Pasta la vista, baby

Pre-cooked lasagna is nearly always more trouble than it's worth

Until recently, I considered "no pre-cooking required" lasagna to be one of the most irritating foods ever invented. It never cooked properly. In the places where you covered it in sauce, it absorbed most of the liquid; in the places where the covering was thin, it remained crunchy. The advertised cooking times on the packet bore no relationship to the process taking place in my oven.

Franco once told me a secret for dealing with the stuff. (Franco, who died some years ago, was a local deli owner. More recently Rocco, whose marvellous shop I have written about here, also died. Both their shops have disappeared.) You parboil the sheets for a minute. They cook more evenly thereafter, and are less absorbent. But you can put only three or four sheets into the water at once, or else they stick together. After the minute, you lift them out of the pan and transfer them, wet and slithery, to a colander; you carry the dripping colander to the sink, where you drench the sheets in cold water in order to be able to separate them; you lay them on a dry, clean surface. You boil more sheets, until you have the required number. They have a tendency to curl up. A product that is supposed to be labour-saving costs you as much work as the standard version, if not more. In most shops, though, it is the only lasagna that you can find.

At the end of last year, I read an apparently bizarre recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi in the Guardian. It was for starch filled with starch: potato lasagne. Ottolenghi did not specify the kind of potato, but asked for large ones, so I assume he meant maincrop. You slice them thinly and layer them with the pasta sheets, browned onions and black olive paste; then you whisk together milk, water, grated cheese and crushed garlic, and pour this liquid over the top.

What usually intrigues me about recipes is not the ingredients, but the cooking instructions. I foresaw two potential problems here. The first was that King Edwards, say, might turn to mush; the second was that the cheese and garlic solids in the milk mixture would all sit on top of the dish. So I used new potatoes, and I layered the cheese and garlic with the other ingredients. But the baking advice looked promising.

You cover the dish with foil, bake it for 30 minutes at gas mark 4/180°C and then for another 30 minutes at gas mark 2/150°C; you remove the foil, scatter Parmesan on top, and brown the dish for a further 20 minutes. The foil, and the quantity of liquid (300ml), should ensure that the pasta softens.

It worked; and I have since learned that a foil covering does the job for a conventional lasagna with ragù and béchamel, too. It is a liberating discovery. The only problem with the original dish was that the potatoes retained some crunch. Perhaps I should have parboiled them . . .

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Naughty nation