Zoodle (Zucchini Noodle) Lasagna Stuffed Peppers
- 1 small zucchini
- 4-6 medium sized bell peppers (green, yellow, orange, red or purple)
- 1 cup ricotta
- 1 cup arugula or spinach, loosely chopped
- 1/2 cup parmesan cheese, shredded
- 1 egg
- pinch of nutmeg
- 1-2 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded
- 3 mild Italian sausage, uncooked (vegetarian option: 1-2 cups cooked orzo pasta)
- 2 cups pomodoro sauce
- salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
DirectionsPreheat oven to 350ºF/175ºC. Trim ends from zucchini and slice into long noodles (zoodles) using vegetable peeler or mandolin. Cut top off peppers and scoop out any of the seeds/core. Remove sausage from casings and place in a frying pan and cook on medium heat, breaking the meat apart with a spoon as it cooks. Once cooked, add the Pomodoro sauce to meat, stir well until fully mixed and sauce is heated through, then remove from the heat and bring to prep area (vegetarian option: add sauce and cooked orzo to a pan, heat through, then remove from heat). In a small bowl, mix together the ricotta, parmesan, egg, nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste. Fill the pepper in layers: start with a small layer of the meat sauce, layer of zoodles (1-2 thick, cut zoodle to size to fit), small layer ricotta mix, layer zoodles, repeat until pepper is filled. Fill all peppers the same way. Sprinkle top of peppers with mozzarella cheese. Place in oven for 40-45 minutes, or until heated all the way through and cheese has browned. Serve.
And now for the details…
Have you seen the beautiful piles of peppers at your farmers markets recently?? Oodles of peppers of different sizes, shapes and colours. Everything from little globes of crimson cherry peppers, to the long pale chartreuse Hungarian wax peppers, to the little orange lanterns of habanero. Now for the people that know me well, this waxing poetic about peppers is going to come as a bit of a surprise. I don’t like peppers. Or at least I didn’t. But I have managed to expand my horizons.
What I don’t like? Green peppers. They’re like the bitter, obnoxious guest in your meal. From the first whiff of your food, they come barreling in with a distinct aroma and flavour. “HEY!!! I’M HERE! PAY ATTENTION TO ME!” There is very little room for pleasant or quiet conversation when the green pepper is invited to the party. They speak loudly, bowl over any other ingredient that is trying to talk, and they stick around to the very end, sometimes returning after you’ve ended the meal and everyone else has gone home (ever burped after eating something with green pepper? Blech.)
But I have come to appreciate the many other peppers out there that aren’t so boorish or demanding. Where the flavours are a bit more refined, sweeter, and nuanced. The peppers that compliment the other ingredients and make them better. And in the case of this recipe, those are the types of peppers I decided to pair up with the cheesy, tomatoey, unctuous flavours of lasagna.
This recipe comes together surprisingly quick. If you have more mouths to feed, or want to set yourself up for leftovers, you can easily size this recipe up (or down if you don’t want as much!) and since it reheats really well as leftovers the next day or day after, it’s a great weekday option!
First thing’s first: preheat your oven to 350ºF/175ºC.
We start the creation off by getting our fillings ready. The sausage/sauce is first. In this case, for the Pomodoro sauce, I had some homemade in the freezer that I pulled out for this recipe. If you don’t have any in the freezer, you could be extra and make some, as it does come together pretty quick, but a good can or jar of sauce goes over just fine.
Remove the sausages from their casings and place the meat in a frying pan. This might seem inherent to some people, but when I was first learning to cook, I did not realize that removing sausage from casings was something that could be done. The meal-makers of my childhood (predominantly mom, but also grandma’s and aunties) were all fabulous cooks, and we usually ate meats that they had prepared from scratch. The only sausage that I was familiar with was the occasional kubasa (Ukrainian garlic sausage) and hotdogs. I didn’t know that sausages came uncured and raw. For this recipe, when purchasing your sausage, make sure it is of the raw, uncured variety. You’ll be able to tell quite quickly if that’s true with a quick poke through the packaging. Raw sausage feels, well, raw. It’s soft and squishy, much like poking raw ground meat. To get it out of the casing, snip the tip off one end, pinch the other end tightly between your fingers, and then push the filling from the pinched end down, like you’re trying to squeeze the last bit of toothpaste out of the tube. Alternatively, there are some places (check out your local Italian market) that will sell the sausage loose, without the casings, if you feel a bit squeamish about handling the sausages.
In the pan, fry up that sausage over medium-high heat until slightly browned and fully cooked. In my photo here, I have coarse-ground sausage. Yours might be a bit finer, so don’t fret if is doesn’t look quite like the photo. Break apart the sausage as it cooks, to get smaller pieces of meat that will be easier to fill the pepper with (big chunks of meat will make the layering of the “lasagna” quite a bit more challenging). Once cooked, add that tomato sauce in, and stir well.
For the vegetarians in the crowd: you’re going to complete skip the entire meat-cooking step (okay, so that part is probably obvious). This fabulous idea for a vegetarian alternative came from my friend Zoe: cook some orzo according package directions, drain, return to the pot with the Pomodoro sauce, stirring well and heating until the Pomodoro sauce it heated through.
Next step is the ricotta cheese filling. In a small bowl, mix together the ricotta, arugula, egg, parmesan cheese, a pinch of nutmeg and some salt and pepper. This will seem like a shocking thing for a saltaholic like me to say, but don’t go too heavy on the salt. We are already getting salt in the dish from the sausage, pre-made Pomodoro and parmesan. If you’re worried about it, mix everything but the egg and give it a taste-test, then mix the egg in when you’re happy with the flavour.
The last thing to do before assembly is to make zucchini “noodles”, i.e. zoodles. If you have a fancy mandolin, you could definitely use that, or if you’ve got some serious knife skills and can cut the zucchini thinly, that is also an option. I went cheap and easy and used a vegetable peeler. If you’ve not made zucchini noodles with a peeler before, there are a few videos out there you can use as examples. Basically: trim either ends of the zucchini, and run the peeler down the length of the zucchini, and voila! You’ve made your first zoodle! Repeat the peeler step over and over until the zucchini has been converted to zoodles. A lot of the videos/blog posts will tell you not to use the center, but that’s probably because they are making a dish where they are sautéing the zoodles. In our case, the zoodles are forming the “noodle” layer of our lasagna and won’t be moved around during the cooking process, so the centre bits are a-okay. I like using the zoodles instead of pasta noodles to avoid the extra step of cooking regular lasagna noodles. And extra pot to clean and an extra cooking step? No thank you. Another advantage: any of the zoodles you don’t use can just be chopped up quick, thrown in a sealed container in the fridge and added to a sauce, soup or stew later that week.
Are we ready to assemble? Heck yeah!
Cut and core the peppers (thank you Martha!) and lay them in a baking dish. I did a couple different kinds of peppers here. For the typical bell pepper, just cut around the top (stem side) like you would with a jack-o-lantern and pull out the core. Turn it upside down and tap out any extra seeds, and if there is quite a bit of the white inner pieces, just tear them out with your fingers. I also did a long, sweet red pepper, and since it can’t sit upright, I cut out one of the sides instead of the top (the piece I cut off got chopped and tossed in with the sauce to avoid any wastage ;P).
Your first layer will be the sauce (add around two tablespoons per pepper), smoothing the sauce across the base as evenly as possible. Then place some of the zoodles over the sauce, then the ricotta mixture (again, a couple tablespoons per pepper and smoothed out evenly), more zoodles and back to sauce. To get the zoodles to fit, cut them to approximate lengths and layer them on top of each other so that they somewhat cover the layer underneath. We are working with weird shaped here, not a typical rectangular lasagna pan, so don’t worry about getting the layer perfect. Repeat the sauce, zoodles, ricotta, zoodles order over and over until you fill the pepper.
When you’ve filled the pepper, make sure a zoodle layer is the last, top-most one, then top with the shredded mozzarella. Put the peppers into the pre-heated oven for 40-45 minutes, or until the filling has cooked all the way through and the cheese is golden and bubbly. Serve immediately.
If you’re wanting some for leftover, let the pepper cool completely, then place in a sealed container in the fridge for up to three days. You could go through the effort of reheating in the oven, but to be honest, the microwave worked just fine for us.