Thursday, September 30, 2010

Candlelight and My Best Lasagna Made Romance

A romantic dinner – complete with wine, music, candlelight, panoramic view, good food – is a pretty traditional, even cliché, way to celebrate your wedding anniversary. My husband and I marked our 15th last week and we celebrated with all those trappings, with one big difference – our venue.

We packed an ample basket of goodies – a big pan of my best lasagna, safely ensconced in its thermal envelope; a simple tossed salad, greens, dressing and extras carefully separated, of course; our wine, and all the accoutrements I could think of. (Didn’t even forget the wine opener.) We headed up to our private little hill, 1500 feet up, on our farm and arranged our moveable feast in what we fondly call “the shanty.” Earlier in the day, I’d set up a card table and dressed the table – pretty tablecloth, flowers, candle holders stemmed glasses, silverware, china. (Okay, the glasses were plastic, and the plates were the fancy disposables from Marx Foods, but you get the picture -- and despite this picture, we really could see our dinner!) 
The “shanty” is designed for hunting, but it’s no shack, more like an outdoor room. My husband carefully outfitted it with all the comforts of home. It’s heated, insulated, carpeted, and furnished with cushy chairs and a radio, and all four sides have double-hung windows, an opening to an unmatched view.

And nature did her part, too. First, the beautiful sunset. Then the full moon, and a canopy of stars. A night built for romance.

Just as a humble PB&J takes on an elegant air when eaten al fresco, our portable feast had all the ambience of any classy restaurant. I had tried to outdo myself and make the best lasagna I ever had. Now, lasagna’s a pretty staple dish for us, if not weekly, certainly monthly. I’ve tried to make a few adaptations here and there and the occasional shortcut. And here’s what I’ve learned about making classic lasagna:
  • No-boil noodles work, but they’re just not the same when you’re trying to pull out all the stops.
  • Ground beef is okay but sweet Italian sausage is better, but more than a pound is overwhelming. And turkey sausage is a great way to lighten up.
  • Yes, cottage cheese works, but I still prefer the texture and flavor of ricotta.
  • A jarred sauce is okay, too, but homemade is best.
  • Freshly grated Parmesan makes a big difference.
  • Making three layers makes more sense to even things out better, but when your eye doesn’t judge “thirds” too well, a half is the way to go.
  • Spinach in the filling is better than parsley.
  • A little nutmeg grated into the spinach-ricotta filling is a subtle but noticeable difference.
With that, here’s . . . .

Nonna Rosa’s Best Lasagna

12 lasagna noodles
1 mild sweet Italian sausage, removed from casing if necessary
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup minced onion
1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
2 (6 ounce) cans tomato paste
½ cup dry red wine
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon oregano
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 eggs
3 cups (24 ounces) whole milk ricotta cheese
½ cup grated Parmesan
1 (10 ounce) frozen block of chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
4 grates of fresh nutmeg, or 1/4 teaspoon dry nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 pound mozzarella, thinly sliced
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Cook the noodles:   Bring a large pot of water to boil. When water is at a rolling boil, add salt and noodles and cook noodles for 8 to 10 minutes. Drain. (I have found that draining the noodles then placing on a parchment lined cookie sheet keeps the noodles from getting too sticky – as opposed to rinsing.) 
Make the sauce:  Brown sausage, onion and garlic in a large Dutch oven over medium heat until well-browned. Add tomatoes, paste, wine and seasonings. Simmer, uncovered for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. 
Make the filling: Mix eggs in medium bowl. Add ricotta and Parmesan. Mix in spinach. Add seasonings. 
Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. 
To assemble: Spread a scant cup of sauce in bottom of a 13 x 9 x 2 pan. Layer half the noodles in pan, spread with half of the ricotta filling. Layer half the mozzarella and half the meat sauce. Repeat. Sprinkle with another ½ cup of Parmesan. Cover with foil. (Coat foil with vegetable spray to prevent sticking.) 

Bake, covered, for 30 minutes. Then uncover and bake for 10-15 minute more, to desired brownness. Let sit for 15 minutes before cutting and serving. Makes 12 servings.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Oven-dried Tomato "Candy"

Before . . . .

Of course, it’s not really candy, but my oven-dried tomatoes sure tasted sweet! It was my last batch of Roma tomatoes and, frankly, I was tomatoed out, but didn’t want to waste them; so, after reading a couple blog posts (The Teenage Gourmet and Foy Update) I decided to give it a go. I read a couple more articles on the Internet and melded all that I learned together, turned on the oven and started slicing.

I sliced the tomatoes thinly and placed them evenly on a parchment-lined rimmed cookie sheet. A little (very little, like a drop per slice) of extra virgin olive oil and a sparse sprinkling of kosher salt and my “candy-making” had begun.

The pan went into a 250 degree Fahrenheit oven for about 4 hours before I checked them. A peek -- and taste -- revealed that some of the slices were done, so I removed the crinkled ones; some went directly to my mouth. One of the crispier ones tasted just like I’d imagine a tomato chip to taste like, sweet, salty, just the right crunchy. The pan went back to the oven for another 2 hours and then I turned the oven off and let the tomatoes sit in the cooling oven overnight.

 . . . .and after
In the morning, I put the tomatoes into pint jars, covered them with olive oil and added a couple sprigs of fresh thyme. Pretty as a picture.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Massaged Kale Salad: Food Alchemy

Preparing kale this way is true food alchemy – with no cooking involved. By simply “massaging” the little-bit-tough, little-bit-chewy, but oh-so-good-for-you kale, the greens morph into a sweet and tender salad.

Kale isn’t easy to warm up to. It just looks like it could scratch you. I have the same reaction to “Try it. You’ll like it” about kale that most people seem to have about anchovies. (Not me; I love the salty little devils!) But since I like to think I’ll at least try anything once, I decided to try this kale salad after watching an episode of “Aarti’s Party” on the Food Network. The idea that kale could be transformed by a massage was very intriguing. Then again, we all can find a massage soothing. And the kale indeed is soothed by simply getting in there with your bare – clean – hands and smooshing the chopped greens around for a couple minutes. A little TLC can help just about anything, or anybody.

I never had kale as a child. The only “greens” we ever had were the iceberg in our salads and frozen spinach. My mom usually just cooked the frozen block of spinach and then dressed it with cider vinegar and topped it with chopped hard-boiled egg. That’s still one of my favorite ways to have spinach (aside from creamed!) My greens arsenal is much bigger these days but kale is still only a once-in-a-while fling.

The Aarti episode was my initiation to the salad, but then I searched around the internet a bit and discovered it’s a lot more common that I thought! (Reminded me of the last time I explored a kale recipe: baked kale chips. And I had the same “I-can’t-believe-that-this-is-so-good-and-nothing-like-I-expected!” reaction to this salad as I did the chips, which I have made several times since I discovered them.) Some versions included different fruit and various different cheeses; some were dressed simply with balsamic vinegar.

The Aarti version called for mango, but would you believe the store didn’t have any the day I was shopping? So, I strained my brain and opted for nectarine, the closest fruit in taste and texture I could think of. And I also added toasted walnuts (because I had just a handful in the freezer left over) and I added feta cheese (because I wanted to!) I left the dressing alone; it was just the right mix of sweet and tang, a perfect foil for the relaxed kale.

Massaged Kale Salad with Nectarine
Adapted from Aarti Sequeria, Aarti’s Party

1 bunch kale
1 lemon, juiced
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
Kosher salt
2 teaspoons honey
Freshly ground black pepper
2 nectarines, peeled and diced small, about 1 cup
¼ cup toasted, chopped walnuts

Prepare the kale: Wash and pat dry. Remove the thick ribs by making V-cuts into the large leaves. Then roll the leaves as tightly as possible and cut into about ¼ inch slices, like ribbons.

Place the prepared kale into a large serving bowl and add half the lemon juice, a drizzle – no more than a tablespoon -- of oil, and just a bit of kosher salt. Get in there with your hands then and massage the kale for 2 minutes until the kale starts to soften and wilt.

Make the dressing:  In a small bowl whisk the remaining lemon juice with the honey and freshly ground black pepper. Stream in slowly ¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil until it emulsifies and the dressing forms. Add more pepper if you want after tasting.

Pour the dressing over the kale and add the nectarines, walnuts and feta. Toss and serve. Makes about 4 servings. (Three for me, one for my husband.)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

You say tomato. I say “Aaargh!

Tomato season is waning but my neighbor’s last-minute generosity spooked me into high gear: What am I going to do with all these extra love fruits (which I love)? And I’m supposed to be going away next weekend?!? Aaargh!! But I survived the onslaught of cherry, plum and Big Boy tommies and our larder is all the richer for it. (It’s just the rest of the house and life that took a back seat for a while.)

In the past week, I taught myself how to make and can spaghetti sauce, I made tomato “junk” – just roughly chopped tomatoes, onions, garlic sautéed in olive oil, then frozen in quart bags -- and I oven dried tomatoes. Of course, we ate some, too. (I must amend: I ate some. My husband, who loves spaghetti, pizza, lasagna and all kinds of red-sauced Italian dishes, does not like fresh tomatoes. Incredible.)

It all started when my neighbor Dude said, “I’m done gardening, Rosie. Had enough. Take what you want. I’m done.” He’d shown me his pantry, his root cellar and his freezer. Yes, indeed, he was ready for anything. He had spaghetti sauce, tomato juice, stewed tomatoes, plain ol’ tomatoes. And he had carrots, beans, hot peppers, corn, pickles of all kinds, and some various and sundry vegetable mixes for which he had no name. “Just stuff I threw together.” Now my 70’s-something widower neighbor didn’t do this ALL himself; his daughter Amy was his primary accomplice. (And I also learned just last evening when I saw another of Dude’s daughters, Jeannie, and her husband Tom, that they usually spend a couple days each year making 170 quarts of sauce. “Why didn’t you get my recipe!?” he asked. )

But I was on my own. Dude loaned me his “Squeezo.” That’s not a clown’s name. It’s his handy-dandy Victorio strainer that, operating something like a grinder, squeezes the juice and pulp from the tomato out one end, and discards the skin and seeds, from the other. (Again, I must my amend: my husband helped; he loved running the Squeezo!)

Dude’s son-in-law Tommy humbly disagrees with the methodology: “No, no, no. Grind first, then strain. The flavor’s in the skin!” My instinct tells me he’s right. Next time, another try. When I’m not feeling quite so lazy about it.

This is the recipe I followed (pretty much) for my first batch – 10 pints. Confidence bolstered by my first effort, I winged it the second time. With great success, I must add. Because I wanted a smoother, marinara-like sauce, I eliminated the vegetables the second time around and beefed up the spices, using dried basil, thyme, oregano, about1/4 cup total, and bay leaves –for the 30 pounds of tomatoes, which yielded 6 quarts. If I sat down and did the math about the cost of things – considering time and labor -- I’d probably have to charge about $5 a quart! But the satisfaction of “I made that and it tastes great and I know where everything came from” is priceless, for sure.

Tomato Sauce
(to can or freeze)
from Stocking Up III

5 pounds Italian plum tomatoes, about 25
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon chopped green pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped carrots
2 tablespoons chopped celery
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1 teaspoon oregano
1 bay leaf
Pepper, to taste
¼ cup lemon juice, if canning

Loosen tomato skins by plunging tomatoes into boiling water for 1 minute, then under cold running water. Remove skins. Cut tomatoes into chunks.

Alternatively, you can just wash and core the tomatoes and puree them in a food processor. Although a bit messy, you save yourself the bother of skinning – and you save some of the tomatoes’ nutrients, which are found in and right beneath the skin.  (Or you can use "Squeezo!")

Heat the oil in a large enamel or stainless steel kettle and sauté onion and garlic. Stir in peppers, carrots, celery, and tomatoes; add parsley, oregano, bay leaf and pepper. Simmer, uncovered until thickened, about 1 to 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Remove bay leaf.

To can, add the lemon juice and pour into hot, scaled pint jars, leaving ½ inch headspace. Seal and process in a boiling water bath for 35 minutes.

To freeze, pour into freezer containers.

Yield: 2 pints

Freezing sounds a whole lot simpler, doesn’t it.
First taste of new sauce

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

It's the Season for Apple Cake

The first time I ever made this cake was the year the small town I was living in at the time hosted its first AppleFest. Rumor had it that Franklin, Pennsylvania, was home to the fabled Johnny Appleseed, if even briefly, and the connection was inspiration for what has blossomed into a three day event that attracts nearly 16,000 people – twice the town’s normal population. (This year the event is October 1-3.)

An apple recipe contest was just one feature of the festival and this Apple Dapple Cake was the First Prize winner. A cookbook was also published with all the entrants’ submissions. I was not very confident in my cooking (especially baking!) abilities back then, so I didn’t submit anything. This cake is one I can’t mess up, though. It’s so moist and thick with appley flavor and the crunch of the nuts and coconut. Over the years of making this, I've changed it ever-so-slightly, just toasting the nuts, and adding coconut; I think the next time I make it, I'll add some cinnamon.

We had this cake for Amy’s “We killed the fatted calf for you” farewell dinner. It didn’t last long, even with just the three of us sharing it.

Apple Dapple Cake
3 eggs
2 cups sugar
1 ½ cups vegetable oil
2 t vanilla
3 cups chopped apple (any variety)
1 t salt
1 t. baking soda
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups nuts (I used toasted walnuts)
1 cup coconut
For glaze:
4 ounces unsalted butter
½ t vanilla
 ½ cup packed brown sugar
2 T milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Lightly grease 10-inch fluted or Bundt cake pan.

In mixing bowl, combine eggs, oil sugar, and vanilla until blended. Add apples. In another bowl, sift together flour, salt and soda. Add dry ingredients to wet. Mix. Add nuts and coconut. Bake at 350 degrees for about 1 hour, until toothpick comes out clean.

For glaze:  While cake bakes, make glaze. Melt butter, vanilla, and brown sugar together over medium heat. Bring to boil. Remove from heat and add milk. While cake is still warm, pour glaze over cake. When completely cool, remove from pan. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Voila! Pommes le Terre a la Boulangere

I have always shied away from cooking French food. I suppose that’s because, at least subconsciously, I must think that French food is fussy and – therefore – not for me. I was wrong. I have started watching, although not regularly enough, Laura Calder, host of The Cooking Channel’s “French Food at Home” and I was instantly intrigued.

After looking at a couple episodes, I decided to try a recipe I saw on a show in which she focused on s-l-o-w foods. I watched her make a simple potato dish, with such a pretty name – Pommes le Terre a la Boulangére – and I thought, “I can make that!” And I did.

Potatoes Boulangere is a fancy name for this peasant dish, which is really just sliced potatoes and onions baked slowly in broth. Kind of like scalloped potatoes, except no milk or cream. How the dish got its name is quite interesting. (This kind of food history always fascinates me.) Boulanger is the French word, you may know, for baker, and this potato recipe is called “boulangere” because long ago it used to be cooked in the town baker’s oven after bread making had finished for the day.

People used to quite literally take their dishes down to the bakery and have them cooked in the leftover heat of the baker’s big ovens so they could conserve their own fuel. There are a number of variations on how to prepare and cook this simple dish. Some versions do not pre-cook the onions and Laura Calder’s version uses beef broth because she asserts it imbues a richer, deeper taste. But I just had chicken broth. She also did not specify a type of potato and on her show said she used different kinds of un-skinned potatoes for the variety of color. I just used red.

And red passed with flying colors for my daughter’s farewell dinner last weekend. She came home to Pennsylvania from Tampa for an unprecedented 10 days and did a whirlwind of visiting with family and friends. So the day before I was driving her to the airport I pulled out all the stops and made a great dinner. In addition to the potato casserole, there was pork tenderloin with fennel, onions and apples and roasted broccoli with garlic and red pepper and an apple cake. (More posts later!) My husband accused me of “killing the fatted calf.” The two of them didn’t care what the potatoes were called, though; they just knew they were good.

Potatoes Boulangere
From Laura Calder, French Food at Home

3 T butter
1 T olive oil
4 onions, sliced thin
2 pounds potatoes, sliced thin
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Fresh thyme leaves
2 cups beef broth (or chicken broth)

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.

Melt half the butter with the olive oil in a saute pan, and gently cook the onions over medium heat until soft and lightly golden, about 15 minutes. Spread half the onions in the bottom of a casserole. Lay a layer of sliced potatoes on top, season with salt and pepper, and scatter with thyme leaves. Build another layer of onions, then a final one of potatoes.  Dot with remaining butter.  Finally pour the stock over all. Cover the pan with foil, and bake until all the liquid has been absorbed, 2 to 3 hours. Uncover the last hour, if you’d like the top crisper.