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Spinach and Roasted Red Pepper Lasagna

Homemade lasagna always draws raves, particularly this layering of garlic-infused spinach, sweet roasted bell peppers and creamy cheeses. While vegetarians feast, meat eaters will barely notice that the dish is meatless. This recipe lets you skip the step of boiling the lasagna noodles, while letting you use the real thing, rather than the thin, precooked kind. The secret is using lots of moist sauce that cooks the noodles while the lasagna bakes. 

Ingredients:

For the spicy tomato sauce: 

  • 1 tsp. freshly ground white or black pepper 
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg 
  • 1/4 tsp. ground ginger 
  • 1/8 tsp. ground cloves 
  • 2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil 
  • 1 1/2 cups finely chopped yellow onion  
  • 1 garlic clove, minced 
  • 1 can (28 oz.) whole plum tomatoes with juice  
  • 1 can (28 oz.) chopped tomatoes with juice  
  • 2 cups tomato sauce  
  •   
  • 4 lb. fresh spinach, or 2 lb. frozen chopped spinach 
  • 1 lb. soft tofu 
  • 2 cups part-skim ricotta cheese 
  • 2 egg whites 
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese 
  • 1 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese 
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt  
  • 1/4 tsp. freshly ground pepper 
  • 9 lasagna noodles 
  • 3 large red bell peppers, roasted and seeded (see related tip at left)
  • 2 large garlic cloves, minced 

Directions:

To make the spicy tomato sauce, in a small bowl, stir together the pepper, nutmeg, ginger and cloves. Set aside.

In a large Dutch oven or other deep, heavy pot over medium-high heat, warm the olive oil. Add the onion and sauté until beginning to soften, about 4 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook the onion until it releases its juices, about 5 minutes. Stir in the minced garlic. Add the plum tomatoes and their juice. Using a wooden spoon, break up the tomatoes into 1-inch chunks. Add the chopped tomatoes and their juice and the tomato sauce, and then stir in the spice mixture. Raise the heat to medium-high and bring the sauce to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, until the sauce has the thickness of tomato puree, 15 to 20 minutes.

Remove the sauce from the heat and use immediately, or let cool, cover and refrigerate for up to 1 week or freeze for up to 2 months. Makes about 3 quarts. You need 8 cups for this recipe; reserve the rest for another use.

If using fresh spinach, rinse it carefully in 2 or 3 changes of water, discarding the tough stems and any damaged leaves. Drain briefly in a colander and then, working in batches if necessary, transfer to a large saucepan with only the water that clings to the leaves. Place over medium-high heat, cover and cook, turning the leaves a couple of times, until wilted and still slightly firm to the bite, 5 to 6 minutes. Drain well and chop finely. Squeeze the spinach with your hands to remove most of the moisture. If using frozen spinach, cook according to the package directions, let cool and squeeze out any excess moisture.

Cut the tofu into about 16 pieces. Hold each piece in your hand over the sink or a bowl and gently squeeze to remove some of the water. Crumble the tofu into a large bowl; it should resemble cottage cheese. Add the ricotta and egg whites and stir until well combined. Stir in the Parmigiano-Reggiano and 1/2 cup of the mozzarella, then stir in the salt and pepper.

Preheat an oven to 350°F.

To assemble the lasagna, cover the bottom of a 9-by-13-by-3-inch baking dish with 4 cups of the tomato sauce. Arrange 3 of the noodles on top of the sauce. Cover the noodles with half of the roasted bell peppers, cutting them as needed to lay flat. There will be spaces. Cover the peppers with half of the spinach, using your fingers to pull apart any clumps. Sprinkle half of the minced garlic evenly over the spinach. Using a large spoon, dollop half of the cheese mixture on top of the spinach. With the back of the spoon, gently spread the cheese as much as possible without pulling up the spinach. There will be some spaces. Top with another layer of the noodles, and then the remaining peppers, spinach, garlic and cheese mixture. Cover with the remaining 3 noodles. Spread the remaining 4 cups tomato sauce over the top. Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil.

Bake until the pasta is almost soft when tested with a knife, about 1 1/4 hours. Uncover the lasagna. Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup mozzarella evenly over the top. Replace the foil. Continue to bake until the pasta is soft and the cheese on top is melted, about 15 minutes more.

Remove from the oven, uncover and let the lasagna rest for 20 minutes. Cut into rectangles and serve. Serves 8 to 10.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma, Essentials of Healthful Cooking, by Mary Abbott Hess, Dana Jacobi & Marie Simmons (Oxmoor House, 2003).