Spring. It's here, and it's in full bloom. And so is the freshest produce that has been growing under the California sunshine, and it's ready to be eaten.
At UCSB, this season is characterized as our favorite quarter. Bikini-clad collegiettes, swim-trunked frat stars, and socializing under the sun is what students are most excited for, but the remainder of the golden state prides itself off of pristine weather, which enables the freshest fruits and veggies to emerge. California is known for farm-to-table produce, and Santa Barbara is no stranger to these delicious gems of the earth.
Luckily, our bathing suit bodies will benefit from the nutrients of these springy crops, and the many healthy, yet tasty, recipe possibilities are endless. As an amateur chef, I enjoy whipping up new dishes that are creative and fun to prepare, but as a young student on the social scene, I like consume healthy ingredients that will make me look and feel great. These attributes combined with my love for Italian cuisine inspired me to try cooking a carb-light lasagna that pleases taste buds, as well as a fit body.
Honestly, I can call vegetables one of my favorite food groups, but since I know that I am in the minority in that respect, I focused on using the best ingredients so that all food-lovers (even those with an affinity for junk food) can enjoy this healthier twist on the usually heavy pasta-based dish. Purchasing veggies at one of Santa Barbara's many farmers markets is a great start because the large selection is fresher than the offerings in any super market, in addition to using less preservatives. However, if you sleep in too late to make the early-bird outdoor markets, do not fret because Trader Joe's, Albertsons, and Vons will absolutely provide you with satisfactory ingredients for your "pasta-less lasagna."
The first necessary ingredient is some form of squash, which will serve as the "pasta" for your Italian feast. I chose to use zucchini and eggplant, but you can also use yellow, butternut, or any other variety of squash. After you spray your baking dish with non-stick cooking spray, slice the squash vertically into ribbon-shaped pieces, and line the dish with these "noodles."
The next necessary ingredient is ricotta cheese. I used low fat ricotta, but this cheese is extremely healthy on the entire spectrum of nonfat to regular. Because I used the low fat version, the cheese was not as flavorful as regular ricotta so I seasoned it with ground black pepper, garlic powder, and dried basil, but decided not to add any salt since cheese is a salty product on its own. (Salt causes bloating, which is not ideal for bikini season!) To finish the filling, I added thawed frozen-fresh spinach to the ricotta and herbs, which completed the gooey mixture.
After slicing and mixing, all you have left to do is layer your ingredients. Your lasagna can be as simple as one squash product combined with the ricotta blend, but you can also be endlessly playful in the kitchen by adding whichever vegetables, herbs, additional cheese, and sauce you desire.
Before you begin layering, drizzle a bit of extra virgin olive oil on top of your ribbons of squash, and continue to do this on top of each subsequent layer of veggies. You can also add any herbs and spices of your choice within the entire dish as you are in the layering process.
Personally, I am a big fan of grilled onions in any meal so I added caramelized onions in between each layer of veggie and cheese. Any other vegetable is fair game, and although you can't go wrong, some great options are tomatoes, carrots and mushrooms. For my sauce component, I used marinara within each layer, but since the olive oil is both flavorful and moist, you can opt out of sauce all together or even try a creamy alfredo or a tangy pesto.
Once you have completed layering the abundance of spring-fresh vegetables along with your ricotta mixture, spices, olive oil and sauce (or no sauce), you can top off the entire casserole dish with shredded mozzarella cheese so that it is baked to melty perfection. But, if you are trying to cut calories or fat, your lasagna will still be delectable even without this extra top layer.
Hopefully you will enjoy this health-conscious version of an Italian classic, and also be delighted with the results—for the taste and your Spring-ready beach body!
Helpful hint: If you are cooking for yourself, go ahead and make a single portion in a small baking dish, rather than having tons of leftovers.
Leftover hint: If you have too much squash to slice into your lasagna, save some to slice horizontally (in circular rounds). Top these pieces with leftover marinara sauce, mozzarella cheese, and any additional toppings sitting around in your fridge or pantry (ie: turkey pepperoni, black olives, or artichokes), and you will end up with bread-less pizza bites. This is a healthy, innovative and yummy snack for later—or to munch on while your lasagna is baking! These pieces won't take as long to cook in the oven as the main course will. You can also grill them on the stove if you don't want to wait for the oven to preheat.
- Squash (zucchini, eggplant, yellow squash, etc.)
- Other vegetables of your choice
- Ricotta cheese
- Marinara sauce or other Italian sauce
- Olive oil
- Ground black pepper
- Garlic salt
- Dried or fresh basil
- Spinach (optional)
- Mozzarella cheese (optional)
- Preheat oven to 350º F
- Make cheese mixture: mix ricotta cheese with pepper, garlic salt, basil, other spices, and/or spinach (optional)
- Spray baking dish with nonstick cooking spray or olive oil
- Slice squash vertically in ribbon shape, line baking dish with first layer of veggies
- Drizzle olive oil over squash ribbons
- Season with herbs and spices of your choice
- Add layer of ricotta cheese mixture
- Add layer of sauce (optional)
- Repeat until baking dish is full
- Sprinkle mozzarella cheese on top (optional)
- Cover dish with aluminum foil and bake at for 30-40 minutes. Increase heat to 375-400ºF or turn on broiler for last 10 minutes to achieve the best crispyness and gooeyness.