A Low-Carb Italian Feast

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I’ve had a bit of a challenging time at work lately. Over the May bank holiday, I launched my freelance website, CopyStorm. I’ve been busy anyway, working all sorts of hours (and a lot of weekends!) to keep up, but with the new site on top of that, things got a little crazy. Matt was away a few weekends ago, frying up a storm with Fish& on Liverpool Dock, so I was alone in the evenings. During the day I had to work and clearly Saturdays are not the ideal time to be slaving over your laptop, especially when the sun is out. As the afternoon rumbled on I became convinced that I owed it to myself to get a takeaway as a reward. I’d worked so hard after all. You deserve it, said the voice in my head. You need a treat for the weekend. And I nearly did it.

Thing is, sometimes, you deserve a takeaway, if that’s your thing. I am a firm believer that if sweet & sour pork or a battered sausage and chips is the way you give yourself a pat on the back,that’s fine. As a diabetic though, sometimes that’s stupid. Not always. But sometimes. So on this particular weekend, and for no apparent reason, my blood sugars were running the highest they’ve been in a while and despite treatment, they just didn’t want to come down and stay there. I gave myself a stern talking to and I went to the Co-op instead of the chip shop. I bought a courgette and an aubergine, some tomatoes, and I set some minced beef from the freezer to defrost. At first, I was miserable about it, but by the time I served up, I felt pretty smug. Just call me Saint Lil. Careful of my halo now! 

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So, Italian food. It’s not exactly a carb counter’s dream. It’s rich, it’s delicious, and by golly is it mostly made of flour. I had a hankering for bolognese, so I started with that. Matt and I have worked together on what we think is the perfect beefy ragu for almost the entire time we’ve been together. I think, after about four years, we now have it down to a fine art. It needs a bit of time. Eight hours if you have it. If not, four’ll do. It’s a long wait, but it’s worth it. It’s a delight: the perfect, methodical thing to do when you’re stressed, or if you just want to time-out for a while. Prep, throw everything in, and leave it to bubble away. At the finish line you’ll be left with a dark, silky sauce fit for kings. And your house will smell heavenly.

So this recipe is low-carb. To keep my blood sugar levels from unexpected spikes, I decided to skip the pasta. I’d just like to clarify that I don’t find this kind of thing easy. For reference, I’m not on board with “squashetti” or “courgetti”. Cauliflower “rice”? No thank you. With all the respect in the world, ain’t nobody got time for that. Well, at least, I haven’t got time for that. Aubergine slices in place of your carb, though? That’s legit. And it’s easy! The only form of carbohydrate in this dish comes with the béchamel sauce, and if you’re really feeling angelic, you can replace the plain flour with an alternative thickener, and use soya or almond milk in place of your regular cow juice. For me though, one heaped tablespoon of flour and 400ml of semi-skimmed split between six portions is good enough to slip through the net.

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Aubergine Lasagne (makes enough for six portions)

1 Large or 2 Small Aubergines

For the ragu:

2 Onions
2 Celery Stalks
1 Large Carrot
2 Cloves of Garlic
65g Pancetta
400g Beef Mince
100ml Milk
250ml Red Wine
400ml Beef Stock
1 Punnet of Plum Tomatoes (between 250 & 400g)
1 Bay Leaf
1 tsp Nutmeg
2 tsp Salt
1 tsp Black Pepper
Fresh Basil

For the Béchamel sauce:

50g Salted Butter
35g Plain Flour
400ml Milk
1 tsp Nutmeg
1 tsp Salt
40g Parmesan

This is long – stick with me.

1. Approximately 8 hours before you plan on serving, dice the onions, celery and carrot. Place a heavy-bottomed casserole pot on a low heat and add some oil (about 2tbsp if you’re the measuring kind). There’s no need to wait for it to heat up, so just chuck in your onion and cook for around 5 minutes – until it starts to turn translucent. Throw in your celery, then 3 minutes after that, your carrots. Add your garlic too – you can crush it if you fancy, but I can never be bothered to wash up the grinder – so a rough chop will do.

2. After your veg has softened (around 5 minutes), turn your heat up to medium, clear a space in the middle of the pan and add your diced pancetta. The only reason I like to get pan-bottom-on-pancetta-action is that you get a nice golden crust on the edges of the meat. Let the pancetta crisp up and when it’s nearly done, stir it through the veg.

3. Next up is mince, repeat the process – trying to get a bit of surface area contact – until all the pinkness has disappeared. Pour 100ml of milk over your meat – this may seem weird, but it’s one of the secrets to such a rich and unctuous sauce. Let it bubble away with the heat on high until there’s barely anything left. Stir in the bay leaf, nutmeg , salt and pepper.

4. Add your tomatoes, sliced lengthways into 2 halves. Cover with red wine. Repeat the same process you went through with the milk, letting it bubble and reduce by two thirds. It’ll take 5-10 minutes depending on the heat from your hob, gas versus electric etc. If you can’t get fresh tomatoes, add one tin of chopped tomatoes instead. There’s no problem with that, but I think the fresh ones just elevate your sauce slightly – ramping the sweetness up a notch. Put the kettle on.

5. Give the mix a stir while you wait for the kettle to boil. When it’s ready, pour 400ml of water over a beef stock cube in a jug or bowl and whisk quickly to dissolve it. Pour in the stock. Turn the heat as low as it will go and set the lid on your pot at a jaunty angle, leaving a small gap for the steam to escape. Step away and let your bolognese do its thing. Check on it every now and then and give it a stir. Top up with a bit of water if it looks a little dry around the 6 hour mark.

6. When you ragu is done, preheat your oven to 180ºc. Then, melt 50g butter in a saucepan. Add in the 35g flour and stir, to make a roux. The mixture should form a thick, beige paste. Keep it moving over a low heat for a minute or two, and bit by bit pour the milk over. Do this slowly and your sauce should thicken as you stir, leaving you with a consistency that should easily coat the back of a spoon. As the sauce bubbles on the stove top on the lowest heat possible, grate your block of parmesan. Take approximately 75% of it and fold it through your sauce. Stir in the nutmeg and salt (don’t be tempted to add more, parmesan itself has a high salt content) before removing it from the heat and setting aside.

7. Slice the aubergine in approximately 0.5cm rounds. Move quickly so it doesn’t colour. Begin to layer the lasagne, starting with bolognese on the bottom, then a thin layer of béchamel, followed by aubergine slices. Repeat the ragu, béchamel, aubergine layering until you fill your dish. Make sure the top layer is béchamel, and then scatter over the remaining parmesan.

8. Place in the oven for 30-35 minutes, until golden brown on top. Garnish with torn basil leaves.

Deep Fried Courgette with Fresh Mint

While you’re playing the long game, listening to that beauty bubbling on the stove, you’re going to need something to tide you over. I’ve talked on the blog before about my love for Zucco, a restaurant not far from where I live which serves Italian small plates. One of my three regular orders there is the Deep Fried Zucchini with Mint. I thought I’d have a crack at replicating it at home. I’m having a bit of a courgette moment right now. It’s near on my favourite vegetable at this time of year. I can’t get enough!

Deep fried courgette slices with fresh mint (makes enough for two sharing)

nb. there’s an egg in these pics. I started making this recipe, breading the slices with flour, then egg, then flour. It was a little too claggy and thick for me, so I dropped the egg. After I’d made this, I went back to Zucco – they’d seen my tweet about this recipe and told me the secret is to use milk and flour instead – next time!

1 Large Courgette
80g Plain Flour
1 tsp Rock Salt
½ tsp Black Pepper
½ tsp Nutmeg
6 Fresh Mint Leaves

1. In a shallow bowl, mix together the dry ingredients.

2. Slice your courgette. I stuck to approximately the thickness of a 20p piece, you need a little bite or you’ll end up with crisps. Chop each round in half so you have semi-circles.

3. Roll your courgette slices, a handful at a time, in the flour mixture. While you’re doing this, heat about 2 inches of vegetable oil in a heavy bottomed, deep frying pan.

4. When your oil is up to temperature (stick a wooden utensil in – the handle of a wooden spoon, maybe – the oil should bubble gently around the handle) drop in your courgette slices. Be careful not to overcrowd your pan.

5. It should take around 5 minutes for your slices to start browning around the edges. When they’re nicely coloured, remove them from the oil with a slotted spoon and set them on a couple of pieces of kitchen paper. Repeat with the next batch.

6. Dress your slices with a sprinkle of rock salt, pepper and a slug of olive oil. Chop your mint and throw it in. Toss them around for an even covering. Serve warm.

Deep Fried Courgette with Fresh Mint

Aubergine Lasagne

It’s a big meal – but when it comes to carbs, it’s pretty virtuous. I’ll be making this time and again in the future. Happy feasting!

Got any tips and tricks to share about lasagne making, carb-swapping or courgettes? Share them with me in the comments or over on Twitter @whipuntilfluffy.

  • Maria Fallon

    Oh mannnn this sounds good! Definitely making this soon 🙂

    Maria xxx

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