"Where the dish has endured is on the shelves of the supermarket."
Sarah Barell/National Geographic
I bet you didn't know it was World lasagne day today. I think I found out from the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, so I thought I should mention it. I now realise though that I should have written about it before, because it's now too late for you to take part in the various festivities going on in Melbourne - as described in Broadsheet. And probably too late too for you to make your own for dinner. We are having our third go at the lasagne I made for the grandchildren the other day. Boring, and now having read all about lasagne I think I probably put my effort into the supremely bad category - closer to sloppy Shepherd's pie according to Giorgio Locatelli, or according to The National Geographic's Sarah Barell;
"lasagne in the UK is still often made with overcooked pasta, blotchy bechamel and a runny ragu that’s at best a distant relative of the Bolognese version."
I think I plead guilty. My lasagne is indeed a bit runny, and fatty - I have now learnt that really it should be dry - just a bit moist - and easily cut into neat squares - as in Felicity Cloake's 'perfect' version shown here. Mind you there only seems to be one layer, which surely isn't right.
Hell I don't even make a béchamel sauce these days. I just dribble some cream over the top - well I'm a bit more lavish than 'dribble'. As for the overcooked pasta - well yes, because I make it with home-made fresh pasta which cooks in no time at all. There is a bit of a danger of it being somewhat slimy. Really you are better to make it with shop bought dry pasta. My entire family is very polite about it and say they love it, but I'm pretty sure an Italian would be appalled. Mind you that picture at the top of the page which does indeed look delicious, also ticks all the wrong boxes.
And I now realise that I have done my usual thing and, I suppose, for want of a better phrase, have put myself down. Hell I like Shepherd's pie - and very many people do. It's sublime comfort food and moreover is rather top of the tree when it comes to being thrifty and not wasteful, because it's based on leftovers and the cheapest of cheap potatoes. And, as I said, we also all like my lasagne. Does this mean we have no taste? Just because it's not how that organisation in Bologna insists lasagne should be made, does that make it inferior? Or as Sarah Barell says:
"To understand the nature of lasagne, ask not what it is or how it’s made but who’s eating it. Like many world-wandering dishes, lasagne is not so much a recipe as a reflection of human taste, in all its wild variety" Sarah Barrell/National Geographic
Besides did you know - lasagne is probably Greek in origin anyway. Well the pasta is. The word lasagne probably comes from the Greek laganon which meant a kind of early pasta - a flat pastry rolled out thinly and cut into strips. Or, yes, it might be Italian because it might come from the latin 'lasanum' which is the name of a container or pot. And the Romans did make lasagne-like dishes. But the lasagne of today - the 'authentic' one that is - couldn't be like that early Roman one anyway - no tomatoes and no pasta like today. Indeed even in Italy there is no one 'authentic' lasagne. Every region has its own version - and, no doubt, every nonna too.
After all what is lasagne other than layers of something - most usually pasta like - with layers of something in between? Plus cheese - there has to be cheese. Well not everyone agrees on that either. This one is a vegetarian one, but it's still recognisably lasagne is it not?
I also then found, in my meanderings around the net, that one-time best restaurant in the world chef Massimo Bottura has what was known as a signature dish - The crunchy part of lasagne. Bill Apablasa - writer of a blog called Oxygen Buzz, described it as:
"a tiny plate of ragù and béchamel under a sheet of pasta that looks like a burnt Italian flag"
"for Bottura, it was simply an ode to a favorite childhood dish. When he was young, he was notorious for stealing the edges of the tasty top layer, which he considered the best part." Bill Apablasa/Oxygen Buzz
Yes, I know - a bit precious - and also very costly. However, it does show that a single emotion about a dish can morph into a completely different thing, that nevertheless is sort of the essence of the dish. "Lasagna is not just food, it’s an emotion." It says on a website called Issimo which is where you will find the recipe for this dish. And I can think of a wide range of emotions that might describe one's reaction to Massimo Bottura's dish - from wow to something rather less complimentary.
Since it's 'World' lasagne day I thought I would have a look to see what the rest of the world does with lasagne, but this proved rather more difficult than I thought, so let's just settle for the thought that, like pizza, you can probably find lasagne on the menu just about anywhere in the entire world, or on those supermarket shelves or in their freezers. And wherever you eat it it will probably have just a touch of something that makes it part Italian and part whatever the cuisine is of the country you are in.
There are also people around experimenting with it. Mostly it's the filling and the sauce that gets messed with - vegetarian in every which way, fish, other meats - chicken, pork, lamb ... Other spices. The sauce can be just about anything, and there don't even need to be tomatoes. Then there are those that change from pasta to other things - flat breads, polenta, nachos and sweet varieties too. Below are a few examples I found. I didn't bother with the recipes because I doubt you will need them. I'm sure you have your own personal version. But here are some ideas - some extreme, some not - that's nutella in the last one!
I read of curried versions, chicken tikka and butter chicken being the most mentioned, also versions made with ramen and other kinds of Asian noodles. A Korean barbecue version also exists. Some of these looked utterly revolting, some not.
I suppose, in the light, of all this experimentation the real question to ask is why? Why is lasagne something that has spread around the world? Why not Shepherd's pie? Is it intrinsically inferior? Could you not make a very classy Shepherd's pie? Of course you can - see below
But I'm willing to bet you won't find Shepherd's pie anywhere outside of England except perhaps one of the old British colonies. So why Lasagne? I think it's probably because of the concept - layers of carbohydrate and layers of something stewed in some way topped with something saucy and something crunchy. Perhaps Massimo Bottura got it right and really it's the crunchy bits. I think I once saw a chef say that if you described something as crunchy it would get eaten.
I'm not really looking forward to this evening's lasagne, but only because we've already had it twice. My conscience will definitely not let me throw it out, and I can't think of anything else to do with lasagne. It's not quite as amenable to adaptation as bolognese. But then you've already changed the bolognese into lasagne.
I had a look - and lo and behold the creative young have done things with leftover lasagne - see this Pinterest board - from dips and soup to fritters to toasted sandwiches. Obviously the world is much more creative than I.
POSTSCRIPT - Last night's chicken and Brussels sprouts tray-bake was pretty good, though I say it myself. there was half a big onion in there as well, together with a small bit of pumpkin, a couple of potatoes and salami on top. Moistened with chicken stock and the pieces of garlic bread tucked in here and there - though I had to pull them back up to the top as they went a bit soggy at first. The Brussels sprouts just merged brilliantly into the whole. Flavourings of sliced lemon, olive oil, lemon zest and mustard, as everyone seemed to advise.