Perfect Pastafication!

It’s been a busy week here, as I’ve been working on new projects & the weather has been a bit random, making things interesting!  While I’ve been designing cake, making tiny tea sets & small sugar bunnies to sit on the top, I’ve also been writing & doing numerous things at the same time, like the multi-tasking ninja that I am.  When the weather is unpredictable, there is one thing you need to be able to rely on & that’s a rich, rib-sticking dinner to warm you through!

As most of you know by now, I’m rather passionate about pasta.  In our pantry, I have a dedicated pasta shelf bulging with a wide variety of conchiglioni, tagliatelle, lasagne, fusilli & penne, all waiting to be magically transformed into something heavenly, hearty & wholesome.  It’s efficient, versatile & quick to cook.  Making pasta is one of my favourite things to do & it’s something we make together as a family.  When my Son is home, we make pasta & pizzas, all congregating in the kitchen & chatting simultaneously, whilst we work on creating dinner.  It’s what cooking is all about for me & that’s how our children learn, by cooking with us.  There are times when stress will start to invade your life & making pasta is one of the best things to de-stress, relax & take your mind off everything.

Now although I adore making my own pasta, sometimes I need to pull together dinner quickly, which is where the pantry comes in handy!  Because my Husband works shifts, I like to make a variety of dinners & freeze them in two-portion pots, ready to be whipped out of the freezer at a moment’s notice.   Usually, the freezer has at least one whole drawer filled with a selection of lasagnes & they’re all different.  There’s the lasagne al forno, which is the one with meat (usually beef), a sumptuous spinach & cream cheese layered lovely & then, one of my favourites: vegetable lasagne!  I have been a vegetarian a couple of times & this luxurious layered dish is one of my favourite indulgences!  It’s lighter & quicker to make than a meat lasagne, but fabulously filling & you can create this velvety vegetable version in around half the time.  Plus you can make it in advance & freeze it in individual pots for those evenings when you need instant pasta gratification.  Fancy a go?  Hands washed & aprons on!

What you need:

For the Vegetable Ragu:

1 large Red Onion
1 large Courgette
2 Peppers (red & yellow are my choice, as the Courgette brings green to the dish)
1 small punnet Mushrooms, wiped thoroughly with a damp cloth
2 tins Italian Plum Tomatoes
1 tube Tomato Puree
2 teaspoons Sugar
6 cloves fresh Garlic, chopped finely
1 teaspoon Dried Organo
2 teaspoons Dried Basil (you can use fresh if you like, just finely chop half a dozen leaves)
Sea Salt & freshly ground Black Pepper to season
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

For the Cheese Sauce:

3oz Plain Flour
3oz Salted Butter
1 pint Semi-Skimmed or Full Fat Milk
2oz grated Cheese (mild Cheddar is great for this)
Sea Salt & freshly ground Black Pepper to season

Also, you will need:

4oz grated mixed Cheese (I use 3oz mild Cheddar with 1oz Parmesan or Grana Padana, but you can use whatever hard cheese you have)
Dried Oregano
1 pack dried Lasagne (or make you own fresh if you like – see my recipe here:  http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/pasta-parcels/ 

What to do:

Prepare the veg.  Top & tail the courgette, then slice lengthways in half, then into half again & chop into small slices.  Place in a large dish.

Take the seeds & any white pith out of the peppers (save the seeds & you can plant them in eggboxes on the windowsill).  Chop the peppers into bite-sized pieces.  It doesn’t need to be perfect or anything.  Add them to the dish with the courgettes in.

Slice the mushrooms in half & then slice them into chunky pieces.  Add to the other veg in the dish.

Top & tail the onion, slice into chunky pieces.  Leave on the board while you chop the garlic finely.

Heat a tablespoon of the olive oil in a large skillet or frying pan & add the onion & garlic.  Stir fry for about 30 seconds to gently soften – you don’t want it to colour up, as the garlic will burn if you’re not careful (it won’t taste nice if it burns).

Add the other vegetables, tipping them in carefully & stir-frying them for a couple of minutes to get them heated through.

Pour the plum tomatoes into the pan, breaking up any large pieces as you do so & combine with the vegetables in the pan.  Stir well to ensure it’s all mixed together.

Add the tomato puree, Basil & Oregano, along with the sugar & a good pinch of the black pepper & sea salt to season your vegetable ragu.  Give everything a good stir to distribute the puree & seasonings thoroughly.

Simmer for about five minutes on a low heat, stirring occasionally until it thickens slightly, then turn off the heat & set to one side while you make the cheese sauce.

Gently melt the butter in a large saucepan.  Remove from the heat & add the flour, put back on the heat & stir thoroughly to combine into a thick, shiny roux by using a whisk.  Traditionally, you would use a wooden spoon, but if you want to make sure you don’t get any lumps I suggest using a good metal balloon whisk.

Add about a quarter of the milk to the mixture & whisk in, until it loosens up & then add the rest of the milk carefully.  Keep stirring with the whisk, getting to the bottom of the pan to ensure nothing sticks.

As the sauce thickens up, you should start to feel some resistance with the whisk.  Keep whisking (swap hands if your wrist aches) & when you are satisfied with the thickness, add a couple of ounces of the grated mild cheddar & whisk until melted.  Turn off the heat.

Add a little pinch of sea salt & black pepper to season, then taste it.  The consistency of the sauce should be thick like natural yoghurt & it should coat the back of the spoon well.  If you think it needs a bit more seasoning, add a bit more, but go steady with it as you’ll be adding Parmesan to the top & that is quite salty.

So now you are ready to start building your lasagne!  Get yourself a nice, large lasagne dish or large pie dish.

In the bottom of the dish, spoon half the vegetable ragu & spread evenly across the bottom.  If you’re using fresh pasta for this, drizzle a little olive oil across the bottom of the dish then add a layer of fresh pasta before adding the ragu.

Here’s a tip to help you fit your dried pasta sheets to those rounded corners of your dish.  Take your dried lasagne sheet & snap off the top corner edge with your thumb, about 1cm in.  Lay the lasagne sheet with the missing edge nearest the corner, then take the piece you snapped off & turn it around, placing it in the corner with the pointy end towards the middle of the dish.  You’re welcome!  All these years, we’ve all been trying to make it fit & then a few years ago, I decided to use up some random pieces & that was it!

Cover the ragu with a layer of lasagne, making your corners fit as above.

Now pour on a layer of the cheese sauce, starting at the edges & working your way in, so that all the little corners & any random bits you have used will all stay in place.  Spread evenly across the layer using the back of a spoon.

Gently add the remainder of the vegetable ragu, again starting at the corners & carefully working your way into the centre.  Ensure it is evenly spread across the layer.

Add another layer of the pasta, as you did before & then pour on the remainder of the cheese sauce, again starting around the edges & working your way in.

Spread it evenly with the back of the spoon you used before, then sprinkle liberally with the mixed grated cheese.  This will give you a gorgeous, crispy cheesy topping.  Sprinkle a good pinch of dried Oregano over the top, squeezing it in the tips of your fingers as you do so, to release the pungent fragrance of this wonderful herb.

If you’ve used the dried lasagne, leave it to stand in a cold oven for a couple of hours, or you could even make it in the morning & leave it to stand until dinner time (sometimes, I’ll let it cool & then cover it, before putting it in the fridge until the evening).  Most people will whack their lasagne in the oven straightaway & then wonder why the pasta won’t cook properly.  By allowing the dish to stand, the pasta will absorb the moisture in the dish, your lasagne won’t turn into soup & everything will be beautifully baked!

When you’re ready to cook it, pre-heat the oven to 180*C.

Place your lasagne on a baking tray to catch any drips (trust me, when it starts bubbling there will be spillages).

Put in the centre of the oven & bake for about 35-45 minutes, until the cheese on top has turned a gorgeous golden colour & is crispy around the edges.

Remove from the oven, place on a cooling rack & cover loosely with some foil or another tray (don’t press it flat, or your cheese will stick).  Leave to stand for 10-15 minutes, as it will be hotter than the sun & you will burn your mouth!

Serve with a huge green salad & maybe a few chunky chips, if you feel the need.  Any leftovers can be packed up into pots for lunches (hot or cold, it’s rather nice), or frozen for lazy late night suppers, curled up on the sofa with a glass of wine.

Next time you fancy something luscious & light, layer some love on the lasagne for perfect pastafication!  Stay hungry 😉  A x