If you knew me, it wouldn't surprise you that I don't measure my ingredients. To me, the kitchen is a culinary canvas and I paint with food, herbs and spices -- every creation is different. Even this lasagna recipe is simply a possible version of what I might make and whatever I make next time will surely be a bit different than this one. I don't measure and I often embellish with fresh ingredients from the farmer's market (or whatever I find in the fridge).
So be creative. Try adding zucchini slices or jalapenos or whatever strikes your fancy. This particular recipe is a bit sentimental for me. In 2006, I underwent ACL/knee reconstruction and had a serious reaction to the anesthesia. As a result, I was no longer able to tolerate dairy products of any kind. For years, I avoided dairy-free cheese alternatives because they were mostly terrible. But in recent years, an increasing number of manufacturers have begun producing very tasty cheese substitutes, including cheese cubes, sauces (like Alfredo), butters, sour cream, cream cheese --- all dairy free. So when I found some of the manufacturers listed in the recipe below I started to piece together my initial attempt at a dairy free lasagna and I remember feeling so fulfilled eating something that I hadn't tasted in YEARS - it was like a warm hug from an old friend.
The manufacturers have continued to produce better and better alternatives and finally, the lasagna is so good that most dairy lovers would have difficulty believing that this one is dairy-free. Seriously, try it yourself and tell me what you think!
Now, I will admit, dairy free cheese alternatives will still not be quite as creamy and delicious as the real thing -- but if you know someone who is dairy intolerant, then procuring the right alternatives is critical. In my most recent version (see picture), I actually used 4 different types of store-bought dairy-free cheese along with 1 homemade version of ricotta (my own recipe -- you'll be the first to receive it!).
One of the questions you'll surely have is "where can I buy these ingredients"? And it's a good question! Not every store carries all of these ingredients -- and some of them are VERY important (like the Miyoko's Mozzarella which I think is a deal-breaker. If I can't find it, I don't make this recipe). And the quick answer is that most dairy free adults probably already know where to find dairy free cheeses/ingredients -- so you should go there! But if you're trying to make it for somebody else, or you’re not accustomed to shopping for these alternative ingredients, I recommend starting at one of your local Coop Grocery stores like Valley Natural Foods in Burnsville or Lakewinds in Richfield. There are a list of all food coops online that would also be a great starting point. Whole Foods is also a good option -- I found the Lasagna noodles there when my local coop was out of stock.
As a side note, my wife is also sensitive to gluten (not allergic, but we try avoiding it whenever possible) - so this recipe uses lasagna noodles made from almond flour (see recipe) - which not only tastes AMAZING -- but it is also ready-for-the-oven immediately (no precooking needed) - which means that this entire recipe can be made without any pre-cooking whatsoever!
Before I get to the recipe, let me tell you a little bit about my ricotta substitute. Note, if you'd like, Kite Hill (another great dairy alternative manufacturer) has diary free ricotta and it's really good - but it's also very expensive (~$7 per container, and you'd need 2-3 containers for the big dish I use). At some point, though, my creativity kicked in and I decided to dabble with my own recipe. Believe it or not, the hardest part is the white, pillowy texture of ricotta. It takes up a lot of space, but is generally less tasteful than many other cheeses. I discovered that, with a few key ingredients, I could emulate the taste of cheese (like Au Gratin Potatoes, which could be my next recipe?) but the texture is harder. Thankfully, my daughter loves tofu -- and we have become very accustomed to cooking it in our kitchen - so I start with Tofu to get the white pillowy texture as the base for my ricotta. For those that haven't eaten tofu, straight up, I can tell you that it isn't full of taste. It's more of a filler - often used to add protein to a meal where meats are avoided (popular for vegan cooking) or in numerous Asian recipes. If you find tofu in a restaurant, it will almost certainly be accompanied by a sauce, soup, dip, deep-fried, or complemented by some other flavor -- and that flavor is the thing that you would like.
So, I used that concept, and added in cheese-like flavors. One of the most common "funky" ingredients you can add to a dish to emulate the "funky" cheese smell/taste is Nutritional Yeast Flakes. If you haven't heard of it, Nutritional Yeast is not your Grandma's yeast used to make high-rising white bread loaves on Thanksgiving. It's a dry, flaky, funky-tasting food product that is extremely high in protein (so a great thing for Vegans), easy to work with and relatively available (especially in Coop Grocers). When added to the Tofu and then mixed with some Italian herbs/spices -- like Oregano, Thyme, Parsley and Basil (among others -- be creative!) -- I discovered that I could not only emulate Ricotta, but I could bolster the taste profile of that 'layer' with loads of other flavors!
My moral of this story? Be creative. Feel free to embellish. If the flavor sounds good to you, then add a little bit and play it out. Cooking can be incredibly rewarding and meditative when you remove the shackles of a written recipe - so have fun!
Remember that the ratios and amounts below are estimated. I don't measure much of anything. Thankfully, many of the ingredients I use are easy to estimate due the packaging, so where you see reference to "oz" or "packages" - it's probably pretty accurate. The rest (like the onions and mushrooms) are a guess. Use your own judgment!
- 1 package of Capello's Almond Flour lasagna noodles
- 36 oz (1.5 bottles) of your favorite marinara sauce (I like Newman's Own as it is typically dairy free); you can also use cans of tomato sauce and then just embellish with the types of spices you'd typically find in a marinara, like Oregano, Thyme, Parsley, Basil, Onions, mushrooms, etc.
- 1 medium-large yellow/sweet onion, diced
- 1 bunch of green onions (scallions) - trimmed and chopped into smaller pieces
- (opt) 1-2 cups of slices mushrooms or 1-2 zucchinis, thinly sliced
- (opt) 1 lb of meat or meat substitute - we use 3 Beyond Brats, but you could use ground beef, turkey, chicken or you could avoid this ingredient entirely.
- 4 oz of Follow-Your-Heart Parmesan Cheese (or more, if you really like the taste of Parmesan, like me)
- 7 oz (or more) of Shredded Dairy-Free Mozzarella (Daiya, Follow-your-Heart, So Delicious, Miyoko's -- there are MANY options here and any of them will work well -- in my recipe I used two different types of shredded mozzarella because I happened to have them on-hand, but you don't need to be quite so elaborate!)
- 8 oz "wheel" of Miyoko's Mozzarella (this is one of the important ingredients due to it's intense flavor)
My "homemade ricotta cheese alternative"
- 12-16 oz (1 package) of Tofu (any firmness and any brand will do, although, I typically use a firmer texture and organic)
- 3-5 cloves of garlic, minced (you could use 1/2 TB of garlic powder if you don't have fresh garlic)
- 1-2 TB of Nutritional Yeast Flakes
- 1 egg (optional, but it helps hold it all together)
- 1 tsp of Garlic Salt
- 2 TB of parsley (dried or fresh)
- 1 tsp of oregano
- 1 TB of dried basil (or a nice bunch of minced fresh basil!) -- note: it's very difficult to add too much basil, so if you like the flavor, feel free to double this amount!
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees
- Prepare the Ricotta (or buy the Kite Hill prepared ricotta, and skip this step) by mixing those ingredients together and setting aside.
- Open the Miyoko's Mozz Cheese wheel carefully and (possibly using a serrated/bread knife) try to cut the wheel into long thin slices by laying the wheel flat and the starting on one side (say, the right side), cutting off the right most edge and then moving from right to left with each slice. The cheese will cut easier if it is COLD (not frozen) and you'll need to keep the slices about 1/8" thick. if you go any thinner they will crumble and be hard to pick up and use as a layer in your lasagna.
- Using a baking dish (mine was ~16x12, but you could use a smaller dish and stack it higher or a larger dish with less layers or even use two smaller dishes and split the recipe up!) --- spread a thin layer of Marinara sauce on the bottom and up the sides of the dish. This isn't for flavor - you don't need much - it is simply to help keep the noodles from sticking. My estimate? 1/4c of the sauce should do it.
- LAYER 1
- Add first layer of noodles (not overlapping); tear the noodles so they fit well across the bottom of the dish.
- Add 1/3 of the ricotta by gently scooping spoonful’s onto the noodles and then using a spatula or the back of a big serving spoon to carefully spread the mixture out across the noodles. You don't need to add too much -- it won't cover the entire noodles/surface, but that's OK. Just spread it to the best of your ability and move on. This isn't a beauty contest.
- Add 1/3 of the Parmesan cheese (sprinkle it about)
- Add 1/2 of the shredded mozzarella cheese (not the Miyoka's cheese wheel)
- Add your meat and/or mushrooms if you want to include them.
- Add 1/3 of the diced yellow onions and green onions (sprinkle them as evenly as possible)
- Add ~1.5 cups (1/2 of a 24 oz bottle) of marinara sauce on top of the ricotta/parm/mozz layer by dropping spoonful’s in a checkboard like pattern. You're not trying to get full coverage - you just want an infusion of sauce spread evenly across the layer.
- LAYER 2 and LAYER 3
- These layers are the same as above, but LAYER 2 has the Miyoko's mozzarella slices that you prepared above instead of the remaining shredded mozzarella. And LAYER 3 uses up the remaining shredded mozzarella. When spreading out the MOZZ slices on Layer 2 - aim for that checkerboard type pattern again - you don't need full coverage.
- LAYER 2 is also the layer where I like to add in the sliced mushrooms or zucchini, if you've elected to include those in your recipe.
- KEEP GOING TO THE LAST LAYER
- My layering typically runs out after the 3rd layer of noodles, but depending on your pan, you might have more or less layers. That's fine. Adjust your portions accordingly and whatever is left, put it on top. I like to finish with a nice dabbling of marinara and whatever cheeses I might have left (hopefully some MOZZ shreds and/or Parmesan.
- Place the lasagna in the preheated oven for 30 minutes (you should see the lasagna bubbling) or better yet, use a thermometer and wait until the center is at least 200 degrees (at 180 degrees, water boils, and we want the center hot enough to melt all the 'cheeses')
- Remove from the oven when complete and let the lasagna cool for 10-15 minutes before serving. This cooling period will save your mouth from cheese burns, but it will also give the lasagna time to 'set' and meld the flavors.
Consider serving with Garlic Bread (we use dairy free Miyoko's butter along with a sprinkle of garlic salt on whatever breads we have around -- but ideally, some sort of French Bread or baguette works best).
Let me know if you enjoyed the recipe and what changes you made to it!