw a different fruit altogether and provides this description:"the fruit . . . [is] great and somewhat long, of the bignesse of a Swans egge, and sometimes much greater, of a white colour, sometimes yellow, and often browne."

The late 1700's brought the French enlightenment and changed attitudes about the fruit. Devouring grilled eggplant became a fad of the rowdy incroyables and the elegant merveileuses who partied at France's Palais Royale. In America, Thomas Jefferson was said to have imported a few seeds and planted them in the famous gardens of his magnificent Monticello, but it was used mostly for ornamental purposes in America until the mid-19th century when President Andrew Johnson claimed it as one of his favorite foods, especially Stuffed Eggplant Spanish Style. Prepared for intimate gatherings at the White House, the eggplant was first halved and the flesh chopped. The stuffing was a combination of tomatoes, onions, breadcrumbs, and celery, and seasoned with basil butter, salt, pepper, and a touch of sugar. Before they were served, the eggplants were garnished with overlapping fresh tomato slices and a strip of broiled bacon.

Which brings us back to our recipe. Copious amounts of olive oil will be used in this recipe. Eggplants are thirsty, greedy little bastards  that soak up oil like Charlie Sheen once soaked up tiger blood so prepare to use almost a whole pint of olive oil. Be sure to use an olive oil of good quality, but don't use your best Arbequina cold-pressed, hand harvested by Tibetan monks while pissed on by the Dalai Lama EVOO (extra virgin olive oil for you noobs) because the cooking process will breakdown its finer more intoxicating olfactory qualities, and the sauce will mask the nuances of the finest olive oil. On the other hand, don't go using Crisco either... The eggplants will taste exactly like whatever oil you use. 

The size of the baking pan you use is important, as well. It must be at least 2" deep or else you will not be able to layer the casserole properly. You can use a regular lasagne baking dish. I used two Le Creuset baking dishes that were 12" x 9.5" x 2" with a 3-quart capacity because there are only two of us here and I wanted to store one pan uncooked in the freezer for another time. This is the kind of dish that keeps well, reheats well and can be prepared a week ahead of time.

I used both Sweet and Hot Italian sausages made from chicken instead of pork, but you can use pork Italian sausage if you like, or omit sausages altogether and replace them with sauteed spinach, portabello mushrooms (anything you like). That's the beauty of cooking, you adjust the recipe to suit your needs. If you do use the sausages, be sure to slice them lengthwise as well after cooking them and before assembling the lasagne. It's a bit unusual but it gives the dish a lovely rustic feel. If you prefer, however, you may simply cook the Italian sausages into crumbles by releasing them from their casing and sauteing them as though they were ground beef.

To those who are vegan or lactose intolerant, firstly... I offer my condolences and secondly, I say that tofu and soy cheese products serve admirably as a substitute here. I ate many a tofu lasagne as a young dancer. My choreographer insisted inflicting it on us when she made us her meals - it has a slightly chalky texture, but those of you who can't eat from things that moo are probably accustomed to it.

Be sure to preheat your oven while you are making the sauce and sauteing the eggplant.

Eggplant Lasagne

Note: No wheat products were harmed during the making of this dish. 
(I bet PETA can't make that claim!)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Make sure to place the oven rack in the middle of the oven before heating it.
This dish will serve 8-12 hungry conquistadors.
I know for a fact Christopher Columbus loved this dish! 


For The Eggplant:
  • 4 large eggplants, sliced length-wise to 1/3"-1/2" thickness, placed on paper towels.       (Be sure to season the eggplant slices to taste with salt and pepper and set them on paper towels to drain some of their moisture while you prepare the tomato sauce. The eggplant will taste sweeter that way.)
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil, enough for sauteing the eggplant, about 1 pint 
For The Pomodoro Sauce:

  • 4 Mild Italian Chicken Sausages
  • 4 Hot Italian Chicken Sausage
  • 1 Large Sweet Onion, sliced thinly
  • 4 large cloves of garlic, smashed & very finely minced
  • 3 750g containers of chopped "Italian" or Roma tomatoes, I use Pomi brand which has virtually no added sodium, but you may substitute any low sodium brand.
  • 2 Tbsp of Extra Virgin Olive Oil for sauteing the onions
  • 1/3 cup of red or white wine (It really doesn't matter which you use, we just need it to deglaze the pan, but do use wine that you would drink. Do NOT use cooking wine. That stuff is horrid & suitable only as a disinfectant)
  • Fresh Basil Leaves, about a handful, julienned (Do NOT use dried basil, it tastes like rancid seaweed)
  • Fresh Oregano, four sprigs, leaves stripped & chopped fine (1-1/2 teaspoons dried oregano may be substituted, it imparts a different flavor than fresh, but it is still quite pleasant)
  • Fresh Parsley, a very generous handful, both leaves & stems chopped fine
  • Salt & Freshly Cracked Pepper, to taste

For The Lasagne Filling:

  • 2 lbs. of Mozzarella, shredded
  • 1/2 cup of Parmigiano Reggiano, grated (plus more for the topping)
  • 1/2 teaspoon Fresh Grated Nutmeg, or 1/4 teaspoon powdered
  • 3 Large Eggs, lightly beaten
  • 3 lbs Ricotta


For the Pomodoro sauce:
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Farenheit (Or 190 degrees Celsius)
  2. Heat a large Dutch Oven over medium-high heat, when hot add a splash of olive oil and then add the Italian Sausages making sure not to overcrowd the pan. 
  3. Saute the sausages about 4 minutes on each side until golden brown. When sausages are browned, remove them & place them on a cutting board to rest. If there is excessive fat in the pan, using tongs, place a paper towel in the pan to soak up excess and discard soiled paper towel. Be sure to leave some fat in the pan.
  4. Lower heat to Medium. Add one TBSP of olive oil to pan & when shimmering, but not smoking, add the sliced onions, a pinch of salt, a few grinds of black pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions have softened (about 8-10 minutes)
  5. When onions have softened, add garlic and cook a minute longer. Then add wine, deglazing the pan by scraping up all the pan fond (the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. When wine is reduced by half, add the chopped tomatoes & then the sausages back to the pan with any accumulated juices.
  6. Add all of the oregano to the pan, half of the basil and half of parsley. Stirring well...  Reserving the rest of the herbs to add later, just before assembly of the lasagne. Now TASTE your sauce and adjust for seasonings. Does it need more pepper? More garlic? More herbs? Remember, a good cook tastes everything throughout the duration of the cooking process. Be careful about adding more salt. Salt can always be added, but never subtracted. So don't go crazy. Once you've adjusted your seasoning, set the heat to low, let the sauce simmer & prepare your eggplant.
For the Eggplant:
  1.   Place a large saute pan over medium. When pan is hot, add enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Then add the eggplant slices a few at a time, cooking them in batches about 2 minutes each side, until they soften & become golden brown, adding olive oil to the pan as necessary.
  2. Be sure to have plenty of paper towels on the counter next to the saute pan, so that you set the cooked eggplant slices down on them to drain excess oil . When all the eggplant are cooked, prepare your cheeses for the filling.

For the Cheese Filling:

  1. Place ricotta, parmigiano & eggs in a large mixing bowl and combine well.
  2. Add grated nutmeg, stirring in well, then season with salt & pepper to taste. (Once again, err on the side of caution when salting. Parmigiano adds quite a bit of sodium on its own. Taste, taste, taste...adding only miniscule amounts of seasoning at a time)
  3. Grate the mozzarella and place it in a bowl
  4. Now check your tomato sauce, turn it off the heat, remove the sausages, placing them on a cutting board and slice them lengthwise into thirds (yes, cut them into 3 slices), add the remaining reserved herbs to the dish, adjust the seasoning and prepare to assemble the dish.

Assembling the Lasagne:

  1.  Place your lasagne pan (or pans) on a larger foil-lined cookie sheet (for easy clean-up later. I guarantee that the sauce will bubble over and spill on the floor of your oven, if you don't. It's Murphy's Law... he's a cunning, nasty bastard. Don't tempt him)
  2. The assembly is simple. Start with a layer of sauce, then layer the eggplant allowing them to overlap slightly, then layer the ricotta mixture evenly over the eggplant, then layer the sausage, then sprinkle it all with mozzarella and repeat the process until the pan is full... The last layer of eggplant should receive a liberal dose of sauce, mozzarella and a final dusting of parmigiano.
  3. Place the lasagne in the preheated oven and bake for 45 minutes until it all looks and smells done to your liking. When ready, remove it from the oven & let it rest for 15 minutes before cutting into wedges and serving... Voila
  4. Mangia!

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