Monday, February 19, 2007

Lasagna Reconsidered

Lasagna -- layered with massive quantities of ricotta, mozzarella, sausage and ground beef -- was always a great idea for feeding a crowd at a big family event. You could make it ahead of time, and it was heavy and filling. It was so enormously time consuming, we rarely made it, so it was always a treat. Since I've been cooking just for two, lasagna hasn't appeared on the menu. But the recent extended spate of sub-freezing weather inspired a craving.

The introduction of no-boil noodles has shortened the preparation time immensely. Cooking noodles doesn't sound like such a big deal -- it's just boiling water, isn't it? But that step easily adds an hour to the process. I know the no-boil varieties have been around for awhile, but this was my introduction.

A big difference in the recipe: the no-boil noodles require a huge quantity of sauce, so a regular 9 X 13" pan uses only 3/4 of the box. You'd need a 3" deep pan to hold all that extra sauce and the extra layer of cheese and noodles. As it was, the sauce came very near to boiling over into the oven.

Barilla's recipe also yields a lighter meal than I recall. Lasagna will never be mistaken for a soufflé, but the recipe on the box was excellent. It calls for only 15 oz. of ricotta for a 9oz. box of noodles, so the layers are considerably smaller than our old family version.

I was originally going to make fewer servings, using a loaf pan, but the uncooked noodles looked way too small to work. It turns out the flat noodles swell enormously as they absorb the moisture from the sauce, so next time, I'll have to experiment.

Barilla's recipe:
Preheat oven to 375F

9oz uncooked noodles (regular box, which looks like it's half the size of the traditional curly-edge noodles)
2 eggs
15oz ricotta cheese
4 C (16oz) shredded mozzarella (divided)
1/2 C grated Parmesan cheese
1 lb cooked, crumbled Italian sausage
2 jars (26oz each) sauce.

Beat eggs in medium bowl. Stir in ricotta, half the mozzarella, and the Parmesan.

For a regular 9 X 13" pan. Spoon half a jar of sauce in the bottom of the pan, and layer with four sheets, overlapping if necessary. Spread half the ricotta and meat, and remaining half jar of sauce. Add 1 C mozzarella. Layer 4 more sheets, remaining ricotta and meat, and half of 2nd jar of sauce. Top with 4 sheets, remaining sauce and one C mozzarella. (You will have 4 sheets left over.)

Cover tightly with foil. Bake, covered, until bubbly, 50-60 minutes. Uncover and continue cooking until cheese is melted, about 5 minutes. Let stand 15 minutes before cutting. Recipe makes 12 servings.

Of course, I couldn't follow the recipe -- I reduced the amount of mozzarella, used less sausage, added 10oz of frozen chopped spinach, thawed. And made my own sauce from 2 28oz cans of tomatoes, one whole, one crushed.

Barilla has an enormous recipe cache on its web site, if you are looking for any inspiration -- seach by sauce type, noodle type, vegetarian... or browse a huge list.

For the rest of February, the company is also offering free downloads of The Celebrity Pasta Lovers' Cookbook. The company pledged $100,000 for Second Harvest, donating $1 for every download until they reached their goal. That took barely more than a week. The PDF booklet includes some meatless recipes. One that caught my attention was Mario Battali's Pumpkin Sage Butter Tortellini -- it sounds like a great launching point for some experimenting, since there is no way I could ever make a pasta sauce using a half pound of butter and a half cup of pumpkin purée.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Poached Pears, with or without chocolate sauce

For a light dessert that's sweet but not cloying, poached pears are a favorite. Ed & I can tell a long, very funny story about a huge dinner party where I served pears that had poached on the stovetop for more than 90 minutes, but still turned out to be rock-hard... so I have permanently adopted a different, easier technique that never fails. (It also never fails to remind us of the disastrous dinner, but never mind.)

I discovered the recipe back in the 70s, when I was still learning to cook... remember those days, before there were any cooking shows? And most recipes in magazines called for canned soup? Anyway, this was the dernier crie in elegance at Chez Riverview, my beloved third-floor walkup overlooking the Mystic River, in Mystic, CT, when Main Street was the low-rent district.

Dubbed "Poires en Chemise" in The Six-Minute Soufflé by Carol Cutler, this is the easiest dessert you can make -- but it still feels special. It can also be prepped ahead of time for a dinner party. Unlike most baked goods, it's simple to make as few or as many servings as you like, so this is a great dessert for two.

Poires en Chemise

To serve 6. Preheat oven to 375.

6 pears
2 Tbls sugar
juice of half a lemon
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 tsps orange liqueur or kirsch or brandy
2 Tbls butter

Prepare 6 square sheets of aluminum foil.

Peel the pears, leaving the stem intact. If you'd like the pears to stand upright, slice a bit off the bottom, if necessary. Place a pear in the center of each piece of foil.

In a small bowl, stir together sugar, lemon juice, vanilla and liqueur. Pour over the pears, and then dot with a teaspoon of butter.

Gather up and seal the foil. Place the packets in a baking dish and bake for about an hour (less for riper pears).

To serve, open the packets, transfer each pear to a dessert bowl, and drizzle with the lovely juice in the bottom of the packet.

[I never use butter when I make this, and often omit the lemon or the liqueur -- sugar and vanilla are my only constants.]

For Valentine's Day, I adapted this technique for Poached Pears with Chocolate Sauce, from Joie de Vivre: Simple French Style for Everyday Living by Robert Arbor and Katherine Whiteside.

For Arbor's chocolate sauce:

5-6 ounces best quality bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate
1/2 to 3/4 c heavy cream
sugar to taste
vanilla extract

Break up the chocolate and combine in a small heavy saucepan with the cream. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, until all the chocolate melts. The sauce should be the consistency of a thick sauce. Add sugar to taste, but the sauce should not be too sweet. Add a few drops of vanilla and serve warm.

I didn't add sugar, forgot the vanilla, and as you can see, the sauce wound up too thick, because I guesstimated in cutting the recipe in half. But it was still divine, and a perfect Valentine's Day treat.

Soup for Supper: Season to taste and cook until done.

When the outside thermometer is frozen in the teens, soup and stew seem like the only sensible things to cook or to eat -- warming both the kitchen and the diners. Even better, add some fresh-baked bread and you've got a satisfying meal. We don't often eat dessert, but in honor of Valentine's Day, I added poached pears with chocolate sauce as the finishing touch to Wednesday's chicken soup supper.

When a dish is simple and has only a few ingredients, improving the quality of any of those ingredients can make an enormous difference. For chicken noodle soup, that means the stock and the noodles.

After taking an excellent knife skills class at Cooks Wares, I've been practicing dismembering chickens with my freshly-honed chef's knife and super-sharp Wusthof boning knife. Of course, Jacques Pepin could bone an entire chicken in the time it takes me to think about where exactly I'm going to make my first cut, but it's still a pleasure to work at developing some competency. Since I've switched to buying whole chickens at Findlay Market here in Cincinnati, I have plenty of backs and wings to use in stock this winter. The additional benefit: cups and quarts in the freezer for quick suppers, without the tinny, super-salty taste of canned.

Five or six years ago, I adopted the Cooks Illustrated method for making stock -- it doesn't take all day, but yields a rich, flavorful broth. Since my daughter absconded with The Best Recipe, and I haven't gotten around to replacing it, this is from memory. But the technique works well!

The trick is to cut the chicken into small pieces (say 3 inches), brown the chunks briefly, then sweat them, covered, in a heavy pot for about 20 minutes. At that point, there will be lots of savory juice in the pot. Add water, celery, parsley, carrots, an onion stuck with a couple of cloves, thyme (fresh if you have it), a bay leaf, pepper and a touch of salt (we're trying to cut back on sodium). The stock needs to simmer only briefly (30-60 minutes) before you can strain it and it's ready to use. Hmmm... I realize this sounds a bit cryptic, since there are no amounts, but this is really a recipe that doesn't require measuring. Just follow the terribly helpful instructions from an old cookbook: season to taste and cook until done.

After sweating and simmering, the chicken gives up all its goodness (really -- taste a bite, and you'll find it has no flavor left at all), so if you want flavorful chicken chunks in your soup, poach a fresh piece for 15 minutes or so.

Wednesday's Chicken Noodle Soup started with poaching half a breast in hot stock. While that was cooking, I diced a couple of small carrots, a couple of stems of celery, an onion, and a handful of Italian parsley. After removing the chicken, I added the carrots and celery and simmered for 20 minutes or so, before raising the temp and adding a couple of handfuls of the best egg noodles we've ever tasted.

Cincinnati seems to have a lot more interesting regional brands than Connecticut did (or maybe Connecticut's were mostly spagetti sauce). These noodles are from Das Dutchman Essenhaus. (It turns out there are a lot more Amish in Ohio than in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, but I guess they have a less active marketing department.)

After seeing that an "Amish" fresh cake at a local market contained margarine and about half a cup of food coloring, I've learned to read beyond the "Amish" on the label... but these truly are extraordinary noodles. The ingredient list? Wheat flour, egg yolks, water. Turns out the company makes a variety of noodles, and they're laminated, not extruded. Translation: toothsome, light noodles that taste homemade. If you're making a big batch of soup to have leftovers, you should probably cook the noodles separately and add on serving (although I never do). Otherwise, the noodles continue to absorb broth, and the soup will become more like stew. Yummy carbs, but not very soup-y.

When the noodles are about done (a solid 10 minutes, at least), I add a handful of frozen corn kernels and the diced chicken. Last night, I also added a carton of diced tomatoes, just because we've had the standard recipe a couple of times in the last month. If you've got stock in the fridge, you can whip this up in 45 minutes. Start by tossing Farmgirl's beer bread together and into the oven, and bread and soup will be ready at the same time. Simple, but oh, so delicious.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Revisiting Coq au Vin

Coq au Vin was a dim memory for Ed and me -- one of those recipes that appeared about the same time Julia Child did, in the early 70s. We both recall making it, but neither of us thought it was worth the effort to try it again. I just checked my copy of The French Chef Cookbook and the Coq au Vin page is spotless, so I must have used a different recipe. And perhaps that's the source of the old lackadaisical results.

Inspired by success with other recipes from Molly Stephens All About Braising, I tried her version -- and it was so unbelievably good, we both wondered why we had stopped making it.

A possible difference, then and now: ingredients. Granted, chickens weren't machine products in the 70s, the way they are now. But we used the wonderful chicken from Mairose Grocery (which, alas, is closing.) The wine today is so much better (since we couldn't afford good French wine back then.) I used an Australian Yellowtail Syrah -- inexpensive, but very drinkable. The mushrooms are a lot fresher -- it was hard to even find non-canned mushrooms back in the dark ages. And (confession) Birds Eye makes pearl onions a whole lot easier to prepare these days. ... And the no-nitrate smoked bacon from Kroeger & Sons is soooo much better than Oscar Meyer. So essentially all the raw ingredients are better these days (except for the chicken, unless you're willing to pay more).

For a simple braise of chicken in red wine, Coq au Vin has a lot of steps... and therein lies the secret to its flavor, and endurance as a recipe. I suspect you'd be hard pressed to find this on a restaurant menu these days -- too bad, because if you follow the real recipe, this is so much more than chicken and stewed veggies.

Basically, you sauté a couple slices of diced bacon. Remove from pan, along with most of the fat, then sauté cut-up chicken. Add most of a bottle of decent red wine, garlic, thyme, bay. Then braise in a low oven. Meanwhile, sauté sliced mushrooms in a hot pan, to get them nice and brown, add pearl onions (prepared or simply frozen), and a little of the red wine from the braise. When the chicken is done, remove from the sauce, and then boil it down to thicken a bit. Add back the chicken, veggies, and bacon, and reheat. It would be easy to make this ahead of time for a dinner party -- the house would smell fabulous as the braise reheats, but there would be zero cleanup.

Taking the time to prepare the onions and mushrooms properly is a big part of the success of the dish -- the veggies stay toothsome, instead of soft. This is definitely going on the favorite winter menu list.