Friday 17 April 2020

Vegetable Lasagne

Vegetable Lasagne
A mainstay of pub menus in the 80s and 90s, and in some places still today, most vegetarians are bored to death with vegetable lasagne. Slimy, artificial tasting tomato sauce and thick slices of chewy aubergine pretty much characterise a standard pub vegetarian lasagne. I had one a few months ago in Welshpool and it was everything I hate about the dish, along with undercooked and tasteless frozen chips. I won't name the pub, but you'll know if you see it on the menu.

There's no need for it to be like that. I don't use aubergine - it's best left for ratatouille, and not used as a bizarre 'meat substitute'. Why is it that so many chefs seem to think that vegetarian cooking needs something to take the place of the meat? This is vegetable lasagne, not vegetarian. It happens to be vegetarian, but it's a dish made with vegetables, not a vegetarian equivalent of a meat dish.

Making lasagne is a bit of an undertaking and you need to take your time. It's not difficult, but there are a few stages and it's worth the wait.

You'll also note that there are no onions. In the UK we seem to think that tomato sauces invariably need onions. Sometimes that's good, other times not so much. Lots of proper Italian sauces don't include onion. I don't make any claims of this being in any way authentically Italian; it's the way my family like lasagne, not the way it 'should' be made. I even grate Cheddar on the top - no Italian would do that. But cook however you like; there are no rules really. You can use different vegetables - sometimes I use a bit of brocolli, cut up small, and mushrooms. But anything will do, even aubergine!

This is enough for a good helping for a couple of people. Have it with garlic bread - you can make it yourself but you probably won't want to, so either buy the frozen or chilled stuff or put garlic butter in a part-baked baguette for the "made it myself" feeling without the hassle. A bit of salad on the side with a balsamic vinegar dressing might be nice too. No frozen chips...


For the tomato sauce

  • A splash of olive oil
  • A clove of garlic
  • Three or Four medium sized mushrooms
  • Half a courgette, or a whole little one
  • About an inch off one of those nice pointy sweet red peppers
  • A tin of nice chopped tomatoes
  • A squirt of tomato puree
  • A pinch of chilli flakes
  • Some fresh basil, or dried if you haven't got it
  • Sea salt or black pepper to season

For the white sauce

  • A good glug of olive oil
  • A heaped tablespoon and a half or so of plain flour
  • About half a pint of milk; semi skimmed is fine
  • Grated nutmeg

To finish

  • Lasagne slices
  • Cheese to top
  • Dried oregano


Sometimes I make this with fresh tomatoes if they're plentiful, really ripe and cheap enough. But you need loads, and making a passata first is a right hassle. Honestly, chopped tomatoes in a tin are plenty good enough, and for lots of the year, better. Buy nice ones though - Napolina are really good but expensive, Cook Italia are nice and much cheaper but harder to get. The Lidl ones are OK, but buy the "Freshona" ones not "Simply". They're definitely worth the extra 3p! You can use whole tinned tomatoes but chop them up in the tin first, plus they'll need to cook for longer because there's more juice.

As usual, I'll say that the tomato sauce needs plenty of cooking. If you don't simmer tomato sauces for quite a long time they are sharp and acidic but cook for long enough and the tomatoes go nice and sweet. A bit of salt helps with this, oddly. I've seen a few recipes which suggest putting a bit of sugar in. I wouldn't; just cook for longer, and don't use rubbish tomatoes.

A lot of people struggle with a roux, or white sauce. There are as many ways of doing it as there are people cooking I reckon, but the way I make the sauce is pretty foolproof. The olive oil instead of butter makes it lighter. You do need good extra virgin olive oil though. Lidl is fine, Cypressa is good too, and great value. I find the branded ones are fine but overpriced for what they are.

Grated mature cheddar is my topping of choice. Equally you can use Parmigiana Reggiano (parmesan) or one of the other Italian hard cheeses, but be sparing with it or mix it with cheddar. Slices of Mozzarella would work too.

You need a lasagne dish to cook this in. Not too deep and preferably as square as you can get it, because it makes the assembly much easier.


Make the tomato sauce first. Put enough olive oil in a medium sized saucepan to cover the bottom. Peel the garlic, crush with the knife and finely chop. Slice the courgette into rounds, cut the manky bottom of the stalks off the mushrooms and slice. Cut the pepper into very fine strips - you want it to disappear in the sauce. The courgettes should be nice and thin; the mushrooms a bit chunkier.

Put the heat on, put all the vegetables in the saucepan, add a pinch of sea salt and stir. When they start to sizzle, turn the heat down to quite low and put the lid on. Leave it for a while, stirring occasionally and adjusting the heat if necessary. You want the courgettes to look pretty much cooked but still whole.

Add the tin of tomatoes and swill the tin round with a bit of water and add that too. Squeeze in a good squirt of tomato puree and add a small pinch of chilli flakes. Be sparing; you don't want it to taste spicy as such, but a little bit of chilli just lifts it a bit. If you're using dried basil now is a good time to add that too. Give it a twist of pepper now, but not too much - you can add more later but you can't take it away. Bring it to the boil, stir, turn down to a low boil (not quite as low as a simmer) and put the lid on and leave it. Return to stir occasionally.

You'll know when the tomato sauce is nearly ready - it'll thicken a bit and the lumps of tomato will pretty much have gone away. Taste it, adjust the seasoning and add some chopped fresh basil if that's what you've got. Put the lid back on and turn it down a bit more until you've finished making the white sauce. It won't take long. Put the oven on - 180 is about right for a fan oven, but if you're cooking garlic bread too then whatever it says on the packet.

Make the white sauce. Put some olive oil in a small saucepan. Quite a bit - difficult to say how much but you'll need it to be runny enough once you've added the flour. You can always add a bit more. Put the heat on full, add the flour and stir with a wooden spoon. It should look a bit like grease, but not too thick. Stir until it starts bubbling; turn down and leave to cook for a minute or so. Take the pan off the heat and, using a balloon whisk, whisk in a decent splash of milk. Put it back on the heat, turn up to high and keep whisking. As it gets towards boiling it will suddenly thicken, hopefully becoming too thick. At this point whisk in a bit more milk. You can leave it on the heat to do this, just tip a bit in as you're whisking. The idea is to keep adding milk in little splashes until it reaches the right thickness. The right viscosity is about that of a thick gravy - it'll thicken a bit more when it goes in the oven so don't overdo it. It doesn't matter if the sauce boils a little while you're doing this. Once you've got the consistency right take it off the heat and stir in a bit of grated nutmeg.

Now assemble the dish. The 'right' way is alternating layers, but I prefer white sauce on the bottom and top. No need to grease the dish. Put half of the white sauce in the dish and spread it out evenly with the back of the spoon. Put a layer of lasagne sheets on top. You want it to be as close as possible to one complete layer - break it to fit, and try not to overlap it too much because it will be a bit chewy if you do. Then add half the tomato sauce, another layer of lasagne, the other half ot the tomato sauce, lasagne and the rest of the white sauce on top. Grate cheese evenly over the top, sprinkle oregano evenly over that and bake for about 25 minutes, until the cheese is a bit brown and you can see the sauce boiling around the edge.

Once the lasagne is cooked, take it out of the oven and leave it for a minute or two so that it isn't too hot to handle. Now is a good time to dress a salad or slice some garlic bread. Cut through the lasagne with a big sharp knife, free off the edges and get it out of the dish with a fish slice. That way it'll keep its shape, and you can feel clever like I always do when it works and doesn't just go in a big heap on the plate.

I hope you like it - better than a pub lasagne.

Monday 13 April 2020

Coronavirus - Worse for the Homeless

It stands to reason; obviously the coronavirus epidemic must be worse for homeless people. Nowhere to live, no money and no food. It's practically impossible to practice social distancing, and now there is nobody on the street, there is no way to support yourself.

There has been a lot of talk on social media about the policy of housing homeless people in hotels during the epidemic. There's a Guardian article about the policy which makes interesting reading. I don't know if it's happened but it's obviously a good idea. However, most of the talk was along the lines of "look, homelessness can be fixed if there's the political will and money to do it". Whilst that may in theory be true, all I can say is, if you think that homelessness is fixed by putting people up in hotels for a while then you have no idea what it's like to be homeless.

I was homeless. I never actually slept on the street - living in a small community means that there are always people willing to help - but I slept on a lot of sofas and was put up in a bed and breakfast for a couple of weeks at one point. I ended up living in a caravan in an abandoned quarry. In fact, I lived there for years, even after I'd got a job and was financially very much stable. I just wasn't ready to become 'normal' again.

Why was I homeless? Was I useless with money? A hopeless drug addict? Well, there are a lot of reasons why people become homeless, but for me it was watching my best mate Rob die in a ditch in front of me when he was 23. He was the victim of a motorcycle accident - he had done nothing wrong but we as 'dirty bikers' were vilified for it in the local press. Being interrogated at the police headquarters didn't help, and neither did the subsequent inquest, both of which I had no choice but to attend despite not actually being involved.

All that left me in a delicate emotional state. But I'd been renting a room in Rob's house as well. When his grandparents asked me to leave so that they could sell the house I had nowhere to go, and was in no fit state to work out how to solve the problem. The social security had visited me unannounced to make sure that I wasn't using Rob's death to defraud the benefits system (I wasn't) and then sent me on a 'training' scheme, apparently as punishment. In the middle of all this I found myself out of my home with nowhere to go. Luckily a friend offered me the caravan, which he had put there after being in a similar situation himself. It had been vandalised, the ceiling leaked and some of the windows were boarded over, but I couldn't have been happier. It was that or a doorway or maybe a tent.

A hotel room wouldn't have fixed any of that. Homelessness is much more complicated than somewhere to sleep. It's domestic abuse, addiction, mental illness, financial insecurity, relationship breakdown. It's hitting rock bottom after multiple missed opportunities to help. In my situation, what if the police had asked if I was OK, rather than treating me as a criminal? What if the social security had involved the social services instead of accusing me of a bizarre fraud? What if the people running the training scheme had intervened? In fact, one of them did, informally, and that's how I ultimately got out of that particular hole.

In the end, I got a good job, was finally persuaded to buy a house and moved out of the quarry. Now, over 30 years later, I've been happily married for 20 years and we own our small house outright. But it could have been so different.

Homeless people need support, now more than ever. If you've got a local homelessness charity I'd suggest you donate if you can afford to, otherwise perhaps donate to Crisis. Obviously a lot of people have got no money at the moment, but if you are one of the lucky ones then there's no time like the present.

Thank you.

Sunday 5 April 2020

Vegetarian French Onion Soup

Vegetarian French Onion Soup
"Welsh" Onion Soup

So we were sitting in our house yesterday, prohibited from going out (much) by the coronavirus thing, and fancied some soup. I was going to make carrot soup, but there aren't very many carrots left and they're a bit manky. When did we start to think that washing carrots is a good idea? When they were covered in soil they lasted loads longer. Anyway, we bought one of those bags of "marvellous misshapes" onions from Co-op last week or the week before, which couldn't be more perfectly shaped in fact, and there are loads left. So onion soup it is.

Our 6 year old daughter says this should be called "Welsh Onion Soup" because it's not French at all. She's right really - the French classic is made using beef stock, which would make it very non-vegetarian, and white wine. I used Marigold Organic Vegan Bouillon and red wine, because there's a bit more flavour to it than white wine. And because I was already drinking from a box of it. Pub's not open...

The quantities here will make a decent bowl of soup for a couple of people, as a lunch with a bread roll.


  • 3 medium sized white onions
  • A clove of garlic
  • A splash of extra-virgin olive oil
  • A knob of butter
  • A dessert spoon or so of soft brown sugar, or any sugar really
  • A dessert spoon of plain flour
  • A splash of red wine, perhaps half a small glass or so
  • A pint (568 ml, so half a litre and a bit will do) of stock
  • A splash of dark soy sauce to taste
  • A slice of two of nice bread for croutons
  • Grated cheese to sprinkle on the top
  • Sea salt and black pepper to season


All soups benefit from long cooking. Any recipe which says you can make a soup in 15 minutes is optimistic at best. But this one really does need quite a long time - the onions need to be properly caramelised, and that will probably take 30 - 40 minutes before you add the stock. So if you want it earlier, start sooner.

I'm using Marigold organic (and vegan) Swiss vegetable bouillon in this. I've always got a tub of it in the cupboard and I use it for most things really. I'm not particularly bothered about the organic or vegan aspects of it, I just think it tasted nicer than the original one. I used to use a lot of Knorr stock pots but I don't use them much any more; they're quite pricey and I keep finding that the packet is empty again. They're good though, and would certainly be nice in this.

You need a heavy-based saucepan with a proper lid. But then, you always need a heavy-based saucepan - if you've got any with floppy thin bases throw them away and buy some proper ones otherwise you'll always be burning things. They don't have to be too expensive - ours are stainless steel Stellar ones which were pretty cheap at the time. We've had them for nearly 20 years and they're fine. They aren't so cheap any more though - Ikea do good ones which aren't madly expensive if you can't run to Stellar.

The proper way of serving French onion soup is with a slice of toasted baguette floating in it, with melted Gruyere or Emmental on top. We didn't have any baguette or Gruyere, so normal croutons and cheddar had to suffice, along with a bread roll. Edam or maybe Gouda would probably be better if you happen to have it though.


Put enough olive oil in the pan to cover the bottom, and add the knob of butter. Peel, halve lengthwise and thinly slice the onions. Peel and chop or crush the garlic. Heat the pan until the butter has melted, add the onions and garlic and sprinkle the sugar on top. Stir, and when they start sizzling, turn the heat down and put the lid on. You want the mixture to be obviously cooking but not too much.

Give it a stir every five or ten minutes and put the lid straight back on. If it's sticking to the bottom of the pan turn it down; you want the onions to caramelise, not burn. Eventually, once the water has cooked out, the onions will start to go dark and sticky. Stir it a bit more to stop them sticking, until they are all nice and caramel-y.

Sprinkle the flour on top and stir it for a little bit until it's combined with the onions. Add the wine, turn the heat up a bit and stir. Let it bubble a bit while you make the stock, according to the instructions on the packet. Add the stock to the mixture and bring to the boil. A little splash of soy sauce will deepen the flavour - add that now if you want but don't overdo it. Literally a splash will do - certainly no more than a teaspoon. You want this to taste of onions, not like a stir fry. Pop the lid on and turn down to a simmer or slightly more, and leave for a while.

Cut the crusts off the bread and cut into cubes for the croutons. I fry them in the deep fryer at 190 degrees, just until they are golden brown; you can shallow fry them or drizzle them with olive oil and bake them in the oven instead if you like. If you're going to cook them in the oven do it now, otherwise wait until the soup is nearly ready.

Once the soup has been simmering for a bit, taste it. Once it tastes sweet and rounded, not sharp and wine-y, season to taste with sea salt and black pepper. More of the latter than the former. If you're frying the croutons, now is a good time.

Serve in warmed bowls, with the croutons and grated cheese on top. Lush.