Friday, October 30, 2009

VeganMoFo Day Thirty!!!: She sells stuffed shells...

So, people been askin 'bout my stuffed shells. It's kind of funny, actually. I got this recipe for vegan lasagna out of a magazine like three years ago, and I've been baking it ever since! The potluck escapade was my first trial for the shells format, but I think it worked out pretty darn well. It has met with many good reviews as lasagna, and I've contemplated making lasagna roll-ups and other nutty pasta items. Once you make your tofu ricotta and get ahold of some sauce, you are limited only by your imagination. (Sorry, couldn't help myself there.)

So first we'll talk about the sauce. Why first? Because if you're going to make your own, it's going to want to cook for hours. And I mean like four hours. You definitely don't have to make your own - you can get a couple of good jars of, say, a tasty Newman's Own flavor and cut down the work on your lasagna-or-shells significantly. You can also make your own and ignore my recipe completely. Totally up to you. For me it's usually governed by the time I have to spend in making a meal. Since I started cooking for Tuesday's potluck on Sunday, I had plenty of time.

I make red sauce based on how my mom has always made it: get everything that tastes good in a pot and let that thing simmer till the cows (or in my mom's case, kids) come home. For lasagna-or-shells, you need A LOT of sauce. So I started with two of those ginormous cans of crushed tomatoes (28 oz?), and one teeny tiny can of tomato paste. I'm careful about what canned tomatoes I'll buy - the ingredient list really can't name anything other than tomatoes and maybe ascorbic acid. What else do you need in there? Nuthin.

So I empty these two giant cans and one tiny can into my big pot on the stove and start the flame on low. And then gradually, as they become prepared (there's really no rush, since it will be cooking till I go to bed pretty much), I add the following: one large yellow or red onion, coarsely chopped (how coarsely actually depends on whether or not you want to find chunks of soft onion in your sauce); about a third of a cup of fresh parsley, minced; a quarter cup to a third of a cup of fresh basil, torn then minced; six nice fat fresh peeled cloves of garlic, cut lengthwise; a teaspoon-ish of dried oregano; a teaspoon of salt; and a teaspoon of sugar.

Once everything is in the pot, you just let it cook. Keep it on low, don't let it boil, and stir it pretty regularly to make sure it isn't sticking. You have to keep a continual eye on it, but you can do a lot of other things in the kitchen or in other rooms nearby. Just remember to stir and everything is alright. You'll know it's getting close to done when you can smash the garlic cloves against the side of the pot with the back of your mixing spoon and they just turn into a dissolving mush. You actually want to root them all out and do this to all of them. Like so many sauces and soups, this one is good the first night, and even better the next day.

So, that's sauce. What did I do for all those hours as the sauce cooked? Well, many things. I do have thirteen blogs you know. But the thing you care about is that I made my tofu ricotta! This is another one of those items that is good when you make it, but even better when it's allowed to marinate in its own juices overnight. This being the case, of course I made it on Sunday as well. As I began to cook my sauce, I also began pressing tofu - two blocks of it.

Here's the ingredient lowdown, as this one is a good bit more complex than a simple ol' red sauce:
  • two bricks of tofu: I default to Nasoya extra-firm
  • 1/2 cup fresh basil, torn then chopped
  • 1/3 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted
  • 2 to 3 peeled cloves of garlic
  • juice of one lemon
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (very optional)
  • 1/4 tsp sugar
I like to press the tofu for a long time for this recipe - a good hour or so. Is it necessary? Probably not. I'm just a touch compulsive. Also, in most recipes I have zero qualms for subbing dried herbs for fresh ones, but here I feel that the fresh herbs really carry the flavor in a way that dried just wouldn't.

Some tips: to toast pine nuts, let a dry skillet heat up over a medium-to-high flame for a couple of minutes, and then just dump those suckers on in. They have tons of natural oil, which is what allows them to toast. Keep them moving for about three minutes, until they begin to get toasty brown. Bingo: toasted pine nuts. And on juicing lemons: in case you don't know it yet, the best way to get the most out of your lemon is to squash the hell out of it before cutting. Rolling it along the counter while applying pressure with the length of your hand is generally the way to go; you'll be able to feel the skin softening and imagine the juice pockets inside getting burstey.

Why tear the basil first? Because it releases more flavor that way. I swear, it really does. As far as peeling garlic... if you can't peel garlic, I can't help you. Yes, your fingers will smell. It's part of cooking. Embrace it.

So once your pine nuts are toasty and your lemons are juicy, you're just going to dump every last one of these ingredients into your food processor. Hooray! (Don't have one? Not a problem. The first time I made this, I had my Cuisinart but I was still afraid of it, so I used a potato masher instead. It takes a lot of elbow grease but it works just fine.) I tend to break up the tofu into rough chunks and drop them in, because it makes sense to me to do it that way.

As for the red pepper flakes, they are really and truly optional. I've made the recipe several times both with and without, and I really can't tell what function they serve other than to occasionally get something reallyreally hot stuck in your teeth. You could also skip toasting the pine nuts - untoasted pine nuts have a fantastic flavor. Just make sure they're not stale, as that flavor is distinct enough to ruin the whole thing. Why do I know this? Umm... just trust me, kay?

It's kind of amazing what this mixture becomes after you pulse for a couple of minutes. Of course you'll want to scrape down the sides of your bowl a few times during the mixing to make sure that everything's getting in there. The end result is really quite tasty and creamy and divine. Jonathan, always "testing" what I'm whipping up, noted this time 'round that straight out of the processor the mix is plenty good enough to eat on crackers or use as a sandwich schmear. But this particular mix had a purpose. So I smacked him away and into the fridge it went for putting into shells the following night.

How you assemble your lasagna-or-shells-or-what-have-you is basically up to you. You'll want to either parboil your pasta of choice or make sure that it has plenty of liquid by its side during baking. For my lasagnas I just use tons of sauce but don't cook the noodles. No, I don't use special noodles - those things are a total sham! You can just use normal ones, I promise. The layers from the bottom of the dish will go something like: sauce, noodles, sauce, ricotta, zucchini (or sausage or mushrooms or whatever), sauce, noodles, sauce...

For the shells it was a good bit simpler. It was going to be baked for less time because it's much less dense, so I did boil the shells for about 10 minutes before putting them in the dish. This also made them pliable and therefore easier to fill. I of course had to rinse them in cold water before I could handle them - ouch! But the process went something like, sauce, fill shell with ricotta, put shell in dish, continue until dish is filled, cover everything with more sauce, bake at 350* for about 45 minutes covered with tin foil.

And the leftovers? Lots of em, and they're totally delish.

So try it out! Get creative. Lemme know how it goes. Send me pictures! I love pictures.


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Monique a.k.a. Mo said...

And this recipe is so saved.

You have thirteen blogs?! I admire your work ethic.