I know, I know… When I hear the terms plant-based, dairy-free, gluten-free, grain-free, nut-free, and especially oil-free, used in the same sentence as LASAGNA, I’m probably not going to read any farther. But trust me! This Noodle-less Butternut Squash Lasagna may be free of 7 of the top 8 allergens (it could easily be made soy-free, too), but believe me when I tell you that this delicious and comforting vegan dish is not free of flavor or decadence.
It’s officially fall (as of yesterday), and I’m so excited to start using my favorite fall ingredients to make delicious, plant-based comfort foods once again. Sure, it’s still close to 100 degrees outside here in Vegas, but we’ll get there.
Dress for the season you want, not the season you have?
On a whim, I decided to try to make a lasagna using butternut squash as the noodles. I was so excited to try it out, but I didn’t have any cashews in the house, which is what I would normally turn to when making a creamy vegan sauce. I did have chickpea flour on hand because, well, I’m obsessed with chickpea flour, so I decided to just go completely gluten and nut free, and try to make a bechamel sauce using the chickpea flour.
The result: I think this might be my new favorite way to make bechamel. And I’m not even gluten free!
This recipe is so good, and is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. And speaking of parts, I want to have a little chat with y’all about a common denominator in many of the ingredients that I used in this dish.
Let’s talk about water…
More specifically, the water in the major ingredients in this recipe.
- Butternut squash is about 86% water
- Mushrooms are about 92% water
- Leeks are about 83% water
- Spinach is about 91% water
- Almond milk is about 98% water
- Tofu is about 90% water
So, using some bad math just to make a point, I could argue that if the ingredients of this lasagna are not treated properly, one could wind up with a lasagna that’s 90% water? No matter how thirsty you may be, you cannot tell me that lasagna that’s 90% water sounds any good at all.
Therefore, we need to be careful to get as much water out of the ingredients as possible so that the dish doesn’t turn into soup. Additionally, since we’re not using much, if any oil, we want to make sure that we don’t wind up with a dry lasagna that’s equally unsatisfying.
How do we strike a balance? Well, we need to make sure that each ingredient is treated properly so that it brings its best qualities to the table without it getting too dry, or too wet.
Let’s start with the squash. If we were to simply cut-up the squash and then place it into the lasagna with the other ingredients, two problems would occur. First, it would take forever for the squash to cook through if we were to put it in raw. The lasagna is already in the oven for an hour, but with the raw squash, mixed with the density of the dish, it would take at least twice as long to cook through.
Second, since we’re using an ingredient that is 86% water, when it cooks, that water needs to go somewhere. So, if raw squash is layered into the lasagna, where do you think that water is going to go? That’s right. Into the lasagna.
I guess we also have a third problem, which has nothing to do with water, directly, but if we were to overcook the squash, or cook it fully during the first step. Then the squash would wind up mushy, and we’d be left with a mashed squash dish instead of a layered squash dish.
So, how do we solve all of these issues? We need to “par-cook”.
Par-cooking, or pre-cooking the squash helps to solve all of these problems. The water evaporates, the squash gets cooked to a point that it doesn’t need much more time to be perfectly “al dente”, and if done properly, the squash “noodles” won’t fully disintegrate into the dish.
Making sure that the squash is cut evenly is very important to making sure that it cooks evenly. If you don’t have a mandolin (affiliate link), that’s fine. Just try really really hard to get every slice exactly the same, and if you notice that it’s thicker than ⅛ inch, that you compensate for that in the first cooking step.
Keep an eye on the squash as it par-cooks. 8 minutes per side might be enough. But they may need 10. If they’re all the same thickness, and they are all in a single layer, you’ll have better control. Pick them up. If they are pliable, and feel like the texture of an al dente noodle, then you’ve nailed it. If they are a crumbly paste, they are overcooked. If they are rigid, they are not cooked long enough.
Mushrooms actually have a lot more water than the squash, but the benefit of mushrooms is that they release their water and they cook-up much faster. Mushrooms are also very resilient, and are really hard to actually overcook. When they are reduced to about ⅓ of their original size, and they are beautifully golden and caramelized, then they are done. Push them. Take them to their limits. As long as they aren’t a coal-black powder, they’re going to be delicious.
A member of the Allium family, leeks are pretty much just a sweeter, milder onion. Onions could be used in palace of the leeks if that’s all you’ve got, but I strongly recommend going for the leeks. They too contain a lot of water and need to be cooked properly as to not affect the other components of the dish. They don’t need as much as the mushrooms, so that’s why the leeks are added after the mushrooms are pretty much done. Also, any liquid that the leeks release will help deglaze any mushroom goodness from the bottom of the pan. Like the mushrooms, you can’t really overcook them, so push them to their limits. Let them soften and caramelize. The more brown you have in the pan at the end, the more flavorful your final dish will be.
Anyone who has ever cooked fresh spinach knows exactly just how much water is inside those tiny leaves. There are even memes on Instagram about what a pan of spinach looks like before, and after it’s been cooked. The couple of handfuls of spinach in this dish are added at the very end of the mushroom and leek cooking because they will help remove some of the fond off of the bottom of the pan, and unlike the mushrooms and leeks, you don’t really want to caramelize your spinach. Let it wilt, spit out a bunch of water, and then cook them just until the water if fully evaporated from the pan. Done.
Obviously we’re not going to caramelize almond milk, or reduce it down until it’s thickened, no, we’re going to use the help of garbanzo bean or chickpea flour to turn the almond milk into a bechamel sauce.
Normally made with wheat flour, bechamel is one of the French mother sauces, and it’s normally used to make gravies and cheese sauces.
You’ll need roughly 2 tablespoons of chickpea flour to thicken 1 cup of almond milk. Watch it carefully as the sauce cooks, and stir it constantly so that the flour doesn’t all sink to the bottom of the pot and stick before the milk has a change to thicken.
Once the chickpea flour has done its job, let the sauce simmer for a minute or two before removing it from the heat. It should be a luxurious, silky texture that resembles any wheat flour thickened bechamel sauce or gravy. If it’s still very watery, dissolve another tablespoon or two of the chickpea flour into a few tablespoons of milk, and add it to the sauce, stirring until it returns to a simmer and thickens to your liking.
As it bakes, the sauce will continue to reduce and thicken, so don’t worry too much if it’s a bit thin in the beginning.
To bump up the protein and texture of this dish, I’ve added a Tofu Thyme “Ricotta”, which gets layered into the lasagne with the veggies. Instead of cooking all of the water out of the tofu, we need to squeeze it out. I use a firm tofu, which naturally has less water in it, and then I place it into a towel and twist the water out.
Get the tofu as dry as possible so that the water winds up in the sink and not in the lasagna. If you have a tofu press, that would work as well, but I think just a quick squeeze in a clean towel does the job just fine.
If you want to make this dish soy-free, then you could just leave the tofu out, or substitute in a nut-based ricotta which can be found at many grocery stores.
I know it sounds like I’m being very particular about how each of these items are prepared before they go into the lasagna, but trust me. If there is too much liquid in these ingredients when your lasagna goes into the oven, you better believe that it’s going to be there, only outside of the veggies, when you take the lasagna out of the oven.
Being cautious and paying attention to how much water is going into the lasagna will help to ensure that you don’t wind up with a pot of soup or mashed butternut squash after putting forth all of this effort.
Pantry Staples: (contains affiliate links)
- Chickpea flour – Surprised to see this ingredient again in one of my recipes? I’m not. I mean, really, what can’t it do?! It can be egg, or it can be flour… It’s magical. If you’re not a fan of chickpea flour, and you’re not worried about the gluten content of this dish, then by all means, just use a traditional bechamel recipe that uses fat and flour to thicken up the (plant) milk. You’ll just need 4 cups of bechamel sauce to make this Noodle-less Butternut Lasagna.
- Nutritional yeast – You probably didn’t notice it, but this lasagna doesn’t have any cheese or even any vegan cheese. That’s intentional. But, because it is a lasagna, we do want to have a rich cheesy flavor. The squash, bechamel, and tofu all work to make the dish creamy, but the nutritional yeast adds that “cheesy” funky flavor. It’s used both in the bechamel and in the Tofu Thyme “Ricotta”. There really isn’t a substitute, unless you just plan on using vegan cheese.
- Ground nutmeg – It’s classic to add a pinch of nutmeg to any cream sauce. So, if you want to be classic, add a pinch to the Chickpea Bechamel. If you don’t have it, don’t worry about it. It’s so unnecessary, that I actually forgot to use it when filming the recipe video. Shrugs.
- Olive oil – This dish can be made entirely oil free. If you don’t want to use oil, then just ignore it every time you see it. If not, I recommend using a nicely flavored extra virgin olive oil.
- Vinegar – To add that slight sour tang to the Tofu Thyme “Ricotta”, you’ll want to add a bit of vinegar or lemon juice. Pretty much anything will work. Some vinegars are sharper than others, so just add to taste if you use something other than rice or apple cider vinegars.
- 8×8 baking dish – The amount of ingredients in this recipe perfectly makes 1, 8×8 inch pan’s worth of lasagna. You could easily double the recipe, and increase the cooking time if you needed to feed a larger crowd.
- Mandolin (and cutting glove) – I never want to be that recipe developer that says that you need specific equipment to do a task. There is always another way. A mandolin slicer makes the job of thinly slicing the squash lengthwise so easy, and consistent. If you have one, you definitely need to use it. If you don’t and have no desire to get one, then just slice the squash into thin discs, being very diligent about getting them to the exact same thickness.
- Saucepan – You’ll need a pot or saucepan that can handle at least 4 cups of liquid.
- Large frying pan – The larger the pan, the more surface area that you have to caramelize the mushrooms. I recommend at least 10 to 12 inches if you’ve got it. If you don’t , you may want to cook the mushrooms in batches so that you don’t risk steaming them as opposed to caramelizing them.
Noodle-less Butternut Lasagna
Thinly sliced butternut squash takes the place of pasta in the nontraditional vegan lasagna that just happens to be gluten and nut free.
- 1 butternut squash (about 3lbs), just the neck portion
- 4 cups unsweetened plant-based milk, soy or almond is preferred
- ½ cup plus 1 tablespoon chickpea flour
- 2 teaspoons "No Chicken" flavored Better Than Bouillon (optional)*
- 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
- salt and pepper to taste
- pinch fresh ground nutmeg (optional)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil (optional)
- 7 ounces (1/2 block) firm tofu, drained
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
- 1 teaspoon apple cider or rice wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced
- 1 teaspoon salt or more to taste
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil (optional)
- 10 ounces cremini or button mushrooms, thinly sliced
- 6 to 8 ounces leeks, cut
- 2 ounces fresh spinach, roughly chopped or torn
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme, finely chopped
All components can be made in advance, and then assembled just before baking.
- Preheat the oven to 375 F. Remove the bulbous, seeded end of the squash and reserve it for another recipe. Peel the neck of the squash and remove the stem end. Using a mandolin, slice the squash lengthwise into ⅛ inch thick “noodles”.
Note: If you don’t have a mandolin, slice the squash into ⅛ thick discs. It’ll be easier to cut uniform slices with your knife that way.
Working in batches, use one or two large baking sheets to cook the squash noodles in a single layer for 15 to 20 minutes, flipping halfway. They should be pliable, without breaking. Remove cooked noodles from the oven, and place them on a drying rack to cool.
To a saucepan on medium heat, add the chickpea flour. Stir or whisk in just enough milk to hydrate the flour and turn it into a paste. Slowly stir in the remaining milk, working out any lumps as you go. Stir continuously as you bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat, scraping the bottom of the pot, until the sauce has thickened. Add nutritional yeast, bouillon, nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste. For a richer sauce, stir in a tablespoon of olive oil at the end. Set aside.
Drain tofu, and place it into a clean kitchen towel. Twist the towel to get as much liquid as you can from the tofu. Place the dry tofu into a bowl and add the remaining ingredients. Stir to incorporate. Taste for seasoning. Set aside
Heat a large pan to medium-high heat. Add oil and sliced mushrooms. Allow the mushrooms to reduce, cook, and caramelize, for about 7 to 10 minutes before adding leeks. Cook for another 7 to 10 minutes, until everything is caramelized, and doesn’t appear to have any more liquid to give. Add garlic and spinach; stir, removing any fond from the bottom of the pan. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the spinach is wilted ,and any liquid is gone from the pan. Remove from heat, and set aside.
- Choose your best Butternut Squash Noodles, and reserve them for the top layer.
To an 8×8 inch (or similar sized) baking dish, add a couple of tablespoons of Chickpea Bechamel Sauce. Top with a single layer of squash noodles. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Top with ⅓ of the Tofu Thyme “Ricotta”, ⅓ of Mushroom, Leek, and Spinach Filling, and ¼ of the Chickpea Bechamel Sauce.
- Repeat two more times, until you have used all of the Tofu Thyme “Ricotta” and the Mushroom, Leek, and Spinach Filling. Top with a final layer of your best-looking squash noodles, and then flood the top with the remaining Chickpea Bechamel Sauce.
Cover, and bake for 45 minutes on 375 F. Remove the cover, turn the heat up to 400 F., and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes. The top should be just starting to brown. Test for doneness by poking a knife through the center. If you experience any resistance, turn the heat back down to 375 and continue to cook until your knife glides easily through the center.
- Let rest for about 10 to 15 minutes before sprinkling fresh parsley and thyme on top, and slicing. Serves 4 to 6.
* I didn’t use “No Chicken” flavored Better Than Bouillon in the video, but in other tests, it really did help boost the umami flavor of the dish. You could just leave this ingredient out, or you could just sub in your favorite vegan “chicken” flavored bouillon to taste.