Category Archives: Italian

Recipe: The best baked lasagna

lasagna is a typical Italian dish, it has many variations even in the same regions there can be big differences. I’ve developed my own over the years as I like the northern style with plenty of Béchamel sauce while also liking the simple tomato based meat sauces of the southern regions. This recipe combines the best of both and one or two other influences as well.

While it’s very common to see lasagna not many people realise just how much goes into it, you cook up a meat sauce, then you make the Béchamel sauce and finally you layer it all together and bake it. A 3 part process that can be a little time-consuming but is well worth the effort.

Oh and before anyone says it, I know, a Béchamel sauce with cheese added is a Mornay sauce so this is not a traditional lasagna at all really.

I use a lasagna tray for making this (approx. 32cm x 26cm x 8cm), if you don’t have one of similar size you could use a number of smaller ones, just be aware of the depth, you’ll be surprised how much the layers add up to.


The best baked lasagna
The best baked lasagna

Ingredients;


Meat Sauce
1 x Anchovy fillet
6 x slices of pancetta or bacon, chopped
1 x large sprig of rosemary, picked and finely chopped
2 x bay leaves
1 x large red onion, diced
2 x sticks of celery, diced
1 x carrot, diced
2 x cloves of garlic, crushed
500g Beef mince
500g Pork mince
250ml Red wine
3 x 400g tins of tomatoes, chopped (plus one tin of water)
Salt
Pepper
1 x Star Anise

Béchamel (Mornay) sauce
100g flour
100g butter
1L milk
1/2 onion
6 x cloves
75g x parmesan
3 x mozzarella balls, diced

400g of lasagna sheets
Freshly grated Nutmeg

 

Serves 12 – 15 portions


The meat Sauce

Begin by heating a large saucepan over a medium heat, once it’s up to temperature add a little extra virgin olive oil, then the anchovy and pancetta/bacon, fry them for about a minute and add the onion, celery, carrot, garlic, rosemary and bay leaves. Cook these together gently for about 20 minutes.

Next you want to add your meat, making sure to break it up as much as possible as you’re adding it and keep it moving over a high heat until it browns, then add the wine and simmer for a minute before adding the 3 tins of chopped tomatoes and a tin of water.

Finally add a single star anise, bring the lot to a boil and simmer for 1 hour. Then taste and season before removing the bay leaves and star anise as they can have a very unpleasant texture and it’s only their flavour we’re after anyway.

While the meat sauce is simmering get on with the Béchamel sauce.

Béchamel (Mornay) sauce

Take the half onion and skewer it with the cloves, now place this in a saucepan along with the milk and warm it but do not let it boil.

In another slightly larger saucepan, start melting the butter but do not let it burn, keep the heat as low as possible. Once melted add the flour and quickly stir it in until you have a sandy paste like substance. Now using a wooden spoon or plastic whisk start to slowly add the warmed milk, (but not the onion and cloves) mixing it in as you go, the slower you can add the milk the less likely you are to end up with a lumpy sauce so take your time.

Once all the milk has been added you need to “cook out” the flour, this is done by continuing to bring the sauce slowly up to temperature, stirring regularly and tasting. This can take as little as 10 minutes or as long as an hour. When you taste it, if you can still taste flour then keep going and taste again in another few minutes. Once you’ve “cooked out” the flour you have a Béchamel sauce and this can be used with many dishes or subtly changed by adding things like chopped parsley or dill to create other sauces.

But what we want to do is make a Mornay sauce so we add in about half the diced mozzarella and most of the parmesan cheese, hold back enough to cover the top of the final dish. Stir the sauce until the cheese melts and combines completely with the sauce, if it’s too thick use a little milk to thin it, but don’t go crazy we want it a little thick so it will sit on top of the meat layer rather than combining with it.

Final assembly and baking

Take some kitchen paper dipped in extra virgin olive oil and oil up your lasagna dish. If you have a non stick dish, I prefer to start with a pasta layer as it makes the lasagna a little easier to serve. next you want to add a layer of meat sauce followed by a layer of the Béchamel/Mornay sauce. Then sprinkle at little less than a third of the remaining mozzarella over the Béchamel, sprinkle a little grated nutmeg and repeat the Pasta, meat sauce, Béchamel, mozzarella and nutmeg, layers twice more using all the remaining mozzarella on the top, also sprinkle the top with the remaining parmesan.

Bake for 30 – 40 minutes at 180C until the top is golden and bubbling. You can serve this immediately although it’s best to let it cool a little first as the portions will stay together better.

This also freezes very well just wait for the lasagna to cool completely and portion into freezer suitable bags or boxes. Then when you just have to defrost them and reheat when you want Lasagne.

Recipe: Pizza Base revisited

A naked uncooked Pizza base

Ingredients;

1kg of Farina Tipo 00 Flour
1 teaspoon of salt
2 x 7g packets of dried yeast
1 tablespoon of honey
4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
625ml of tepid water (tepid = 2 parts cold to one part boiling)
1 handful of cornmeal

Makes 6-8 Pizza bases


One of the earliest recipes I published on NotJunkFood was for pizza bases, that recipe is a good recipe to use if you do not have access to pizza/pasta flour (also known as farina tipo 00). Thanks to Roma, Superquinn and Dunnes Stores, farina has become much more widely available in Ireland recently and as a result I have had the chance to experiment with my original recipe and I’m happy to say that the following is my updated pizza base recipe.

Sieve the flour and salt into a large bowl or onto a clean work surface and make a well in the middle of it.

Mix the yeast, honey and olive oil into the water and leave for a few minutes, then pour into the well. Using a fork (or your hands) start to stir the liquid in the well while bringing in the flour until the dough starts to come together. Then work the rest of the flour in with your clean, flour-dusted hands. Knead the dough for about 5 minutes until you have a smooth, springy dough.

Place the ball of dough in a large flour-dusted bowl and dust the top of it with some flour. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth and place in a warm room for about an hour or until the dough has doubled in size.

Now place the dough on a flour-dusted surface and knead it around for a 2-3 minutes to push the air out. As you are doing this, work the dough into a giant sausage shape. Divide the dough into six or eight pieces (eight if you like a thin and crispy base) and put them to one side.

Take one of the portions and make it into a ball, then stretch that into a roundish shape about 3-4 inches across and place on a floured surface and grab your rolling pin. Rolling away from you and turning the pizza regularly, roll the pizza base out until it is thin (about an eighth of an inch or less) then flour the pizza base and place on a baking tray lined with cling film – if you don’t have a suitably-sized baking tray, you can substitute with a chopping board or any flat surface that will fit in your freezer.

Fold the cling-film back over the top of the pizza base ready for the next one to be placed on top and repeat until all the portions have been rolled out.

At this point, you can dress one of the pizza bases using some Italian tomato sauce and your preferred toppings, on a baking tray or preferably a pizza stone, either way you will need to sprinkle some cornmeal on before placing the pizza on it to prevent it from sticking.

Then place in a hot oven (approx 220 degrees C) for about 8-10 minutes, sprinkle with dried oregano and enjoy.

Recipe: Quick and Tasty Pasta

Ingredients;

150g dried pasta (the smaller the pieces the better)
40g butter
2 cloves of garlic finely diced
1 tablespoon of fresh thyme, chopped
Juice of half a lime
Handful of grated parmesan

Serves 2


Begin by preparing the pasta as per the packaging. Then when you drain the pasta get your pan back onto a high heat and add the butter to the pan.

Once the butter has melted add the garlic and fry this for about one minute, then add the thyme and stir it in well. Finally, add the lime juice and stir for about thirty seconds before adding the pasta back in, mixing together well and serving with some grated parmesan.

You can also add some chopped salami, pepperoni or even chorizo at the same time as the garlic if you want some additional flavour.

Recipe: Cheesy Garlic Bread

Garlic Bread
Garlic Bread

Ingredients;

2 foot-long bread sticks
Large handful grated cheese (strong cheddar or goats cheese)
30g butter, brought to room temperature
Teaspoon dried thyme
Teaspoon dried basil
1 clove garlic, crushed to a paste (or substitute with 10 twists of dried garlic grater).


Heat your oven to 180C.

Mix the butter, thyme, basil & garlic together. Make 1-inch thick slices into the bread, but do not go all the way through, just to the bottom crust. Spread the butter mix on both sides of each “slice” and then stuff the gaps with the grated cheese.

Cook for 10-15 mins, until any cheese on top of the bread has gone crispy.

I usually fashion a cooking tray out of foil for each bread stick, as this will catch any melted cheese that drips through and also means you can scrumple it up at the end, quickly tidying away any crumbs. To make the tray, pull off a large piece of foil and fold in half for strength. Fold about 1-inch of the long side over twice to form a “wall” and repeat on other long side. Place the bread stick on the foil and crease in the short ends to the correct size, ensuring that your sides stay upright. Don’t seal in the bread stick (unless you want soft garlic bread!).

Note: Use cheese with a strong flavour, this works a lot better than mild cheddar in this recipe. You can also adjust the amount of garlic to suit your taste.

Recipe: Spaghetti Nero Amatriciana

Spaghetti Nero Amatriciana
Spaghetti Nero Amatriciana

Ingredients;

225g spaghetti nero (or your favourite dried pasta)
120g of streaky bacon
1 onion
Half a dried chipotle chilli
400g can of chopped tomatoes
Olive oil
Salt
Pepper
Worcestershire Sauce
Some chopped parsley and freshly grated parmesan (or pecorino) for garnish

Serves 3


My thanks to Kat, who mentioned this as one of her favourite dishes in our recent prize draw, it wasn’t a dish I was familiar with so I Googled it, liked the look of the dish and found a recipe here, which I’ve adapted a little to make it my own.

It was only later when I was researching a little more I discovered this Wikipedia article which gives great information about the origins of the dish and a list of more “authentic” ingredients, which included pigs cheek. While I’m growing more adventurous in both my cooking and eating, I think I’ll stick to the streaky bacon substitution for now :)

Start by thinly slicing the onion and chopping the bacon into strips between half a centimetre and a centimetre across. Then take your chipotle chilli and cut it in half, discard the seeds and chop half of it as finely as possible. If you don’t have chipotle chilli available you could use a whole fresh chilli or about half a teaspoon of chilli flakes instead.

Next heat some olive oil in a pan and fry the bacon on a medium to low heat until it begins to crisp at the edges. Now add the onion and chilli. Cook on a low heat until the onion begins to caramelise, this will take about fifteen to twenty minutes.

Add the chopped tomatoes and sugar and stir this together. Bring this to a very gentle simmer and allow it to thicken for another fifteen to twenty minutes.

Taste it and season to taste with salt and pepper and a dash of Worcestershire sauce.

When I made this first, we served and ate straight away, there was a portion left over which I planned to eat for my lunch the next day. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the flavours had come together much better after the sauce had been cooled and left overnight in a sealed container in the fridge. It seemed to bring out the smoky flavour of the chipotle and this blended with the bacon much better. Don’t get me wrong, it was still delicious immediately after cooking but in future I will make the sauce the day before and store it in the fridge overnight before eating.

So the next day, prepare and cook your pasta as per the instructions. The pasta pictured above is spaghetti nero, the taste is very similar to regular pasta however it has been coloured with squid ink during the manufacturing process and gives a different visual aspect to the dish.

While the pasta is cooking, gently reheat the sauce. Once the pasta is ready, plate it with a generous serving of sauce, some freshly grated parmesan (or pecorino) cheese and some chopped flat leaf parsley for garnish.