March 3, 2010
When I was a child, we didn't keep kosher at home - we drew the line at bacon but I have to admit to having eaten many a pizza topped with both cheese and meat and I can be held personally accountable for the deaths of many thousands of shellfish. In adulthood, as many people do, I became more interested in the faith of my ancestors and decided that I would, in future, keep kosher (I later gave up meat and then dairy, so it's easy nowadays).
Italian food - and who doesn't like Italian food? - was one of the hardest things to incorporate into my new diet because it's really not the same without deliciously gooey, melted and above all cheesy cheese, be it pungent parmesan, mouth-watering mozzarella or succulent seras. Lasagne is one of the most popular Italian dishes outside Italy, but lasagne without cheese is little more than a klops sandwich with pasta instead of bread (pizza, when one thinks about it - and I do often - is really only posh cheese on toast too, but that in no way detracts from its inestimable worth).
When I stopped eating meat, a year or two after deciding to keep kosher, the entire enticing world of Italian food opened up before me and I set about the local Italian restaurants with enthusiasm, tasting things I hadn't had since childhood and things I had simply never had. If there was no meat in it, I'd eat it - and the more cheese the better. I perfected my own lasagne recipe too using soya mince, which I still claim absorbs the flavour of other ingredients better than meat and as such is in fact a better choice in many recipes.
Then, I decided to stop eating dairy too - my reasons for this are of little interest to anyone else (veganism does not, despite evidence to the contrary, necessarily restrict one to a diet lacking the nutrient that allows one to respect other people's beliefs and points of view) so I'll spare you the tedious task of having to read them. No more cheese, which rather put a dampener on my Italian food noshing. I tried a multitude of vegan cheese substitutes, some of which taste perfectly fine out of the packet ("fine" does not necessarily mean "even remotely like cheese, though, and a very active imagination is required if one wants the full cheesy experience) but few of them melt in that wonderful way that real cheese does, and those that do solidify into an unappealing chalky mass within minutes which has a similar texture to crushed anti-indigestion tablets. So for a long time, it was a case of unsatisfying and uncheesy lasagne served with a side-dish of desperate attempts to convince my tastebuds that they were not missing out.
One day, in our local kosher shop, I noticed several pots of hummus very near to their expiration date and had as a result been reduced to 50p each, so I bought eight - after all, hummus is pricey for what it is, and you can't ignore a bargain like that. Oy! - the missus and I ate a lot of hummus over the next couple of days. Hummus sandwiches, crisps dipped in hummus, hummus literally ladled over salad, hummus and chips...I should point out at this point that we really like hummus, but even for us there's a limit to how much hummus you can actually eat in two days, which is all we had before the hummus went out of date and, at a point when we had literally hours to go before it would be time to throw it out, I found that I had no idea what to do with the last two pots.
That evening, I made lasagne. We often had hummus with our lasagne and suddenly I had an idea - rather than spooning cold hummus onto the lasagne, why not find out what it's like if you cook with it? So, once the lasagne had fifteen minutes to go and was firm on top I took it out of the oven and spread a generous layer over it. Then I put it back in and cooked it for the remaining time.
When it came out, the hummus had formed a light brown granular crust which immediately looked appetising. I tasted a little from one corner. This was a moment that should be recorded in the annuls of vegan cookery for I had stumbled across the vegan holy grail - a vegan cheese substitute that, incredibly, actually tasted quite like cheese!
Since that day, my hummus-topped lasagne has been tested on a number of volunteers (amazing how many volunteers turn up when free Italian food is on offer), some of whom keep kosher and some do not, some Jewish and some not, some vegan and some committed carnivores. Even the carnivores like it. Now, going back to what I said about respecting other people's choice to eat meat if they so wish, this is a recipe suited for all - if you don't eat meat, it's meat-free (in fact, it's parve) and if you do but want to keep kosher you can simply replace the soya mince with beef or lamb mince from your local kosher emporium and enjoy cheesy flavours at the same time.
So, here we go.
Serves 6-8 (note that as is the case with most recipes, 6-8 means 6-8 people who aren't very hungerik and who are having the lasagne as one component of a meal or are supermodels. In other words, it feeds 3-4 normal people).
Pre-heat your oven to 180C.
600g soya mince/Quorn (or, if you prefer, real minced meat)
750ml tomato sauce (you can make your own or buy it in a jar of about this size)
300g hummus (Asda do a remarkably good one for just a pound)
Lasagne sheets, either fresh or dried
1 tin chopped tomatoes
2 handfuls red kidney beans/black-eyed beans
1 handful chickpeas
1 tin sweetcorn
4 chopped or crushed cloves of garlic
salt and Italian herbs (both optional)
Heat the oil in a wok or large frying pan to a medium temperature and fry the garlic. Just as it begins to brown, add your mince and cook until it too is brown - stir it to make sure it doesn't burn and stick to the bottom of the wok, add the tinned tomatoes if it begins to do so or once the mince is browned. While continuing to stir, add the beans and sweetcorn. Next, pour the tomato sauce in and stir well to ensure even distribution, adding a pinch of salt and any herbs if desired. Leave it to heat through for ten minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning and to allow the flavours to develop. If it looks a little dry, add water and stir well so it mixes well with the tomato - soya mince is much more absorbent than meat, so you may find this to be the case if you're making the parve/vegan version.
In an oven-proof baking dish (I use a rectangular glass one that can hold 2.5 litres of water) ladle in enough of the sauce mixture to form a layer about 5mm deep and top this with pasta sheets. Repeat the process, alternating layers, until the dish is full. The pasta needs to be surrounded by plenty of moisture otherwise it'll go hard (not a problem if you're using fresh, rather than dried, pasta) so if you can see any dry spots (this is why I use a glass dish) use a fork to make a hole in the top layers which will allow you to pour in a little water - if you used jarred sauce, add water to the empty jar, screw on the lid and shake. Using this water will increase the tomato flavour of the dish, albeit infinitesimally.
Cook for 15 to 20 minutes, until the top has begun to turn crisp and brown, then remove from the oven and using a spatula or butter knife spread a generous layer of hummus on top - the thicker the better in our opinion. Bake for a further 15 minutes until the hummus has formed a crispy crust that cracks when pressed.
Serve on its own, or with fresh salad and garlic bread. Hope you enjoy it as much as we do!