Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Lasagna!

Seeing as I do not have a family or large group of flatmates to feed these days I tend to just make one, maybe two, proper meals a week. So this week's exciting dinner - lasagna! Because like Garfield I would live off of lasagna if I could. Amazingly enough I had never had lasagna until I was about 11 or so, when I was staying at a friend's house, and it was so great that when I went home I told my mother she had to make lasagna. Then I learnt how to make it. So when it comes right down to it I guess lasagna is the reason that I learnt how to cook. Over the years I have continued making lasagna until it has become what is today, my own version of one of may favourite dishes. I know that everybody already makes lasagna in their own way but I'm going to share my version anyway just for the fun and for those poeple that actually don't know how to cook or who might just miss getting to eat my lasagna. Though it is unlikely that any of those people actually read this.

As often happens to me in everything I do I have of course had a fair number of kitchen disasters, one of which involves lasagna. Now I'm not talking about putting too much in the dish and having it overflow, that's a pretty common occurrence in my world. No, what happened a few years ago was all because a friend told me that her mother always made lasagna early, let it get cold and then reheated it, because it's best that way. I figured I should try that so I cooked early in the day and put it in the oven, then had to dash off to a lecture (I was in undergrad at the time). I left a message for my flatmate to turn the oven off at a specific time and when I got home three hours later the house smelt so intensely of food I immediate knocked on her door and asked did she not turn off the oven? And what would you know but she had not got my message! By this stage the rest of our flatmates were home and we quickly turned off the oven and took out an incredibly black lasagna. It smelt really good though, so we broke through the top layer and found that the middle layer was just fine, really perfect in fact. So we all grabbed a fork and demolished the middle layer, but sadly the bottom layer was also rather black and solid. So that night we ordered pizza for dinner.

Well with that being a fair warning to anybody who wants to be clever and get their cooking over and done with early to always be there to turn off the oven, I guess it is time to lay down some detailed instructions and hope that somebody is actually in need of them. Then with real meals aside we can begin to look forward to this week's baking - trust me it's going to be really good!

Lasagna

1 box lasagna sheets (fresh or dried, it's all good, I always use dried because I am a poor student)

Olive oil
1 large onion
garlic - as much as you like
400 grams lean beef mince
3 cans (400 grams each) tomatoes
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons bisto, made into a paste with a little cold water (or just a bit of cornflour, to thicken the sauce up)
1 teaspoon each dried oregano, basil and thyme (or whatever herbs you please, fresh or dried)
Black pepper to taste

2-3 tablespoons butter, margerine or olive oil
2-3 tablespoons plain flour
2-3 cups (250 mL metric cups that is) milk
200 grams grated cheddar cheese

Wow, that is a lot of ingredients. But really, lasagna is not actually too labour intensive or time consuming. No more than an hour between beginning and putting it in the oven. So, to begin - chop up your onion. Heat the oil in a large pan and throw the chopped onion in. While it cooks, crush the garlic and then add that too.

Once the onion is quite cooked, transparent but not brown, add the mince and cook until it is brown all over, using a wooden spoon to stir it and break it up a bit - you want it to be nice and crumbly. Now, here is a very important bit that a lot of people will be horrified about but really, it is necessary. You  must drain the pan of all the water and fat. A lot of water comes out of the mince and if you leave it in the pan firstly, your sauce will not thicken so well and secondly, you will have pools of grease on the top. There really is no need for the extra cholesterol and it will be much better if you drain it. You really don't lose the flavour, just the fat.

Now that you have drained the excess liquid from your pan you can add the rest of the ingredients - the tomatoes and herbs and bisto mixed with a little water. Balsamic vinegar is good but if you don't have any don't worry about it, I never used to use it. In fact I used to throw in some worcestershire sauce for a bit of extra flavour. Simmer your sauce while you prepare everything else. If it seems to taste a bit watery and you want it stronger add some tomato puree, or some beef stock, or both. If you want spice, add crushed chilli!

While the meat sauce is simmering it is time to prepare the white sauce. First grate your 200 grams of cheese and set it aside. Now place your butter/oil/margerine in a medium sized pot and heat - when it is hot and the flour and mix it to make a roux. It should not be runny, but not crumbly either. Sort of smooth. And it should be sizzling, you want the flour to cook a little, for like one minute, but keep stirring it. You don't want it to go brown! Next you simply add the milk very gradually, stirring it into the roux quite briskly so that it does not go lumpy. If there are lumps a whisk should help get rid of them. You want to do it slowly enough that the sauce alway is quite thick, if you add to much milk and make it runny just keep cooking it until it thickens before adding more, keeping the heat at sort of a medium temperature.

The amount of white sauce you make is up to you, I always like to have plenty but 2 cups should be enough. Only continue to add milk while the sauce remains thick, roughly 1 cup per tablespoon of flour but I usually find that makes a runny sauce, a little less milk is good. I use about 3 tablespoons of flour but 2 and a half cups of milk. Finally of course, when your sauce is ready and thick you season with a bit of salt and pepper and add cheese, not too much though. A creamy sauce is best so no more than half of the cheese.

We are now ready to put our lasagna together! First taste both sauces and add salt or pepper if it's needed. Turn on the oven to 180 degrees celsius and get out a large lasagna dish (seriously, this makes a lot, you need a really large dish or two smaller ones). I generally use a ladle and place one big ladleful of the meat sauce on the bottom of the dish. Enough to cover the whole dish but only in a thin layer. Next goes a layer of the lasagna sheets and then a ladleful or two of cheese sauce. And repeat! Finish with a layer of cheese sauce and sprinkle the remaining cheese on top. Now we don't want the layers to be too thick or the lasagna will not hold it's shape later on. And if you fill the dish to the top you will have my usual problem of everything overflowing! A large tray underneath helps, saves on having to clean the oven.

Finally you place your lasagna in the oven and leave it to cook for an hour. Then turn the oven off and leave it for at least another hour, at the end of which you should serve up your delicious lasagna and try not to eat it all at once because it's even better the day after.

And there are no pictures of lasagna sadly because despite being delicious it's not an overly beautiful looking dish, especially not the very well-cooked one that I made last night, and my food photography is still very poor. I recommend serving with a simple salad, something italian-ish with a bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar as a dressing.

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