Saturday, September 08, 2007
Recently, I have been going lasagne crazy. They take a little bit of time to make, but aren't difficult, and can be made in large quantities and freeze very well. They're easy to adapt, and everyone seems to love them. Fab.
A lasagne is made up of 3 components: lasagne sheets, sauce and cheesy béchamel. Obviously, change quantities to suit your own cooking. I usually make a lasagne that will feed 8 people and freeze the leftovers for mid-week lunches.
1. Lasagne sheets
These can be fresh or dried. I would avoid at all costs those ridiculously overpriced lasagne sheets from gourmet fresh pasta stores - they're about 3 times the price of other types, and once they're swathed in sauce and cheese, it's hard to tell the difference between them and their cheaper counterparts. Dried pasta needs to be boiled before being layered up, which isn't difficult, but is annoying to do. I leave that choice up to you. (I've done it once, and found L'Abruzzese to be a good brand). Those instant cook hard lasagne sheets from the supermarket don't need boiling and can have satisfactory results, but can end up crispy and hard if you're not careful. To avoid this, use a lot of sauce, making sure every inch of pasta is covered. Then, let the lasagne sit for an hour or so once assembled before baking it. This will let the pasta absorb some liquid and allow it to soften. For me, the best type of lasagne to use is that soft Latina Fresh pasta, readily available at the supermarket. They come in a sealed packet, and are easy to store, don't require pre-cooking, and don't get crispy or hard.
Now, as much as I love supermarket lasagne sheets (and budget cheese - see below), it is very important to use a good tomato sauce. You need a good quality, slow-simmered sauce, made with ripe tomatoes and a few choice flavourings. If you have an Italian nonna or neighbour who makes their own sauce, now is the time to ask for a bottle. Failing that, you will need to make your own, or go to an expensive gourmet food store to find one. Any sauce made without care or love will end up tasting cheaply metallic and sour. (I've tried Dolmio and believe me sister, it does not work).
To make your own tomato sauce, simply sautée 1 finely chopped onion with a whole peeled clove of garlic, one dried chilli and a pinch of salt in a good amount of olive oil for about 10 minutes, until soft and translucent. Pour in 2 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes (Italian, if possible), and simmer for about 15 minutes, until slightly thickened. Fish out the garlic clove and the dried chilli, add some torn up basil leaves, and your tomato sauce is ready to go.
For a meat lasagne, brown some mince in a pan (I find 750g mince for an 8-person lasagne to be a good amount), before adding your sauce and letting it simmer until harmoniously combined. I usually use beef, but I guess you could use any meat - pork, beef, veal, turkey, chicken or a combo depending on what you like to eat.
For a veggie lasagne, I layer the pasta and tomato sauce with all sorts of vegies - cooked chopped spinach, roasted eggplant, mushrooms, roast capsicum, whatever - and sometimes replace the cheesy béchamel (see below) with ricotta. This makes it healthier, but without béchamel, the lasagne can then tend to dryness. So, you may need to increase the amount of tomato sauce.
3. Cheesy Béchamel
Melt 50g of butter in a saucepan, then add 2 tbs plain flour (continental or '00' flour works best - it cooks faster because it is more finely milled than regular flour), and stir over a medium-low heat for 1-2 minutes, until the flour is cooked. Take the pan off the heat and add 600ml milk, whisking until smooth. Return the pan to the heat and stir until thickened. If you want to add grated cheese, you could do it now. Otherwise, just sprinkle it between the layers. As for the choice of cheese, do not even think about using an expensive ball of buffalo mozzarella, or even a ball of cow's milk mozzarella. What you need is budget cheese. Really budget. Bright yellow grated mozzarella from a supermarket packet. Don't feel ashamed to use home brand cheese. Expensive deli mozzarella is undeniably delicious, but it's just not right here. Budget grated cheese gives you the requisite stringiness, is easy to deal with (doesn't need slicing) and distributes evenly throughout the whole lasagne.
So, once you've sorted out your pasta, sauce and béchamel, you can just layer them up in a lightly oiled baking dish. I usually go tomato-béchamel and cheese-pasta, finishing with a layer of béchamel and a generous covering of grated mozzarella and parmesan for the top. I suppose it doesn't matter what order you go in, as long as there is enough sauce for the pasta, and you finish with béchamel and cheese. Then bake it at 180C for 45 minutes, and you are done!
I am aware that lasagnes are quite high in fat; if this concerns you, here are some tips for keeping the fat content down.
- use lean mince
- use skim milk in the béchamel
- use reduced-fat cheese
Some recipes I've read suggest using lite margarine as a substitute for the butter in béchamel to reduce the total saturated fat content. Feel free to do this if you like; I cannot bring myself to use super-processed margarine - have you ever melted it and smelled it? Feral!!! Using 50grams of butter between 8 servings of lasagne doesn't seem like a huge deal to me.
Happy cooking everyone! A good lasagne is one of the most satisfying ways to feed your family.