24 May 2009

Mexican Lasagna

Lasagna. Gooey, brick-thick, brightly striped with oozing cheese and succulent ground meat. Everyone loves lasagna for the same reasons that make it a healthy vegetarian's nightmare. When I was twenty I began teaching myself to cook, and one of the first things I attempted was vegetarian lasagna. At the time I was renting a room in a house, and I was allotted one half of one shelf of the refrigerator plus two hours of kitchen time per week. Lasagna seemed perfect for that sort of situation: quick, filling, and rectangular.

The first incarnation of a long series of vegetarian lasagna failures was tofu-garlic lasagna with whole wheat noodles. At that time I did not know how to drain tofu and my first few lasagnas were watery and bland. The recipe writer's idea was that people wouldn't realize that one layer has less cheese in it if you mix the cheese with something flavorful and substantial like tofu and raw garlic. People realize. I realized. It was pretty gross. But I ate it anyway—I was 20.

I also put too much sauce in. I would just pour it over the noodles for each layer, and even after the tofu was banished I would end up with lasagna soup. Some angelic individual (whom I have forgotten) taught me to space out spoonfuls of sauce and then smear the excess over bare spots. Lately some eaters have been telling me I don't have enough sauce. But they're still eating it, and I don't have to pick up a hot 9 x 13 and drain lasagna soup into the sink.

Once the tofu and garlic were exiled, the lasagna levels from the bottom up were:
noodle, sauce, kidney beans, cheese,
noodle, sauce, steamed vegetable, cheese,
noodle, sauce, cheese.

Unfortunately the kidney beans slipped out and lay around on the plate imitating baby cockroaches. If I mashed them a little bit first they stayed in better, but that meant more work. I tried to glue them in with cheese but then there was too much cheese to consider this anything but unhealthy. These lasagnas were of course delicious. People would vacuum up an entire lasagna in one meal.

I had gotten the hang of not breaking my whole wheat noodles while they boiled,and in fact no one ever noticed that they were whole wheat. But after I read an article in Vegetarian Times magazine about using tortillas instead of noodles for the lasagna, I never bought lasagna noodles again. Tortillas are so much faster, and I am so lazy and impatient. I use corn tortillas, which makes my lasagna gluten-free. The trick is to cut the tortillas in half so you can put a straight edge against the side of the baking dish. The tortillas can overlap or not, it totally doesn't matter.

My latest substitution was refried vegetarian beans for kidney beans. Refried beans are saltier, but they give you the gooey stickiness and heft you need if you want less cheese. Because I was using corn tortillas and refried beans, I switched from pasta sauce to enchilada sauce because hey, why not go all the way Mexican? I won't lie; my latest lasagna tasted a lot like enchiladas. But what's wrong with that? Olé!

Sarah's Mexican Lasagna

Lasagna layers, bottom to top:
corn tortillas, enchilada sauce, refried beans, partly steamed broccoli pieces,
corn tortillas, enchilada sauce, refried beans, partly steamed zucchini slices,
corn tortillas, enchilada sauce, a thick layer of shredded "Mexican" cheeses.

Preheat the oven to 375. Layer everything in a 9x13 glass baking dish. Cook about 40 minutes until cheese is bubbling and browning on top. Serve without apology.

Feedback So Far
Julia: It's delicious!
Doug: It's worth the wait.
George: It's not bad. It's fine.
Lizzie: It's a success!
Me: It's a little too salty.

UPDATE: They liked it better a year later with sides/toppings of sliced fresh avocado, chopped cilantro, and Frank's Red Hot sauce.

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