Flipping through an old 1998 Good Housekeeping – Best Recipes cookbook for dinner inspiration, I came across a recipe for “Sunday Baked Ziti & Meatball Casserole.”
My first step to create a dairy-free, soy-free baked ziti was to find an allergy-friendly alternative for ricotta cheese. After a couple web searches, I had quite a few dairy-free ideas but they all relied on tofu or some other soy-containing ingredient. Even the vegan cream cheese substitute was out when I learned, on a visit to my local grocery store, that they too are soy based.
Then, I came across a recipe posted in the Book of Yum blog for a dairy-free spinach lasagna. Their lasagna used a natural, raw food “ricotta cheese” recipe that Sarma Melngailis – co-owner of one of New York City’s first upscale raw food restaurants – provided during an interview by the RawGuru raw food blog. The recipe uses pine nuts (that I’ve learned true chefs call by the fancier name – pignoli) as its base.
Was it irony or fate that I had just mentioned to my daughter’s pediatrician that the only common food allergen that I hadn’t tried reintroducing into my “elimination” nursing diet was tree nuts?
“Ricotta Cheese” Layer:
- 2 (3 oz) packages raw pine nuts – soaked in water for at least 1 hour
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- 2 tbsp nutritional yeast
- 1 tsp sea salt – ground fine
- 6 tbsp water
- 1 large egg
- 1 tbsp daiya mozzarella cheese
- 1 additional tbsp nutritional yeast
- 2 tbsp dried parsley
- ¼ tsp coarsely ground black pepper
Tomato Sauce – Noodle Layer:
- Approx. 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 onions – sliced into small 1” chucks (about the size of a fingernail)
- 4 tbsp (or less) minced garlic
- 3 tbsp dried basil
- 1 large bay leaf
- 1 (28 oz) can organic whole tomatoes
- 1 (10 ¾ oz) can organic tomato puree
- 1 (6 oz) can organic tomato paste
- fresh ground black pepper
- 1 (1 lb) box penne pasta – cooked per box directions
This is a modified version of my mom’s “homemade” tomato sauce from her YUMmy eggplant Parmesan recipe.
(Optional) Meat Layer:
- 1 ½ – 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 lb ground turkey meat (or veggie alternative if allergies permit)
- 3 tbsp tomato puree
- 1 tsp dried basil
- 2 tsp dried parsley
- ½ – 1 tsp garlic powder
1 (8 oz) package daiya mozzarella cheese – for spreading
Method (or Mistakes)
While my pine nuts were soaking, I prepared my tomato sauce and meat layers.
Tomato sauce – noodle layer: Heat large saucepan on medium heat. Pour in enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the saucepan. Add onion, basil, and garlic (my family LOVES garlic, so feel free to decrease amount). Cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and stir frequently. When onions are translucent (color of cellophane noodles), add all remaining sauce ingredients except pepper. Bring to a boil on high heat, then reduce to a simmer. Cook sauce for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Add pepper to taste. Set aside 1 cup of sauce for top of casserole, then stir cooked pasta in remaining sauce.
Meat layer: Heat large skillet over medium-high heat. Add olive oil, then add turkey meat. Cook until meat is brown. Add tomato puree, basil, and parsley. Continue cooking for 1 – 2 minutes, then remove from heat.
The Good Housekeeping recipe calls for meatballs prepared at least a day ahead. Wanting ziti the same day I craved it – I quickly threw together this alternative.
Ricotta cheese layer: Place soaked pine nuts, lemon juice, nutritional yeast, and salt in blender or food processor. Pulse mixture a few times, until thoroughly combined. Gradually add water, and pulse until texture becomes fluffy like ricotta. Place mixture in a medium-large bowl. Stir in egg, additional nutritional yeast, parsley, salt and pepper.
Although the original recipe calls for 2 cups of pine nuts, I didn’t want to open a third package, so I planned to decrease the rest of my ingredients. However, I hadn’t anticipated that when it was time to add my ingredients to the blender, I’d have some added stress factors. My daughter was crying at the top of her lungs in my husband’s arms, while he paced through the kitchen giving me an annoyed “seriously, you’re still cooking?” look. Add to that my son, and his blender issue (mentioned in my carrot cake cupcakes post), who kept asking: “Mom, are you done yet?” because he wanted to reopen the door to the playroom. It wasn’t until I was pouring the final drops of water into the blender that I remembered I was supposed to decrease my ingredients. Without the time or patience to soak more pine nuts for an hour, I used what I had.
The Ziti: Preheat the oven to 400°. In a 13” x 9” glass baking dish, layer the casserole as follows: 1) ½ the pasta mix; 2) meat; 3) ricotta cheese; 4) remaining ½ pasta mix; 5) reserved 1 cup of tomato sauce; 6) cover with daiya mozzarella cheese. Bake for 30 – 35 minutes.
I had a lot of fun making this dish, as it required more creativity than I had exerted in a long time. And the best part of this recipe was that the entire family approved! Soon after I went back for seconds, my son who (surprisingly) had a “Happy Plate” took the remaining ziti off my husband’s plate. Following suit, my husband disappeared to return from the kitchen with another plate full of ziti. And despite my ricotta cheese mishap, my ziti was neither runny nor lemony!
The only drawback to the meal was when, less than two days later, my daughter broke out in hives. (In response to the question I get a lot – if I eat a food one night, it usually takes about 1 ½ days before my daughter breaks out. However, if it’s a more severe allergic reaction, she may display abdominal discomfort and/or eye swelling as early as a few moments after our first post-meal nursing session.)
Sadly, after everything, I still don’t know for sure if my daughter is allergic to tree nuts. I later realized that my nutritional yeast was manufactured in a plant that processes, among other things, milk and soy! How could an item that is so heavily relied upon by vegans possibly contain milk?! Never having been fond of true Parmesan cheese but having liked the taste of nutritional yeast, I was bummed by this discovery. If you happen to know of a nutritional yeast manufactured in an allergen-friendly plant, I would love to know. Thanks!