Homemade lasagne is fantastic, but I am a lazy cook so for me this statement generally only applies when somebody else makes it. Make a ragu, make a white sauce, layer it all up without running out of one set of ingredients before the others and then cook it all again – and this is without even mentioning the washing up and the possibility of only being able to get the sort of lasagne sheets that you have to precook (life is definitely too short for that last one!).
“Too much faff” is a poor excuse for a foodie not to make something so I have stuck with two more respectable excuses; first and foremost like many people I don’t eat all that much red meat these days, and secondly (and possibly more surprisingly given the state of our kitchen cupboards!) I have never actually owned a lasagne dish. But I have had a recipe in mind for a while, should I ever own a lasagne dish and as santa (Mum and Dad) was very kind this year I have just had the opportunity to give it a go. The idea for the recipe is something I saw on UKTV food some time ago, with a few things added here and there. Here’s how easy it is: chop and fry some veg, add a tin of tomatoes and a few other bits and bobs, layer up with precooked lasagne sheets and blob some mozzarella about in lieu of a white sauce.
As well as the easiness/low washing up quota of the recipe, I was attracted to it for it’s potential as a healthier alternative to a normal beef ragu-style lasagne (by which I’m thinking of this kind of thing from Delia Smith) and so I thought I would contribute it to the Heart of the Matter event on heart-healthy pasta dishes. I’m not suggesting that this would be the way to go if you need a very low-fat diet or are trying to lose weight (if either of these are the case the lasagne food group is just not really the place to be hanging around). But for those of us who are just trying to make the things we eat every day a bit healthier then this recipe has a lot going for it, especially if you can team it with a salad and skip the garlic bread.
By missing out the mince and bacon/pancetta and going for a tasty veggie sauce a whole heap of saturated fat gets left out (that’s the one that we think raises your bad cholesterol, gradually furring up your arteries). Mozzarella, you may be surprised to learn, is actually one of the lower fat cheeses, so is a healthier alternative to those lasagne you see with a hard cheese, cream and butter based white sauce (which can be a bit rich as well). And all that lovely fennel, those tomatoes and the onion? Between them a serving of this lasagne adds up to about three of those recommended five-a-day portions of fruit and veg! Fennel isn’t something they teach you about in nutrition skool (it’s not really considered one of your everyday veg in Britain) so I was keen to read up on it a bit; apparently it has a good amount of vitamin C and folate in it, as well as potassium like most fruits and vegetables. Sodium (from salt) and potassium have a yin and yang relationship when it comes to hypertension (high blood pressure), with a good intake of potassium thought to help counteract some of the negative effects of too much salt (if you want to know more there is a good article about hypertension on the British Nutrition Foundation website).
And to think that you can have all of this goodness with a satisfying, chewy, golden bit on the top and round the edges which is the best part of most lasagnes anyway! Oh and it doesn’t collapse all over the plate and drown the salad when you serve it but stays in a nice square (I was going to say that it doesn’t ‘flob all over the plate’, flob being a [colloquial] British word that means sort of collapsing and overflowing, usually used in the context of spare tyres round people’s middles, but according to some British to American translation sites they think it means to spit so we’ll stick with collapse to save confusion).
Fresh oregano is a tasty addition but is not so vital that it can’t wait for the summer if the alternative is to air-freight it in from somewhere far away. You can happily assemble the whole dish an hour or two before you want to cook it if that will make life easier for you as that softens up the pasta sheets even more.
I’m not going to over exaggerate and say that this recipe is one of those that will convert meat-eaters to vegetable lovin’ but it is very tasty and a darn sight easier to make than most lasagne. We had ours with a green salad that had some yellow pepper and a few roasted seeds in it for a bit of crunch in contrast to the lasagne and also some walnut and honey bread on the side.
Recipe for Fennel and tomato lasagne
Serves about 6
I hope I’ve given the ingredients in shopping friendly measures but this is not a very exact dish so do cut down on the cheese a bit if you want to keep this lower fat.
2 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, chopped or crushed (whichever is easier)
3 fennel bulbs, cut in half then sliced, leaving the hard bit at the very bottom
2 medium onions, sliced
125ml red wine (doesn’t have to be posh but something drinkable)
3 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
¾ tsp oregano or 1 tbsp fresh oregano/marjoram
1 tsp fennel seeds, roughly ground
1 tsp sugar
salt and pepper
250g ready to cook lasagne sheets
3 x 150g packs fresh mozzarella, the soft type in bags of liquid (not low fat, it won’t melt in the right way)
Warm the olive oil in a biggish saucepan or high sided frying pan over a medium heat and fry the onions and fennel until they go soft. Add the garlic and continue frying for another minute or two.
Add the tomatoes, wine or balsamic vinegar, oregano and sugar. Simmer for about twenty minutes. Doesn’t have to be exact but don’t do what I did and leave it for three quarters of a hour while chatting – I think this lost some of the delicate fennel flavour and made it a bit mushy. If, like me, you have a fridge full of jars of random stuff then a little something extra in the tomato sauce wouldn’t go a miss at this point, maybe a spoonful of sun dried tomato paste or a bit of harissa/chilli.
Spoon a good layer of the tomato sauce into the bottom of the dish and follow with a layer of pasta sheets. Continue layering with a layer of sauce, a layer of torn pieces of mozzarella and a layer of pasta sheets. You’ll probably end up with about 3 layers in total. If you can keep back a little more than a third of the cheese for the top layer to make it extra gooey and golden. If you want to you can leave the lasagne at this point and cook it later.
Cook in the oven for about 25 minutes at 180C/gas 4, adding on another five to ten minutes if you’ve made it in advance and left it standing for a while before cooking.
This reheats beautifully the next day with a tinfoil cover removed for the last ten minutes to let it crisp up again.