Lasagne used to be a staple dinner party dish when we were students and first moved to London post university. Now, however, it seems to have been dismissed as an easy option in favour of more show-stopping dishes. But actually, whilst the components of lasagne are fairly easy to make, the creation of a lasagne (and the washing up that comes with it) really is a labour of love.
First you have to make a meat ragu, which, if you’re after a thick, rich delicious sauce means at least an hour of bubbling away. If you were making a spag bol then you’d be done. But no. Then comes the béchamel sauce, which involves another pot, the traumas of making a lump-free sauce and more stirring. And then you have to put the dish together before cooking it in the oven for about 40 minutes. All in all rather a saga. And if you’re a real keen bean and make your own pasta, well, that’s a whole other level of dedication.
So, not a dish for a week night. But a great one for making at the weekend ready to be reheated in the week ahead.
Today’s recipe was something of a challenge for me to actually get round to posting. Whilst I’ve been cooking it for years, it’s always a bit of a free-styling event: no recipe, no scales, no measuring jug. But, just for you*, dear reader, I actually measured and weighed out EVERYTHING! And amazingly it actually turned out to be one of my best ever efforts! Part of what’s stopped me previously (other than the extra effort, obviously) was the fear of jinxing the recipe by actually taking scientific note of its contents.
*By “you” I really mean the Perky Kebab – just in case I get knocked over by a bus thus depriving him of his favourite meal forever more!
In no way could this be called an authentic lasagne recipe. I can already hear the collective gasp of horror from Italy’s Nonnas upon reading my ingredients list. But I’ve tried the authentic version (from the Silver Spoon) and my way is just so much better (even if I do say so myself…).
So, let’s start with the ragu. I make mine with beef mince, onions, garlic, red wine, chopped tomatoes, and herbs, simmered for an hour. So far not too shocking. No pancetta, chicken liver or pork mince in sight but you can add these to the below recipe if the urge takes you.
Then comes the béchamel sauce. Well, it’s not really béchamel. More of a cheese sauce masquerading as a béchamel through the inclusion of a bay leaf. And the cheese isn’t even Italian. Cheddar all the way in my recipe.
And no, I don’t make my own lasagne sheets. Dried egg lasagne sheets work just as well and saves having to purchase a pasta maker, which, let’s face it, will be used once, maybe twice, before being relegated to the back of my already overstuffed cupboards.
The final furry of inauthentic-ness is the inclusion of torn basil leaves in between the layers of ragu, béchamel and pasta. You’ve got to admit, it does sound good!
Serves 4-6 (depending how greedy you are and how much garlic bread and salad goes with it!)
For the ragu:
1 tablespoon oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 small carrot, top and tail removed and very finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
500g beef mince
175ml red wine
1 x 400g can chopped tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato puree
1 teaspoon mixed dried herbs
Salt and pepper
For the “béchamel” sauce”
60g grated cheddar cheese
1 bay leaf
Egg lasagne sheets
A handful of basil leaves (optional)
1. Pre-heat the oven to 180ºc/160ºc fan/gas mark 4/350ºf.
2. Heat the oil in a saucepan and add the onion and carrot. Cook for 5 minutes until softened. Add the garlic and cook for a further 2 minutes.
3. Turn up the heat, add the mince and brown all over for 3-5 minutes. Make sure there are no lumps.
4. Add the red wine and allow to bubble away for a minute or 2 before adding the chopped tomatoes, tomato puree, mixed herbs and salt and pepper. Mix well, bring to the boil and then turn down the heat to a gentle simmer. Leave to bubble away uncovered for about an hour, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has reduced down to a thick ragu.
5. Meanwhile make the béchamel sauce. In another saucepan melt the butter over a medium heat and add the flour. Mix well and keep stirring for a minute before adding a third of the milk. Keep stirring at all times to avoid any lumps forming. Once the sauce has come together, add the remaining milk, bay leaf and cheese. (If you do find your sauce is lumpy, whisk it vigorously to break them up). Keep stirring whilst the sauce comes to the boil. Once bubbles appear, turn down the heat and cook for another few minutes before putting to one side.
6. Once your ragu is ready, you can assemble the lasagne. Place 1/3 of the ragu in the bottom of an oven proof dish (about 20x15cm). Arrange lasagne sheets over the top (about 3), then spoon 1/3 of the béchamel over the top. Scatter some torn basil leaves over the surface. Repeat the layering process with the remaining ragu and sauce.
7. Transfer the lasagne to the oven and cook for 40 minutes until golden on top and bubbling at the edges. Either eat immediately or keep to reheat in the coming days – it just gets more delicious after a couple of days.