Can a veggie version rival lasagne alla bolognese, do you use one vegetable or a range, should they be chunky or pureed – and how cheesy is too cheesy?
Lasagne, to me, means meat. Indeed, lasagne alla bolognese, as the ragu and bechamel sort is properly known, has been absorbed, kicking and screaming, into the British canon – albeit with a few common modifications (I'm not sure how much gooey red leicester they use in Emilia-Romagna, for example), so it was a bit of a revelation when I discovered that in Italy, almost every region has its own lasagne-based speciality.
In Liguria, they eat their lasagne with pesto, while in Naples lasagne with meatballs and hard-boiled eggs is a festive treat, and in Tuscany they traditionally make the pasta from chestnut flour and serve it with leeks and lard. Indeed, Marcella Hazan defines lasagne only as: "several layers of delicate, nearly weightless pasta spaced by layers of savoury but not overbearing filling made of meat or artichokes or mushrooms or other fine mixtures".
Many of these regional variations are vegetarian already, which means the idea of the "perfect" version is somewhat vexed. I decided instead to try to come up with a recipe that would be as satisfying for all concerned as the classic ragu-based variety.
Italian recipes, which always make a virtue of simplicity and are generally served as a first course, tend to stick with one particular vegetable. British versions are intended as the main attraction and generally use a range, along with all the other trappings of a lasagne alla bolognese. So what makes a really knockout vegetable lasagne?
Although you can use pretty much any vegetable you like in a lasagne, some seem to pop up more frequently than others. British vegetable lasagne recipes often use a combination of what are often referred to as "Mediterranean vegetables" – courgettes, aubergine, peppers and the like – with Katie Caldesi adding mushrooms too (all-fungi lasagnes are a topic in themselves). If you're sticking to one or two vegetables, Hazan suggests artichokes in her Essentials of Italian Cooking; the Silver Spoon uses aubergine, as does Jamie Oliver; Delia Smith supplies a recipe for a spinach and pine nut variety; and Martha Stewart goes for butternut squash.
All these vegetables will find a very happy home in a lasagne bake, as long as you treat them right. As Caldesi observes in her Italian Cookery Course, roasting them first (with the honourable exception of the spinach, naturally), "concentrates the flavour" more than Oliver's steaming method. However, I don't feel that the slices she uses work as well as his puree – Hazan's definition of a lasagne filling as a "fine mixture" suggests I should be aiming for a consistency more like the meaty ragu. Smith's finely chopped spinach and ricotta mixture fits the bill, as does a simple fresh tomato lasagne recipe from Pasta, a collection of recipes from the kitchen of the American Academy in Rome, and Stewart's pureed squash.
I plumped for aubergines and peppers in the end, because it's summer and they proved most obliging at melting into a tomato sauce, but swap in whatever is good or in season when you happen to be making this – just roast it, if appropriate, then finely chop it before use. (I liked Smith's spinach and ricotta number so much I tried incorporating it too, but it got lost in the tangy tomato sauce. I decided this was a sign that I should do as the Italians do, and keep it simple.)
The more I learn about lasagne, the more I realise that the real deal is quite different from the sort I grew up with – Italian lasagne doesn't slump on the plate in a puddle of sauce, but sits proud and holds its shape. Most recipes I make achieve this goal, though the American Academy's fresh cherry tomato sauce does slosh about a bit (but if you have a glut of tomatoes, pureeing them and layering with pasta and mozzarella does make a gorgeous summer supper).
Caldesi also makes a tomato sauce along with her bechamel, while Hazan, Stewart and Smith use bechamel only, and the Silver Spoon goes for a mixture of ricotta and tomato puree.
My favourite approach is Oliver's aubergine and tomato ragu, but I think the dish needs more than the grated cheese he sprinkles on top. Bechamel is the obvious option, but I prefer Smith and the Silver Spoon's ricotta; it feels lighter and fresher. Savoury meat sauces can take the heavy creaminess of a bechamel, but I think it stifles the more delicate flavour of vegetables.
Smith mixes gorgonzola into her ricotta, and sprinkles it with mozzarella and parmesan. This makes it too rich for my liking – much as I love her lasagne, it is definitely one you'd eat in small, primi piatti squares, Italian-style, rather than as the main event. Ricotta does benefit from pairing with a more assertive cheese, though, so I've gone for salty pecorino, which I prefer with vegetables, but parmesan (or a vegetarian alternative) would be fine if you can't find it.
Stewart mixes her pureed butternut squash with crumbled amaretti biscuits, brown butter and sage with sweet but strangely addictive results. It is a nice idea to bear in mind for winter, though I might consider adding some of Smith's gorgonzola to counter all that sugar. I like the crunch of the pine nuts in Smith's recipe too – in a dish that is intended to be soft, they add some welcome textural contrast.
While we're on the subject of texture, baked pasta dishes such as lasagne are apparently not intended to be served al dente – they should tend more towards the "custardy", which is certainly not an adjective I've ever heard applied to any other kind. This is perhaps why Hazan and Stewart insist on the use of fresh pasta.
I have to admit that, authentic or not, I quite like my lasagne to retain a little bit of chew. Having tried both fresh and dried sheets, I think you can use either, but I'd urge you to consider rebelling against the considerable collective might of Hazan, Caldesi and the Silver Spoon by not cooking it first. The dried variety benefits from a quick dunk in boiling water to help it on its way, but unless you really do want it to fall apart under your fork, I'd recommend using raw fresh pasta sheets.
A final piece of advice on this very loose recipe, which is intended as a general guide to the principles underpinning a decent vegetable lasagne: whichever you make, do let it rest for at least 20 minutes before serving, so it has a chance to "set", as the American Academy puts it. I really think it improves the flavour.
The perfect vegetable lasagne
2 red peppers
50g pine nuts
2 tbsp olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
600g chopped tomatoes
Slug of balsamic vinegar
75g pecorino romana (or parmesan or a vegetarian alternative), finely grated
12 dried lasagne sheets or 6 fresh ones
Small bunch of basil, leaves picked
Heat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark six. Put the aubergines and peppers on a lightly greased baking tray and bake for about 40 minutes until charred and collapsing in on themselves. Put the pine nuts in the oven for the last five minutes to toast.
When the aubergines and peppers are cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh of the aubergines and mash up any large pieces. Peel the peppers, remove the seeds and finely chop the flesh, then add to the aubergine.
Heat the oil in a frying pan and saute the garlic for a minute or so. Add the aubergine and pepper mixture and fry for about 10 more minutes, stirring fairly frequently, until you have a thick pulp, then add the tomatoes and a generous slug of balsamic vinegar. Rinse out the tomato tins with a little water and add this to the pan as well. Bring to the boil, then simmer for about 10 minutes until reduced. Season to taste.
Mix the ricotta with the toasted pine nuts and about three-quarters of the pecorino. Season to taste.
If you're using dried pasta, blanch in boiling salted water for about a minute until just floppy. To assemble the lasagne, spread a quarter of the aubergine mixture in the base of a shallow oven dish (about 20cm x 25cm) and top with a few torn basil leaves and a layer of pasta, cutting it to fit if necessary. Spread with just under a quarter of the ricotta mixture and add another quarter of the aubergines, and some more basil. Repeat these layers (ricotta, aubergine, basil, pasta) twice more, finishing off with a thicker layer of ricotta. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and bake for about 35-40 minutes until golden brown. Allow to cool for about 20 minutes before serving.
Vegetable lasagne: can it compete with lasagne alla bolognese? Do you prefer it authentically self-supporting or sloppy and cheesy? And would you ever serve it with chips?
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