Lasagne (Ragù)

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Until two weeks ago I had never made a lasagne, or a ragù – they made me nervous. There’s so much pressure on the meat sauce to be utterly wonderful, and I’ve eaten bad examples, mostly in canteens, where beefy flavour is lost among too much tinned tomato, or overenthusiastic use of generic-tasting powdered stock. Out of place ingredients like red pepper or mushrooms often creep in to no noticeable effect or benefit, too.

– Having said that, my mother’s version, which she makes very infrequently, is brilliant.

On the occasion of this meal I was in London with Zoe and we wanted to work it out for ourselves and proceeded to discuss it over several hours and read around (Elizabeth David, Delia, H F-W and others) and then to travel on an Odyssey-like journey round Brixton, Herne Hill and Clapham to find ingredients.

It was very good. The chicken livers are essential to the flavour.

There will be other ragùs. For example, I am keen to try exchanging a percentage of the beef for pork – and I feel that making ragù is a lifetime’s work-in-progress.

Serves 6 – 8, appetite dependent

Ragù
800g, lean beef mince
160g fatty smoked bacon, finely chopped
130g, free-range chicken livers, sinew removed and finely chopped
1 onion, very finely chopped
1 length celery, very finely chopped
1 carrot, very finely chopped
2 tomatoes, very finely chopped
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 teaspoons, grated nutmeg
190ml, white wine
200ml, water
100ml, milk
knob of unsalted butter

Béchamel
750ml milk
50g unsalted butter
50g plain (or white spelt) flour
½ onion
a few cloves
nutmeg
bay leaf

150g, freshly grated parmesan, to top with

Enough egg lasagne sheets (follow instructions if they need par-cooking). If wheat-intolerant, spelt is a very good option. Wholefoods sell it, among others.

How to make

Infuse the milk by heating with the onion, bay leaf, cloves and nutmeg until almost boiling then set aside until needed.

Ragù
In a large heavy bottomed pan melt a decent knob of butter and the bacon and cook on a low heat until slightly browned and then add the onion, carrot and celery and cook until very soft and slightly browning – at least 10 minutes. Add the beef and brown all over and stir to break up the chunks. Add the livers and stir in. Add the tomato purée and chopped tomato. Add the nutmeg and season with salt and pepper. Add the wine and the water. Cook for 10 minutes so it’s bubbling. Add the milk. Cook for at least an hour and a half gently bubbling or until almost all of the liquid is gone. Check the seasoning again and if it’s too sweet, stir in a tablespoon of vinegar.

When ready to assemble the lasagne. Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees celsius.

To make the Béchamel
Strain the milk of its flavourings. Melt the butter for the béchamel in a sauce pan and add the flour. Cook through for a minute. Add the milk very slowly, bit by bit while whisking vigourously. If there are lumps they can be whisked out or blended out with a hand-blender later. Turn up the heat and continue whisking until the sauce has the consistency of double cream. Season well with salt and pepper and a touch more nutmeg. If it’s still lumpy give it a whizz with a hand-blender.

Blanch the pasta – In batches so they don’t stick together, drop in salted boiling water for 1 minute, then remove and leave not touching another sheet on a tea towel until ready to assemble.

Assembling the Lasagne
In an oven proof dish add a layer of half the meat then a third of béchamel and a sprinkling of parmesan, then a layer of pasta and then one more – making sure there’s enough béchamel left to completely cover the top. Cover the top layer of pasta and béchamel with parmesan, another grating of nutmeg and a few dots of butter.

Cook in the oven for 40 minutes, until all of the pasta is cooked through when you stick in a knife.

Serve with a large green salad (dressing of 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, 3 of olive oil, salt and pepper), a bottle of red wine and bread if you want.

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