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Introduction
You do not need to be an accomplished chef to attempt to construct this dish. In fact, you do not need to know anything about cooking at all. It would probably be better if you were a simple bricklayer. Just follow the instructions, stay true to your quest, and you shall be rewarded with the finest lasagne in all the land. Good luck.
Ingredients
6 sheets fresh lasagne
1 aubergine
1 bag spinach
300g asparagus
1 large red onion
100g sun-dried tomatoes
300g mozzarella
200g mexicana cheese, or substitute cheddar with chilli flakes
1 large jar white lasagne sauce (700g)
1 bag fresh basil
1 bag fresh coriander
3 cloves garlic
soy sauce
freshly ground black pepper

Tools
ovenproof rectangular dish – 12″ x 8″ x 2″ deep
a second dish of similar size for holding hot water
large non-stick frying pan
small shallow pan
plastic potato masher
garlic press
steamer, grill or microwave for softening asparagus
colander
spatula
kettle
knife and chopping board

Preparation
These can be done simultaneously depending on your competence and number of helpers. When each bit is done you can simply set it to one side until needed. If you are really motoring this can all be done in 30 minutes. Give yourself 40 and enjoy a nice glass of wine while you do it.

1. Press the garlic into a small shallow pan. Chop the onions and sun-dried tomatoes and add to the pan. Add a bit of olive oil if your tomatoes are not already drenched in it and fry on a low heat until the onions are soft but not brown.

2. Heat a large non-stick frying pan on a high heat. Slice the aubergine into half-centimetre slices and add to the pan in a single layer. Douse with soy sauce and after a few minutes press the aubergine using a plastic potato masher, being careful to hold the pan steady. You should be looking to gently crush the aubergine so that it gives up its moisture and starts to fry in its own juices. Flip the aubergine slices as necessary and fry until browned on both sides. Continue until all slices are done.

3. Steam the asparagus for 5 minutes to soften it up. Alternatively, put under a grill for 10 minutes. As a last resort, microwave for 3 minutes. If you have bought fine asparagus then this step is not necessary.

4. Wash the spinach and place in a colander. Pluck the leaves from the basil and mix with the spinach. Pour over a litre of hot water from the kettle and mix gently with a spatula so that all of the spinach wilts.

5. Slice the mozzarella and mexicana – the mexicana needs to have enough area make a single layer in your dish and the mozzarella, two. You might find the mozzarella doesn’t look enough – don’t worry, you can leave gaps and it will melt.

6. Roughly chop the coriander.

7. Fill the second shallow rectangular pan or dish with hot water from the kettle, and dunk your fresh lasagne sheets in there to make them malleable.

8. Preheat the oven to 180C.

Construction
This is from the bottom up. At each stage you should be looking to minimise the amount of air in the dish by packing the ingredients tightly together. After each layer of lasagne you can even press down evenly across the whole dish to squish everything together. Shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes.

1/4 jar of white sauce – spread evenly
2 sheets of fresh lasagne side-by-side but overlapping
spinach and basil
1/2 of the mozzarella
generous black pepper
1/4 jar of white sauce – spread evenly
2 sheets of fresh lasagne side-by-side but overlapping
tomatoes, garlic and onion
coriander
aubergine – lay slices flat, try to fill the available space
other 1/2 of the mozzarella
generous black pepper
1/4 jar of white sauce – spread evenly
2 sheets of fresh lasagne side-by-side but overlapping
asparagus
1/4 jar of white sauce – spread evenly
mexicana cheese

If you have any ingredients left at this stage, you have failed. Go back to “Introduction”.

Cooking
Put it in the oven for 40 mins at 180C. If you like the top layer a bit browner and crispier, turn it up to 200C with 10 minutes to go.

Serving suggestion
Trust me, you do not need chips. A nice green leaf salad with a simple balsamic and olive oil dressing, and maybe a halved tomato or two should be ample.

Variations
Try adding any of the following:

  • pan-fried courgettes or peppers
  • broccoli
  • black olives
  • sliced artichokes in oil
  • stir-fried Mexican chicken (caution: may not be strictly vegetarian)

Powder Keg Diplomacy

Powder Keg Diplomacy

147 St. John’s Hill
Battersea, London
SW11D 1TQ
T: 020 7450 6457
Map

In stark contrast to its early days, it is now relatively easy to get a table at this quirky Battersea bar/restaurant. We sat in the garden room, a dark but somehow cosy place populated by ferns, empty picture frames and upside-down house plants, with ivy-covered pillars supporting a glass roof. The setting was only a little surreal until our waiter arrived sporting a top hat and braces.

One of the other unusual features of this restaurant is the drinks menu which features an enormous selection of bottled beers, and 6 micro-brews on draught: 3 lagers, a pale ale, a stout and a cider. There are also cask beers which change regularly. I agonised for a while and picked the one draught beer that was off. Happily, the suggested replacement (the Jokers IPA) was a delight, with a light caramel flavour but still very refreshing. My partner selected a Merlot from the 6 reds available by the glass.

The a la carte menu is straightforward: optional oysters or bread followed by a choice of 6 starters and 6 mains. To start, we chose the spicy beef carpaccio with rocket and fennel, which was light and very tasty, and the curried parsnip soup which was thick, mild and smooth, served with a warm roll.

To follow, I had the Blythburgh pork belly which was excellent – equal parts moist meat and crispy crackling with no sign of the large blocks of fat that you often find in this dish. And it came with an embarrassingly large selection of vegetables: parsnips, carrots, kale, roast potatoes and a celeriac and apple purée, all sat in a very tasty gravy.

My partner had a medium ribeye steak which was cooked as requested as well as being half the size of a dinner plate. Accompaniments were more Spartan here (chips and rocket) but these were no ordinary chips. No, these were nearly half-potatoes, still in their jackets and large enough to be piping hot even as the last of them sat uneaten at the end of our meal because we were both absolutely stuffed.

We called time after the main course as we could not have managed a dessert and found the bill very manageable indeed – only £64 for two including 12.5% service and less than an hour on the clock. So, it’s difficult to find fault with the Powder Keg. Maybe the main courses are a bit big… probably it’s too dark to see how much you’ve salted your potatoes… definitely you would be hard-pressed to find a meal of similar quality at this price anywhere else in this neighbourhood.

Duck Soup

Duck Soup

41 Dean Street
Soho, London
W1D 4PY
T: 020 7287 4589
Map

Last night we had an amazing meal at Duck Soup with some wonderful friends. We arrived without a reservation (because we didn’t know you could book for groups of four or more!) but were quickly shown to a great table in the back corner. The menu, which is different every day, is mainly small plates and is great for sharing. Our favorite’s from yesterday’s menu were the Lamb Chops with Salmoriglio, Pappardelle with Rabbit, Salsify and Parmesan Cream, and the Chopped Lardo and Rosemary on Toast, which was definitely not low calorie but absolutely delicious. The cheeses were great too. We especially liked the Fourme D’Ambert (a blue) and the Brillat Savarin (soft cow’s milk). The wines are all natural and were unfamiliar to us, but the waiter (who was excellent overall) encouraged us to try a few reds before selecting the one we liked best. He also recommended a lovely white wine to go with the cheeses. A great time was had by all and we can’t wait to go back!

This dessert is perfect for dinner parties because you can do all of the preparation work earlier in the day or even the day before. Some people like to get the panna cotta out of the ramekin for serving, but I don’t see the point – it might fall apart, and the ramekin needs to be washed anyway.

Panna Cotta with Raspberry and Blueberry Coulis

Serves 4.
Preparation time: Can be done in 20 minutes if you make both at the same time. Serving time: 2 minutes.

For the panna cotta
300ml double cream
300ml milk
60g caster sugar
1 vanilla pod
2g agar agar

For the coulis
200g blueberries
200g raspberries
50g sugar
1 cinnamon stick
40ml water

Preparation – Panna Cotta

1. Slice the vanilla bean in half lengthways and scrape out the seeds. You could probably substitute vanilla essence for the seeds.

2. Put the vanilla seeds, double cream, milk, sugar and agar agar in a pan and warm on a medium heat until the mixture is hot. Simmer for 5 minutes – do not let the mixture boil. You can tell when it’s boiling because of a) the bubbles and b) the noise, which sounds like a kettle.

3. Remove the pan from the heat, leave to cool for 5 minutes and then divide the mixture between 4 ramekins. Remember to leave enough room for the coulis! Leave to cool for a further 5 minutes and then put in the fridge for at least a few hours.

Preparation – Raspberry and Blueberry Coulis

1. Find a pan with a lid.

2. Put the blueberries, sugar, cinnamon stick and water in the pan and cook on a medium heat until the sugar has dissolved.

3. Reduce the heat to low, put the lid on the pan and simmer for 3-4 minutes.

4. Remove the lid, turn the heat back up to medium and cook for a further 4-5 minutes. At this point you should have something that looks like a sauce and the berries should have collapsed slightly. If it is very thin you might want to leave it for longer until it thickens up.

5. Remove from the heat, retrieve and discard the cinnamon stick, add the raspberries and stir well.

6. Transfer the mixture to a suitable bowl or dish, leave to cool for 5 minutes and then put it in the fridge next to your panna cottas.

Serving

Simply retrieve everything from the fridge and spoon the coulis on top of the panna cottas.

Nutritional information: if you care, you should not be making this dish

Le P’tit Normand

Le P’tit Normand

185 Merton Road
Southfields, London
SW18 5EF
T: 0208 871 0233
Map

Le P’tit Normand is one of our two favourite local family run French restaurants (L’Auberge being the other). The restaurant is small and cosy, the menu of adequate length and the all-French wine list relatively short. Our starters (Fagot d’Asperges et Lardons, Tartare de Boeuf, Escargots and Gaufre au Basilic) were yummy and the main courses (Entrecôte Steak, Magret de Canard, and Escalope de Veau) did not disappoint. To finish off, we had the Creme Brulee and a Plateau de Fromage (we are avid cheese fans!). The cheese was suitably ripe and there was a large selection to choose from. Apart from a few pieces of bread that were very hard, we were very happy with the food. The service, however, was unpolished. Although it was obvious the woman waiting on us was inexperienced, she didn’t get much help from the others and was even chastised in front of us for not clearing the table entirely before bringing us the dessert menu. Not good.. We’ll probably go back again, but the poor service has moved it down a notch in our local rankings.

The Wellington Arms

The Wellington Arms

Baughurst Road
Baughurst
RG26 5LP
T: 0118 982 0110
Map

Last night we spent a wonderful evening at this exquisite pub, which we found in Sawday’s Special Places. We were looking to spend the night somewhere after our painting workshop with Deana Kim and struck it lucky with The Wellington Arms. On arrival we were shown to the “Old Room”, which is one of their two rooms in an old barn. It was beautifully decorated, and as with everything here, there was great attention to detail and everything was perfect! The rain shower with wonderfully smelling Aesop toiletries was the perfect for cleaning up after the painting course. The luxurious fluffy towels, warm tile floor and  sheepskin rug were better than at home!

The food in the restaurant was also exceptional. To start, we had the Isle of Man queenie scallops and the vegetable terrine with fresh radishes that tasted like they were straight from the garden (bear in mind, it is February!). A lovely bottle of Barbera D’Alba accompanied our main courses, the roast brill and the butterflied leg of lamb, which were both fantastic.  Because we can’t help ourselves, we shared a sticky toffee pudding and the cheese board with a glass of Sauternes – a great finish to a wonderful evening! The Full English breakfast this morning was equally good.

Everything about The Wellington Arms exudes quality and pride. We were honoured to experience Simon and Jason’s labour of love. Keep up the good work!

L’Auberge Restaurante

L’Auberge Restaurante

22 Upper Richmond Road
London
SW15 2RX
T: 020 8874 3593
Map

We spotted this small French Restaurant on the South Circular in August, but didn’t get around to trying it until last Saturday night. It’s run by a husband and wife team who made us feel like part of their family from the moment we walked in the door.  We started the evening with an aperatif – I had an amazing but subtle Fig Kir Royale from the extensive list of Kir Royaux. To start we had the Aumonière surprise, a Filo pastry parcel wih a Camembert, pine nut & apple filling and the Assiette Sud-Ouest, a home-made duck terrine with potted duck foie gras & orange smoked duck breast – both of which we would definitely have again! The main course was Entrecôte à la moelle – a Scottish ribeye steak, classic shallot & marrowbone sauce, and Poisson du Jour – squid in a tomato sauce with fresh vegetables. Although we’re on a diet, we couldn’t resist dessert and tried both the Chocolate and Chilli Bombe and the French Cheese Platter, both of which were delicious.  In fact, the whole meal was so amazing that we returned this Friday night and had many of the same things!  Oh, and they do take-away too.. c’est dangereux!