Melanzane Lasagne

Is there anything more enticing than lasagne? A rich, unctuous sauce contrasting against a creamy bechamel, perfectly cooked pasta and lots and lots of cheese – even writing about it makes me want to go and make one.

There are many ways to fill a lasagne: mince, quorn, roasted vegetables of any and all types… I have made them all and I have loved them all. The idea for this particular version came while mulling over what to make for dinner one morning; for weeks I had been yearning for a lasagne but I had been too short on time to dedicate a couple of hours to it – to do it properly is a time-consuming business – and this particular day I had a real urge to have aubergine parmigiana. I also happened to have a fairly free afternoon, so I decided to combine the two ideas – to spectacular effect.

The not-so-secret to great food is packing in the flavour. Take special care with all the elements of a lasagne and you are guaranteed to impress; there is no getting around it though, making this is a bit of a faff but it is all very easy. Set aside a couple of hours so you’re not stressed, and just enjoy yourself. This is particularly good on a rainy, autumnal day so it may give you something to do when you don’t fancy going out on a miserable Saturday. That said, it’s also a bit of a treat on a sunny summer afternoon in the garden!

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RECIPE – Serves 6

3 large aubergines, cut into 1cm thick rounds

olive oil

1 tbsp dried oregano

For the tomato sauce:

4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

a handful of fresh basil, leaves picked and stalks finely chopped

125 ml marsala or madeira

2 tins of chopped tomatoes

1/2 tsp dried chilli flakes

1 tsp fish sauce

For the bechamel:

50g unsalted butter

50g plain flour

800 ml semi-skimmed milk

a small onion, roughly chopped

1 blade of mace, broken up

1/2 tsp black peppercorns

1 bay leaf

For the lasagne:

100g parmesan, finely grated

lasagne sheets

1 ball of mozzarella

a small handful of larger basil leaves


METHOD

Heat the oven to 200C/180C fan/Gas 6.

Prepare all the ingredients. Place the aubergine slices on a couple of roasting trays, drizzle each round lightly with olive oil, season, and scatter the oregano over the top. Roast in the centre of the oven for around 40 minutes until soft and golden. The skins of the aubergine may be a little hard and dry at this point; don’t worry, they will soften up when baked in the lasagne. Set the aubergine to one side for now.

While the aubergine is roasting, make your tomato sauce: splash a couple of tablespoons of olive oil into a large, cold pan and apply a medium heat. Add the garlic and basil stalks while it is warming up, and gently fry for a minute or so to infuse the oil with flavour. Add the marsala, fish sauce and chilli flakes. Turn up the heat to boil off the alcohol for a couple of minutes, then add the tinned tomatoes. Bring back to the boil, then simmer gently for 30 minutes or so to thicken it up.

By the time the aubergines are ready, so will be the tomato sauce. Remove from the heat and tear most of the basil leaves into the tomato sauce – reserving a small handful of the larger leaves for topping the lasagne. Stir thoroughly, season and set aside for now.

While the tomato sauce is reducing, make the bechamel: add the milk to a large pan with the onion, mace, peppercorns and bay leaf. Over a high heat, bring the milk to scalding point – this is where the milk is almost but not quite at boiling point. You should see the milk at the edge of the pan just start to bubble slightly. Remove from the heat and set aside for ten minutes.

Make a roux: melt the butter in a large pan, remove from the heat and whisk in the flour to make a thick paste. Put back on a medium heat and continue stirring for one minute until the roux bubbles, to cook the flour out. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for a minute while you strain the onion, mace, peppercorns and bay leaf from the scalded milk.

Now, gradually and slowly, over a medium heat start to add the milk to the roux, whisking constantly and vigorously. Only add more milk when the previous addition has been thoroughly absorbed. When around half of the milk has been added and the texture of the sauce is smooth, add the rest of the milk and bring to the boil, stirring constantly. Boil for around two minutes until the sauce is glossy and completely smooth. Take off the heat and add 75g of the grated parmesan, stir thoroughly.

Now you can start to assemble the lasagne: in a large casserole dish drizzle with a little olive oil and spread it around with your fingers, then add a very thin layer of the tomato sauce. Now spread a layer of the aubergine rounds, a thin layer of tomato sauce, a layer of pasta, a layer of bechamel, then another layer of pasta. Continue to layer up in the same order, beginning with the aubergine, until the final layer of bechamel. Scatter the remaining parmesan all over the top, and dot it with torn mozzarella. Scatter the basil leaves, give it a good grinding of black pepper and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Your lasagne should now look like this:

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Place on a roasting tray (the sauces are likely to bubble out and leave a sticky mess in your oven otherwise) and bake for 45 minutes until crisp and golden. Leave it to rest for 15 minutes before serving with a simple rocket salad.

I think I’m going to make another one tonight…

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