What do you do to celebrate summer? My family always makes a list at the beginning of the vacation of all the quintessential summer activities our family must do to fully enjoy the summer: swimming, movies, museums, zoos, and aquariums are typically on the list. Yesterday we checked off one of our favorite semi-local aquariums by making the treacherous journey through extreme traffic to the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. The trip was definitely worth it as we learned a lot of amazing things. My brother was particularly fascinated by their new exhibit, “Wonders of the Deep,” where a selection of midnight-zone marine monsters lurk. He urged me to do a blog post about it, and I happen to be interested in sea creatures myself, so here we are.
The deep-ocean exhibit contains the first jellyfish touch tank I have ever seen, in which visitors can gently feel the bells of harmless moon jellies (They’re so delicate I was more afraid of hurting the creatures than of their weak stinging cells!) Another highlight is a model whale carcass being scavenged by real abyssal scavengers (which are fed real meat and just hang out on their grotesque playground.) There is also a tank that includes giant deep sea isopods, which basically look like pill bugs or lice except the size of your forearm. Does this exhibit sound enchanting to you yet?
One of the cutest things in the exhibit, and the one my brother insisted upon returning to twice and stared at with a greater attention span than I thought he had in him, is a cylindrical tank full of chambered nautiluses. They gape out with their primitive eyes and pump their siphons to swim in whimsical backwards circles, often bumping into one another on the way but never seeming to be too phased by the collision.
When we visited the nautilus tank for the second time, an aquarium staff member was poking around in there with a long grasping stick. At first we were afraid she had to remove one of the animals, but it turned out she was feeding them shrimps. When her work was done, we asked her some of the questions that had been sparked in our minds by the sight of the alien creatures. She was more than happy to chat and the conversation kept expanding, elaborating on more of nautilus biology than I’d ever dreamed I’d learn by visiting the aquarium. For instance, it turns out the chambered nautilus is pretty easy to sex: if it has three long, curling tentacles on the left side, it is a male. Otherwise, it is female. The friendly staff member even took us behind the scenes to the mating tank where serious couples were given some space to be lovers. Here I had the opportunity to feed a dead shrimp to a diffident marine cephalopod. Unfortunately, the creatures didn’t seem to be hungry – or maybe they were trying not to spoil their appetites for their dates later that evening, because my crustacean offering was ignored. Even so, it was neat to catch a glimpse both of how the aquarium is run and how life is 2,000 feet beneath the ocean’s surface.
above: abalone, an unrelated, non-deep-sea gastropod
I’ve always been interested in the ocean, but somehow visiting the aquarium feels especially appropriate in the summertime. I guess summer = beaches = ocean = marine biology? Anyway, there’s lots of things I find just aren’t as fun to do when not done in summer. Eating fresh veggies is obviously one of them: there’s just so much variety and so much better quality of everything available right now. So I decided to take advantage of all the fresh produce while it lasts with a lasagna that’s as quintessentially summer as the beach.
This lasagna is truly a celebration of summer: it is bursting with the fresh produce that abounds this season, from vitamin-rich sweet mini peppers to zucchini, high in vitamin C as well as potassium and with some nourishing fiber. To make it more satisfying and less sinful, I used whole wheat lasagna noodles, which taste just as good as the refined carb-laden regular noodles but provide more fiber and a slightly heartier, nuttier taste. If you are a cheese lover, (and don’t mind upping the calories and fat content a bit), I might suggest doubling the amount of feta cheese I used in this recipe as it provided only a slight hint of cheese. Overall, this lasagna turned out wonderfully and made for a great light, yet satisfying midday meal to enjoy in the July sunshine. And I didn’t have to try and feed it to any uncooperative invertebrates either! (Do nautiluses eat vegetables?)
Gotta get your summer veggies and fruits while you can, because before you know it it’ll be all pumpkins and apples! Here’s one way to enjoy them:
Summer Veggie Lasagna
based on recipe from myrecipes.com
makes 4-8 servings (one 8″ square pan)
- 4 uncooked lasagna noodles (I used Eating Right brand Whole Grain Pasta lasagna noodles)
- 2 cups tomato sauce (I used Ragu brand)
- 1 cup fresh baby spinach
- 1/2 cup feta cheese (I used Lucerne brand reduced fat)
- 1 whole large zucchini
- 1/2 orange skin yam or sweet potato
- 5 large sweet mini peppers
- 1 whole shallot onion
- about 1/2 cup hot water
Preheat oven to 375 Fahrenheit.
Prep the veggies: first wash everything. Rip the spinach into little bits. Then microwave the potato until it is warm enough to slice in rounds and cut each round in halves or quarters. Slice the zucchini into halved rounds as well. Cut off stems of mini peppers and dice them. Peel and chop shallot onion.
Layer ingredients in your baking dish. Mine was a bit messy because I don’t really know the proper way to layer lasagna, but here’s what I did in order from bottom of the baking dish to the top: about 1/3 of total tomato sauce spread evenly on bottom, covered by 2 noodles broken to fit in dish, sprinkled with cheese and spinach pieces. Over this I added rows of zucchini and yam slices, broken up by handfuls of peppers and onions. I spooned some more tomato sauce over this. Then I covered that mess with the other two noodles, again broken to fit in the dish, sprinkled with the rest of the cheese and spinach, which in turn was covered by the rest of the veggies and the last of the sauce. Here’s a basic visual of my sloppy attempt at layering lasagna if you wish to give it a go:
2 lasagna noodles
2 lasagna noodles
Anyway, once you’ve figured that out, pour 1/4 cup hot water around inside edge of baking dish. Then cover dish with two layers of aluminum foil.
Bake at 375 Fahrenheit for 25 minutes. Then add another 1/4 cup or so of hot water around inside edge of baking dish, just to make sure lasagna noodles soften. Cover and return to oven for another ten minutes. Then, remove aluminum foil cover and bake for another ten minutes, uncovered.
Remove from oven and allow lasagna to cool for ten minutes before serving.
Serve with a sunny smile!
Many families fall into a weekly routine, with the same mundane dinners being pulled out of the oven and plopped on the table on such a regular basis that even the tastiest family recipes become overdone and boring. I know a lot of children will turn up their noses at Mom’s lasagna, week after week, whining, “lasagna again?” And Mom will sigh, week after week, and force the gloppy substance into her children’s ungrateful mouths, or excuse them without dessert, and Dad will nibble on the common casserole while quietly dreaming of a more interesting dinner. Fast-forward to seven days later, and the ordeal is repeated. Perhaps it’s time to break out of this pointless routine, and try a new approach to lasagna.
Everyone loves nachos – crispy tortilla chips covered in flavorful Mexican veggies, melty cheese, and often a touch of avocado and some hearty beans. Why not incorporate the delicious appeal of nachos into the casserole style of lasagna? To make it even more fun and different, make the portions in individual ramekins. This is what I did one night to create a unique dinner, and it turned out splendidly. I used the same concept as my basic Classic Lasagna Ramekins, but subbed out the noodles for a gluten-free spinach tortilla. For the fillings, I incorporated Italian pasta sauce with Mexican cheese, black beans, and avocado. Each adorable little mini-lasagna was topped off with a sweet mini pepper for a burst of flavor and added nutrition. The tortillas got wonderfully crispy just at the edges, reminiscent of nachos, but in the center they remained softer like a typical casserole. These were flavorful but not too spicy for children to enjoy. I deem them a delicious family dinner idea that could certainly delight people of all ages. So if you or your family is sick of lasagna night, try switching things up with these easy and yummy Mexican Lasagna Ramekins.
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