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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.

A Sprinkling of Fairy Dust

A little over a month ago I left a comment on Cake in the Country’s blog, and shortly after I received an email from the “Appliances Online Fairy Hobmother“. Despite the girly-sounding name, it’s a wonderful bloke called David who is behind the invention of this supernatural being, whose purpose is to travel the blogosphere sprinkling round fairy dust and Amazon vouchers wherever she goes.

IRC-fairies
Image via Wikipedia

I was lucky enough to be offered an Amazon voucher to spend as I liked and I had several items on my wishlist just waiting for such an opportunity. George also had a lot of items on his wishlist, so there was much debating as to who could get what. Happily, my work came through with another voucher as a little thank you, so I was able to treat both of us!

Ever since George spent some time working in Eden in Temple Bar, he’s been hankering after their cookbook so that he could replicate the dishes at home more accurately, so that was an easy choice for both of us. Next up was baking supplies – I’ve been trying to bake more often, and to do decent batches of stuff so that it will last for more than a couple of days. Space is at a premium in the kitchen, so a set of stackable cooling racks seemed like a great idea, and it was joined by a set of springform tins, so that I can finally make Grannymar’s Infamous Chocolate Cake.

It’s become a bit of a tradition for me to make jelly shots for any parties we throw, and ever since I discovered Jelly Shot Test Kitchen Blog, my ideas have been getting more ambitious! A set of silicone jelly moulds will ensure that the next jellies I make will be a little more adventurous than basic jelly shots.

Our final choice was a joint one and an easy decision to make. We’ve both been lusting after a gorgeous book by Niki Segnit, called “The Flavour Thesaurus” for a long time now. It’s an incredibly useful book that details what flavours and ingredients go best together, which means that if you suddenly find yourself with excess of an ingredient you can find classic or less well known matches for it without having to experiment yourself.

Now it’s your turn! Tell us what you would choose if the Fairy Hobmother granted your wish. Is there a cookbook you’ve been meaning to buy for ages, a piece of equipment that your kitchen is sorely lacking or even something that you’ve wanted to treat yourself to for a while?

Leave a comment below telling us what you’d wish for and it might come true! The Fairy Hobmother will be inspecting all wishes left here before midnight (GMT) on Sunday 14th August, and it could be your wish that gets granted! [Open to residents of Ireland & UK only]

Family Meals

Family meals mean something different to everyone, but for me it’s any meal that is taken sitting at a table, preferably with good company, good food and good conversation. No, the office desk is not a table and Twitter/Facebook/Instant Messaging is not good company, but will do in a push, there might be something to be said for video chat although I’m not so sure I want to be on the receiving end even if I’m eating at the same time.

There are a lot of reasons that this ‘Family’ style of meal has evolved in numerous different cultures through the centuries and not all of them are down to practical reasons like the lack of a microwave to re-heat a meal, or social reasons the human beings need to talk and bond.

For me the most important reason is the lack of distractions, this allows you time to think about what you’re eating; yes, you may be discussing the news of the day or the meal itself with someone but your attention isn’t focused on the television or your laptop or and without that distraction your mind will try to fill in the space by thinking more about what you’re eating, how it tastes and maybe even where your meal came from.

This has a number of benefits, not least of which is that you will experience your food rather than simply tasting it. You will consciously think about the textures, flavours and so on. I almost always find myself wanting to talk about how a family meal was cooked and it’s the discussion that slows down our eating (another benefit) and eating slower also means that we generally eat less (another benefit)

This is before we have even thought about the benefit of the social aspect of a family meal. The mere act of sitting and breaking bread together is something that helps bring people together. After all, one of the single best things we can do to improve our mental health is to talk, it’s as much a requirement for healthy living in humans as the food we eat.

You’d think that having a family meal a day would be standard practice for everyone with all these benefits but it’s unfortunately a tradition that is dying out. There are many reasons/excuses given for this, modern life and working hours, the hassle of actually cooking, timing the cooking so everything is ready at once and that old classic, I don’t have the time.

That last one always annoys the hell out of me, if you don’t have time to do something that is so important to your health and well being as eating, well then you’ll never have enough time for anything else.

Timing the cooking of different elements of a meal can be tricky and sometimes I find potatoes taking longer to cook than I expect or cooking much quicker, that’s why we have ovens. More importantly, that’s why we have one pot meals like stews and pies. With a little practice when timing isn’t as critical you will quickly develop skills to get it right more times than not and eventually every time or at least the skills to fake it 😉

The hassle of cooking? Please give it a rest, unless you plan on eating alone then you have people around to help, get them involved as you need. Most people will be only to happy to help and can do a task, like chopping the veg or stirring the pot etc. with only a little input from you. This not only makes the task easier for you, but it shares the skills with others, adds to the social aspect and people who help prepare a meal are far less likely to criticise it and far more likely to enjoy it.

The modern life one, can be a bit of a bugger though sometime people aren’t working the same hours so it can be difficult to schedule, but you should still make the effort to have a family meal as often as possible, if for no other reason than it helps to repair the damage that the modern life and weird hours can have on the human condition.

Recipe: BBQ Pork Chops

BBQ pork chops served with coleslaw, blazin saddles baked beans and mashed spud
BBQ pork chops served with coleslaw, blazin saddles baked beans and mashed spud

Ingredients;

2 x Irish Pork chops
BBQ Rub
BBQ Sauce

Serves 2

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Start by giving the pork chops a quick rinse in running water and patting them dry with kitchen towel.

Next you want to sprinkle some of the BBQ rub onto a clean plate and lay the pork chops on top. Now turn them over and rub the “BBQ Rub” that has stuck into the meat well, then turn them over and do the same on the other side. Keep turning and rubbing the mixture into the chops until the mixture starts to feel like a paste and the fat of the chops has taken on a reddish tinge.

At this point wrap them with cling film and pop them in the fridge for at least twelve hours (I usually leave them overnight) to allow the flavours to combine with the meat.

The next day when you are ready to start cooking get your grill as hot as you can (be that your barbecue grill or kitchen grill) and place the pork chops on to cook for five to seven minutes per side.

When the second side has had its cooking time, turn the chops again and brush on a generous helping of BBQ Sauce and place them back on the grill for another five to seven minutes, then turn them one last time and brush the second side generously and back on the grill again for another five to seven minutes. At this point you’re ready to serve.

I like to serve these with some of my “Blazin Saddles” Baked Beans and mashed potato with some chives chopped through them. Coleslaw is always good with BBQ even if it is store bought 😉

These can be frozen once the rub has been applied and then defrosted ready for use, whenever you want. So I would normally buy about 10 pork chops mix up a batch of the rub and apply it. Then freeze them, in pairs, in sealed plastic bags. Doing this in advance means that you can pull a pair of them out of the freezer on your way to work to defrost during the day and have a quick and easy dinner to look forward to when you get home in the evening.

Recipe: Cold Veggie Couscous

Ingredients;

2 x 125g bags “boil in the bag” couscous
2 sticks celery
1 small bell pepper (your choice of colour)
3 medium tomatoes
1 200g tin sweetcorn
Handful frozen peas
Handful baby broccoli
Handful fresh flat-leaf parsley
Handful sun-dried tomatoes
3 handfuls raisins
Half teaspoon chilli powder
Herbs to taste (e.g. dried oregano, basil, rosemary – approx 2 teaspoons)
Olive oil

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I love couscous, but the preparation can be messy. Superquinn stocks Roma Boil in the Bag Couscous which simply requires it to be boiled for 1 minute, then snip open the bag and pour out. It really is the easy option.

The recipe is so simple here – just chop up the celery, pepper & tomatoes really small and place in a bowl. Using a kitchen scissors, cut the parsley (stalks and all) into teeny chunks directly into the bowl. Also toss in the sweetcorn and raisins.

Bring a large pot of water to the boil, then add in the baby broccoli, sun-dried tomatoes and frozen peas. Boil these for 2 mins, then throw in the bags of couscous. After 1 minute, drain off the water and carefully snip open the bags, pouring the couscous into the bowl, mixing it in immediately.

Slice up the cooked baby broccoli and sun-dried tomatoes (briefly boiling them allows them to re-hydrate slightly) and place these in the bowl along with the cooked peas.

Finally add approx 1 tablespoon olive oil, the chilli powder and dried herbs and stir everything together until well mixed.

This couscous can be eaten on it’s own, or mixed with some protein – try diced prawns & crab sticks; leftover roast chicken; or even flaked roast salmon. I like to make up a batch of this on the weekend and grab a bowlful each day for lunch, with a different topping each time.

If you don’t like any of the vegetables in the recipe, then you can leave them out, but I’d highly recommend replacing them with something you prefer – you could try diced onion, spring onions, roast sweet potato, broccoli or alfalfa shoots or asparagus.