Fennel Tomato Lasagna with Crunchy Bacon
by eat in my kitchen
A couple days ago, my boyfriend and I went to a meeting that finished much earlier than expected. We stepped out into the street on a cold and grey morning, looked at each other, and decided to squeeze in a quick coffee-date. Just the two of us, a black espresso for him, a creamy cappuccino for me, and a flaky chocolate croissant to share. We’re both a bit fed up with all the fancy cafés that sprout like weeds in our neighbourhood and always tend to look the same, no matter if you’re in Berlin, London, or New York. So, we went to our favourite Italian deli for a bit of dolce vita – sipping a fantastic coffee while listening to the patron chatting with his customers in Italian accompanied by a medley of Italian operas. A toddler giggled at us the whole time we sat on our wooden stools and two dogs observed the busy scene (which I usually don’t like in restaurants but they were too cute). The shelves around us presented a tempting selection of chiantis, pasta, polenta, capers, and bottarga. The counter right in front of us was filled with various prosciuttos, salami, ciabatta sandwiches, and homemade pasta treats. And right next to it, we could see scrumptious bowls of every antipasti one can possibly think of. Just the thought of it makes me hungry again.
This is the kind of scene that makes you want to go straight to your kitchen, open a bottle of wine, and start cooking. Italian of course. The weather doesn’t leave the slightest doubt that spring isn’t near yet, so a hearty lasagna is the best thing to have on your plate. Mine is filled with lots of juicy tomatoes, roasted fennel seeds, and the bulb thinly sliced and sautéed, plus crunchy bacon bites, dried chili peppers, a bit of parmesan, and a creamy béchamel sauce. At first, I wanted to combine the fennel with a meaty bolognese but then I remembered a pasta dish that I shared on the blog almost 2 years ago and that changed my mind. You could leave out the bacon, but I recommend you keep it – as long as you’re not a vegetarian. The fennel seeds roast in the meat’s salty juices and merge with the tinned tomatoes into a heavenly sauce. Layered with pasta sheets and the crisp fennel bulb, it’s just what I want on a cold day in February.
Fennel Tomato Lasagna with Crunchy Bacon
Serves 4 to 6
For the béchamel sauce
milk 700 ml / 3 cups
a pinch of nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
fine sea salt
unsalted butter 30g / 2 tablespoons
plain flour 30g / 4 tablespoons
large bay leaf 1
For the lasagna
butter, for the baking dish
cored fennel bulb, thinly sliced lengthwise, 340g / 12 ounces
fine sea salt
black peppercorns, crushed in a mortar
thick-cut bacon, cut into very small cubes, 200g / 7 ounces
fennel seeds 2 tablespoons
garlic, crushed, 3 cloves
small dried chili peppers, 2
peeled whole tinned tomatoes, chopped, 1.2kg / 2 2/3 pounds
no-boil lasagna noodles, about 250g / 9 ounces
freshly grated Parmesan 100g / 3 1/2 ounces
For the béchamel sauce, combine the milk, nutmeg, and pinches of salt and pepper in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Immediately take the pan off the heat and set aside.
To make the roux for the béchamel, melt the butter in a clean medium saucepan over medium-high heat and as soon as it’s sizzling hot, whisk in the flour. Slowly pour the hot milk mixture into the roux and whisk until smooth. Add the bay leaf and simmer on low, whisking occasionally, for 2 to 3 minutes or until the texture starts to thicken. Remove and discard the bay leaf. Season to taste with nutmeg, salt, and pepper then cover, and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 180°C / 350°F (conventional setting) and butter a 26 x 20 cm / 10 x 8″ baking dish (or a dish of roughly this size).
In a large, heavy pan, heat a generous splash of olive oil over medium-high heat and sauté the fennel slices in batches for about 1 minute per side or until golden and al dente. Spread out the fennel slices next to each other in the pan so that they cook evenly. Season with salt and pepper and transfer to a plate.
Put the pan back on the heat and cook the bacon over medium-high heat for about 7-10 minutes or until golden brown and crunchy. Add a little oil if necessary and stir once in a while. Scrape the bacon to the sides of the pan, add a little olive oil (if the pan is too dry) and the fennel seeds, garlic, and chili. Turn the heat down to medium and cook for 2 minutes, mind that the seeds don’t turn too dark. Add the tomatoes, season with salt and pepper, and, stirring occasionally, cook for about 10 minutes over medium-high heat or until thickened. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Take the pan off the heat and set aside 3 tablespoons of the sauce (for the final layer of the lasagna).
Arrange a layer of pasta on the bottom of the buttered baking dish and spread with 1/3 of the tomato-bacon sauce and sprinkle with 1/4 of the béchamel. Top with 1/3 of the sautéed fennel and 1/4 of the Parmesan. Repeat to make 3 more layers, top the last layer with pasta. Sprinkle with the reserved 3 tablespoons of the tomato-bacon sauce and the remaining béchamel and Parmesan. Bake for 35-45 minutes (depending on the lasagna package instructions) or until the pasta is al dente. To brown the cheese a little, you can switch on the broiler for the last 1 to 2 minutes. Let the lasagna sit for 5 to 10 minutes before serving and sprinkle with some crushed peppercorns. Enjoy!