Lasagne, to most of people, means meat. Indeed, lasagne alla bolognese, as the ragu and bechamel sort is properly known, has been absorbed, kicking and screaming, into the British canon – albeit with a few common modifications, so it was a bit of a revelation when I discovered that in Italy, almost every region has its own lasagne-based speciality.
In Liguria, they eat their lasagne with pesto, while in Naples lasagne with meatballs and hard-boiled eggs is a festive treat, and in Tuscany they traditionally make the pasta from chestnut flour and serve it with leeks and lard. Indeed, Marcella Hazan defines lasagne only as: "several layers of delicate, nearly weightless pasta spaced by layers of savoury but not overbearing filling made of meat or artichokes or mushrooms or other fine mixtures".
Many of these regional variations are vegetarian already, which means the idea of the "perfect" version is somewhat vexed. I decided instead to try to come up with a recipe that would be as satisfying for all concerned as the classic ragu-based variety.
Italian recipes, which always make a virtue of simplicity and are generally served as a first course, tend to stick with one particular vegetable. British versions are intended as the main attraction and generally use a range, along with all the other trappings of a lasagne alla bolognese. So what makes a really knockout vegetable lasagne?
Although you can use pretty much any vegetable you like in a lasagne, some seem to pop up more frequently than others. British vegetable lasagne recipes often use a combination of what are often referred to as "Mediterranean vegetables" – courgettes, aubergine, peppers and the like – with Katie Caldesi adding mushrooms too (all-fungi lasagnes are a topic in themselves). If you're sticking to one or two vegetables, Hazan suggests artichokes in her Essentials of Italian Cooking; the Silver Spoon uses aubergine, as does Jamie Oliver; Delia Smith supplies a recipe for a spinach and pine nut variety; and Martha Stewart goes for butternut squash.
All these vegetables will find a very happy home in a lasagne bake, as long as you treat them right. As Caldesi observes in her Italian Cookery Course, roasting them first (with the honourable exception of the spinach, naturally), "concentrates the flavour" more than Oliver's steaming method. However, I don't feel that the slices she uses work as well as his puree – Hazan's definition of a lasagne filling as a "fine mixture" suggests I should be aiming for a consistency more like the meaty ragu. Smith's finely chopped spinach and ricotta mixture fits the bill, as does a simple fresh tomato lasagne recipe from Pasta, a collection of recipes from the kitchen of the American Academy in Rome, and Stewart's pureed squash.
I plumped for aubergines and peppers in the end, but swap in whatever is good or in season when you happen to be making this – just roast it, if appropriate, then finely chop it before use.
(Serves 6) 3 aubergines
2 red peppers50g pine nuts
2 tbsp olive oil2 garlic cloves, crushed
600g chopped tomatoesSlug of balsamic vinegar
500g ricotta75g pecorino romana (or parmesan or a vegetarian alternative), finely grated
12 dried lasagne sheets or 6 fresh onesSmall bunch of basil, leaves picked
Heat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark six. Prick the aubergines and put the aubergines and peppers on a lightly greased baking tray and bake for about 40 minutes until charred and collapsing in on themselves. Put the pine nuts in the oven for the last five minutes to toast.
When the aubergines and peppers are cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh of the aubergines and mash up any large pieces. Peel the peppers, remove the seeds and finely chop the flesh, then add to the aubergine.
Heat the oil in a frying pan and saute the garlic for a minute or so. Add the aubergine and pepper mixture and fry for about 10 more minutes, stirring fairly frequently, until you have a thick pulp, then add the tomatoes and a generous slug of balsamic vinegar. Rinse out the tomato tins with a little water and add this to the pan as well. Bring to the boil, then simmer for about 10 minutes until reduced. Season to taste.
Mix the ricotta with the toasted pine nuts and about three-quarters of the pecorino. Season to taste.
If you're using dried pasta, blanch in boiling salted water for about a minute until just floppy. To assemble the lasagne, spread a quarter of the aubergine mixture in the base of a shallow oven dish (about 20cm x 25cm) and top with a few torn basil leaves and a layer of pasta, cutting it to fit if necessary. Spread with just under a quarter of the ricotta mixture and add another quarter of the aubergines, and some more basil. Repeat these layers (ricotta, aubergine, basil, pasta) twice more, finishing off with a thicker layer of ricotta. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and bake for about 35-40 minutes until golden brown. Allow to cool for about 20 minutes before serving.
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