A Vegetable Lasagne
Lasagne is one for the weekend. Done properly, it takes quite a bit of time to make. But it is fun to make. And so satisfying to see the dish stand full and proud. This vegetable lasagne is perfect for Sunday lunch – it looks every bit as impressive as a roast.
This one is filled with lots of goodies – fried aubergines, courgettes and mushrooms, layered with mozzarella, parmesan, a rich tomato sauce and bechamel. And the one essential ingredient for this dish – fresh pasta.
Just like a stew, it is even better on the second day so could potentially make it the day before and leave it to rest in the fridge overnight. Eat this on its own, with a robust red from the south of Italy. And perhaps a green salad afterwards.
This will serve 6 people generously.
For the Fillings
600g mushrooms, chestnut mushrooms are good
2 x 125g balls mozzarella, thinly sliced
Lots of parmesan for grating
olive oil for frying
For the Tomato Sauce
2 x 400g tins plum tomatoes
1 small red onion
6 cloves garlic
2tsp dried oregano
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp finely chopped flat leaf parsley
1 tbsp vinegar diluted with 1 tbsp water
2 tbsp olive oil
For the Bechamel
400ml whole milk
100ml double cream
50g unsalted butter
30g plain flour
2 tbsp grated parmesan
nutmeg for grating
1 bay leaf
8 black peppercorns
pepper for grinding
For the Pasta
450g ’00’ pasta flour
4 large eggs
1 tsp salt
First make the pasta dough. Tip the flour onto a clean work surface and make a well in the centre. In the well put the eggs and the salt. Slowly bring the flour into the centre, incorporating it with the eggs. Do this until you have formed a rough dough and there is no danger the egg will run away. Knead together until you have formed quite a dry dough that is very stiff but smooth and cohesive. It should be hard to work. If it is too dry and not coming together you can add a few drops of cold water, it doesn’t take much. If for any reason you think it is too wet, add a bit more flour and knead it in.
Wrap in cling film and leave to rest in the refrigerator for at least an hour.
Slice the aubergine into 1cm rounds. Salt the aubergine slices*. Leave for around 30 minutes to an hour. When they have exuded enough water dry them well in a towel.
Meanwhile make the tomato sauce. Heat the oil in a large heavy based pot. Add the onion and bay leaves. Cook over a high heat for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Now turn the heat down low and add the parsley and garlic, a good pinch of salt and grinding of black pepper. Cook this slowly for about 5 – 10 minutes, without browning the garlic. Now pour in the vinegar and water and reduce until the pan is almost dry again. Add the tomatoes and mash them up. Stir in the oregano and reduce the sauce over a very low heat until you have a thick but still wet sauce. Check for seasoning.
Put the milk and cream into a small saucepan. Add the bay leaf, cloves and peppercorns. Heat slowly and as soon as it reaches boiling point take off the heat and leave to cool completely.
Slice the courgette – this can be done in rounds like the aubergines, although slice them slightly thinner. Slice the mushrooms.
Fry the aubergine, courgette and mushrooms separately in a large heavy based frying pan over a fairly high heat. Do this in small batches to make sure you can get a good golden brown colour. This is important so they impart a rich flavour into the dish. The vegetables should be soft but holding their shape well, as they will be cooked again. The aubergines need quite a lot oil to fry properly. You can always remove excess oil with a towel after you have fried them.
For the bechamel strain the milk into a jug to remove the flavourings, and set aside. Melt the butter in a saucepan and clarify it, skimming off the foamy solids on top. Do this with a small metal spoon and the pan tilted to one side. Stir in the flour and cook for 3-5 minutes until you have cooked out all the starch and it has a light biscuity smell – do this over a very low heat. Pour in the milk and whisk to prevent any lumps forming. Cook this for 10 minutes until it is thick, smooth and glossy. Take off the heat and stir in 2 tbsp grated parmesan. Add a good pinch of salt, pepper and a generous grating of nutmeg.
For the pasta. For this I use a pasta machine. Cut the dough in half. It is easier if you cut it into 3 pieces. With the first piece flatten it out enough so you can put it through the rollers on the thickest setting. You shouldn’t need to add flour to stop it sticking but a light dusting doesn’t do any harm to get it through. Put it through the roller and fold it in half and put it through the machine again. You may need to fold it in three, like a letter, to make it fit the machine. Keep rolling and folding until you have done this 10 times in total. You should now have a perfectly smooth, firm and slightly elastic sheet of dough.
Start reducing the settings on the pasta machine until you have a very thin sheet about 1 – 2 mm thick. Cut this sheet into 30cm lengths or to the size that fits your baking dish well. Put a dusting of flour in between the layers to prevent them sticking together. Do the same with the rest of the dough.
Some recipes precook the pasta. This isn’t necessary with fresh pasta. The water in the tomato sauce, mozzarella and vegetables should provide enough moisture. When you serve it you want the layers to stand proud, it shouldn’t be runny and wet.
To assemble the dish take a large baking dish (30cm x 20cm). First put a thin layer of tomato sauce, then scatter some of the vegetables. Then some of the mozzarella and a grating of parmesan. Now put down a layer of pasta. Repeat these layers, making sure you have enough of of everything for each one. You can gently compress the layers with your hands, to make sure they are compact and flat. For the final layer spread all the bechamel over the pasta, and add a very generous layer of parmesan cheese.
You can leave this to set overnight or bake it straight away. Bake it in a 180˚c oven for 30-45 minutes until it is has a golden crust with bubbling crisp and brown edges. When you take it out of the oven leave it for 15 minutes to set.
* I do this by stacking the aubergine slices in layers, in a colander, with a sprinkling of salt over each layer.