Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Spring Vegetable Lasagne and Tuscan Tomato Salad

After all the excitement of the wedding and the honeymoon, we planned to get straight back to business at normal in the Dine at Mine household - which, in food terms, would mean lots of vegetables, few puddings, healthy porridge and yoghurt and no drinking on a school night.

Well. Things don't always work out as you expect and, besides anything else going on in our lives, we found that it was just too depressing giving up the fun and indulgence of honeymoon overnight. How can you go from ice cream, copious prosecco and cheese at every meal to cold water and oats? It was never going to work.

So we say sod it. There comes a time in every life when you need to be nice to yourself - give yourself treats, abandon the self-imposed rules - and I think this time has come. Although last night's meal may not look particularly racy, it constituted a treat for me for three big reasons.

Firstly, it contains both pasta (gasp!) and bread (swoon!). Neither of which I allowed myself to eat with gay abandon in the immediate run-up to the wedding for fear of the dress-which-had-been-taken-in-and-couldn't-be-adjusted-so-don't-scoff-that-cake-or-you'll-be-sorry-and-have-nothing-to-wear-and-have-to-walk-up-the-aisle-in-pyjamas-like-the-Vicar-of-Dibley. And yes, I am deeply shamed of the bridal pre-wedding diet cliche but you know what, there was no way round it and given that I did fit into the dress in the end, I think it worked out pretty well. I'm just glad I'm not doing it again.

Secondly, it reminds me of one of the happiest times of my life. We got engaged in Florence and while celebrating, we went to several bars where an evening drink (in my case, always prosecco) meant that the drinker was eligible to help themselves to the snacks arrayed on a table. This was continental-style cafe culture at its best and the aperitivi were brilliant - freshly sliced prosciutto and salami, deep-fried arancini and seafood, juicy, herby olives, generous squares of pizza and milky mozzarella. Most of all, there was a gorgeous tomato and bread salad, which I think is called panzanella.

I couldn't get enough of this peasanty salad while I was out there and when I tried this recipe from Jamie's 30 Minute Meals a few months ago, it tasted EXACTLY the same. Immediately I was back in the sunshine on a piazza, giggling over the word "fiance", admiring my market stall ring (we did get a proper one when we got back) and feeling so full of happiness that I didn't glow, I shone. On a grey evening in London after a long day at work, everyone deserves to remind themselves of that feeling.

What about the lasagne? Well, it's delicious too. I don't want you to think that because I've blathered on about the tomato salad for hundreds of words, the lasagne is an afterthought. It's creamy and rich but still tastes fresh and vibrant - indulgent but not heavy. It's also beautiful to look at. I'm a real sucker for monochrome green and white food and the aesthetics of this really appeal to me. For something with so much garlic and anchovy, the flavour is surprisingly delicate, and if you left out the anchovies and bumped up the parmesan (for the umami, innit), you'd have an ideal meal for any pesky vegetarians floating around.

But for me, last night, what I needed was that Tuscan tomato salad and its one-bite ticket back to a supremely happy memory. And the final reason why our dinner was a treat? Well, it went very well with a bottle of wine. On a school night. I know! We're living on the edge, and sod it, we deserve it.

Spring Vegetable Lasagne
Adapted from Jamie Oliver's 30 Minute Meals
Serves 4-6 depending on appetite

- bunch of spring onions, trimmed and finely sliced
- half a tin of anchovies in oil
- 6 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
- bunch of asparagus - tips cut off and set aside, stems finely sliced
- a whole load of frozen peas (he says 500g, I didn't measure)
- ditto of frozen broad beans (he says 300g, I still didn't measure)
- a large bunch of fresh mint, roughly chopped
- 300ml single cream
- 1 lemon
- 300ml vegetable stock
- 2 x 250g tubs of cottage cheese
- pack of fresh lasagne sheets (really, use fresh. I only had some dried ones which I boiled first and it was a massive pain, peeling them apart when they were too hot to touch and kept shredding and scalding my fingers - just use fresh)
- parmesan
- a few sprigs of fresh thyme

Preheat the grill to full and get a big pan on a high heat. Add to the pan the oil from the anchovies, the anchovies themselves, the spring onions, and the garlic. Stir around so that the anchovies start to break up, then add the sliced asparagus stems to the pan with a splash of boiled water and some salt and pepper. Cook it, stirring, for around five minutes then add the peas, broad beans, mint, cream and the zest of half the lemon.

Stir and then squish it all in the pan with a masher - this will be tricky but just have a go. Chuck in the stock and bring it back to the boil, then add one of the tubs of cottage cheese. You'll panic and think it's all too runny but it's meant to be like that, so don't fret. 

Now for the next bit, he says to put a big, deep roasting pan on the heat. I only have a ceramic dish (which I didn't think would like a gas flame), so I just assembled it off the heat. Rebel! Anyway, start layering it up - a layer of the vegetable mixture, then lasagne, then a grating of parmesan. Repeat until it's all gone, ending with a layer of lasagne sheets. Mix a splash of boiled water into the second tub of cottage cheese and pour that on top, adding the reserved asparagus tips in an artfully random pattern. Drizzle with a bit of oil, add the thyme and a final grating of parmesan, then grill it for 8-10 minutes or until golden and slightly crunchy around the edges. Those are always the best bits.

Tuscan Tomato Salad
Adapted from Jamie Oliver's 30 Minute Meals
Again, serves 4-6 depending on appetite

- half a ciabatta loaf
- 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds
- some oregano and/or rosemary (fresh or dried)
- 1 tablespoon of capers
- the other half of the tin of anchovies from above
- a small bunch of basil (I didn't have this and it was still yummy, but it would have been prettier with the basil)
- 6 jarred red peppers OR do as I did, and use 2 home-roasted red peppers! Yes, I'm very proud of myself. I didn't get all the seeds out but a little bit of seed never killed anyone.
- 1 clove of garlic (not a ginormous one)
- a few big handfuls of cherry tomatoes and about 3 large tomatoes
- red wine vinegar
- more parmesan

Firstly, make the croutons - tear your ciabatta into chunks, drizzle it with olive oil, salt and pepper, the fennel seeds and the oregano/rosemary, mix so they're all coated then grill for about 10 minutes or until golden. Do NOT forget about them and let them burn! Once they're done, take them out and chuck in a big bowl.

On a big board, roughly chop together the capers, anchovies, basil, peppers and crushed garlic, then add the tomatoes and chop it all together. Remember, it's peasant food so you don't have to be neat. Add it to the big bowl with the croutons, pour over a big swig of red wine vinegar, some oil and some salt and pepper, then squish it a bit with your hands to mush the flavours together. It should be noted that you could easily make this in advance, but you'd have to keep the bread and the wet bits apart until the last moment or it'll end up all sog, no crunch. 

Grate over some parmesan, eat and enjoy. Imagine it's sunny and Michaelangelo's David is looming over your shoulder. 

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