Sunday, March 30, 2014

Soaking lasagne sheets

Non pre-cook lasagne does not necessarily live up to its promise of saving you trouble. Cooked from raw, it can absorb a good deal of sauce, leaving you with a dry wodge in the oven dish; if bits of the pasta are uncovered by sauce, they remain brittle.

You can ensure more even cooking by blanching the sheets for a minute. But you have to do so in small batches, because otherwise the sheets stick together, as if superglued. Pouring boiling water on to a batch of sheets, as Yotam Ottolenghi once advised (see this entry), is asking for trouble.

However, you can soak all the sheets you need in cold water. After 5 to 10 minutes, they should be floppy. If they look as if they’re sticking, they can be peeled apart (because you don’t have to put your hands in scalding water); but I have found that they do not stick hard. You’ve saved yourself the trouble of boiling the pasta and laying out the sheets separately; and you have ensured that it will cook evenly.

Having said this, I should add that this kind of lasagne is not as nice as fresh, or as the dried variety that does require pre-cooking. But in many shops and delis nowadays, it is all that is available.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Aubergine with tomato, onion, and Neufchatel cheese

I have cooked many versions of this, the root of which is melanzane parmigiana. It works very well with a soft cheese, which complements the melting texture of the aubergine. I used Neufchatel (my local butcher, Highbury Butchers, sells an excellent version); Camembert, its Normandy neighbour, would obviously work just as well. You want the cheese just to soften without going completely runny, so don’t give it longer than five minutes in the oven.

Serves 2, generously (with rice, perhaps)

2 aubergines
Olive oil
Salt, pepper
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 red onions, chopped
1 tin tomatoes
1tsp sugar
Neufchatel or Camembert cheese – as much as you like

Cut the aubergines in half crossways, and then cut them vertically, into four or five slices about 40mm thick. Pour some olive oil into a saucer, and brush the aubergines with oil on both sides using the concave side of the tines of a fork – or use a pastry brush. Lay the slices in a baking tray, season them, and bake them for 20 to 30 minutes at gas mark 8/230C, until soft.

Put about 2tbsp of oil into a heavy saucepan over a gentle heat, throw in the garlic, and let it sizzle for a minute or so. Add the onions, and cook until softened. Tip in the tomatoes, add the sugar (tinned tomatoes, and indeed a good many fresh ones, benefit from sweetening), season to taste, and simmer until thickened, breaking up the tomatoes in the pan.

Tip the aubergines into the tomato sauce, mix them up, and pour the mixture into an oven dish. Bake for 20 minutes, uncovered, at gas mark 4/180C, to allow the flavours to mingle and the sauce to thicken further.

Slice the cheese, and lay the slices on top of the tomato and aubergine mixture. Return the dish to the oven, and cook for a further three to five minutes, just until the cheese has started to melt.