We hadn’t exactly been having a Mediterranean summer but it’s Ireland and so the fact that it wasn’t cold and there were dry spells between showers was keeping us fairly content. But August has dawned with just a little sniff of winter in the air, a breeze with a bite to it when it picks up and a more sinister threat of rain. The last week has seen the days grow perceptibly shorter and life feels just a little more soup than salad!! We are not quite in the realm of stews and casseroles yet but a yearning for something more warming and comforting than classic summer fodder has set in. The kind of meal that sits somewhere in between slow-cooked beef bourguignon and flash fried fish with griddled asparagus and broad beans. A type of transitional meal to match the light wool jumper now resurrected from the recesses of the wardrobe. So what fits the bill? I have decided a lasagne might work – in fact it may just be the perfect trans-seasonal comfort food. A little heavier than grilled meat or fish, yet the perfect bedfellow for the last of the delicate summer leaves and local cherry tomatoes.
There is something slow and languid about the cooking of this Italian classic. It can easily take an entire afternoon to prepare, but it is not difficult or stressful. I find it is best embarked upon with the kitchen door open creating a refreshing draught, while the heat from the stove provides the perfect antidote to the crisper air flow. So with a free afternoon and five people in need of a casual supper, this late summer’s afternoon seemed to be perfect lasagne cooking weather.
So let’s get going. I like to start with a tomato sauce that can simmer gently for hours on the stove, creating the fragrant aromas of an Italian farmhouse kitchen. Here’s how I make it.
Step 1: The Tomato Sauce:
- A good glug of Olive Oil
- 1 Carrot finely chopped
- 2 Onions finely chopped
- 3 Cloves of chopped Garlic
- 2 Tsb of Tomato Puree
- 2 Tins of Tomatoes
- 200ml of Wine
- Salt and Pepper
Heat the oil before turning the temperature to low. Add the onions, carrots and garlic and soften them slowly. Aim for really tender vegetables but don’t let them colour. This can take anything from 10-15 mins but trust me your patience will be rewarded. Remember good things take time – carrots sweeten slowly and soft, translucent onions and garlic release wonderful subtle flavours to build your sauce around.
When the veg has softened, increase the heat and add the tomato puree. Cook for 1 minute or so before adding a small glass of wine to the pot. Personally, I don’t think it matters if you use red or white, I go with whichever I fancy a glass of myself. Today that is white. Continue cooking for about 5 mins until the wine has reduced by at least half. At this point add the tinned tomatoes and a generous handful of chopped basil. Season well and don’t be afraid to sprinkle in a little sugar if the tomatoes taste a little tart. Simmer the sauce gently for about half an hour and then allow it to cool. Parents of fussy little eaters might like that you can blitz the sauce at this point and make it seem like the veggies were never there. Can’t be bothered? No problem. The chunky version tastes great too. For lasagne I like to blend it, I feel it leads to a smoother ragu later. But that’s just a personal preference. And that’s it for stage one, the tomato sauce, now to transform it into a ragu. You will also need a white sauce or a bechamel but seeing as I outsourced that task today, maybe to a helpful Italian nonna or maybe to someone called Dolmio, I will leave you to choose your own recipe.
Step 2: Making A Tomato Sauce into A Ragu Sauce
- A glug of olive oil.
- 1.5 lbs of steak mince
- 1 packet of prosciutto
- 200ml of beef stock
- Tomato sauce (see above)
Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the mince in batches until it is all browned. Add four slices of the prosciutto, finely chopped. (Sometimes I substitute bacon lardons here – it just depends what I have to hand). Pour in the tomato sauce (I usually hold a little back for a spaghetti lunch the next day) and the beef stock. Bring the ragu to the boil and simmer for 30 mins, until the sauce looks rich and delicious.
Step 3: Building a Lasagne
- Ragu sauce (see above)
- Dried lasagne sheets
- White sauce (I have used creme fraiche infused with parmesan, lightly heated mascarpone or a even a shop bought version on days where I can’t be bothered making my own…. uh oh foodie hell awaits me!!!)
- 1 ball of mozzarella
- Sliced prosciutto (whatever is left in the pack)
- Grated cheddar/ parmesan cheese
Lightly grease an ovenproof dish. Ladle in one-third of the meat sauce. Spread it evenly over the bottom of the dish. Cover this with a layer of lasagne sheets and a layer of white sauce. Repeat this process three times, finishing with enough white sauce to cover all the pasta. Then grate over some cheddar cheese (or parmesan) and scatter on some small chunks of mozzarella. If desired drape the remaining prosciutto on top, it creates a crispy, salty addition to the top of the lasagne. I serve with plenty of garlic bread and a green salad. Although tonight my father in law is looking for spuds!!
There will be no spuds but I think I can placate the situation with some rhubarb tart and ice-cream. Pie and ice-cream solves a lot of the world’s problems. xo