Ahhhhhh, Lasagne!


Sarjano teaches us how to make vegetarian lasagne, one of the most known and most appreciated amongst traditional Italian dishes

Sarjano making pasta
Sarjano making pasta

Apparently lasagne is one of the most known and most appreciated amongst traditional Italian dishes. From the top of the Alpen to the bottom of Sicily this tradition has made several million people fat. Now it is your turn. Lasagne, by nature is a ‘fat dish’. It can make a full dinner for almost any stomach. In Italy it comes under the category of  ‘a complete dish’. Everything that is necessary to make a wholesome meal is hidden amongst the mysterious layers of lasagne. You have carbohydrates (pasta), abundant vegetables, and cheese. All in all it is a great dish. Too bad that though this preparation is very simple, outside Italy it is difficult to come across good lasagne.

Back to lasagne.

You will need
600 gram refined flour
6 whole eggs

Sift the flour on your work table (most Italian don’t add salt to the pasta, as the water in which they cook it, is well salted).

Make a well in the center and break the eggs into it.

Mix gently and blend everything together.

Please don’t make pasta with your hands if you are in a bad mood. When you make pasta with your own hands you can tell if you are into an enjoyable love affair, or if you are using the dough to beat the shit out of your ghosts, or to hit your enemies, or to release your anger. No!

With deep respect and creative, sensitive fingers mix and blend the eggs with the flour.

Once this is done, knead the pasta dough with your hands really well and gentle. There is no hurry. As in making love, enjoy each movement. Make love with your pasta!

Now you have got this beautiful soft ball of dough, sprinkle your work table with some flour and roll it into a thin layer.

Cut rectangular pieces, 3” by 5” depending on the size of your container. A ceramic baking tray is the best, but Teflon or stainless steel is also good. But first let us delve into the mystery of lasagne. As usual, in Italy there are two schools, two philosophies even for lasagne. One is to keep the layer quite thick and boil it for a few minutes, then strain it under cold water and then you start to pile up your lasagne. The other way suggests thin layers of pasta and to use it raw. Being thin they will cook without water, just being in layers with tomato sauce and béchamel. Personally I have chosen the second way eons ago, and I stick to it. It makes lasagne more delicate. More melting. (Feminine way, cucina debole, and sooo creamy!) But feel free to try both and then choose.

Usually the first recipe I introduce is Lasagne ala Bolognese. What in fact is lasagne? Nothing but layers of homemade pasta, tomato, béchamel and grated cheese. But many people don’t like tomato, so there are many traditional ways of making lasagne. ‘White lasagne’, they are called. There are hundreds of recipes, but first lets see together what to make layers with. To begin with, the most traditional sample:

Lasagne alla Bolognese

for 6 servings

First you need to prepare a huge quantity of Bolognese sauce.

Chop the onion finely and let it cook gently with the butter and olive oil until it is golden.

Meanwhile chop the carrots and celery. Add this to the onion.

After you have sautéed the onions and the rest of the herbs, you have many choices for invigorating your vegetarian Bolognese.

By the way, in Bologna city there is no such thing as a vegetarian Bolognese. It is considered a contradiction of terms. So don’t ask for it or you will be labelled a weirdo.

Vegetarian Bolognese is a mystic creation. I suppose it was created by some Italian spiritual seeker. (Nothing to joke about, believe it or not they really exist!)

I have been using tofu chopped in tiny chunks. I have been using ‘tempe’ too, chopped very small. But whatever you may use it is replacement for meat and you have to think of some extra taste to enrich the substitute.  The poorer the substitute, the more you will have to work on it to make it taste, maybe not as good as meat, but better! Let us say that all you have available is the poor soya granules. To start with you will have to increase the wine, you can easily double it! Once you cook the soya granules with wine and herbs, stirring gently for five minutes, you will feel just by the smell that the poor soya granules is beginning to lose that smell of dog food and developing the aroma of cooked meat.

The meat has to be replaced in a nice and creative way, so what do we do? I have tried all. seitan is my favourite, but not easy to find everywhere. It is a glutine-meat, usually made out of whole-wheat flour or semolina or a mix of both (the best). When available in your own town, it is the best thing you can use. Just mash it to the size you like and it is ready to be added to the sauce.

It is possible to enhance this feat by adding some fresh rosemary and certainly two handfuls of champignons (butt mushrooms). What else? In my kitchen there is always some “Smoked salt”, also known as “Hickory salt” in some parts of the world, or “Rock Salt” elsewhere. I love to add a little of this smoking taste to the vegetarian preparation … mostly it is all about defeating the dog food sensation that comes with soya granules.

Okay this is enough for the basic Bolognese. Any variation is welcome. I may use it in my next book. Ah! I forgot the spicing … for it is the same as that for any tomato sauce: dry red chillies in any quantity you fancy!

Now you have the sauce, but what about the béchamel? This is for the French speaking, otherwise it is known as “white sauce”.  Very simple to prepare.

All you need for a good béchamel is
100 gram butter
100 gram refined flour
1 litre of milk
Nutmeg (grated)

That’s all!

But in addition you need a lot of patience and a lot of care. May I tell you the truth? As simple as this sauce is, nevertheless millions people f..k it up daily. If this expression is too strong, you may find one of your liking! The fact is that those ten minutes for preparation of a good béchamel have to be a real meditation, so to say. You have to be there constantly for those ten minutes without going astray, because it takes just a second … and all the sauce is in lumps.

It is better to start warming up the milk and have it ready on the side. Then first melt butter on a low flame and add the flour stirring gently with a wooden spoon, till you add the milk. At this point you can switch to a beater – it is more practical, a manual beater, not an electric one! You have to add milk little by little. The first time you may ask for help, just someone to add milk gently while you concentrate on stirring continuously with your beater so as to avoid formation of lumps.

You need to stir for about ten minutes till you can feel the sauce becoming denser and denser. Just before turning the flame off you have to add salt, pepper and grated nutmeg while keeping on stirring. The béchamel is ready. If you have managed to keep it creamy and without lumps, you have succeeded. Otherwise, try again but stay alert.

Remember: béchamel IS a real test for a wannabe cook. In the happy circumstances you are one, I’d like to give you a few tips. If you like your béchamel to be more creamy then you add 50 gram extra butter. If you’d rather have it light then you can use clear vegetable soup instead of milk. My favourite goes with porcini dry mushrooms boiled in milk itself, which gives a nice smell of “forest” to the creamy béchamel. Now it is up to you to be creative and original

Once again back to lasagne! Now we have the tomato sauce, the béchamel and the layers of pasta. Additionally we need some grated cheese. In Italy we use the Parmesan cheese, which as you know is not available, everywhere. So let me assure you that any kind of melting cheese will do. So now you take your baking tray, butter it on the bottom and on the sides too. Then you make a layer with the rectangles of pasta, distribute few spoons of tomato sauce on top and spread it gently and uniformly to create a thin red layer. Repeat the procedure with béchamel to create a thin white layer on top of the red one. Sprinkle now with some grated cheese, but not too much. Remember we are going to make many layers, four or five. After the cheese again pasta, and so on. After the last layer of béchamel, make sure that every inch of pasta is covered with some liquid, and add the cheese. Mix gently to merge the cheese with the bottom sauces. This is because when the last layer is of cheese, it can easily become too dry staying in the oven for 25 minutes.

The oven should be pre-heated to around 200 degrees and the lasagne should receive the grill at the end only for five minutes, otherwise the cooking should be from the bottom. When I serve this Bolognese, I like to sprinkle some fresh Parmesan cheese on top and few small leaves of basil. That is as far as ‘Lasagne alla Bolognese’ is concerned. Now you know the trick and you can experiment with new variations!

From the book ‘Food is Home’ by Sarjano

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