So there I am in the Sprouts on Conduit of Blight Blvd, where I stopped off early this morning to pick up a few items I’d forgotten yesterday whilst shopping at AJs, the world’s most expensive high-falutin’ grocery store. While I was wandering around in there, what should I find to my delight but a display of perfect, radiant, photo-ready eggplants.
Hot dang! Eggplant lasagna, said I to my Self. The stuff will supply several meals, and these eggplants are too gorgeous to pass by. Not feeling inclined to buy two (a lifetime supply for one person), I picked up a zucchini to supplement it.
And hence to the kitchen, to cook up an impromptu dish of fake lasagna, something that tastes much like the real thing but is actually…you know…good for you.
We’re starting with my mother’s plain old Yankee spaghetti sauce: probably came from a recipe in a newspaper or a magazine.
My mother was considered a good cook in her day…friends loved to be invited to our house for breakfast or dinner. Good housewives mined Lady’s Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, McCall’s, and the women’s section of the daily paper for recipes. She had quite a collection. Truth to tell, though, she wasn’t crazy about cooking as a craft or as some kind of art. To her mind, cooking was drudgery, much like scrubbing the floors and hauling the laundry out to the clothesline. Soon as we got back to the United States and she discovered “convenience” foods (which didn’t exist in Aramco’s company commissary), we had TV dinners two or three nights a week.
As a young adult, I learned to cook, as did most of my friends, from Julia Child. But still…there are some things you don’t forget. This is decidedly not a Julia Child sauce!
In any event, it would never have entered my mother’s mind to make lasagna with eggplant.
Alas, I did forget to buy ricotta at the Sprouts, and there was no way I was about to traipse back out in the traffic to get it. Or cottage cheese, which was my mother’s answer to ricotta (which no one ever heard of in 1955). Decided to substitute Greek yogurt, which I did indeed have in the fridge: another something my mother never heard of. Greek yogurt, that is; not the fridge.
Nor had she ever heard of fines herbes or herbes de Provence. The main herbs women of her time had were thyme, rosemary, marjoram, sage, oregano, and bay leaves. And dried parsley. I never saw fresh parsley until I was in graduate school. “Garlic” would have meant garlic powder or garlic salt.
She would not have used actual tomatoes. She’d have used Hunt’s tomato sauce plus about half a can of Hunt’s tomato paste. The only canned tomatoes you could get in those days also came from Hunt’s; they were lumpy soggy things, packed in red water. She would not have added wine, because she didn’t have wine.
Few Americans had wine in those days.
As for the cheese: all we had was Kraft. There was no other cheese available in middle-class American grocery stores. For lasagne, my mother used several packages of sliced Kraft fake Swiss cheese. And Parmesan? What you got — and ALL you could get — was that powdery stuff that comes in cylindrical boxes coated in green tinfoil. I dunno what it was. It surely wasn’t cheese. It was just salty stuff. But what you had was what you got.
At the Sprouts, I found a kind of Kraftish knock-off. Not the real fake thing, but better than nothing. What passes for Parmesan casa mia these days is the stuff Costco is peddling in big plastic bags now that they’ve gotten rid of the real grated Parmesan they used to sell in big plastic jars. It’s not very good: if you’re going to try this recipe, buy a couple plastic containers of grated Parmesan from the grocery store’s deli case.
So here’s a way (among many) to do this:
Prepare the eggplant for cooking:
Wash it. Slice it lengthwise into pieces about 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick, or so. Lay these slices on a grate or oven rack laid over the kitchen sink. Sprinkle salt on one side of each piece of eggplant. Then turn the slices over and salt the other side. Go on about your business for a half-hour or more. Then rinse off the bitter liquids that have leached out of the eggplant and dry the slices well on paper towels or a clean kitchen towel.
Sauté the eggplant in olive oil — it takes a lot, because eggplant loves oil and soaks it up with gay abandon. Just brown the slices of eggplant lightly on either side; then remove from the pan and set aside.
Make the sauce:
- an onion, chopped
- one or two cloves of garlic, chopped or minced
- a box of Pomí tomatoes (best of all possible choices) or several 8-ounce cans of Hunt’s tomato sauce plus about 1/2 small can of Hunt’s tomato paste, mixed together
- red wine, if you have it
- herbs to your taste (I used some dried fines herbes and also threw in some marjoram and some basil from the garden
- olive oil
Pour enough olive oil into a frying pan to coat the bottom. Sauté the onion and garlic until the onion is transparent and maybe just starting to brown. Lift these out and place them on a plate for a few minutes.
Add the hamburger to the pan. Cook this, stirring occasionally, until done through.
Now stir the onion and garlic back into the pan, combining well with the meat. Add a box of Pomí strained tomatoes or a couple cans of American-style tomato sauce (or more: till you have enough sauce). Add the tomato paste, if you’re using canned tomato sauce. Splash in a bit of red wine. Stir and let simmer slowly while you proceed with the other activities.
You can add a little sausage to the sauce, browned with the burger. Get country style, the kind that comes crumbled up like hamburger. My mother did not, probably because whatever newspaper recipe she used didn’t include it, or maybe because she wasn’t interested in slicing the skin off a bunch of sausages and crumbling them up as they fried in a pan. That much hassle was decidedly not her style.
To compile the fake lasagne, you need…
- the sautéed eggplant (or eggplant & zucchini, as in my case)
- the tomato sauce you’ve prepared
- a container of ricotta, cottage cheese, or (with any luck this will work) Greek-style yogurt
- sliced ersatz Swiss cheese, the kind that comes in plastic bags in the low-rent section of the grocer’s deli department
- grated Parmesan cheese (use a decent Parmesan, not the powder that comes out of a cylindrical box)
- olive oil
Get a rectangular baking dish. If you have a functioning oven (I do not: am using the grill as an oven), preheat it to about 375 or 400 degrees. Oil the dish generously with olive oil.
- Cover the bottom of the pan with a layer of the eggplant.
- Then cover that with about half the cooked tomato sauce.
- Layer the ricotta (or whatever) over the sauce.
- Layer the rest of the eggplant over the ricotta.
- Layer the Swissoid cheese over this.
- Cover the Swiss cheese layer with the rest of the tomato sauce.
- Sprinkle a whole lot of Parmesan over the top. Really coat it with grated cheese.
Bake at around 350º or 400º for 45 minutes or an hour, until the concoction is hot through and the cheese is seriously melted.
Et voilà! Enough eggplant lasagne à la mode de Yankee to last you for several weeks.
What if you want real fake lasagna? Easy enough. Use the recipe above, but substitute lasagna pasta for the eggplant. Simply boil the pasta until it’s al dente, rinse it in a colander under cold running water, and layer it with the sauce and cheeses. If you want nutrition (why???), layer in some spinach, too.