I love what I do here at Fantastic Feasts. Twice a month I get to celebrate two of my favorite things -- food and science fiction -- and usually it's not a tough task. I get a show, think about what I want to cook, make it, document the process, make any necessary adjustments, eat it (my favorite), and then write about it! Not hard.
Until this assignment.
About two weeks ago I got a message from my editor. (This may or may not be 100% factual in my relaying of our conversation.)
Editor: So, I want you to make Alex's Lasagna from The Expanse. It was in the first episode of Season 2.
Me: I'm Italian so this is gonna be a breeze.
Editor: But you need a funky pan.
Me: How funky?
Editor: Like all squiggly. Think a giant "E."
Me: … okay.
Editor: Wait, there's more. You can't use cheese.
Me: That's going to be interesting.
Editor: Or wheat noodles.
Editor: Or tomatoes.
Me: Right. Now you're just being ridiculous.
Editor: I have all the faith in the world you'll pull this off. You're amazing … like, seriously, the best ever. Muah!
Like I said, this may or may not have been our actual conversation, but it's pretty close. Especially the last sentence. (Okay, totally not the last sentence, but whatever. And for the record, I love my editor, so the "muah" may very well have been me, but it's all a cheese-free blur now.)
The first thing I had to do was watch the episode, which wasn't hard, because The Expanse is a great show. About 38 minutes in, Alex sends a 911 to his team. They respond, expecting an emergency, but instead are greeted by him in the kitchen with a piping hot tray of fresh baked lasagna.
He looks so proud.
Alex tells them it's a Kamal family recipe straight from the Mariner Valley, where he grew up. Only problem is, certain ingredients are hard to come by way out there, including apparently wheat, cheese, and tomatoes.
Crap. My editor wasn't kidding. This was going to be tough. Hmm, time to do some serious thinking and figure this out.
I re-watched the scene about 10 more times, ignoring Steven Strait's equally delicious abs, paying close attention to the lasagna itself instead.
Then I took a screen shot and blew it up.
Well, it certainly looks like normal lasagna … but if he made it with limited ingredients, then what exactly did he use if not tomatoes, wheat noodles and cheese?
And what's all that green, yellow, and red stuff?
No, really ... what is that stuff???
I went onto the Expanse Wiki and looked up the Mariner Valley entry, which told me that the population was predominantly Chinese and Indian … which got me thinking about alternatives to wheat, tomatoes, and cheese that would make work culturally with those demographics as well as the geographically isolated location. What about rice and soy products? From a transportation standpoint, it makes sense. I could easily see a huge shipment of rice and tofu being much easier to blast off to a distant Martian colony. And from the story Joe relayed about cheese being a luxury item, I could see the locals looking for viable alternatives and figured a vegan swap-out might be the way to go.
With this in mind, I decided to plan my lasagna around Martian transportation issues, ethnic alternatives and vegan options, starting with dairy-free cheese substitutes.
A little bit of online research led me to a number of recipes for fake ricotta cheese made from tofu, apple cider vinegar and salt. Hmm, all easily transportable over long distances. I figured I'd give it a try. I also found a cheese sauce recipe made from soy milk that sounded interesting.
Finding the noodles was easy. With so many gluten alternatives, I had no problem picking up lasagna noodles made from rice. I also grabbed a bag of rice flour, a carton of soy milk and some vegan meat (if you can't have dairy, I figure you probably aren't getting much fresh meat either). In keeping with my idea that everything has to be easily transportable and because I needed something to match the green swirls and yellow chunks I saw in the photos, I grabbed a box of frozen spinach and a bag of frozen mixed vegetables that included zucchini, carrots and squash. It's easier to freeze those than it is tomatoes, so I'm pretending that those were the only veggies they got with any regularity … unless you count Mark Watney's potatoes, but that's a different story.
To make the ricotta I drained my box of tofu and then mashed it into a cottage cheese consistency. I added in my cider vinegar and salt and mixed well.
This is what I ended up with:
Hmm … well it looked like ricotta … and it tasted … not bad. Not like ricotta, but still tasty enough. I dub it 'faux-cotta' and set it aside to start on my 'meat.'
These are 100% vegetarian soy meat crumbles.
I sautéed it and added a package of instant spaghetti spices to give it some more flavor as well as the red color I saw in the photos. I also added some extra dried garlic, basil and oregano. Mmm, it smelled delicious ... so at least this part might be okay.
While that was cooking I boiled my noodles. Nothing fancy there. Just some salted water, a little olive oil and rice noodles that looked exactly like regular lasagna noodles.
Now to make the fake cheese sauce.
I found a bunch of recipes online for dairy-free cheese sauce that used flour and nutritional yeast and figured I'd try those but make substitutions for the flour and just skip the yeast altogether.
I used soy milk, rice flour, cider vinegar, olive oil and salt … which if mixed in the right proportions and allowed to simmer for 5-10 minutes makes --
-- very fancy but very bland gluten-free paper maché glue.
Oh boy. Maybe that nutritional yeast should have gone into the mix? Oh well, too late now. Undaunted, I pressed on.
Next, I added my frozen veggies to my meat mixture.
I admit, I went a little overboard with the veggies, but I figured if I'm going to eat gluten-free paste, the veggies might make it taste better.
All that done, it was time to start assembling my Expanse lasagna. I pulled out my special squiggly pan (courtesy of Buy-It-Now from eBay!) and started layering.
First the noodles.
Next some paste, er, I mean cheese.
Then some 'meat' and veggies mixture.
Some more noodles.
A little faux-cotta cheese.
Another layer of noodles and a final coat of faux-cotta finished it off. Then I put the whole thing into the oven at 400F/204C for 40 minutes.
When it came out, I was pleasantly surprised. It looked a lot more like the Expanse lasagna than I thought it would.
Not bad, right?
But how about taste? Misery loves company and since I was still on the fence about my cheese sauce being more paste than food, I decided the only way to truly endure the meal was to inflict it on as many people as possible …
So I served it to my family for dinner.
And guess what???
It was delicious!
No, really! Somewhere along the way while making this insane lasagna with no wheat, no cheese, no tomato and adding in fake ricotta and wallpaper paste … it actually became not only edible but really really tasty!
I admit it, I am 100% shocked at how good it actually was.
I am also shocked at how many pots and pans I had to wash after that entire adventure … but hey, it was worth it.
So, final thoughts ... would I make this again? Actually, yes. I have some very good friends who are vegetarian and I think they'd like this. To be honest, I have some carnivore friends who would also enjoy this. Next time I'd probably give the nutritional yeast a try and see what that adds, but all in all ... I'd rate this a solid success.
Feeling brave? Want to whip up your own batch of Alex Kamal-inspired Expanse lasagna?
To make the faux-cotta you will need:
1 16 oz box of firm silken tofu
1 2/3 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoons salt
You will also need:
Place your tofu into the strainer over your bowl and allow to drain for about 5 minutes.
Discard the liquid and then transfer the tofu to the bowl.
Using your fork, mash your tofu and mix in your cider vinegar and salt.
To make your fake cheese sauce you will need:
¼ cup rice flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups soy milk
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
½ Tablespoon olive oil
You will also need:
Small sauce pan
Combine your flour and salt in a small saucepan. Add in ¼ of the cup of soy milk and mix. Once the mixture is well incorporated, add in the rest of the soy milk, vinegar and olive oil. Over medium heat, cook the mixture for about 4-5 minutes, stirring constantly. The mixture will thicken as it cooks.
Once thickened, remove from heat and set aside.
To make your lasagna noodles you will need:
1 10 oz. box of gluten-free rice lasagna noodles
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 quart water
You will also need:
A large pot
Bring your water to a boil. Add the salt, olive oil and noodles. Cook for 5 minutes less than what the box tells you. You want the noodles to be almost cooked. They'll finish cooking in the oven.
Drain and set aside for now.
To make your 'meat' and veggies you will need:
1 10 ounce bag of veggie meat crumbles
1 10 oz box of frozen spinach, thawed
1 10 oz bag of frozen mixed veggies (I used California veggies which included carrots, broccoli, zucchini, and squash)
1 package instant spaghetti spice
1 teaspoon dried garlic
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil
2 Tablespoons olive oil
½ cup water
You will also need:
Medium sauce pan
In your saucepan mix together your meat crumbles, olive oil, garlic, oregano, basil and spaghetti spice. Add in the cup of water and cook until the water is 90% evaporated. Add your spinach and veggies and cook until all water content has evaporated (about 8-10 minutes).
Now it's time to assemble this culinary masterpiece.
You will need:
Your cooked rice noodles
Your faux-cotta cheese
Your cheese sauce
Your meat and veggie mixture
You will also need:
1 squiggly baking pan (regular baking pan can also be substituted)
Place a layer of noodles down in your pan, then add in some of the cheese sauce. Next, put down a layer of meat and veggies followed by another layer of noodles and then some faux-cotta. Continue layering until you run out of noodles. Top with a layer of faux-cotta smoothed down.
Pop into a 400F/204C oven for 40 minutes. Bake until lasagna is golden on top and sauce, is bubbling.
Enjoy your surprisingly tasty and out-of-this-world lasagna!