It's been one of those eternally cold and rainy Springs here in Paris. I looked up an old recipe on this site not long ago and found a post where I was complaining about it last year. And here we are again: grateful for a day of watery sunshine and 69 degrees F.
For a cook, this poses something of a dilemma. (For a human being getting dressed in the morning it's not easy either, but this is a food blog.) You want to take advantage of all the lovely fresh produce that should be appearing in the market stalls. But it's all rather slow to appear and in any case there's a real un-Spring-like urge to turn the oven on and heat up the apartment. So I decided to make a lasagna but I tried to make it relatively light, a compromise. I love baked pasta, it's one of my guilty pleasures - whether a pasta souffle or plain old mac-a-chee. But with fresh tomatoes, loads of fresh garlic and soft herbs from the terrace garden this version did turn out a bit lighter. And yet with that fantastic crusty cheese top that makes it all worthwhile.
The Critic said, "It's not how I would have made it." Pause. "But I like it." Whew.
Spring Lasagne Bolognese Serves 3-4
5 ripe tomatoes
2 Tbs fresh garlic, slivered (about 3-4 cloves)
1/4 cup fresh oregano, chopped
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
250 grams of ground beef
1 Tbs fennel seeds
12 leaves of lasagna
2-4 Tbs olive oil
100 grams ricotta
125 grams mozzarella
1/4 cup or about 75 grams grated Parmesan
Boil a full kettle of water and while you are waiting for it to boil, begin chopping the onion. Cook the onion in the olive oil, stirring from time to time until they are soft. In the meantime, place the tomatoes in a large pot and pour the boiling water over them. This will allow you to remove the skins easily. Leave them for a minute or two and then drain them and rinse them in cold water until they are cool enough to peel. Set them aside.
Rinse out the large pot and fill it again with water. Bring the water to the boil. While you are doing the next steps, cook the pieces of pasta 2-3 at a time in the boiling water. You only need to leave them a few minutes until they soften and then slide them into a bowl of cold water. I find it is much easier to cook lasagna if you only put in a few pieces at a time as otherwise they have a tendency to stick together.
Add the ground beef to the onions and cook over a medium flame, breaking up the meat as you go. Once the meat is cooked through, check how much grease they have given up. If the meat was lean you can move on to the next step but if there is a lot of grease in the pan, drain it. Stir in the fennel seeds and cook for another moment. I like to add fennel because it gives the illusion of including Italian sausage, which is what I would normally include if such a product were easily obtainable in Paris. Peel the tomatoes and chop them. You can remove the bits with the seeds, but I usually don't bother. Add the the herbs and garlic and turn off the heat.
By now you are hopefully done cooking the pasta. Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. In a pan that fits three pasta slices side by side, pour a bit of the sauce in the bottom and spread it around. Lay three slices of pasta on the bottom. Spread 1/4 of the ricotta over the pasta, then add 1/4 of the sauce and 1/4 of the mozzarella, grated or sliced in thin strips. Repeat until you have used up all the pasta, sauce and cheese, finishing with the Parmesan cheese.
Bake for about 45 minutes or until the top is crusty and brown and the filling is bubbling. The kitchen will also smell pretty good.
Wait 15 tantalising minutes before serving so that the cheese cools down a bit and keeps the whole thing hanging together. It's a lot lighter than the lasagna I usually make, but the fresh garlic and herbs added a whole new fresh flavour, perfect on a cold late Spring night.