Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Vegetable Lasagne

Much maligned, because familiarity breeds contempt, I still find that lasagne is one of the all time great entertaining foods - a little but like Chile Con Carne, lasagne's somehow a terribly '80s dish, especially served up with a green salad and lashings of piping hot garlic bread. Sadly, lasagne is something that pubs and restaurants alike always mess up. Worse, trying to get an edible vegetable lasagne when you're eating out is a mission doomed to end up in plates of insipid mess with layers of rubbery pasta slithering around.

This, immodest of me I know, is however a guaranteed winner. Rich, gloopy and deep. Stay in, then, and crack open a wickedly deep Chilean Sauvignon...

  • 500g packet lasagne pasta sheets
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 large red pepper, diced
  • 250g button mushrooms, quartered
  • 100g green beans, chopped into 1 cm pieces
  • 1 tin tomatoes, chopped
  • 500g fresh tomatoes, skinned and chopped
  • 1 tin red beans, drained
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 tsp pesto sauce
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 2 sticks celery, sliced evenly
  • 1 carrot, halved lengthways and sliced
  • 1 tbsp chopped fresh (or ‘cooks cheat’) oregano
  • A pinch of dried thyme
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • ½ tsp salt
  • Freshly grated pepper

Bechamel Sauce

  • 600ml milk, at room temperature
  • 50g butter
  • 50g flour
  • ½ tsp dried nutmeg
  • 100g parmesan, grated

Fry the onion in the olive oil over a medium heat. After five minutes, add the peppers, the celery, the green beans and the carrot. Fry, stirring, until the vegetables have started to brown, turning up the heat to brown if required. Add the garlic and the mushrooms, and cook a further five minutes. Add the tinned and fresh tomatoes, the bay leaves, oregano, thyme and pesto and then season well with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Last of all, add the red beans, then cover the pan and reduce the heat to very low, and leave the mixture to simmer for an hour.

In a small pan, melt the butter. Remove the pan from the heat, and then add the flour, stirring it to mix with the butter and form a thick paste, or roux. Slowly add the milk, stirring well after each addition to mix with the butter and flour without causing lumps to form. Return to the heat, stirring, until the mixture thickens into a creamy bechamel. Add the dried nutmeg and stir it in well.

Omit this next step if you are using a brand of lasagne pasta that doesn’t require pre-cooking. Boil a kettle, and place some 15-20 lasagne sheets in a wide based pan. Crack three or four sheets into two in case you will need to fill in uneven gaps. Pour the boiling water over the sheets, taking care not to let them stick together. Place them on a medium heat for five minutes. Remove them from the water.

Preheat the oven to 190C/375F/Gas 5. Cover the base of a baking dish with a layer of the tomato mixture (about half of the mixture), and then cover this with a layer of pasta sheets. Spoon half of the bechamel sauce on top of the pasta, and then add another layer of pasta and a layer of tomato mixture. Repeat this until the mixture is used or the dish full, whichever happens first! Sprinkle the grated parmesan over the top, cover with foil and bake for 25 minutes. Uncover, then return to the oven for a further 25 minutes, until the top of the lasagne has browned. If the top needs more browning, do this under a hot grill. Serve with plenty of green salad and garlic bread.

This lasagne freezes like a dream: leave it to cool once you have made the layers and then freeze it, defrosting it thoroughly when required and then cooking as above.

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