Sunday, March 28, 2010

Mushroom, Spinach, and "Chicken" Lasagna Alfredo

Like many vegans of my acquaintance, I get a certain masochistic charge from watching the Food Network. Seriously: between the over-the-top personalities (Paula Deen deep-fryin' butter, y'all!), bizarre schticks (Sandra Lee's Semi-Homemade? WTF is that?), scary bared teeth and fake boobs (ciao, Giadda!), and gratuitous screaming at the mere mention of pork products (the Neelys really need to dial it down; they must terrify their children), it can be hard to look away. One of my main beefs, however - you should pardon the expression - is how few of these people seem to actually cook, as opposed to simply combining a bunch of packaged stuff and calling it a "recipe."

Not to sound like Grampa Simpson, but in my day, ripping open a box of cake mix, throwing in a can of cherry pie filling, and dumping a handful of mini-marshmallows on top didn't necessarily merit your own TV show, dammit. There are a few exceptions to this rule (Alton Brown and Ina Garten come to mind), and the fact that almost everything they produce is soaked in the various effluvia of dead animals doesn't necessarily prevent a creative herbivore from exploiting them as a source of interesting, often highly veganizable ideas.

That being the case, today's recipe comes to you courtesy of the last of the above-mentioned triumvirate, a man who actually annoys the living crap out of me, but he does know how to do more than operate a can opener, so that's something, right? One day, idly channel-surfing while home sick with a nasty cold, I came upon (the pretty damn annoying) Emeril Lagasse making this lasagna and thought, "Hey, that looks pretty good, and I haven't tried that Gardein stuff yet!"

A few weeks went by, my spring break arrived, and the time seemed right to give it a whirl. Since this was my first experience with Gardein products (which have been getting a lot of buzz in vegan circles), and I'm not generally a big fan of meat analogues, I was excited and trepidatious in equal measure. It was also the first time I'd used those "oven-ready" lasagna sheets that don't have to be boiled first, so there was, as the Neelys might put it, "all kinds of (non-pork related) craziness going on in my kitchen, baby!"

Additionally, since the original recipe called for all kinds of cheese, cream, and an entire stick of butter, I was faced with the task of creating that Alfredo-like "richness" without courting a major cardiac event; after a little thought, I hit on raw cashews, which are nothing short of miraculous for creating thick, creamy textures. This proved a stroke of genius - once I'd pureed the nuts, sauteed the veggies in some margarine, and added a few handfuls of fake mozzarella, the finished product bore little resemblance to the virtuous, groats and berries "health food" upon which vegans are often imagined to subsist, yet still boasted a whole bunch of vegetables, and a fraction of the fat, calories, and overall grossness of the original.

As for the Gardein, while it did add a certain "chickeny" something, this dish would be every bit as good without it, so go ahead and make it even if you don't have access to trendy fake meat. (In fact, my partner always makes it with just the veggies, and it's a huge hit around here.) Do be forewarned that this makes a lot, and is exceptionally filling, so unless you're feeding an army you will have leftovers; then again, what's wrong with that? If you make a pan on the weekend, you could easily feed off it for a few busy weekdays without ever turning on the stove, which is always a fine thing. (Or, as Emeril would say: BAM!)

Mushroom, Spinach, and "Chicken" Lasagna Alfredo
The Sauce
~ 1 cup raw cashews
~ 3 cups vegan "chicken" broth
~ 2 tbsp. Earth Balance, or other vegan margarine
~ 1 lb. mushrooms, sliced (I used a combination of crimini and shiitake)
~ 2 cups yellow onion, finely chopped
~ 3 tbsp. garlic, minced
~ 1 tsp. kosher salt
~ 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
~ 1 cup fresh basil, chopped
~ 2 tsp. paprika
~ 1/2 tsp. each: garlic powder, onion powder, oregano, thyme

~ 1/4 teaspoon each: nutmeg, cayenne
~ Freshly ground black pepper
~ 4 cups plain, unsweetened soy milk
~ 1 pound baby spinach, roughly chopped

~ Preheat the oven to 375 degrees fahrenheit.
~ In a beaker, combine the vegetable broth and the raw cashews and microwave for 3-4 minutes, until boiling. Set aside to soak for at least 30 minutes (the longer, the better).
~ In a deep pot, melt the margarine over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring often until the mushrooms are browned and most of the liquid has evaporated, about 5 to 7 minutes.
~ Add the onions, garlic, and seasonings to the pan; sauté for about 5 minutes, until the onions are soft and translucent.
~ Add the flour and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, to make a light roux, about 1-2 minutes.
~ In a food processor, combine the raw cashews and vegetable broth and puree until smooth.
~ Whisking constantly, slowly add the cashew/broth puree and soy milk and continue to cook, stirring occasionally until thickened, 5 minutes.
~ Stir in the spinach and fresh basil, and stir to combine. Cook another 5 minutes, until the greens wilt.
~ Remove from heat and set aside.

The "Chicken" (if using; otherwise skip to the next bit)
~ Cooking spray
~ 2 7 oz. packages Gardein chick'n breasts, cubed
~ Salt, pepper, tarragon

~ Sprinkle the Gardein cubes with some salt, pepper and a little tarragon.
~ Coat a skillet with the cooking spray and sauté the seasoned cubes over medium heat until browned, about 5-7 minutes.
~ Remove from heat and set aside.

~ 1 lb. oven-ready lasagna sheets
~ 2 cups grated vegan mozzarella (I use Daiya or TJ's)
~ 1 tbsp. EB, cut into small pieces
~ About 1/2 tsp. each: dried parsley, paprika (for garnish)

The Assembly
~ Coat a 9 x 13" casserole with cooking spray, and spread about 1/2 cup of the sauce on the bottom of the dish; reserve and set aside another cup or so of the sauce.
~ Add the "chicken" to the remaining sauce and combine thoroughly.
~ Lay overlapping sheets of the pasta across the bottom of the dish to cover, then spread 1/3 of the sauce over the pasta. make another layer of pasta, another layer of sauce, and repeat, ending with a pasta layer.
~ Pour the reserved sauce over the top layer of pasta, sprinkle with the mozzarella, and scatter the margarine pieces over the whole business.
~ Sprinkle with the parsley and paprika.
~ Place the casserole on a baking sheet and cook, uncovered, until bubbly and well browned, about 45 minutes (keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn't burn; if you prefer, you could cover the casserole with foil for the first 20 minutes, then remove it to crisp things up).
~ Remove from the oven and allow to cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.
Note: You may need slightly less than the entire package of lasagna noodles, depending on the pan used for the casserole. Also, you may be able to fit more than 3 pieces of pasta in each layer, depending. The pasta can be broken into smaller pieces to fill in the gaps.


  1. Made this with the kids tonight. Delicious! If you're serving it to people who don't like spicy food, you could cut the cayenne in half. Also, the top layer was quite crispy: with this amount of sauce, you could eliminate a pasta layer. Or, how about just tossing it with noodles and baking that? Yum!

  2. Your blog is not only delicious but absolutely hilarious! I just love reading it and your recipes are sublime. Thanks for a really great job.