Cooking Together

‘Cooking Together’: Vegan Lasagna With Tofu, Brown Lentils, Mushrooms and Homemade Marinara Sauce

By Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff 

Most New Year’s resolutions are made around food consumption, since we all spend many hours purchasing, preparing and/or working for food. Our health depends on consumption of good food, so we all want to have good food habits. However, many New Year’s resolutions are focused on what not to eat. 

This column gives a positive spin on eating and cooking! In this recipe, I show you how to change a popular dish of lasagna – which is normally made with not-so healthy amounts of cheese and/or meat – into a dish that is prepared with plant- based proteins. The vegan version is also very attractive and delicious! 

I prepare food for a lot of vegan folks who do not consume animal products for various reasons, such as to be healthier or to help the environment or to respect animals’ rights to live. Then there are those people who cannot tolerate dairy or cheese. So, I have to come up with ingredients and options that are suitable for these diets. 

Sometimes, this is challenging as the cheese and/or eggs create a nice texture necessary for some casserole dishes. The alternative vegan “cheeses” are often not tasty and they are expensive. Here I creatively combined various healthy layers to make a vegan lasagna that is both tasty, nourishing and budget friendly.   

This lasagna is prepared with tiers of marinara sauce, lasagna noodles, cooked lentils sauteed with mushrooms, and tofu; all of which are nutritious. Combined together, these ingredients give the dish a lofty texture without cheese. The secret of making this dish tasty is the homemade marinara sauce. So, first make the sauce, which can be prepared days ahead of time before baking the lasagna.    

Ingredients for sauce

4 pounds fresh ripe tomatoes or 32 ounces of canned tomato chunks
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup onion, finely chopped
1⁄4 cup bell pepper (any color), finely chopped 
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon each fresh, minced oregano and basil leaves, or 1⁄2 teaspoon each dried, crumbled oregano and basil leaves 
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley leaves 
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon honey or sugar
1⁄2 cup red wine or vinegar 

If you are making Marinara sauce in the summer, use fresh Roma or heirloom tomatoes. If fresh tomatoes are not season, use organic canned tomatoes. To make the sauce from fresh tomatoes, boil them in a large pot of water for a few minutes until their skins split. Transfer them to a bowl of cold water. When cool enough to handle, remove the skins. Place the tomatoes on a cutting board and chop them into chunks. Set aside. If using canned tomatoes, set them in a bowl with its juices.

Next, in a large saucepan, heat the oil and add the onion. Sauté the onion for a few minutes until soft. Add the bell pepper and stir-fry for a few minutes. Then add the garlic and sauté for a minute. Finally, add the tomatoes, the herbs, parsley, salt and pepper and stir to mix. Add the sweetener and wine or vinegar. Cook for 25 to 30 minutes, stirring from time to time as the sauce thickens. Set the sauce aside. If planning to use the sauce much later, cool it to room temperature and refrigerate. The sauce keeps for up to a week, if refrigerated. While the sauce is cooking, boil the lentils to make lentil/mushroom filling using the ingredients listed below. Also, sauté the tofu to dry it out until it turns into small dry crumbs.  

Ingredients for lentil/mushroom layer:

1 cup of brown lentils
10 to 12 button white or crimini mushrooms, about 1 ½ cups when sliced
½ cup marinara sauce (made from the recipe above)

Boil 4 to 5 cups of water in a pot and add brown lentils. Boil them for 20 minutes to cook them thoroughly, but not too soft so that they are falling apart. When finished cooking, drain them completely. Heat ½ cup of tomato sauce in a skillet. Add the drained lentils and mushrooms and sauté them together for 3 minutes.  Then transfer the mixture to a platter and set it aside.  Next, make the tofu layer.

Ingredients For Tofu layer:

1 tablespoon oil
2 cups of firm tofu broken into small pieces

First drain some of the liquid out of tofu pieces by pressing them onto a sieve.  Then break the pieces into small crumbs.  Heat a tablespoon of oil in a skillet and sauté tofu crumbs while breaking them. Stir fry tofu pieces for a few minutes to dry them out, but don’t allow it to brown.  Set the dried tofu crumbs aside.  Before starting the last step of preparation of boiling the noodles, preheat the oven at 350 degrees.

Ingredients for Lasagna noodles

6 to 8 cups of water
½ teaspoon salt 
8 to 10 sheets of lasagna noodles

Boil the water in a large pot with salt. Add the lasagna noodles when it comes to a complete boil. While the noodles are boiling, turn them with thongs to make sure they don’t stick to each other. Cook them for 10 to 12 minutes, or as directed on the package. When soft enough (but not falling apart), stop cooking. Drain the noodles using a large colander and sprinkle some cold water to prevent them from continuing to cook. Set them aside. (You can separate them into single sheets and spread them onto a towel while getting ready to assemble the lasagna.) 

Ingredients for lasagna casserole:                                                                                                          

4 cups, or more as needed, Italian-style tomato sauce 
2 cups of crumbled tofu 
3 to 4 cups lentil/mushroom mix
8 to 10 cooked lasagna noodles
3 to 4 tablespoons of roasted cashews crushed into a nutmeal to use as garnish (optional) 
Finely chopped fresh parsley leaves for garnish 

Prepare the optional cashew garnish by crushing the nuts coarsely using a rolling pin.  Set the garnishes aside. 
Line a 9×13-inch casserole dish (or a pan approximately that size) with ½ cup tomato sauce, spreading it evenly.  Arrange a few noodles in a single layer to cover the sauce. Sprinkle a cup of tofu crumbs and a cup of lentil/mushroom mixture. Then spread a cup of tomato sauce all over, making sure to cover the corners.  Repeat the process once or twice as ingredients and the size of your pan allows. Top the casserole with additional tomato sauce, making sure to cover it completely with the sauce. Cover the casserole dish and bake for 45 minutes or until the lasagna is set.  Uncover and bake for additional few minutes.  Then take the lasagna out of oven. Sprinkle the garnishes right before serving or offer them in separate bowls to be passed on the dining table. If serving later, you can reheat the lasagna in a hot oven at 300 degrees for a few minutes, after spreading few tablespoons of sauce all over the top.  

Photo by Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff.

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Recipes by Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff copyright 2023. Shanta is a Sunset District resident and the author of “Cooking Together” and “Flavors of India,” both available at Other Avenues Food Store on 3930 Judah St. Shanta writes recipes and articles on food and nutrition. She also teaches vegetarian and vegan cooking classes and shares recipes via videos on YouTube. 

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