Vegetarian Lasagne with Pesto

I just looked through my recipe notebooks, and I see that I have eleven different recipes for lasagne. Some are meat-based, most are vegetarian-friendly but use all kinds of different ingredients, one is even suitable for vegans. You have to make something very special indeed though to beat a classic lasagne, made with a rich tomato sauce, comforting bechamel and, of course, minced lean beef.

This is a classic in all-but-one respect: the mince used here is Quorn. Quorn is a product which has become so sophisticated that, when handled well, you can fool most meat-eaters into never considering that they are not eating meat. I’m not generally a fan of using meat substitutes, it seems to be a bit pointless; there is a world of indescribably gorgeous vegetable, lentil and pulse dishes out there to be enjoyed. So, if I am going to use a meat substitute then it has to stand up as an ingredient in its own right; in this lasagne the Quorn mince adds just the right amount of texture, balancing the supple pasta, silky bechamel and piquant tomato sauce.

There is another advantage to using Quorn: it is much lower in calories than lean beef. This is one of those recipes that will lead you into eating far too much of it, it’s just so moreish. At least you don’t need to feel too guilty when you overindulge.

Lasagne is always a bit of a faff. It takes a long time, so my advice is to make the individual elements as your day allows. I made this for my family yesterday and I made the pesto in the morning, the tomato sauce in the afternoon and the bechamel in the evening just before assembling the lasagne. No stress, no rushing, plenty of time to correct any mistakes.

Serve alongside an apple and celery salad, the perfect accompaniment.

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RECIPE – Serves 6

For the tomato sauce:

3 tbsp olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 large carrot, grated

1 celery stick, finely chopped

3 fat garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

500g Quorn mince

125ml Madeira, or red wine

400ml passata

1 tin of chopped tomatoes

1 tbsp tomato puree (or, if you have any, two or three oven-dried tomatoes)

a dash of Worcestershire sauce

1 tbsp Marmite

1 tbsp fish sauce

For the pesto:

40g fresh basil, leaves and stalks

1 garlic clove, peeled

30g pine nuts

120ml extra-virgin olive oil

20g grated Parmesan

Sea salt, to taste

For the bechamel:

100g salted butter

100g plain flour

1 litre semi-skimmed milk

1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

50g grated Parmesan

For the lasagne:

lasagne sheets

50g grated Parmesan

50g cold unsalted butter, cubed


METHOD

Prepare the tomato sauce:

Heat the oil in a large pan and gently cook the onion, carrot and celery with the garlic for five minutes over a medium heat until softened. Add the Quorn mince with a generous pinch of salt, cook for a minute or two then add the Madeira and turn the heat up. Let the alcohol bubble off for a minute or so, then add the passata, tomatoes, tomato puree (or oven-dried tomatoes), Worcester sauce, Marmite and fish sauce. Stir thoroughly, bring to the boil then simmer for 30 minutes to an hour, until it is reduced to a thick, rich sauce. Check and adjust the seasoning once it is reduced. Set aside until required.

Prepare the pesto:

Place the basil, garlic and pine nuts in a food processor. Pour in the oil and blitz until it is fairly smooth. Transfer to a bowl and fold in the cheese, season and set aside.

Prepare the bechamel:

Melt the butter in a large pan over a medium heat, stir in the flour and whisk over the heat for a minute or so until a smooth paste has formed. Gradually add the milk, a little at first and in increasing amounts as the volume of sauce increases. Whisking continually, only add more milk once the lumps in the sauce have been beaten out.

Keep whisking continually, until the sauce comes to the boil. Whisk for another minute or so at a simmer, to ensure that the flour is completely cooked-out. The sauce should now be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.

Stir in the nutmeg, add the Parmesan, then the pesto that you made earlier. Check and adjust the seasoning. You will have a lovely thick, pale green bechamel which – if you have made it correctly – will be the best bechamel you have ever tasted.

Assemble the lasagne:

Preheat the oven to 180C/ gas 4.

Spread a quarter of the bechamel on the bottom of a large ovenproof dish, place a single layer of lasagne sheets on top. Spread half of the tomato sauce on top of that, then add a layer of one-third of the remaining bechamel.

Place another layer of lasagne sheets on top, cover with the remaining tomato sauce and half of the remaining bechamel.

Place a final layer of lasagne sheets on top of that, top it with the last of the bechamel. Sprinkle 50g of grated Parmesan evenly over the top, and dot it randomly with the cubes of cold unsalted butter. Complete it with a few good grinds of black pepper.

Cook on the lowest shelf of the oven for 30 minutes, then increase the oven to 200C/ gas 6 and move the lasagne to the middle of the oven. Bake for a further 15 minutes until the top is golden and crispy.

Remove from the oven and set aside for 5-10 minutes to settle, cool slightly and firm up. Garnish with a few basil leaves if you wish, and serve alongside a salad – the apple and celery salad is particularly good alongside this.

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