Left in Andover: Tofu and the love of lasagna

By Susan Leader
©2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

In 1970, my fellow communards and I subsisted for weeks at a time on homemade tortillas, beans and pokeweed in our remote eastern Kentucky “holler.”

It was cause for rejoicing when Phyllis and Vernon Cannon, parents of Jerry, the legal owner of our commune’s land, arrived for the weekend toting a hamper full of homemade lasagna.

This may well have been just a heartfelt gesture of love from Phyllis, a great cook. But could there have been an element of pity in it as well? Perhaps a gentle reminder to us of a bigger outside world, that we should live a little.

Lasagna did not figure in my own family’s non-Italian background. Mom coaxed farmers cheese from our own cows milk, warming it gently on the far end of the wood stove. Dad favored pineapple flavored cottage cheese from the supermarket, which I detested. I grew up with no concept of ricotta cheese.

Phyllis Cannon’s lasagna, with its full complement of melted mozzarella, white flour noodles and real tomato sauce, whetted the appetite. Falling off the wagon would sometimes become cause for our whole gang of hippie drop-outs to hitchhike to a market in nearby “Hogtown,” Elliottsville, Ky., for ice cream cones.

As much as we appreciated the treats, we would never have considered concocting them ourselves. We didn’t even have an oven, electricity or a freezer. Our group of six to eight members cooked outdoors on a primitive fire pit, the center of communal life.

The 1970s came and mostly went before I met my future husband, in 1978. Along with him, lasagna reentered my life as well. After we set up housekeeping together in a primitive cabin in Andover, John’s parents drove up from New York City to visit, bearing hampers of cooked food.

Although the Speckers come from a carnivorous tradition, John’s mother Ethel astutely prescribed her spinach lasagna and spinach ricotta pie as the way to my vegetarian heart. I couldn’t get enough of her consummately constructed manicotti, stuffed shells and lasagna. And neither could my daughters.

Susan’s ingredients for tofu ‘ricotta’ lasagna.

My own cuisine consisted of beans and rice and eggs and seasonal vegetables topped off with hefty doses of cheese. During my year and a half in Japan, I had also come to enjoy tofu, made from coagulated soy milk. My favorite form of it there had been as a crusty, deep-fried street food.

In an 1770 letter, Benjamin Franklin made note of this substance as “Chinese cheese.” But tofu never became popular among Americans of non-Asian background until the mid- 1970s, when the counter-culture adopted it as a versatile vegetarian fast food.

Not being able to purchase tofu locally, I recall, was one reason I almost declined to move back to Andover when I returned from Japan in 1974.

The benefits and deficits of consuming tofu, which is not technically a whole food, in quantity are a hot topic of debate on the internet these days.

Regardless of its health effects, ever since many of my closest family members came up sensitive to dairy, we have been satisfying our cravings for lasagna type dishes by improvising a dairy-free version of ricotta made of tofu. Try it before you laugh.

I don’t specify exact measurements because that is not how I cook. As a result, every time I whip up my fake “ricotta” it is different, yet always palatable.

Try the following general idea if you are looking for a dairy-free lasagna. If it needs to be gluten free as well, gluten free lasagna noodles are now available everywhere.

Susan’s Tofu ‘Ricotta’ Lasagna

  • With a potato masher or fork, reduce a block of tofu to crumbles.
  • Dump in a couple tablespoons, or more, of large flake nutritional yeast (available at co-ops and some supermarkets).
  • Mix in a dash of Italian seasoning, some olive oil, a very big splash of apple cider vinegar and a shake of Bragg Liquid Aminos. (I find the Bragg-vinegar-nutritional yeast combo “cheezy”). Skip the Bragg if desired.
  • Most prepared pasta sauces will deliver plenty of salt. I crack one or sometimes two eggs into the mix to make it richer and more cohesive in texture, but this is optional.
  • Construct your lasagna and bake per usual with cooked noodles, vegetables and pasta sauce. If you are trying to cut down on but not eliminate dairy, use the tofu as only a partial substitute.

The good news is that towfu, as Benjamin Franklin’s correspondent called it, can now be purchased at mainstream markets in all of Andover’s surrounding towns, Ludlow, Londonderry and Chester.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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