Celery is my secret ingredient in this dish. I think it is a much maligned and overlooked vegetable, by home cooks at least, but, at the same time, I can kind of understand why. It is usually the unsung hero of the mirepoix in professionally cooked dishes and my memory of it, growing up in the Seventies and Eighties, consist of it being just one component of very bland and unimaginative salads… As I reminisce, it’s always a Sunday evening, Wimbledon is on the telly and the curtains are closed to shut out the last rays of the summer sun. Tea-time arrives. A few leaves of lettuce sit lethargically alongside some flabby slices of ham, a tomato cut into quarters and three slices of cucumber. A stringy half stick of celery cowering at the edge of the plate (if the plate were square, it would be in the corner) and a small pile of salt in which to dip the end of said celery stick complete this motley crew. The height of sophistication is a dollop of Heinz salad cream on the side… Eek! So it’s hardly surprising that it took me years to discover celery’s gastronomic delights. Celery and Stilton soup is now one of my very favourites and I think it adds a beautiful savouriness to any dish it’s in.

Gluten-free aubergine, mushroom and goat’s cheese lasagne

This lasagne recipe is a bit of a labour of love but I think is well worth the effort. The aubergine and mushroom ragú needs quite a lot of slow cooking (an hour altogether) so that the flavours combine and the sauce thickens and enriches. If time is an issue, the ragú could actually be cooked the day before because, once it’s bubbling away, it needs very little supervision. It can then be left in the refrigerator overnight. The pasta and béchamel can be cooked and the whole thing assembled and baked the next day. I think any braised dish actually gets better, anyway, if you leave it 24 hours because it gives the flavours a chance to develop and intensify. The ragú could even stand alone as a dish in its own right as part of a selection of mezze. I think it would be delicious served at room temperature, sprinkled with gremolata and scooped up with flatbread (gluten-free, of course).
Serves 4 generously
2 tbsp olive oil
small knob of butter
1 large onion, diced
2 sticks of celery, halved lengthways and sliced finely
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 medium aubergines (eggplant), cut into 1cm cubes
150g mushrooms, thinly sliced
500g passata
3 heaped tbsp sun-dried tomato paste (about 100g)
200ml water
celery salt (optional)
8 sheets gluten-free lasagne (about 160g)
25g salted butter
25g gluten-free all-purpose flour (I use Dove’s Farm)
350ml milk (either whole or semi-skimmed)
110g soft goat’s cheese, cut or torn into smallish pieces
You will also need a 2-litre capacity ovenproof dish
To make the ragú, heat the olive oil and the butter over a low heat in a large deep sauté pan. Add the onions, celery and a sprinkling of salt. Stir to coat with the melted oil and butter. Cover the pan and sweat the vegetables for 20 minutes or until they are softened and translucent. Add the garlic and aubergines to the pan, stir to combine and continue cooking for 5 minutes. Then add the mushrooms, stir to combine and continue cooking for a further 5 minutes. Stir in the passata, sun-dried tomato paste and water (I usually swill out the empty passata carton with the water first to get the last dregs of tomato out). Simmer with the lid off for 40 minutes or until most of the liquid has been absorbed*. Check the seasoning, adding celery salt (or normal salt), if necessary, and black pepper.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 180°C. Parboil the lasagne sheets in a large pan of salted, boiling water for about 8 minutes**. Drain, brush with olive oil so that they don’t stick and set aside on a plate, ready for assembly.
To make the béchamel, melt the butter in a small saucepan. Add the flour and whisk briskly for 1-2 minutes. It should form a shiny, golden and bubbling paste. Take the pan off the heat, and pour about 325ml of the milk in slowly, whisking furiously to break up any lumps that form. Put the pan back on the heat and slowly bring back up to a simmer, whisking all the while. Let the béchamel bubble away gently as it thickens for about 10 minutes, giving it an occasional stir to prevent sticking. Check the consistency (it needs to be pourable like double cream), adding more milk if needed to loosen it. Season with a little salt, some black pepper and a scraping of nutmeg.
Now to assemble the whole dish. Mentally divide the aubergine and mushroom mixture into thirds and spoon the first third into the dish, spreading it with a palette knife or the back of a spoon until it covers the entire base. Now put in a layer of lasagne sheets, making sure that the aubergine and mushroom mixture is covered (it doesn’t matter if the sheets overlap). Repeat with the next third of aubergine and mushroom mixture and the final layer of lasagne sheets. Now spread the final third of aubergine and mushroom mixture into the dish. Carefully pour the béchamel over the top and dot all over with pieces of the goat’s cheese. (So, in sum, you should have aubergine, pasta, aubergine, pasta, aubergine, béchamel, goat’s cheese).
Bake on the centre shelf of the oven for about half-an-hour or until the béchamel and goat’s cheese are bubbling and golden. Serve with a green salad.
*The ragú needs to be dryer than you would think because liquid will continue to come out as the lasagne bakes in the oven. In the past, I’ve stopped cooking the ragú when it gets to how I would like it in the finished dish… and ended up with a dinner plate full of watery sauce and flabby pasta.
**The packet instructions on the brand I use say to boil the sheets for only a couple of minutes before using in a lasagne recipe. I tried this before and ended up eating raw and gummy lasagne hence the extended cooking time.