A few weeks ago, I received an email from a reader named Pamela, who said she was working her way through the C&Z archives -- I am so heartened when people do that -- and had noticed, in this older-than-salt post, a reference to the lasagna our friend Zoe made for us when we visited her in London. Did I ever end up sharing that recipe? Pamela asked.
The short answer is: no. The long answer is: I've thought about Zoe's lasagna on a regular basis since then, but somehow the opportunity to reproduce it failed to arise. Such is the fate, I'm ashamed to admit, of 99% of the recipes I collect, because I seldom cook from recipes at all, and because I collect a staggering volume of them anyway.
But Pamela's note was the nudge I needed: I opened the drawer in which I keep my old notebooks, and found the one that had accompanied me to London. I flipped through the pages, read the notes I'd jotted down according to Zoe's explanations, and rolled my eyes: my scribblings made sense at the time, I'm sure, but five years later they had become rather dim, and in particular, I had included no ingredient measurement whatsoever.
Still, the overall process was documented, and lasagna-making is no exact science after all, so I decided to wing it. What was the worst that could happen? And instead, the best did: from the oven emerged a well-balanced, flavorful lasagna, satisfying but not too rich, which fed a table of appreciative friends.
So if, like me, you tend to overlook the most evidently pleasing dishes in your pile of recipes, I can only encourage you to stop, and make this one. It is the perfect gloomy weather dish; the ideal project for a lazy Sunday afternoon, giving you a few things to chop and stir and poke at, without distracting you too much from the brilliant book you're reading, in which France's most ingenious cook makes a pot-au-feu and sets out to recycle the leftovers over the next five days.
Zoe's Lasagna (Sort Of)
For the meat sauce:
- 400 grams (14 ounces) ground beef (the leanest type available), preferably organic
- 300 grams (10 ounces) uncooked pork and/or veal sausages (I use Toulouse-style sausages, one smoked, one regular; they're similar to the Italian sausages shown on that page), preferably organic, casing removed
- 2 small yellow onions, minced
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon herbes de Provence (or a mix of dried oregano, basil, thyme, and rosemary)
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon chili pepper
- 500 grams (17 1/2 ounces) tomato paste/purée (not double concentrated; I avoid canned; jarred or in a carton tastes much better)
- 400 grams (14 ounces) diced or crushed tomatoes, preferably from a jar, or fresh (peeled and seeded)
- 120 ml (1/2 cup) red wine (I used a Côtes du Roussillon, a sunny wine from the South of France)
For the vegetable and cheese layers:
- 600 grams (1 pound 5 ounces) mixed grilled vegetables, cut into bite-size strips (I used the very good mix of zucchini, eggplant, and bell peppers sold at Picard, thawed; you can substitute roasted bell peppers, sautéed zucchini, browned mushrooms, sautéed spinach, rucola...)
- 250 grams (1 cup, or 9 ounces) ricotta cheese
- 1 egg
- 2 rounded teaspoons of pesto (I use jarred pistou, which is a runny mix of fresh basil, olive oil, garlic, and salt -- no cheese; you can substitute tapenade)
- freshly ground black pepper
- 12 sheets uncooked dried lasagna, about 240 grams (8 1/2 ounces)
- 70 grams (2/3 cup) freshly ground parmesan
Serves 6, with leftovers for 2.
Prepare the meat and tomato sauce. In a heavy pot set over medium-high heat, add the beef, sausage meat (casing removed), onions, and garlic, and cook until the meat is cooked through and browned, about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. If the meat renders a lot of fat, remove the excess. Sprinkle with the cumin, herbs, salt, and chili pepper, and cook for 2 more minutes, until fragrant.
Add the tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, and wine, and stir to combine. Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook at a low simmer for at least 1 hour, and up to 3 hours (the longer, the better), stirring every once in a while to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot. Taste and adjust the seasoning. (The sauce can be made up to a day ahead; let cool, cover, and refrigerate.)
While the sauce simmers, prepare and cook whatever vegetables you'll be using -- I use a mix of grilled vegetables that simply need thawing. Make sure the vegetables are drained well.
In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the ricotta, egg, and pesto, and season with a little salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper.
Preheat the oven to 180°C (360°F), and have ready a large baking dish -- mine is a square 26-cm (10 1/4-inch) ceramic dish.
Assemble the lasagna. Spread 1/4 of the meat sauce at the bottom of the dish. Cover the surface evenly with 4 sheets lasagna. Spread another 1/4 of the meat sauce over the pasta. Top with 1/2 of the ricotta mixture, and 1/2 of the vegetables. Arrange another 4 sheets lasagna on top. Top with 1/4 of the meat sauce, the rest of the ricotta mixture, and the rest of the vegetables. Arrange another 4 sheets lasagna over the top, spread with the remaining 1/4 of the meat sauce, and sprinkle with the parmesan. (You can prepare and assemble the lasagna a few hours in advance. Cover and refrigerate until ready to bake.)
Cover with foil and bake in the oven for 40 minutes. Remove the foil and bake, uncovered, for another 20 minutes, until the parmesan is golden and the top of the lasagna is a little crusty. Switch to grill for a couple of minutes to brown the top a little further, if desired. Bring to the table and serve with a green salad.
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