Summer Meal Series #12: Spinach, Pesto, and Cheese Lasagna

What’s on the table this summer?

Vegetable Lasagna

One of the biggest challenges I have with writing recipe posts is the fact that Sarah and I often “riff” on recipes. In other words, we’ll take a recipe we found somewhere – often written down by hand or ripped out of a magazine – and rather than making it word-for-word, we’ll improvise, often on the fly.

Finished plate

This was definitely the case with this spinach, pesto, and cheese lasagna. I had a nice picture with all of the ingredients on it, but as we started making the recipe (found in an old cookbook), we also began to modify it, resulting in different ingredients and a much different (but very tasty) end product. Even better, most of our modifications actually saved money on the dish.

What You’ll Need

3 cups ricotta cheese (alternately, you can use 3 cups cottage cheese here)
1 cup Parmesan cheese
2 cups grated Fontina cheese
1 large egg
16-20 ounces chopped spinach (2 10 oz. packages of frozen spinach, thawed, works here)
7 ounces pesto (you can make your own or buy it)
4 cups pasta sauce (like the pasta sauce we made a while back)
12 lasagna noodles (you can make your own or buy them)

What to Do Next: Step by Step

Ricotta mix

1. Mix the ricotta and Parmesan cheeses in a bowl together, as above.

Salt and pepper the cheese to your taste. For us, that usually means just adding a lot of pepper, as we usually only add salt once a dish has arrived at the table and have tasted it.

2. Crack the egg and mix it in until it’s all consistent and a bit gooey.

Pesto mix

3. In another bowl, mix together the spinach and the pesto.

4. In a 9″ by 13″ baking pan, lightly coat with the oil of your choice.

To prevent sticking – just put a dab of oil on a cloth or paper towel and rub it all over the inside of the pan.

5. Place layers of sauce, noodles, ricotta mix, and spinach mix as follows:

Put a cup of pasta sauce in the pan, put three pasta noodles side by side on top of the sauce, spread about a third of the ricotta mix over the top of that, then drop a third of the spinach-pesto mix on top of that in spoonfuls (you can’t spread it over the ricotta, so just put little dabs of it evenly.

6. Repeat the layers twice more and top with the remaining three noodles and the remaining sauce.

You’re pretty much ready to go (and you can do all of this in the morning before you go and keep it in the fridge – just add 10 minutes or so to the first baking time).

7. Turn on your oven to 350 F, cover with foil, and bake for 35 minutes.

Pre-baking lasagna

8. Take the lasagna out of the oven, uncover it, and sprinkle on the Fontina cheese.

Then bake it again, uncovered, for about ten minutes or until it’s nice and warm all the way through.

Finished lasagna

We served it with some garlic bread and some fresh cherry tomatoes from our garden.

Finished plate

Since this made such a large pan, we were able to eat this lasagna for twelve different individual meals – the four of us at dinner the first night, my wife and I at lunch the next day, the four of us at “leftover variety” dinner the night after that, and my wife and I again for lunch on the third day. This drove the cost per serving for the lasagna down to about $0.65.

Was it a hit? Absolutely. The children (and the adults) emptied their plates.

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  1. Hal says:

    It stinks that most affordable meals are Carbohydrate Bombs, like Pastas, Cereals, Potatoes and Flours…

    Any low carb inexpensive meal recipies?

  2. Kevin says:

    “Riff” is the new “stellar.” ;-) That said, thanks for the recipe. I would tend to serve this with extra marinara sauce on the side, and perhaps a salad with oil & vinegar.

  3. valleycat1 says:

    Once again I’d encourage you to add more veggies & fruits to the plate – 4 small strawberries is less than one adult’s serving (maybe 1 serving for your toddlers). And the portion of spinach you get in the lasagna doesn’t make up the difference.

  4. Adam P says:

    Looks great but I’d definitely add a nice fresh salad on the side with balsalmic vinagrette dressing! Cheap and it would round out this meal to something quite healthy in total. I can’t eat all that dairy in the lasagna (lactose) but it still made me hungry lol

  5. Charles says:

    What role does the egg play in the recipe? If we didn’t include, would the lasagna still come out right? Maybe I’ll just try it and see — it’s hard to cook and cheese and pasta together and not have something at least pretty good.

  6. Angie says:

    valleycat1: 4 is better than none, which is what I grew up with!

  7. Michelle says:

    I think it looks great! And my kids might actually eat the spinach! Instead of picking it out, like they do with the squash I try to sneak into veggie lasagna.

    Trent, could you maybe do a post on how make your own pasta? I’ve always been curious but never been able to find anything good online!

  8. kristine says:

    I might suggest whole wheat noodles, or at least whole wheat bread instead of fluffy white Italian. It is an acquired taste, but well worth acquiring for good health.

    I like this idea-it is adaptable. I have some pesto made from my garden, and will mix it in tonight with some quickly sauteed spinach and whole wheat bow-ties. But with a generous sprinkling of parmigian instead of mozarella and ricotta. And I agree about needing a salad with balsamic- a little acid to cut the heaviness of the fats, and more veg to make it a more balanced meal.

  9. DeeBee says:

    Has anyone had success with no-bake lasagna noodles? I realize that they cost more, but I think they would save me time. How much more liquids would have to be used to make them work in this example? Thanks!

  10. Sara says:

    Geez, Trent, you must get tired of people criticizing the healthiness of your meals. Valleycat1, did you consider that maybe they eat fruits and vegetables at other times of the day? Kristine, how do you know the noodles aren’t whole wheat? It is challenging to find low-cost, tasty, easy-to-prepare meals that the whole family will eat. This meal may not be perfectly nutritionally balanced, but it’s not the only thing they ever eat, and it’s certainly better than fast food.

  11. Mindi says:

    I have a recipe that is very similar to this (I believe from an old Cooking Light) but it goes in the crockpot! You use the no boil noodles. Makes it even easier…and I would assume cheaper since you aren’t using the oven. Also, we belong to a CSA and I have substituted the spinach for the kale, beet greens, and swiss chard we sometimes get. Can’t tell the difference!
    I just looked online and found it. It’s a little different than yours but it can always be tweaked…
    http://find.myrecipes.com/recipes/recipefinder.dyn?action=displayRecipe&recipe_id=549820

  12. Jess says:

    #7 DeeBee…
    I’ve used the no-boil noodles in a lasagna crockpot recipe and they worked out fine. I didn’t add any extra liquid, except that I put sauce down first then a layer of noodles. And that way you don’t have to heat up your kitchen in the summer!

  13. Sam says:

    @DeeBee

    I use plain old whole wheat lasagna noodles and layer them in my lasagna uncooked. It may take a bit of extra cooking time, but I’m not 100% sure on that. I know I usually cook my lasagna for an hour and sometimes a little more depending on how my knife slices through the noodles. If they aren’t fully done I just pop the pan back in for 10 minutes and check again.

    I like that the uncooked pasta absorbs some of the liquid from the sauce as it is cooking which keeps your final product from being too watery.

  14. Julia says:

    I’d recommend skipping the pesto – it adds unnecessary oil to the recipe (olive oil, nuts & cheese). Instead, I would add a generous amount of oregano, basil & thyme to the ricotta cheese to replace the spices that pesto adds to the spinach. I would also saute some onions & garlic to mix with the spinach (granted I’m adding back some oil). My sauce always has some cayenne pepper, too.

    In general I would cut the amount of cheese & replace with stronger seasoning. Cheese is delicious, but has too much fat & salt. Herbs are also intersting – but with no fat/salt.

  15. WendyH says:

    This is a lot like the shells I make and freeze in a big batch. Basically make the “insides” and stuff into cooked large shells, freeze them individually, then pack into freezer bags. Pull out as many as you need, cover with pasta sauce and cook in the oven or microwave (I wouldn’t microwave if using raw eggs as a binder, they might not get fully cooked). My recipe includes onions and oregano, I also have added in some sausage or turkey sausage for my carnivore husband. I just wish I could find large shells in whole wheat!

  16. AnnJo says:

    It’s been a long time since I made my version of this, but I think I mixed the spinach (and sauteed onions & mushrooms in my version) and the cheese together before layering, which made it a lot faster to assemble and cooked just fine.

  17. JR says:

    “low-cost, tasty, and easy-to-prepare meals”=high fat, high carb, high calorie meals. I love lasanga just as much as the next guy but I’d like to see a low calorie tasty meal!

  18. Jenzer says:

    @WendyH – I, too, have struck out in locating large whole wheat pasta shells. Have you tried doing lasagna roll-ups with your shell filling? You could take cooked, whole wheat lasagna noodles, spread them with filling, then roll them up and place them in your baking pan. Cover with sauce and bake as usual. This works better with fillings that are smooth or only slightly chunky — I’m not sure if cooked sausage bits would stay inside the rolls.

  19. jo says:

    This looks delicious!

    Trent, is there any chance that you could start putting in the calorie content? Even if you just added up the total calories, readers could figure out the per serving calorie count based on the way they divide the pan.

  20. deb says:

    I used to use the no boil lasagne noodles but got sick of paying more so now I just use regular ones (mostly whole wheat or extra fiber) and just put them in there dry like the no boils. It turns out great! Another variation is to use egg roll wrappers, it’s my family’s favorite. It’s quite tasty, and less “noodly”, so probably has fewer carbs.

  21. KC says:

    I’ll second the use of whole wheat noodles. The taste is a bit different, but I like it (and I’m not fond of wheat bread, but the pasta is different). I’d be willing to bet that in this dish you wouldn’t notice the “nutty” taste of the whole wheat pasta – lots of flavors in that pasta would probably overwhelm any “unusual” taste in the noodles.

  22. finance wiki says:

    it looks so delicious.
    but i do like susi(japan food) best.

  23. michael bash says:

    @michelle – You must start using the internet we all do. There are hundreds of pasta/recipes, whole sites. Check Marcella Hazan! Don’t ask Trent; he’s just starting to learn. But there are jillions of sources out there.

  24. jennifer says:

    Trent, I have never used Fontina cheese. It sounds great. Thanks for the idea and getting me to try a new cheese!

  25. Rachel says:

    Thanks for your posting! I love your newsletter and use lots if tips from it. I make a similar recipe and my favorite tip is make multiple lasagnes at once (I do use no-bake noodles – at Trader Joe’s they are not expensive) cook for the first portion and then freeze them whole. Then, even months later, my family can pull out the lasagne and have a great meal while I’m travelling.

    We also do a ton of “leftover meals” – but we call them POOF meals — Pull Out Of Freezer (or Fridge). Somehow that makes it feel fancier! :)

    keep writing!!

  26. Katie says:

    You know, some people don’t like whole wheat pasta and that’s okay. Not everything needs to be maximumally calculated to be the 100% most healthy thing ever. It’s okay to eat regular pasta (it’s not like Italy is full of terribly unhealthy people, I mean, really now).

  27. littlepitcher says:

    Southern gardeners can make this recipe with young turnip or even mustard greens, and it would be tastier and more nutritious.
    That extra vegetable in the mix could be slices of zucchini or yellow squash to replace one run of noodles, which would cut the calorie count and the expense. My late mother always used fat-free cottage cheese to replace ricotta, and spiced up the tomato sauce so we didn’t miss any flavor. So much for nutritional calculations.
    Give me strawberries over parsley for a garnish any time!

  28. Evangeline says:

    Looks delicious. However, could we see more recipes without cheese?

  29. Cheri says:

    Trent, I enjoy reading your blog. However, IMO your Summer Meal Series really sucks! The PICTURE of this lasagna does not even look appetizing to me and I LOVE lasagna! I’m sorry, but most of the recipes you prepare may be “low-cost” but they are not very healthy (ie.not enough veggies if any at all, regular pasta, a lot of cheese, etc.) Perhaps you should consider using whole wheat pasta, low sodium cheese (if any at all), more actual veggies (ie.not tomatoes, green leafy veggies) not applesauce as a veggie, etc..

  30. The lasagnia looks delicious. I have to add though though that if you are not eating salads or other veg wit most of the meals you show, the nutritioun level is wayyy down and insufficient. A full servings of fruit or veg and/or a salad would turn this into a healthy meal.

  31. valleycat1 says:

    I’ve tried the no-bake noodles. These days I often use the large ravioli (from the refrigerated section of the store, not frozen) instead of layering lasagne noodles/meat/cheese myself. Just layer the ravioli with cheese, sauce, ricotta if you want it, & bake.

    #8-You’re right, I don’t know what other fruits/veggies they eat in a day. I also did say the 4 strawberries probably are sufficient for the young children, just not for an adult. Every plate I’ve seen in Trent’s meal posts shows a huge main dish of meat and/or cheese, with one skimpy portion of a fruit or veg, & bread. And I’ve lived & still visit often in the part of the country he lives in & I actually do know that is how the locals tend to eat. Given the photos that continue to be shared, I’d say Trent isn’t as concerned with my opinion as you are.

    Someone who eats a decent amount of fruits & veggies daily tends to eat more than a skimpy serving with dinner. Almost every up to date nutritional guide you look at says the proportions should be reversed at all meals – smaller meat/cheese portion with 2/3 to 3/4 of the plate veggies & fruits without a lot of cheese or sauces on top.

  32. marta says:

    I agree with valleycat1.

    I tend to believe the meals we are actually shown are more representative of Trent’s diet than whatever he tells us about. If he was truly quasi-vegetarian/vegan, vegetables would feature more prominently even in the non-vegetarian meals — they seem to be there as an afterthought.

    I also have to agree with Evangeline@18: I love cheese myself but that’s way too many meals with cheese (expensive or otherwise ;)). If I ate that much cheese, I’d have to do twice the workouts I currently do!

    Of course, YMMV, yadda yadda.

  33. Johanna says:

    In case anyone wants to veganize this (or just substitute out some of the cheese), here’s how I would do it:

    For the ricotta/cottage cheese, use crumbled extra-firm tofu mixed with a dash of lemon juice, some salt, and a bit of nutritional yeast (*not* baker’s yeast or brewer’s yeast) if you like that sort of thing. I’d probably also mix in some minced fresh herbs to give it a bit of “something else” flavor, so people don’t get hung up on the fact that it doesn’t taste exactly like cheese. (If your tofu squishes instead of crumbling, it’s not firm enough, so you need to either find firmer stuff or press some of the water out.)

    For the parmesan: There exist nondairy parmesan substitutes, but I’d probably just up the quantities of nutritional yeast and salt, since that’s basically what the substitutes are made of anyway.

    It’s probably not necessary to substitute anything for the egg. I’d just omit it.

    You can buy vegan pesto, or you can make it – just omit the cheese.

    For the cheese on top, I’d substitute a bit of commercial nondairy cheese. I recommend either Daiya or Sheese, depending on whether you’re more interested in texture or flavor. Sheese is imported from the UK, so it’s on the expensive side (although still cheaper than top-of-the-line dairy cheese) and it may be hard to find (if you can’t find it in a store, there are places where you can order it online). Either way, I would use less than the full 2 cups, and fill out the recipe with some extra vegetables instead.

  34. Johanna says:

    Also: It would have been fun to see what the original recipe was like, so we could see what kind of improvisations you made.

  35. Kim says:

    Trent says that they had cherry tomatoes from their garden but the picture is clearly of strawberries. (But it makes no sense to serve more tomatoes with a tomato-based main dish anyway.) I pick up on a lot of these distracting issues with Trent’s writing.

  36. Brittany says:

    Why is is necessary for Trent to have put the tomatoes on his plate? Why doesn’t it make sense to eat tomatoes and tomato sauce? You people baffle me.

    I’m also surprised the “What summer about this meal?” naysayers weren’t all over this. Running an oven for an hour and then eating a heavy, cheese-laden, stick-to-your-guts meal? Delicious, but not the most summery. Also, isn’t spinach a cool-weather growing season plant?

  37. Kathy Robinson says:

    LOL your cherry tomatoes on the side look a lot like strawberries to me :-) Either choice seems a bit odd either due to redundancy (tomatoes in the lasagna and on the side; fresh strawberries and lasagna an odd taste combo–to me at least.) I’d probably do a lettuce side salad and skip the garlic bread b/c of all the carb in the pasta.

  38. Adam says:

    “Geez, Trent, you must get tired of people criticizing the healthiness of your meals”

    Geez, poster, you must have missed the part where Trent emphasized that his summer meal series would be reasonably healthy. This dish is one of the more healthy ones thus far, but it could really easily have been improved on the healthy scale without harming the taste, easy of preparataion, or cost (my own suggestion #3 was to add a simple side salad with balsamic vinegrette).

  39. Deborah says:

    Dear Trent,

    This recipe is wonderful as it is. I’m drooling over here! I made one similar, but sauted some thinly sliced portabellos in butter, YES butter. I don’t do this everyday. My motto is everything in moderation. Keep cooking what your kids will eat. That’s the important thing.
    You go, Trent!
    I love your blog, BTW.

  40. Deborah says:

    P.S. Leave out the cheese?!! What are these people thinking?!! LOL
    (I was a mouse in a past life.)

  41. kristine says:

    sara, I have no idea if he used whole wheat noodles or not. I am just suggesting it in general-it’s certainly not a useless suggestion. I wish soemone had suggested it to me years ago. Likewise the added veggies.

  42. Dorothy says:

    Everything from preparation to the final display looks good. I can smell that meal!!!!!!!!! keep those real photos of food coming.

  43. Rebecca says:

    Johanna, that is exactly how we make our lasagna, and even my super carnivore, SAD eating inlaws love it!

  44. Courtney says:

    Comment #19 from valleycat1 cracked me up. “And I’ve lived & still visit often in the part of the country he lives in & I actually do know that is how the locals tend to eat.”
    Yeah, because everyone in Iowa has the exact same eating habits, right? If only those silly, backward Iowans could get with it and fill their plates with fruit and veggies like the rest of America does!
    The sweeping generalizations about the midwest that regularly appear in the comments sections of this blog are a hoot.

  45. Sara says:

    Well, duh, he’s in the midwest, so the rest of his meals are deep-fried corn dogs with a side of chili cheese fries!

    In all seriousness, though, this meal (and any other meal Trent has posted) could easily fit into a healthy diet. Most of these meals have a reasonable serving of vegetables, and he has mentioned that his children eat fruit for snacks. It’s certainly better than the fast food and macaroni and cheese from a box that many busy parents resort to serving for dinner.

    Besides, this blog isn’t called, “The Simple Healthy Menu.” Trent doesn’t claim to be a dietitian, and nowhere in this post did he even claim that this meal is healthy — just low-cost, tasty, and easy-to-prepare. I don’t see people commenting on baking blogs, “That chocolate cheesecake looks great, but a stevia-sweetened fruit pie with a whole wheat crust and topped with nonfat yogurt would be healthier.”

  46. Renae says:

    I’ll have to try this as my grocery budget is out of control. With 3 boys in sports, they are eating me out of house and home. I will have to try the Meatless Monday, Pantry challenge, and any other technique to trim the bill.
    Keep these frugal recipes coming.

  47. Michele says:

    Thanks Trent for the jumping off point with this recipe!
    When I make lasagna I always use uncooked noodles and let it sit in the fridge all day, then bake. No crunchy noodles! I never boil them in advance.
    Also, I’ve made lasagna several times this summer using thinly sliced zucchini and crookneck squash instead of noodles. I use a mandoline to get the noodles thin and I just layer them like lasagna noodles. I also don’t cook them in advance, and it is delicious!

  48. Jen says:

    This is hilarious! I’ve never read through the posts on this blog before, but are commenters always so rude? Yeesh!

    Anyway, I’m making this right now, with whole wheat noodles (de rigeur at our house) with a side salad and a baked acorn squash. Thanks for the recipe! I’m glad to be back to making lasagna after getting tired of it.

  49. Proofreader (LOL) says:

    “We served it with some garlic bread and some fresh cherry tomatoes from our garden.”

    No, you clearly served it with four small strawberries and a hunk of plain, unbuttered/un-garlicked, Italian bread.

    Toss this one up in a rush, Trent? ;)

  50. Karen says:

    @Michele – that sounds good – was thinking about trying some squash instead of noodles. And thanks for the tip about the uncooked noodles. I might have to do this recipe later this week.

  51. T says:

    Stupid question – what’s Fontina cheese?

  52. Mary says:

    Don’t stop with just a summer menu, keep it up through out the year, great meal ideas.

  53. Annie says:

    This looks delicious!

  54. Becky Joy says:

    Trent, I’d be very interested to see the cost breakdown on this one. In my husband’s and my experience, lasagna doesn’t qualify as a low cost meal when you take into account buying different kinds of cheese (and possibly pine nuts for the pesto as well?). Thanks!

  55. Gretchen says:

    Fontina is a melty cow’s milk cheese.

    I’d be interested in the specific cost breakdown of this as well.

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