This recipe was many iterations in the making in the CWB kitchen. I tried a version of it that ended up too “crunchy” with slightly under-cooked zucchini, and one with vegan cheese (the cashew cream from this recipe minus the fresh herbs). I’ve seen many versions of it online, most of them stuffed with what I consider to be WAY too much cheese (some had up to 4 cups of mozzarella + even more ricotta!). While I bet those recipes are delicious, I just can’t justify eating that much cheese in one meal.
Not only is all that lactose and casein hard on the bowels, we can’t forget that lactose is a sugar. Whether dairy challenges your digestion or not, cheese — and especially soft cheese like mozzarella and ricotta — is mostly sugar and fat. We often consider cheese a source of protein — which it is — but it’s not necessarily an ideal source if you’re working on minimizing your sugar intake or watching your waistline. As delicious as it is, cheese isn’t something we should over-consume, no matter what lifestyle plan we’re following.
The Perfect Balance
In my quest for a perfect zucchini lasagna, I wanted something that was cheesy, but not too cheesy. I chose to feature goat cheese because it’s easier to digest than most cow cheeses. I also chose parmesan as the topper because hard, dry cheeses have less sugar and less fat than the softer varieties. And parmesan provides a delicious, classic Italian flavor to a modified yet still classic dish.
My goal was to create a dish just filling enough — I wanted it to be satisfying, but to stop short of the overstuffed, pants-unbuttoning feeling we sometimes get from lasagna or other cheesy Italian dishes. And I wanted to avoid a greasy mess. Nothing is more unappetizing to me than seeing orange oil ooze out of my food. (Ok, I can think of more unappetizing things, but that one is up high on the list.) I found my balance by creating a light tomato and lamb ragu packed with spinach and aromatic herbs, skipping the pasta, and going light on the cheese.
One Important Extra Step
Most recipes I checked out online simply layered the raw zucchini in the baking dish between the sauce and the cheese. I see two problems with this strategy. First, when I tried that, I ended up with some unwanted crunch in the final product, which I wasn’t happy about. Likely I just didn’t cook it long enough, but we were too hungry to wait any longer, and when I reheated it in the oven the next day, it was still crunchy. Second, zucchini is a very watery vegetable. When you cook it, the water leeches out, so you could/will likely end up with a soupy mess that falls apart when you cut it if you simply throw the slices in raw.
I avoided both of these potential snags by doing a quick roast of the zucchini before putting together the layers. The explanation about how to do it is included in the recipe below. Another option is to salt the zucchini and let the water leach out of the raw strips before baking, but I’ve found that you run the risk of making the final product too salty, plus it takes almost as long to do that as it does to put them in the oven. I had mine roasting while I made the sauce, so the only extra time it took was the time to wash the cookie sheets I used to roast them. Ultimately, it’s up to you. You can skip the roasting step and see what happens, or you can do the quick roast and add that much more flavor into the dish.
One more thing…
When I sent Loren to the store with a grocery list that included “goat cheese,” he came back with honey goat cheese. At first, I thought about running down the street to get what I’d really wanted, but then I just decided to try it with the honey. Equal parts curiosity and laziness yielded the sweet addition to this recipe. It’s actually really good and not too sweet at all! Makes for a unique version of this popular variation on lasagna. Just enough to give the dish something extra. (Way to go Loren!)
It’s up to you if you want to use it or just go for standard goat cheese, just giving you full disclosure on how it came to be in this recipe.
- 4 zucchini
- 1 lb ground lamb
- 1/2 large red onion, diced
- 4 cloves fresh garlic, minced or pressed (set aside for 10 minutes before adding to the fire)
- 2 big fists full of baby spinach
- 1 small red bell pepper, diced
- 4 green onions, sliced
- 2 cups strained tomatoes (CWB Favorite Pick)
- 1 tsp white wine vinegar
- 3 to 4 sprigs each of fresh rosemary, thyme, oregano, tarragon (or whatever fresh spices you have on hand) - using twine, bind them together so that they will be easy to fish out later
- 2 tsp salt + more for sprinkling
- 1 tsp lemon pepper
- 1 tbs EVOO + more from a Misto for spraying (CWB Favorite Pick)
- 1 small tube honey goat cheese** (CWB Favorite Pick)
- 1/2 cup grated fresh parmesan
- Preheat oven to 375
- Using a mandolin, slice zucchini long-ways to create long, thin strips (like noodles)
- With a Misto sprayer, spray a layer of EVOO on two large cookie sheets
- Place a single layer of zucchini on each cookie sheet, spray again with EVOO
- Sprinkle lightly with salt and squeeze the juice from 1/4 a lemon on each pan of slices
- Bake for 7 to 10 minutes
- While that's baking, start browning the ground lamb in a hot skillet
- Allow to cook all the way through, breaking it up so that it remains loose as it cooks and the water can steam off with some of the fat
- Once the lamb is totally browned, add in red onion, red bell pepper, green onion, spinach, and garlic
- Allow flavors to marry for about 5 minutes before adding in strained tomatoes and vinegar
- Place fresh herb bundle in the center of the pan and cover entirely with sauce
- Cover pan and cook on medium for about 15 minutes
- While that's cooking, place the first layer of roasted zucchini in a baking dish and get the rest of the raw zucchini in the oven on the cookie sheets
- Stir the sauce to better incorporate herbs, then remove and discard the herb bundle
- Add 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp lemon pepper, and 1 tbs EVOO, and turn off the fire
- Divide the meat sauce in half in the pan
- Place the first half on top of the first layer of zucchini, then add the next layer of zucchini followed by meat sauce again
- Then spoon out half of the tube of goat cheese in chunks across the second layer of meat sauce and add the rest of the zucchini on top of that
- Now one final layer of the other half of the goat cheese and shredded parmesan on top of that
- Bake at 400 for 15 to 20 minutes or until the cheese is slightly browned
- Allow to rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving
- Use a sharp knife to cut
- **You don't have to use honey goat cheese if you can't find it. Regular works great too.
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