Trying to find genuine Italian dishes is like trying to catch fish with your bare hands. Slippery. Especially when you live in a country full of faux-Italian dishes, each vying with one another in their claims of genuine authenticity.
Lasagne is a case in point. It is found in supermarkets, school dinners, cafes and on restaurant menus absolutely everywhere. It is a bastion of home-cooking. But what is the real deal supposed to be like?
Bah, I normally decry, and cook whatever suits my tastebuds best. But what if you’re cooking for a bona fide Italian? What do you do then? Throw the plateful of minced slop in front of them and see that look of barely-hidden horror in their eyes? No sirree.
So I abandoned my usual recipe, and decided to explore. Felicity Cloake has a recipe for her perfect lasagne in her “How to make perfect…” series. However, her rather dry looking result, coupled with the liberal use of hard-to-obtain ingredients meant that was out of the question. In the end, I made the lasagne recipe I got off BBC Food. The chef certainly had an Italian sounding name. Would that be a mark of true authenticity?
Well, I made a version as close to the recipe from BBC Food as I could. It was ok, crammed full of mozzarella and parmesan; I felt as though there was cheese coming out of my eyeballs. So I streamlined it down. I put a layer of bechamel between each pasta sheet instead of cheese. I replaced most of the meat in the ragu with lentils. And I saved a little parmesan and mozzarella for the very top, where it melted to form a lovely golden cheesy topping. And hey presto, it was delicious. And then, authenticity no longer mattered anymore.
- olive oil
- 2 onions
- 2 carrots
- 4 sticks of celery
- 2 cloves of garlic
- handful of dried herbs
- 500g lean mince
- 400g cooked lentils, drained
- a squirt of concentrated tomato puree
- 800g chopped tomatoes
- 400ml red wine
- 450ml stock
- 2 dsp plain flour
- bay leaf
- a pinch of grated nutmeg
- fresh lasagne sheets
- handful of mature cheddar, grated
Finely chop the onion, carrots, celery and garlic. Heat up a splash of oil in a big pan, and gently fry everything in the pan until soft. Throw in a sprinkling of rosemary.
Mix in the mince until almost completely cooked, then add the lentils.Bubble away until most of the liquid is gone. Then pour in the wine and cook it until the wine has evaporated. Stir in the chopped tomatoes, concentrated tomato puree, and the stock. Cook this gently on a simmer for 2 hours until most of the liquid is gone.
Make the bechamel by heating a small container of milk in a saucepan with a bay leaf until boiling. Fish out the bay leaf and set the milk aside. In the saucepan melt a knob of butter, and whisk in 2 heaped spoonfuls of flour. Gently whisk in the milk little by little until you’ve got yourself a nice white sauce, and add the grated nutmeg. Pour a little sauce onto the bottom of an ovenproof dish. Cover with layers of fresh lasagne sheets. Then spoon a thin layer of ragu over this, followed by a layer of pasta sheets, then a layer of bechamel, then a layer of pasta sheets. Keep going until all the ragu is used up. You should have quite a lot of pasta layers. I had at least 4. For the final layer of pasta, cover the top with bechamel, sprinkle with grated cheese, and stick in the oven at 200˚C for 30 minutes until the top is golden and bubbling. Let it cool slightly, and cut into pieces.
For vegetarian friends I make the lasagne in exactly the same way, but increase the quantity of carrot, celery and lentils. You could use any hard cheese as long as it isn’t made with rennet. It’s just as delicious.