The “cheesy” layer in this comforting casserole comes from blended butternut squash, cashews, tamari, nutritional yeast, lemon juice, and cayenne pepper. This creamy goodness tops lasagne-like layers of zucchini and eggplant, making for a filling dish to feed a crowd (or your family, with leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch).
2 large eggplants
Salt and pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more to brush
1 fennel bulb, finely chopped
3 red bell peppers, roughly chopped
6 garlic cloves, crushed
4 teaspoons smoked paprika
3 14.5-ounce cans diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 10-ounce jar oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes (6 ounces drained weight), drained and chopped
Few sprigs of fresh thyme
1 teaspoon chili flakes
3/4 cup hazelnuts
Finely grated zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
1 ounce flat-leaf parsley, leaves picked and finely chopped
For the cheesy sauce
7 ounces butternut squash (about 1/3 of a squash), peeled and roughly chopped
1 cup cashews, soaked in water for at least 4 hours, then drained
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
1 tablespoon tamari
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
Juice of 1 lemon
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Slice the eggplants lengthwise into slices roughly 1/4-inch thick, place on two baking sheets in a single layer, and sprinkle liberally with salt and set aside to let water draw out. Slice the zucchini lengthwise into 1/4-inch slices too.
Place a grill pan over high heat. Brush it with olive oil and start grilling the zucchini slices. Lay them on gently and leave them until you can see the grill lines coming through the top side. Set aside. Keep going until all the zucchini slices are done.
Heat the 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large nonstick frying pan over medium heat. Add the fennel, season with salt and pepper, and cook for three minutes. Add the peppers and garlic and cook for three minutes. Add the paprika, stirring to coat. Now tip in the canned tomatoes, tomato paste, sun-dried tomatoes, thyme, and chili flakes. Let the tomato sauce simmer and reduce for at least 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, you can get on with the eggplants. Using paper towels, brush off the salt and water from the eggplant slices and start grilling on the hot grill pan. (Make sure you have your exhaust fan on! It gets smoky, but the flavor makes it worthwhile.) Grill for about a minute each side and set aside.
Once the eggplants are done, the tomato sauce should look glossy and coat the back of a spoon nicely. If this is so, you can start assembling the bake. Taste the sauce for seasoning and add more salt and pepper if needed.
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Place the hazelnuts on a baking sheet and bake for seven to 10 minutes, until they turn golden. Set aside to cool.
Take a lasagne dish and put a layer of eggplant on the bottom, followed by a layer of tomato sauce, then a layer of zucchini. Keep layering until everything is used up, finishing with a layer of the tomato sauce. Cover with foil and bake on the middle rack of the oven for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the cheesy sauce. Steam the squash for 15 minutes. Add to a high-powered blender with the remaining sauce ingredients and blend until totally smooth, seasoning well.
Remove the foil from the bake, pour on the sauce, and return to the oven for another 10 minutes. Meanwhile, chop the hazelnuts and mix in a bowl with the lemon zest and parsley.
Remove the bake from the oven, sprinkle half of the herby nut mixture over the top, and take to the table to serve. Put the rest of the hazelnut mixture in a bowl on the table so people can add extra to their plate should they want it.