I’ve always admired Italian cuisine and lasagne was the first dish I learnt by heart. I am not even sure why I chose to make this dish in the first place. I first rustled-up an Italian meal 18 years ago, at a time when Lithuania really didn’t have much in the way of foreign cuisine. Back in the early 2000s, we had just a few Italian restaurants around the country, which, to be honest, weren’t even that good. I probably saw lasagne on a TV travel show and thought it would be interesting to try making something like this myself. Cheese, creamy and silky layers with rich tomatoey meaty ragù – what’s not to like?
My first attempt wasn’t the best. I had no idea what I was doing – Bolognese, Béchamel – these words were gibberish words to me. I made a massive mess in my mum’s kitchen by using every single bowl, pan and pot. I cooked the lasagne sheets first, then baked them together with all the sauces in the oven. I used ketchup (!!!) instead of tomatoes, and I served everything with pickled cucumbers. You can be the judge of how these flavour pairings might have worked out…
I know, if you choose to close my website and never come back, I will understand. But in my defence, at that time I thought serving a dish without veggies on the side just didn’t make sense. Anyway, what could possibly have been better than my mum’s freshly pickled cucumbers!?
You might think that I am exaggerating this story, but I am not kidding. I made this messy Lithuanian/Italian hybrid dish, and because my family were (and still are) my biggest supporters, they ate EVERYTHING. My Dad said he felt like he went to Italy (I told you – biggest supporters) and he insisted I re-made the meal at least once a month. And I did it. I cooked lasagne every time I had a chance, I was reading different recipes, following the instructions and playing with the ingredients, until it became my signature dish.
Even now, every time my Dad visits me, he keeps asking me to make him a lasagne – and I take this as the highest compliment.
I think everyone knows how to (roughly) make a lasagne, or at least has their own tricks and tips, but here are my main rules:
- Don’t boil your pasta! I learnt this the hard way. You don’t want to end up with a clumpy, mushy mess. This is why you need to use uncooked pasta (fresh pasta preferred) and it will cook together with all the ingredients in your oven.
- If you are making Bolognese sauce, patience is your friend. It takes up to 1.5 – 2 hours to cook this sauce and it is so worth it!
- Start your dish with a layer of sauce instead of pasta. This way your lasagne will be moist all the way through.
- Do not skip the Bechamel sauce. It gives that creaminess, sweetness and richness. It is absolutely mandatory, and lasagne won’t be lasagne without this sauce.
Making a meaty lasagne is easy, but finding a good meat substitute took me a long time. If it was just about me, I’d use everything and anything – mushrooms, aubergines, cauliflowers – all of them taste amazing. Unfortunately, my fussy eater has a different opinion. Aubergines are number one on his blacklist and mushrooms are the enemy because of their texture. My lovely, poor cauliflowers are simply ignored for no particular reason other than “I don’t like it”. So, I won’t be able to hide any of these ingredients under the layers of scrumptious pasta and irresistible mozzarella without him noticing them.
This is why I started playing around with ingredients. I wanted to get the right texture and consistency for the veggie pasta dish. I needed something firm enough to hold all the sauce (but not make the pasta soggy), with a mild flavour. And that is how I discovered cabbage! It gives a lovely creamy texture and helps combine all the veggies, as well as making it really hard to identify what vegetables have been used. So, it’s a triple win!
3 garlic cloves
1 tin of tomatoes
1 mozzarella ball
Salt and pepper
Knob of butter
White truffle oil
2 tablespoons of flour
120g grated cheese
- Preheat the oven to 180 degrees.
- Prepare your veggie sauce: finely chop the garlic and fry it in a saucepan with a little bit of olive oil. Chop the leek, carrots, cabbage and add together with the garlic. Add a splash of water and gently simmer for 5 minutes.
- Pour in the tin of tomatoes and one tin of water. Add salt and pepper to taste. Let it simmer gently on a low heat for 30 minutes. 5 minutes before it’s done, add the peas and a couple of drops of white truffle oil. Finish the sauce with the finely chopped parsley.
- Prepare the courgette: in a different pan heat a generous knob of butter. After it’s melted, add the chopped zucchini and fry it on both sides for 2 minutes.
- Prepare the cheese sauce: heat the butter in a saucepan. Add the flour and mix everything together. Pour milk into your flour mixture (do it slowly, always mixing to avoid making lumps). After everything is incorporated (you might need less or more milk, depending on how the flour absorbs) add the cheese, salt and pepper.
- Assemble your lasagne: spoon a third of the veggie mix and add it into a baking tray with a quarter of the cheese sauce and cover with a single layer of lasagne sheets. Top the sheets with the veggie mix, add a layer of zucchini and the cheese sauce. Repeat one more time. Finish everything with the lasagne sheets, last bits of the cheese sauce and finally add some mozzarella on the top.
- Bake it in the oven for 30 minutes and serve with fresh basil.