Forget chicken tikka masala, surely lasagne is now the most popular meal in Britain? It always seems to top the ready-meal sales lists, but I find bought lasagnes either taste watery, or feel gritty, or have stodgy pasta, or tiny portion sizes, or even all of the above. So I like to make my own - it does take quite a long time, but you don't actually spend much of that time in the kitchen. I use quite a few shortcuts compared to a traditional recipe, but the result is delicious, unctuous and satisfying, perfect comfort food. I'm not making any claims to authenticity, but I AM claiming that we all love it and it's been a family favourite for years. In their student days, my daughters used to look forward to this as their "welcome home for the holidays" dish.
This would serve 4, when served with salad and ciabatta or garlic bread.
for the beef layer
400-450g pack minced beef (ideally the lower fat range)
6 rashers thin cut smoked streaky bacon, cut into thin strips, or a small pack of lardons
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
1 rounded tablespoon plain flour
1 beef stock cube, crumbled
½ teaspoon dried chilli flakes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tin (450g) chopped tomatoes
100 ml red wine
2 cloves garlic, crushed
100 g mushrooms, chopped
2 tbs pesto
2 tbs tomato purée
for the sauce layer
1 small (1pt/568ml) bottle semi skimmed milk
1 rounded tablespoon soft margarine
1 heaped tablespoon plain flour
pack of no-need-to-pre-cook dried lasagne (you will use around 12 sheets, depending on the size of your dish)
75g finely grated Cheddar cheese
25g finely grated Parmesan
I use a deep rectangular ovenproof dish to make this - the number of layers you will make depends on the size of your dish.
First of all, make the meat sauce
Pre-heat the oven to 140C (120 fan).
Put the minced beef, bacon, carrots and onions into a non-stick casserole dish suitable for oven or hob cooking and place over a medium heat until the fat starts to run out of the meat. Then increase the heat to high and stir until the vegetables are softened and the meat browned.
Reduce the heat to very low and stir in the flour, chilli flakes, stock cube and oregano. Tip in the tinned tomatoes, then fill the empty tomato tin with water and add that to the pan, swirling it around to get the last of the tomatoes out of the tin at the same time. Stir then add the wine, pesto, garlic, tomato purée, mushrooms and pepper (you probably won't need salt as the bacon and stock cube will provide enough, but taste it once everything is mixed up just to check).
Bring to the boil, stirring, then cover and place in the oven. An hour will do if you are pushed for time, but anything up to 3 hours is better - it will make the meat a lot less gritty, important if you are using supermarket meat, especially the bargain pack stuff! Stir it regularly and add a little water if it starts to look dry - the no-precook lasagne sheets need quite wet sauces to help them cook.
A few minutes before you take the meat sauce out of the oven, make the white sauce. Just tip the milk, soft margarine and flour into a saucepan and whisk together over medium to high heat until boiling and thickened then remove from the heat. There's no need to cook out the raw flour flavour - that will happen when you are baking the finished dish - and no need to season as the meat sauce will have all the seasoning in it, but if you really can't bear to have your sauce so plain you could add a hint of grated nutmeg.
Now remove the meat sauce from the oven and increase the temperature to 160C (140C fan). You are ready to assemble your lasagne.
My dish is deep and about 20cm by 30cm, which takes 4 layers. Put a quarter of the meat sauce in the bottom of the dish and spread it out evenly. Then cover with a single layer of lasagne sheets. Spread a quarter of the white sauce over this. Then repeat these three layers until the sauces are used up, finishing with a white sauce layer.
Mix the two cheeses together and scatter them over the top. If you have time to leave it to stand for a while so the heat and liquid from the sauces can start to soften the lasagne sheets, so much the better (in which case you can turn the oven off and turn it back on later of course). I try to assemble it about an hour before the final cooking, which gives me time to get all the washing up done so I feel almost as if I've not been cooking.
Finally, bake the lasagne in the pre-heated oven for 45 minutes, turning the heat up high for the last 10 minutes if it doesn't look browned enough.
Serve with the rest of the red wine you opened for making the sauce. (What do you mean, it's all gone?)