Recipes kindly sponsored by Flahavan’s
I am not lasagne’s greatest fan, largely because it’s usually made with dried pasta that forms floors of starch between layers of red meat sauce and it has an ability to congeal into something that could be used as insulation material.
I have, of course, always known that lasagne doesn’t have to be like this and so, when my daughter suggested as a weekend dinner on one of her visits home, I went straight the oracle, namely Marcella Hazan. I value and revere Elizabeth David, Anna Del Conte, Valentina Harris and the like, but Marcella is always my first port of call. She’s never dogmatic but you just know that you need to do as she says or you may end up with disappointment.
She was clear. “Using chunky, store-bought lasagne may save you time,” she declared, “but you will be sadly short changed by the results.”
She also describes proper lasagne as consisting “of several layers of delicate, nearly weightless pasta spaced by layers of savoury but not overbearing filling... The only pasta suitable for lasagne is paper-thin dough made freshly at home.”
Be that as it may, I decided, I could not be bothered to get the pasta machine out and determined, instead, to see if I could get some De Cecco dried pasta as the best lazy alternative. However, instead I chanced upon the fresh pasta in Aldi. I should mention that I work with Aldi on wines but my enchantment with their fresh lasagne has nothing to do with that. It’s all about the delicacy, the lightness, the silkiness.
I had also consulted my old friend, Paolo Tullio’s Paolo Tullio Cooks Italian (Blackwater Press, 2010) where he says that fresh lasagne needs to be cooked before you assemble the dish. “There are cookbooks that tell you there’s no need to do that, but trust me, there is. If you don’t cook the lasagne first, all the starch from the pasta will remain in the finished dish, making it heavy and glutinous.”
He suggests cooking sheets of fresh lasagna for 6 minutes which struck me as rather long for something so delicate, and instead I cooked each sheet in boiling water for 60 seconds, then rinsing it thoroughly in cold water.
Of course, I used Paolo’s principles – not so much a recipe – for the ragù alla Bolognese. “The problem is that this sauce is often understood to be a tomato sauce with a bit of mince in it. It isn’t. It’s meat sauce that has a little tomato in it. Until tomatoes arrived in quantity in Italy 400 years ago, the sauce was made without them.” And, indeed, it still is in parts of Italy.
So, my lasagne owed its final composition to Marcella Hazan, Paolo Tullio and, finally, to Valentina Harris who suggested the addition of dried porcini.
Lasagna is the singular. Lasagne is the plural.
This is the composite recipe:
Serves 4 to 6
400g minced beef
200g minced pork
200g onion, finely diced
50g carrot, finely diced
65g celery, finely diced
20g garlic, finely diced
1 tbsp dried porcini mushrooms, crumbled in boiling water
250ml red wine
salt and pepper
400g tin of chopped tomatoes
50g plain flour
6 sheets fresh pasta (I used Aldi’s; use more if you want a higher proportion of pasta to sauce).
Pre-heat the oven to 190ºC, gas mark 5.
Put a generous glug of oil in a heavy pan and heat. Ensure that the pancetta is finely chopped and then brown it. Now add the beef and the pork and cook slowly, over a medium heat, until the meat element has browned and is starting to stick to the pan. Take off the heat.
In a separate pan, heat some more olive oil and add the onion, carrot and celery. Cook gently until soft and starting to colour, then add the garlic and cook, stirring, for another minute. Add the contents of this pan to the meat in the other pan and mix thoroughly.
Now add the dried mushrooms and the water – about 100ml – in which you have soaked them for a few minutes while the meat and vegetables were cooking. Add the red wine and turn up the heat to evaporate off the alcohol.
Add salt and black pepper. Empty the tomatoes into a sieve and let them drain for five minutes while the rest of the sauce simmers. You want quite a dry sauce but don’t let it stick. Add a little water or stock if needed.
Then add the drained tomatoes and stir through. Take off the heat.
Make the béchamel by melting the butter in a saucepan and stirring in the flour. Allow it cook together for 60 seconds, then take off the heat and whisk in the milk. Return to the heat and, still whisking, let the mixture thicken. When it is thick and bubbling add salt and pepper to taste and grate in a generous amount of nutmeg. Stir.
Fill a large bowl with cold water. Lay a clean tea towel out on the work surface. Heat a large saucepan of water and when it’s boiling, cook each sheet of fresh pasta for exactly 60 seconds before plunging into the bowl of cold water and rinsing between your fingers. Lay each sheet on the tea towel. Cook the sheets two at a time.
Take a shallow dish and spread a layer of sauce in the bottom. Lay two sheets of pasta on top, then another layer of sauce, then two more sheets of pasta, more sauce and finally two sheets of pasta.
Pour the béchamel over the top, sprinkle very generously with grated Parmesan and cook in the oven for 25 minutes or until golden and bubbling.