If there is one country I want to visit, it is Italy. For its wine, its food and the culture. La Cucina Italiana...I find beauty in this food. The vibrant colours, flavours that burst in your mouth tantalizing your taste buds, the freshness of simple ingredients like a raw tomato, fresh mozzarella cheese and locally extracted olive oil, just writing about these is making my mouth water. And how can I leave out Basil? There is NO aroma dearer to me that that of a freshly plucked sweet Italian basil leaf crushed between my finger tips. It transports me to the romance of that far off land.
Needless to say, when I got the chance of growing my own little vegetable and herb garden, I pleaded, blackmailed, sweet-talked friends into getting me basil seeds when they were coming from abroad. This was the first thing I wanted to grow. And now, I have 4 Indian varieties and 3 other varieties for cooking purposes (Sweet, Thai & Lemon Basil) For those who don't have generous friends like mine, Namdhari's in Bangalore sells freshly packed sweet basil, so fresh that when i get back home from the shop with a packet of basil in my shopping bag, the car smells like i'm in a basil field. Namdhari's also sells basil saplings at very reasonable costs. The kind of sunshine we get in India, it is not a tough one to grow at all.
Coming back to this recipe, lasagna was one of the things I was always scared to make. While I make regular pasta almost twice a week, this was more of a fear of the unknown or the mental block to cooking a dish that has a number of steps. This was my second attempt and except for the pasta sheets which could be more cooked that they were, the tastes in each bite were quite beautiful. Next time, I want to roll out my own pasta sheets. Lasagna sheets should be the easiest pasta to make by hand, given that we are good at rolling out the thinnest of rotis!
The number of steps can seem intimidating, but the sauce can be made ahead, the vegetables roasted ahead of time. What remains is the grated cheese and the assembly, which is hardly time consuming.
This for me is a perfect weekend dinner paired with a very simple salad and a glass of red wine. I made this for our little impromptu dinner with Nandini & Ajit and they offered me constructive feedback like starting the layering with some watery sauce at the bottom of the pan so the steam from it will cook the upper pasta layers as it bakes in the oven. I have incorporated in the recipe.
Around 9 sheets of lasagna
Grated Cheese ( I used Britannia's Pizza cheese)
Baking tin / glass bakeware
Some more fresh herbs
Making the tomato sauce
8 large tomatoes
5-6 cloves of garlic
1 medium onion
1cup finely sliced button mushrooms
Handful of fresh basil leaves, finely sliced
1/4 cup red wine (optional)
Place 2 litres of water in a 4L pot. Bring to a boil. Slit crosses on top of tomatoes and gently put them in boiling water. Once the water comes back to a boil, switch off the flame and cover for 5 minutes. Fish out the tomatoes from hot water at the end of 5 minutes, place it in a bowl to get cool. Peel the skins, finely chop and keep aside.
In a large wok, heat 1 tbsp olive oil on a low flame. Before oil gets hot, throw in finely chopped garlic cloves and finely chopped onion. Saute on a medium flame for 4-5 minutes, before adding finely sliced mushrooms. Add 1/4 tsp of sea salt, 1/2 tsp of freshly ground black pepper, any fresh herbs of your choice (I've used fresh basil) and saute till the mushrooms and onions are soft.
For the roasted vegetables
1 medium eggplant
2 large red bell peppers
Slice the eggplant into 1 cm thick slices. Toss with 1 tbsp olive oil and 1/4 tsp of sea salt. Arrange on a greased foil lining a baking sheet.
Bake at 180 C for 25-30 minutes, until soft.
Slice the red bell peppers (1/2" width), toss with 1 tbsp olive oil, sprinkle a pinch of salt and bake similar to the eggplant, until soft but not mushy (around 20 minutes)
Place the block of cheese in the freezer for 10-15 minutes. Grease the grater with fingers dipped in olive oil. Grate up to one cup cheese and keep aside. Mozzarella or Cheddar or a mix of both, is fine.
Lightly grease a 9X4 or 9 X5 ovenproof pan (glass or tin). Spread 2-3 tbsp of tomato sauce at the bottom with 2 tbsp of water and keep aside.
Bring a large wide pan of water to boil. Add a fat pinch of salt to this. Keep the lasagna sheets ready.
When the water starts to boil, dip the lasagna sheets in boiling water, one at a time for 2 minutes each. Remove and do the first layer in the baking pan, two sheets length wise side by side and one cut to size to place horizontally where the pan is exposed.
Cover this layer with 1/4rd of the sauce and 1/4 th of the cheese. Sprinkle some dried / fresh herbs, freshly ground black pepper over this.
Boil 3 more lasagna sheets, one by one and layer on top of this as explained above.
Cover with a layer of roasted vegetables and 1/4th of the sauce thinly spread in the gaps.
Boil the last three lasagna sheets, layer as explained above.
Pour all of the remaining sauce, any vegetables left over from the previous layer, all the remaining cheese, fresh herbs and some black pepper.
This can be covered and kept aside for a while if you have made this ahead of serving.
Otherwise, place the baking pan in a preheated oven at 180C. Bake for 30 minutes until the pasta is cooked through and cheese melted.
Cut into 6 servings and serve hot with a light salad on the side.
Lasagna sheets are available in most supermarkets, or you can try and make your own by making pasta dough, rolling it out into thin rotis and cutting them to fit the shape of your pan.
Herbs, both fresh and dried are available at most supermarkets. Keya's or Fabindia for dried herbs and Namdhari's for fresh are my personal preference.