I don’t see veggie lasagne on menus as much as I used to — the chefs getting more sophisticated with their vegetarian options, I guess — but it used to be an absolute staple.
I was never very keen on it, though: the most common recipe was made with roasted vegetables, and to my taste it was just too sweet. It didn’t have the rich, savoury, earthy quality of a good meat lasagne. Too much treble, not enough bass. I have the same problem with a lot of meat lasagnes, incidentally: too sweet and tomatoey.
So for ages I’ve had the idea at the back of my head to try and come up with a better recipe for a vegetarian lasagne. The starting point was mushrooms, which are an obvious way of getting that savoury, umami, ‘meaty’ quality. Particularly if you’re generous with the dried porcini.
And the other thing I discovered recently was that spinach works surprisingly well in a tomato sauce or a meat sauce. I’m not keen on cooked spinach on its own, but if you chop it and incorporate it into a tomato sauce or a meat sauce, it really adds something.
So that’s the basic concept: a mushroom, tomato and spinach sauce to replace the meat part of the lasagne; layered with pasta sheets, bechamel and cheese in the normal way. And it was really nice. It had some sweetness, but not too much, and loads of rich savoury flavour.
The specifics were as follows:
Pour boiling water over some dried porcini and leave to soak for an hour (I used maybe 15g of porcini in a cup or two of water), then squeeze them out and save the soaking water.
Fry a couple of finely shopped shallots in a saucepan with chopped fresh thyme and rosemary for a few minutes.
Add chopped fresh mushrooms (I think it was a 300g box?), the chopped porcini, and a couple of cloves of chopped garlic, and cook them down a bit.
Add a tin of tomatoes, the porcini soaking water, and half a glass of red wine. Simmer away for maybe 45 minutes to thicken it and give the flavours a chance to meld together.
Cook the spinach (I got a couple of bags of pre-washed supermarket spinach and cooked them in the microwave), drain it, chop it, and mix into the sauce.
And then you’re ready to layer it up with the white sauce and the pasta and stick it in the oven.