I think lasagna was one of the first dishes I tried to make myself as a young cook. Growing up, I wasn’t really encouraged to go into the kitchen. I also remember trying to help out by peeling potatoes and slicing into part of my finger. I think I was mildly traumatized and I never thought at that stage that I would love cooking so much. I think I always loved food however, and I did spend quite a lot of time hanging around kitchens. As a teenager in the 80s I think I had limited exposure to different kinds of food except for family restaurants. I remember a fast food restaurant called Milano’s pizza that came in as a competitor to Pizza Hut. I think that was when I fell in love with lasagna – even though I am pretty sure that it was a far cry from what you could get in a more upmarket Italian restaurant. When I got married, I had a Violet Oon cookbook and I remember lasagna was one of the first recipes I tried.
I remember the first experiment was a failure as the lasagna sheets still seemed partly cooked and tough in spots. Subsequent attempts included trying to precook the lasagna sheets which ended in a fiddly mess. Finally I figured it made a difference which brand of lasagna sheets I used and that I had to completely cover the lasagna sheets with wet sauce. Anyway for me, lasagna has always been a work of love as it takes a good amount of time to assemble the dish.
Since going low carb 3 years ago, I had not made lasagna because I thought it would be too difficult to make over this pasta-based dish into a low carb version. However recently after getting my Instant Pot and discovering it could make ricotta with the yoghurt function (oh yes indeedy!) I started thinking of what I could make with the fresh ricotta I could churn out within half an hour. So lasagna was one of the things that came up and I began to think seriously about making it low carb.
There are actually quite a good number of zucchini lasagna recipes out there. But basically I figured the biggest challenge would be to make sure that the zucchini did not turn into a soggy mess. I think this was the most time-consuming part of the recipe, which entailed drying out the strips of zucchini before assembling in th dish. At the end of the day, I think it was well worth it as the zucchini layer held up really well even though the vegetable peeler I had sliced them almost paper thin.
I had also amped up the flavours in the meat sauce as reviews online usually said that the meat component needed to have more herbs or spice to counter the more muted ricotta layer. This is one setting that I usually sneak in (surprisingly) some fish sauce. A really good fish sauce usually adds umami flavour to meat dishes, and most people cannot imagine how Asian fish sauce could figure in an Italian dish. But a first press fish sauce like Red Boat has clean flavours that adds a subtle layer of complexity even in a Western style dish like this.
- 1 kg ground beef
- 3 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 whole onion, chopped
- 2 small carrots, diced
- 2 ribs of celery, diced
- 1 can of diced tomatoes
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 1 tsp fish sauce
- 1/2 cup red wine
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp ground pepper
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 4 cups whole milk
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1/2 tsp salt
- Ricotta from above recipe (about 280g)
- 4 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 egg, beaten
- 2 large zucchini
- 1-2 tsp coarse sea salt
Preparing the ricotta cheese
- Put 4 cups milk into the instant pot and turn the valve to “vent” position
- Press the “yoghurt” button then the “adjust” button till the “boil” sign comes on.
- When done, take the inner pot out and gently stir in the salt and the lemon juice. Tiny milk solids will appear.
- Strain the milk solids with a muslin cloth-lined sieve. This will take about 10-15 minutes.
- Place the ricotta in a bowl and chill in a refrigerator until it is needed. The strained fluid can be used as a liquid base for soups and stocks.
Making the meat sauce
- Heat up the olive oil in a large pot. Sauté the onions, garlic till fragrant. Add the carrots and celery till slightly softened.
- Brown the meat in the pot.
- Add the Worcestershire sauce and balsamic vinegar and continue to stir the meat mixture till the liquid has evaporated. Add the wine and do the same. Add the diced tomatoes, tomato paste, salt, pepper, oregano, fish sauce and dried red pepper flakes and continue to simmer until the meat sauce is less liquid. This should take 20-30 minutes. Take pot off the heat and set aside.
Preparing the zucchini
- Slice the zucchini thinly, using a vegetable peeler. Avoid slicing the seeded center of the zucchini.
- Lay out the zucchini strips flat on trays, sprinkling salt sparingly over the zucchini slices. Using a coarser salt makes it easier to dust off the salt later.
- Allow the salt to draw out fluid for about 15 minutes, then dust off the salt and use kitchen towels to blot off the fluid.
- Place the tray of zucchini under the grill in the oven for 3 minutes, turning over halfway and grilling for another 3 minutes. Set aside.
Preparing the cheese layer
- Mix the ricotta cheese, Parmesan cheese, 3 1/2 cups of mozzarella cheese (reserve 1/2 cup to top later) and beaten egg together.
Assembling the lasagna
- Preheat the oven to 180 deg C.
- In a large casserole dish, put the first layer of meat sauce, squeezing out any excess fluid.
- Lay the zucchini slices, slightly overlapping.
- Put about half the cheese mixture on the zucchini layer.
- Put the meat layer on, then another zucchini layer.
- Put the rest of the cheese mixture on top of the zucchini layer, followed by the remaining meat sauce. The casserole dish should be quite full. Cover tightly with aluminum foil.
- Put the casserole dish and bake for 30 minutes. When done, remove the aluminum foil layer and scatter the remaining 1/2 cup mozzarella over it and bake open for another 15 minutes. The cheese should be melted and slightly browned. Serve hot, cutting into blocks with a sharp knife.