I feel apprehensive posting an “Italian” recipe. To me, the Italians are the ultimate in food purists and I fear the wrath of an Italian mama who might whack me about the head for fiddling with what they would see to be a classic, perfect recipe.
Purism is not a bad thing, far from it – less is definitely more when you can afford and source produce of excellent quality. As this is not my first pasta posting and indeed, not my first lasagne, and armed with the knowledge Italian buddies have made and loved my mushroom lasagne I present to you, my very own, ultimate lasagne. *Nervous cough*…
My darling Hungry Hubby is like a real life Garfield the cat. For those of us not made in the eighties, Garfield is an orange cat who was born in an Italian restaurant and slept in pans of lasagne which he hoovered up from pretty much the moment he was born. And he was born hungry. Much like my hubby, lol.
Hubs is a simple soul food wise and if I never made another new recipe for the rest of our lives, I am quite sure a handful of old favourites, such as this lasagne would be all he’d want to see his days out. If I let him, he would eat the whole pan himself! Thankfully it freezes brilliantly, the being available for him to warm up if I’m not home (unusual) for solo dinners in front of the tele.
Back in the early days of our relationship, being just a teenager and not an experienced cook by any stretch of the imagination, we would buy jars of Dolmio “ragu” and “white” sauce. *Gasp*. I know – shocking isn’t it? But back in the days when Hubs was the newest love in my life and knowing how he adored lasagne, I just wanted to feed him and show him how much I loved him through the medium of food. I had to start somewhere.
After I’d made my fuzzy, ginger hubby a few lasagnes like this I began to feel confident enough to experiment. Being very keenly interested in exercise and healthy eating, I would use an equal quantity of frozen veg, if not more, to the beef and I would drain off all visible fat after browning the mince. These days I’m all for the flavour of food and the concept of exercise. Such is life… *whistles innocently*
Over the years, my recipe evolved. I should say at this point, I have never read an actual recipe for lasagne so know not what constitutes a “proper” one. Interestingly, back when I very first started cooking it I did not possess a foodie cookbook library nor did I even know, really, what the internet was to use to search for recipes! Somehow, having eaten it many a time in our dating days when we would frequent local Italian restaurants on date night, the taste memory was powerful enough to guide my hand I chopped, stirred, layered and sliced.
As the years went by, I experimented with different additions and omissions; with or without wine, using different types of meat, even leaving the meat out altogether and making it solely with vegetables in a tomato sauce.
That being so, this is perhaps the most difficult post, and recipe, I’ve ever had to write. For instance, in this rendition, I have used another wee block of pancetta from my beloved Delifonseca at the beginning to offer a sweet, smoked, salty edge to the finished dish. It was inspired by my latest savoury recipe – pancetta pepper pasta. I have never once written down my method, weighed my ingredients, nor set a timer.
I dare say, I doubt whether any two of the pans worth of lasagne have ever been exactly the same. Hungry Hubby knows to give me a day’s notice when he needs his next lasagne fix as it is a true labour of love. The cheeky glimmer of hope in his eye when he asks and the knowledge he will pop in and out of the kitchen at regular intervals just to check if it’s ready yet along with giving me a little cuddle as I cook is all the incentive a girl could ever need to get cooking.
Sometimes I will make the pasta from fresh – this one would be a lovely addition to the dish. One time I used this with a chicken ragu which was met with much appreciation from my own real life Garfield. Often though I buy dried lasagne sheets, in particular, the frilly, ruffle bordered De Cecco version from fancy delis. It just looks so pretty. If you can’t wait long enough to see this mammoth cooking session through to the end, then know that the ragu is wonderful served with freshly cooked pasta.
Penne or rigatoni for us. Just grate over some cheese, dish into bowls and get the napkins ready. Hubs loved some garlic bread of sorts with it – even my garlic flatbreads – and on a weekend, I will make focaccia to go with. A fresh, crisp green salad sprinkled with balsamic vinegar mixed to an emulsion with crushed garlic and extra virgin olive oil is my preferred accompaniment. Along with a cheeky little lightly oaked rioja or a deep, dark, devilishly delicious chianti (or two) if I’m feeling extra decadent.
So here I give you perhaps the first recipe I ever wrote, even without knowing I wrote it. It’s so worth the wait.
- 1 large onion
- 100 g pancetta optional, chopped
- 1 large clove of garlic
- 1 tsp olive oil
- 2 bay leaves
- 400-500 g minced beef
- 2 tbsp marsala or 1 small glass of red wine
- 1 tbsp tomato puree
- 2 cans chopped tomatoes 400g sized cans
- 1/2 tsp each of dried rosemary please feel free to substitute which ones you prefer in, sage, thyme, basil and oregano
- Lots of freshly cracked black pepper
- Added veg – e.g. one can of sweetcorn a chopped pepper, a punnet of mushrooms, even as much as the same quantity in meat of frozen veg – add or subtract whatever you like)
- 1 large nob of butter about 2-3 tbsp
- Equivalent amount of plain flour about 2-3 tbsp
- 1 level tsp mustard powder
- 1/2 a nutmeg freshly grated
- Lots of black pepper
- Milk use at least semi skimmed or it will take too long to thicken and use enough to give you a velvety sauce; about 1 pint usually for me
- Chopped or grated cheese I use parmesan or cheddar et al depending on mood and availability; again as much or as little as you like – I go around 100g
- 1 pack of dried lasagne
- Worcestershire sauce
- More dried herbs and a pinch of sugar
- A packet of cherry tomatoes halved or 3-4 medium tomatoes sliced 2mm thick
- More cheese
Heat the oil in a large casserole or saucepan. Add in the pancetta if using and render out it’s fat without caramelising it too much (keep the heat low and try to be patient!). If not using pancetta, add in the onions with a splash more oil and the bay leaves – cook until soften and translucent.
Add in the grated/minced garlic and cook until you can just smell it – a minute or two. Add in the mince beef and cook until no pink remains and the fat has rendered down too.
Add in the marsala and reduce by half, turning up the heat if necessary.
Add in the tomato puree, the canned tomatoes and all the herbs. Add in about 100-125ml water which you swish around inside the empty tomato cans before adding to the pot.
Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer and cook low and slow as long as you can bare to wait – a few hours would be ideal; you can get away with one hour at a push. Don’t cover it – you want the liquid to bubble down and reduce to produce a thicker ragu. (If using canned veg, wait until the ragu is cooked to add it; if using frozen, add it 10 minutes before it is done; if using raw mushrooms, I would cook these with the beef).
Once the ragu is almost ready, start on your white sauce.
You will note my instructions are vague – I have never measured them and go by eye and texture. I would guess I use two rounded tbsp of butter and flour to “set” about a pint of milk but just go with it and you’ll be fine!
Cook the butter, flour, mustard powder, black pepper and nutmeg together for 2-3 minutes stirring constantly to prevent it sticking or burning.
Add in the milk, a splash at a time, whisking well to prevent lumps forming – think of it like making a risotto; you want each splash of milk to be absorbed before adding the next.
Once all the milk is added, reduce the heat to simmer the sauce and cook, whisking gently for a few more minutes to evaporate off some more of the liquid component of the milk and thicken the sauce – now take off the heat and add in the prepared cheese, if using.
To assemble it’s up to you – you can have few layers or pasta with deep, juicy layers of ragu or you can have many layers with lots more pasta. I prefer the latter these days.
Whichever way you want to go it, I assemble my lasagne by spooning out a layer of ragu, topping with dried, uncooked pasta sheets then dribbling over a meagre amount of white sauce. I then sprinkle with some drops of Worcestershire sauce and repeat until all the components are used up.
To finish, grate over more cheese, lay your sliced tomatoes on top, cut side up and sprinkle with the mixed herbs of your choice and for me, a teeny, tiny pinch of sugar just over the tomatoes to help caramelise them up as they cook.
Pop your assembled lasagne in the centre of a preheated oven at 200°C for 40-45 minutes – you need the pasta cooked through, the tomatoes cooked and the cheese melting and starting to brown on top.
Leave to stand (if you can bare it!) at least 20 minutes before serving as it will be blisteringly hot inside. Serve with a simple green salad dressed in balsamic vinegar and if your crew is as carb crazy as my Hungry Hubby, rosemary, garlic and sea salt focaccia on the side 😉
Stir through a large bunch of fresh basil into the ragu when it's cooked for a lighter, herbal note if you prefer rather than all the dried herbs.
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