Just when we thought we could see the light… as I type, a large chunk of the country is back in lockdown, businesses have ground to a halt and Covid-19 again dominates the news cycle. By the time this is published, who knows what the situation will be? All this uncertainty is just making me hungry.
And if any food has come to represent the Covid-19 era, it’s lasagne. Star chefs made it for takeaway and got a lot of publicity in the process; magazines ran lasagne spreads; people went berserk with their variations on social media (we like Saturday Night Pasta’s pumpkin and cavolo nero lasagne). One Melbourne home-delivery lasagne guy, 1800 Lasagne, did so well last year that he’s now got the readies to go bricks-and-mortar with his own lasagne-dedicated restaurant.
Strictly speaking, “lasagne” refers to the flat, thin sheets of pasta; in many places it’s shorthand for lasagne alla bolognese, or lasagne with a meaty, tomatoey sauce. Whatever you call it, as a broad concept, pasta sheets baked in the oven with sauces, meats, vegetables and cheese – hopefully with some crusty/gnarly bits – has an almost universal appeal.
Now, we’ve rhapsodised here before on the joy of the moussagna/lasagnaka hybrid: just-cooked pasta sheets, baked eggplant, pasta, meat sauce, more eggplant, cheesy béchamel, pasta, more bechamel. And, finally, grated parmesan. Lasagne is open to a lot of interpretation, most of it healthy enough. But I really don’t think the original can be beaten. By that, I mean a lasagne with ragu alla bolognese and cheesy béchamel. There are hundreds of recipes out there. Thousands. The indexing system Eat Your Books tells me I have 112 on the shelf, somewhere.
All I know is that the recipe to use is not from a chef but a restaurateur, Barry McDonald, who was the front man for a syndicate of Sydney businessmen behind the Fratelli Fresh group before it was sold to a private equity company and turned into a shopping mall brand. Back in 2015, McDonald channelled his inner Italian to pull together a collection of recipes that were used in the various Fratelli Fresh restaurants, producing the lovely book Alla Fratelli: How To Eat Italian. It expresses the warmth many of us WASPS have for Italy, and Italian ways, rather wonderfully.
Anyway, the ragu and the lasagne method have two significant points of difference, and produce a result that is, frankly, head and shoulders above most. First, in making the ragu (oil/onion/garlic/chilli flakes/minced veal/tomato passata/mint), pouring cream is added to the sautéed veal and allowed to reduce almost completely before adding your tomatoes. I was sceptical; it works superbly. Second, come assembly time, once a quantity of straight béchamel (butter/flour/milk) has been made, half of it, some chopped basil and a fair bit of grated parmesan is added directly to the ragu itself. The layering of this now-creamy ragu and pasta (five tiers) is finished with the remaining straight béchamel and parmesan on top.
I know of at least one restaurant, Di Stasio Citta, that goes this route and the result is bloody glorious. Yours can be too.
But let’s hope it’s not the dish that defines the whole decade.