This column is definitely of the Cavalier rather than the Roundhead tendency. But we do shrive ourselves in the first tasting of the New Year as a prudent reaction to all the feasting between Michaelmas and Christmas. There’s something self-denying about a vegetable lasagne – meat-free and with all sorts of pious claims on the packet. Most say they’re organic, some are approved by the Vegetarian Society, though perhaps I only imagined the phrase “no vegetables were harmed in the making of this lasagne”. But, at the same time, if done well with a comforting béchamel sauce, an inviting topping, yielding layers of pasta and a rich vegetable mix with sweet tomatoes ... then we can allege we’re turning over a new leaf while not feeling in the least persecuted.
We procured nine packet lasagnes, both frozen and chilled. We decided that the best judges might be those who are obliged to eat them: vegetarians. The appeal went out from the FT Politburo and two journalists rose to the challenge. One has trenchant opinions about food, especially coffee. She is the Coffee Freak (CF). The other is a self-elected vegetarian who cheerfully admits to eating chicken and fish – meet the Part-Time Vegetarian (PTV). The panel was completed by the Gluttonous Pig (GP) who wore a hangdog look beforehand but felt better when the dishes arrived (apparently his school report once said: “this boy is dull but brightens at the sight of food”).
There was reasonable unanimity between the three of us that we wanted the right consistency – not too watery, not too solid; we liked herb flavourings but didn’t appreciate it when the pungent, almost soapy oregano was overdone. We also agreed that there’s nothing wrong with veg, so there’s no need to put “meat-alike” stuff in. The Waitrose specimen was found to be a bit too liquid. It also won the prize for the silliest name – “Waitrose Chunky and Vibrant Vegetable Lasagne”. Chunky and vibrant might be a good description of a belly dancer or a professional wrestler... but a food? Sainsbury’s Vegetable Lasagne was also a bit on the wet side: “soupy” (GP); “watery ... student lasagne” (PTV); “very school lunch” (CF).
The herb mix employed by Sainsbury’s recipeers boasts oregano, basil, parsley and thyme. We suspected that it’s a dry mix and that the oregano and the thyme have been allowed to dominate, giving the product the ubiquitous tomato-sauce-in-a-jar flavour that has become something of a cliché. Asda’s Vegetable Lasagne tasted the same: “close your eyes and think of canned ratatouille” (PTV); “bog-standard herb taste” (GP).
In fairness, these products were all acceptable. Only one was not – Linda McCartney Vegetarian Lasagne. The clue might be in the use of the word “vegetarian”, as though it’s part of some sort of food ghetto that requires strange ideas. This sad, misconceived lasagne had textured soya protein in it masquerading, we assume, as a sort of meat-style filling: “unidentified chewy pellets … why pretend to be meat?” (GP); “rubbery” (PTV); “took one bite, can’t continue” (CF).
In an average field we have three dishes we are happy to recommend. Second equal came Pegoty Hedge Vegetable Lasagne, made by a family business in Worcestershire: “why hello! yum yum” (CF). And the other runner-up was Tesco Finest Italian Roasted Red Pepper, Sweet Potato & Spinach Lasagne: “cornucopious vegetable stew” (GP).
Our winner came from Oakhouse Foods, which delivers frozen ready meals to your door. Its Roasted Vegetable Lasagne included red wine and offered a touch of luxury in these dark times: “the sliced courgettes look beautiful” (CF); “great, somebody really thought this through” (PTV); “whole basil leaves! Aubergine! Rich crunchy topping! Hold me back, mother” (GP).
1. Oakhouse Foods Roasted Vegetable Lasagne
2= Pegoty Hedge Vegetable Lasagne
2= Tesco Finest Italian Roasted Red Pepper, Sweet Potato & Spinach Lasagne