Lasagna is the ultimate classic pub grub, a hearty and wholesome belly filler that leaves you with a little hug inside. Being vegetarian I prefer to use soya mince which is low in fat and full of protein, with the addition of peas in my mince, a thick creamy sauce and handcut chunky chips. It’s the attention to detail, the balance of textures and punchy flavour that makes a dish go from “good” to “oh-my-goodness!” I’ll have you know.
I begin by making the mince filling first which always depends on the contents of my vegetable drawer in the fridge. Typically I use a staple of white one onion, a carrot, a couple cloves of garlic, an inch of fresh ginger, a few slices of green, red and yellow pepper, a couple of chestnut mushrooms, a handful of garden peas and some fresh bay leaves from my herb garden. I roughly dice the veggies and add them to a heavy bottom pan with a splash of extra virgin olive oil and a couple clicks of the salt and pepper grinders.
I cook the vegetables on a medium heat with the lid on to help them to stew and soften, which usually takes several minutes. Whilst this is happening I wash a handful of white potatoes and slice them into thick chips and drop them into a pan of boiling water until soft. Depending on how thick you cut your chips it usually takes about ten minutes to boil the potatoes on a constant rolling boil, and to test their softness I stick a knife in a piece, aiming for it to slide straight through when it is ready for the oven. You can leave the skins on for extra crunchy chips, or off if you prefer them more soft and fluffy.
After straining off the water when the potatoes are soft, I pour them onto a flat oven stray with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt, before placing them in my fan assisted electric oven at 180 degrees for around half an hour. I would love to cook with gas as it makes chips taste incredibly light and crisp, but as I have two young children and was raised with an electric oven, I’ve always stuck to what I know and think of safety first.
As the chips take a while to cook I come back to my vegetables, adding a few handfuls of frozen soya mince into the pan. The measurements all depend on how much you want to make and how ‘meaty’ you want the dish to taste. I like a 50/50 balance between soya mince and vegetables so that you get a taste of everything with each mouthful and it’s not too overpowering nor too bland. I then add a tin of chopped tomatoes to the veggies and mince, along with a heaped spoon of yeast extract, a splash of Worcestershire sauce and about a tablespoon of tomato puree before giving it all a good mix and returning the lid on a medium heat for around ten more minutes to allow the ingredients to cook in.
Next comes the creamy sauce topping, my absolutely weakness in life! I have no idea how any of it makes it to the oven dish in the end as I ‘taste’ it a billion times throughout just to make sure it’s still delicious. To begin with I melt a nice knob of butter in a pan on a low heat, allowing it to lightly sizzle without burning. I then crumble a vegetable stock cube and about two tablespoons of plain white flour, although you don’t have to be precise at all. The more flour, the thicker the sauce. I take a whisk and constantly turn the flour and butter over as it changes from liquid and powder to a glossy dough. I then add splashes of full fat milk a little at a time, whisking constantly to prevent it from catching or going lumpy, and aim to create about a quarter of a pan of thick sauce. It takes about five minutes on a medium to low heat to build up enough sauce, and once I’ve finished adding milk I grate in some extra mature cheddar cheese and a pinch of mustard powder. You could also add fresh cream if you like, just be careful to do it at the end or it will curdle.
By this time the mince has puffed up and is nice and juicy with the vegetables glossy and lasagne juices a deep rich red. I use a ladle to scoop the veggie mince into an oven dish, layering the vegetables first, then a layer of egg-lasagne pasta, a layer of mince, another of egg-lasagne pasta and finally the creamy cheese sauce. I then add a sprinkle of paprika lightly across the sauce as it has a lovely kick to it, before covering the oven dish with foil and placing in the oven with the chips.
I let it all cook for a further twenty minutes in the oven, turning the chips over to ensure they’re crunchy all over and washing the dishes as I wait. I plate up a nice wedge of lasagne with a handful of crunchy thick chips and a sprig of fresh basil from the herb garden and a glass of red wine to see it down. This is my childhood personified, a dish that will never grow old, and one that leaves you licking your lips in anticipation and the plate after with appreciation. In the summer I serve this with a side salad and garlic infused ciabatta, the succulent rich mince works so beautifully with the creamy thick cheddar sauce and you really can’t beat a handmade crunchy oven chip.
This dish is incredibly adaptable as it can take literally any vegetable, from aubergines to cauliflower or chillies, it all depends on your taste. I love making a white version of this dish by leaving out the soya mince and pouring the creamy sauce through the vegetables as well as topping the pasta and taste testing a glass of rose as I cook. But that’s a whole other recipe for another day!