The central heating switched itself on last night and it’s nearly the end of June. How depressing is that?
It’s been wet and windy and miserable and hardly the sort of weather where you sit down to a salad for supper carolling with joy.
On the other hand it’s given me the perfect excuse to get stuck into some serious comfort food. So before the weather warms up again and I have to put these on the back burner until autumn, here are my favourite recipes for fish pie and for lasagne.
The lasagne is based on one which used to be cooked by the mother of an old friend. She made a ragout so intensely flavoured, you only needed a teaspoonful of it on a bowl of pasta. I don’t reduce mine as much but I do follow her example in adding mozzarella to the lasagne, which gives it a glorious bit of extra gooiness. Try it and you’ll see.
Lasagne al Forno
450g/1 lb of lean steak mince
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
2 fat cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon of finely chopped fresh oregano or a heaped teaspoonful of dried oregano or Mediterranean herbs
A bay leaf or two
2 tins of good quality chopped tomatoes
2 small tins of tomato paste
1 packet of lasagne
1 ball or log of supermarket mozzarella (not top quality buffalo, it’d be a shocking waste to cook with it)
At least 1 pint of thick bechamel sauce
Lots of finely grated parmesan
Fry the onions in a few tablespoons of olive oil until golden and translucent. Add the chopped garlic and cook briefly.
Crumble in the minced beef and fry until coloured.
Add the chopped tomatoes, tomato paste and herbs and seasoning. Cook gently for about 40-60 minutes, adding a little water if necessary. You want to end up with a thick, intensely-flavoured sauce. You may not need all of the ragout for this dish – I had enough left over to freeze for a later spag bol.
Set the ragout aside while you make the bechamel sauce, making sure the bechamel is fairly thick.
Slice the mozzarella into thin rounds and tear them into bite-sized pieces.
If you have the sort of lasagne sheets that require pre-cooking, cook them in plenty of boiling, salted water and drain them on a clean tea towel. Otherwise just open your packet and get cracking.
Take a large rectangular dish and put a thin layer of meat sauce and a drizzle of bechamel on the bottom. Put a layer of lasagna sheets on top and press down lightly.
Add another thin layer of meat sauce and a good drizzle of bechamel, this time scattering a few bits of mozzarella on top.
Add another layer of pasta sheets and keep going with alternate layers until you’re near the top of the dish.
Finally spoon a thick layer of bechamel over the dish and top with a thick dusting of parmesan.
Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6 and cook the lasagne for 45-60 minutes until it is golden brown on top, bubbling at the edges and the lasagne is soft. An hour may seem like a long time but it helps the flavours to blend and stops it being too wet and sloppy.
It’s good with a simple green salad.
Luxury Fish Pie
If you don’t like a mashed potato topping, try cooked or par-boiled new potatoes, unskinned, sliced and arranged overlapping on top like fish scales.
1 large fillet of cod, haddock or pollack
1 large fillet of undyed smoked haddock
A large handful of raw prawns
A large handful of sliced chestnut mushrooms
1 pint of milk
A large sprig of fresh parsley, a bay leaf or two and half a dozen black peppercorns
A double handful of finely chopped fresh parsley
2 hardboiled eggs
Butter and plain flour
Salt and pepper
Enough mashed potato to thatch your finished pie
A handful of finely grated parmesan cheese
Place fish (except prawns ) in a deep lidded frying pan and cover with milk. Add the bay leaves, parsley sprig and the whole black peppercorns, cover, bring to a simmer and cook gently for a few minutes.
Prep the prawns, shelling if necessary and removing the thin black line of their intestinal tract. Remove the pan of fish from the stove, add the prawns, put the lid back on and set aside to continue cooking in its own heat.
Slice the mushrooms, fry gently in a little butter and set aside.
Peel, cook and mash the potatoes and chop the remaining parsley.
Remove the fish from its cooking liquid, take off any skin and remove any bones. Try to leave it in big flakes.
Strain the liquid and use it to make a thick roux with the butter and plain flour. Add the chopped parsley, then gently fold in the cooked fish and the mushrooms. Check the seasoning and adjust as necessary.
Spoon carefully into a deep dish. Halve the hardboiled eggs lengthways and arrange on the top, pushing them down gently. One of my eggs was a double-yolker so I got extra bang for my bucks.
Top the fish and egg mixture with mashed potato. Scatter some finely grated parmesan on top and dot with a little butter.
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4 and cook your fish pie for 30-40 minutes until it’s heated through, golden brown on top and the sauce is trying to bubble out at the edges. Good with fresh broad beans tossed in a little butter and yet more parsley.