Thursday, December 11, 2008

Vegetarianism & Vegetarian Gumbo

Vegetarianism: what comes to mind when you read that word? A diet without any meat, certainly, but what does that entail? Do you imagine a diet of salads instead of stews and tofu instead of steak? Do you think of your favorite meaty entree—lasagna or tacos—with the meat removed? Or maybe you are vegetarian and you think of all the varied and interesting dishes that make up your diet.

As an omnivore, it is easy for me to jump to the conclusion that a vegetarian diet is a diet with many of my favorite foods removed from it, but this would be a vast misrepresentation of what a vegetarian diet has the potential to be. People choose to be vegetarian for many different reasons, but whether it is for health or ethical reasons, it leads to the same thing: placing a specific limitation on what one can eat. But instead looking at this limitation as something that leads to a duller diet with less variety, I believe that it is important that we look at it as exactly the opposite.

Ever heard of the book Gadsby: Champion of Youth? It is a short novel by Ernest Vincent Wright in which the letter “e” is never used. Now, you might be wondering why someone would want to do such a thing, and make an already difficult task—writing a novel—even more difficult? Well, it’s pretty simple: for the challenge. By placing this limitation on his writing, Wright forced himself to expand his vocabulary, find new and more interesting ways of saying things, and make what might have been a very ordinary novel anything but. I think that vegetarianism does a similar thing in the context of food. Taking meat out of your diet forces you to do what I am always trying to do in my cooking, which is to step outside the box, to seek out new ingredients, and new ways of doing things.

Now, of course, I realize that vegetarians generally don’t choose to be so simply for the sake of challenging themselves—as I said, there are a lot of reasons to become vegetarian—but the resulting challenge accounts for some of the most interesting foods we eat. If no one had ever decided to remove meat from their diet, would we have all the delicious vegetarian dishes that we have today? It’s doubtful. And imagining a world without vegetarian cuisine is as dreadful as imagining a world without Chinese, Italian, or French cuisine—a bland culinary world indeed.
This little exploration of vegetarianism was inspired by the Vegetarian Gumbo I made for dinner recently. The recipe came from the lovely 101 Cookbooks blog, in a post about a month ago. (And on a quick side note, if you haven’t checked out this blog, you really should! Heidi’s recipes are perfect examples of how wonderful vegetarian cuisine can be.) This recipe really showcases the kind of creativity in cooking that a vegetarian diet inspires. It takes many of the traditional elements of gumbo—making the roux, slowly stewing the ingredients, finishing with the file—and then adds a twist to make this a meatless, but fully balanced meal.

The change, of course, comes in the addition of protein, traditionally chicken, shrimp, and/or sausage. It would have been easy to toss in some beans, or maybe even tofu (though the thought makes me cringe a little), but instead, Heidi has you poach eggs in the gently simmering gumbo. The result is a warm, earthy stew surrounding a rich poached egg, creating the ideal dinner for a cold winter night.
If you liked this post--or even if you didn't--please leave me a comment and let me know. I'd love to hear what you think!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Holiday Baking: Brownies with Dried Cherries

Well, it’s December, which means it is officially time to get my holiday treat making on. From a very young age, my mother instilled in me the tradition of holiday baking. We worked hard, whipping up shortbread, gingerbread, almond crescents, sugar cookies, and other morsels of Christmas cheer, always sampling at least one new treat each year.

I’ve decided to start early this year and sample as many holiday goodies as I can before the 25th. My waste-line may not like it, but I’m pretty sure that the secret to happiness can be found in Christmas cookies, so it should all work out.

This weekend, I took a David Lebovitz book out of the library, and though overwhelmed by the number of recipes I wanted to try immediately, I eventually settled on a recipe for brownies with dried cherries.

Lebovitz calls these rich nuggets of chocolaty goodness the “absolute best” brownies, and I’m not going to argue with that. They come out exactly the way a brownie should: thin, soft, and a little gooey. I am a huge dark chocolate fan, so these are ideal for my tastes: not too sugary, but very rich, and plenty sweet. I used 60% cocoa this time, but I think I’ll bump it up to 70% or higher next time and get a true dark chocolate brownie.
And then there are the cherries. Is there any better combination of ingredients as chocolate and cherries? Wait, don’t answer that—it doesn’t matter. These brownies are like black forest cake without being so cake-y. The recipe calls for dried cherries, and I was tempted by the candied cherries in that thick, gooey syrup at the grocery story, but I am very happy I stuck to what the recipe told me. The dried cherries added just the right amount of flavor and fruitiness without adding any sweetness. I think the candied cherries would have made them too sweet and sticky.

Absolute Best Brownies with Dried Cherries
Adapted from Ripe for Dessert by David Lebovitz
Makes 9-12 brownies

6 tbsp. butter
8 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
¾ cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 large eggs
¼ cup flour
1 cup nuts, toasted and chopped (walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, or pecans)
1/3 cup dried cherries, chopped

Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a 9-inch square cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.

Melt the butter in a medium-size saucepan. Chop the chocolate and add it into the butter, stirring over low heat until melted. Remove from heat and stir in sugar and vanilla. Beat in eggs, one at a time.

Add the flour and stir energetically for 1 minute, until the batter loses its graininess and becomes smooth and glossy.

Stir in the chopped nuts and cherries. Scrape batter into prepared cake pan and bake 30 minutes. Cool completely before removing the brownies from the pan.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Cozy Comfort Food

As I am writing this, I am sitting at my desk with a pleasantly full belly, listening to the gentle pattering of rain falling against the window. Sorry if that was overly poetic for you, but I am basking in that dreamy haze one only experiences after a good, uncomplicated square meal. I’m not talking about the feeling one gets after eating something exotic or elegant. While these are notable experiences, tonight, I only want to talk about the simple pleasure of enjoying an ordinary home-cooked meal. Warm, creamy, and savory all describe the chicken I made for dinner.
Yes, I know, there is way too much food on that plate. It’s messy and unbalanced and I don’t care. It was awesome. I served the chicken I’m going to talk about with a creamy risotto of my own invention, and the incredible roasted broccoli Adam recently blogged about over at The Amateur Gourmet.

The chicken recipe comes from a Jamie Oliver cookbook. It is a chicken breast stuffed with sautéed mushrooms and garlic and parsley, wrapped in puff pastry, baked, and then finished off with a creamy Dijon-wine sauce. The tantalizing picture in the cookbook lead me to believe that this could be tricky and fussy for two reasons: first, I always seem to have trouble with stuffing chicken breasts—I always either don’t cut a big enough pocket in it, or I cut it in the wrong place, or I over-stuff it. Second, I was certain that the puff pastry would give me trouble even though I bought it in frozen sheets. I imagined it would somehow end up in a tangled, unsalvageable mess that I would inevitably throw across the kitchen in an angry fit. Not that that’s ever happened before … ahem.

ANYWAYS, as you’ve probably already discerned, none of these things happened and the recipe was a success. The garlicky mushroom filling added a welcome earthiness to the rich pastry and sauce. And also, wow, there are few things that smell better than sautéing mushrooms and garlic in a healthy chunk of butter.

Stuffing the breasts went off without a hitch. I think that actually having the right size of breast—nice, big 7 oz ones—made a world of difference. Obviously, trying to cram a bunch of stuffing into a tiny slit in a small piece of meat is just asking for trouble. Now, I can’t actually finish an entire 7 oz chicken breast on my own, but that’s what boyfriends are for!
Wrapping the breasts in puff pastry was quite easy as well. I used puff pastry sheets from Pepperidge Farms, and one sheet was the perfect amount for two breasts.

While the chicken was baking, I prepared my broccoli, risotto, and sauce. I managed to time it perfectly—usually, I always have something that takes too long, or something done way too soon, but this all came together quite well. And the chicken came out of the oven looking like heaven, ready for Andrew and me to curl up, dig in, and enjoy!

Superb Chicken
Adapted from Happy Days with the Naked Chef by Jamie Oliver, where it was titled My Old Man’s Superb Chicken
Serves 4

6 oz of mushrooms (I used white and cremini, but feel free to experiment with different varieties!)
1 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 hand-full chopped fresh parsley
4 7oz skinless boneless chicken breasts
1 1lb 2oz package of puff pastry sheets (2 sheets)
1 egg, beaten
2 tbsp. Dijon mustard (Jamie Oliver uses whole-grain)
1 cup dry white wine
½ cup cream
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400F

Chop the mushrooms, half rough, half fine. Heat butter and olive oil over medium heat, and add the garlic and mushrooms. Sautee slowly for about 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and stir in the parsley. Allow to cool.

Slice the chicken breasts lengthwise, going only about halfway through so that you create a pocket in each chicken breast. Stuff the pockets with the cooled mushroom mixture. Cut each of the pastry sheets in half lengthwise and wrap one half around each of the chicken breasts. Don’t worry about it being perfect—just do your best to cover as much of the chicken as possible. Brush the pastry with the beaten egg, and cook in the preheated oven for 35 minutes.

While the chicken cooks, heat the mustard and wine in a small saucepan. Simmer and reduce until you can no longer smell the alcohol—ten minutes or so, but use your nose. Stir in the cream and simmer until the sauce coats the back of a spoon. Remove from heat and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve one breast per person and drizzle with the sauce.

If you liked this post--or even if you didn't--please leave me a comment and let me know. I'd love to hear what you think!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Try the Duck

Lately, I’ve been trying to expand my repertoire of meats beyond beef, chicken, and pork. So, my latest venture into unknown foods isn’t all that exotic, but it’s certainly worth talking about: duck. Before trying it, I expected duck to be something like chicken. They are both birds, after all. But oh, how wrong I was. Duck is kind of in between a red and a white meat. A little like pork, but the best, most tender, most juicy pork you’ve ever had. It has a hint of gaminess, but tastes light enough, I think, to appeal to most palettes. Most recently, using a Cat Cora recipe, I made Balsamic-Glazed Duck Breast with Pear, Pearl Onion, and Mushroom Hash. Mmm … sorry, I go into a little dreamy just thinking about it.

Now, I should warn you, duck isn’t exactly the cheapest meat. In fact, the breasts I bought ran about $8/pound. Ouch, I know. Buying a whole duck is much less expensive, of course—around $4/pound from what I’ve seen. Seriously, though, splurge and do this for a treat. It’ll be worth it.
The recipe is fairly simple. The breasts are seasoned and seared in a skillet over high heat, then roasted in the oven. Halfway through, the breasts are glazed with the rendered fat and balsamic vinegar.
Another thing to note about the gloriousness of duck is the incredible flavor of the fat it renders. It is rich and golden and delicious and so good, you’ll just want to spread it on toast. This recipe makes brilliant use of the duck fat by sautéing the hash in it, so that everything is infused with that lovely duck flavor.
Then, while the meat is resting, the fat is separated from the pan juices, and the juices are put into a separate saucepan. The hash is sautéed in the duck fat using the same pan used to roast the duck.

To serve, the duck is sliced and arranged on the plates, then drizzled with the reserved pan juices. The hash is served alongside, and you have yourself an elegant, original, and, delicious meal. So, step outside the box, people, and try the duck.

Balsamic-Glazed Duck Breast with Pear, Pearl Onion, and Mushroom Hash
Adapted from Cooking From the Hip by Cat Cora
Serves 4

1 tbsp. plus 3 tsp. kosher salt
16 pearl onions
1 ½ lbs. Yukon Gold potatoes
3 lbs. duck breast (you want boneless, with skin)
2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup balsamic vinegar (C.C. uses fig balsamic vinegar, which I’m sure would be amazing, so use it if you can. I used regular, and it was still wonderful)
1 ½ cups quartered cremini mushrooms
1 firm, but ripe Bosc pear, peeled, cored, and cut into ¼-inch-thick slices
1 tbsp. chopped fresh sage, or 2 tsp. dry

Blanch onions by dripping them in boiling water for 5 to 8 minutes, just until the skin begins to come off. Scoop them out with a slotted spoon, then immediately transfer them into a bowl of ice water. (I used frozen, already peeled, pearl onions and followed the same procedure.) Bring the water used to blanch the onions back to a boil, and add the potatoes. Cook until almost tender, but still firm to the touch.

Meanwhile, drain the onions, and discard any remaining skins. Cut the onions in half, unless they are very small. Set them aside. When the potatoes are done, drain them and allow them to cool. Once they are cool enough to handle, peel them and slice into ¼-inch-thick disks. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 F

Gently score the skin of the duck (to help render the fat and makes the skin crisp during cooking). Season the breasts with salt and pepper. Pour olive oil into a large skillet with and ovenproof handle, and heat over high heat. Add the duck breast and immediately lower heat to medium. Sear for 2 to 3 minutes on each side. Arrange the breasts, skin side down, in the skillet and place in the oven.

After 10 minutes, glaze the breasts with the vinegar by pouring it over the breasts and basting them with the pan juices. Roast the duck for 5-10 minutes more, until an internal temperature of 170 F has been reached.

Remove skillet from oven, and transfer duck to a cutting board. Cover with tented foil, and let them rest. Carefully separate the fat from the pan juices and reserve. The fat is a deep golden color, and is oily compared to the pan juices. It will rest on top of the juices, so you’re skimming the fat from the top. Pour pan juices into a small saucepan and keep warm over very low heat.

Place skillet used for roasting the duck over medium-high heat and add a tablespoon or two of the reserved fat. When it is hot, add the mushrooms and sauté until golden brown, about 5 minutes. add a couple of teaspoons more fat, then add the pear, onions, potatoes, and sage, if using dried. Sauté for about 6 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender and beginning to brown the vegetables have caramelized. If using fresh sage, add it now, and season to taste with salt and pepper (about a teaspoon of each).

Arrange a portion of the hash on each plate, then slice the duck and fan the slices alongside it. (C. C. instructs to serve the duck over the hash, and drizzle the juices over everything, but I prefer the hash on its own, without being covered by the taste of the pan juices). Drizzle the duck with the pan juices and serve immediately.

If you liked this post--or even if you didn't--please leave me a comment and let me know. I'd love to hear what you think!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Most Awesome Fried Chicken

Seriously, this stuff is devilishly good. Devilish because, yes, it is horribly fattening, but sometimes, you just have to go there. It takes about two days to put together this dish, so you know what? At the end of that, you deserve a delicious, heart-stopping, artery-clogging plate of fried chicken. At least, that’s what I think.

Now, you’re probably wondering how fried chicken could take two days to make. Or maybe you’re not—maybe you can think of many possible explanations for why the process would take this long. Well, be that as it may, I’m still going to walk you through my experience of making this recipe, which, by the way, is from Thomas Keller, featured in this September’s Bon Appétit magazine. So, want to know the first secret to the success of this fabulous fried chicken? Brining. Yep, it’s as simple as that.

First, I brought my brine to a boil, a mixture of lots of water, lots of kosher salt, some honey, bay leaves, garlic, peppercorns, rosemary, thyme, parsley, and lemon juice.

It then had to sit and come to room temperature, then chill in the fridge for two hours. This set me back a total of five hours or so, but it was worth it!

Next, I added my chicken. Instead of using an entire chicken, as the recipe describes, I used five drumsticks, perfect to feed Andrew and me. Then I let the chicken brine for about 15 hours. After that, I coated it. The coating consists of a mixture of flour, garlic powder, paprika, cayenne pepper, black pepper, and salt, and buttermilk in a separate bowl. I started by dipping a piece of chicken in the flour mixture, and then shaking off the excess:
Then, I coated it completely in the buttermilk:
Finally, I dipped it back into the flour mixture, and got it good and thickly coated. No shaking off the excess this time—thick and clumpy is good.
I must warn you, dear readers, that this is a messy job. Behold my batter-covered fingers:
Now here’s another secret to the success of this fried chicken: don’t start frying yet! I let the chicken sit for an hour at room temperature so that the caked-on batter dries.

So, finally, after much time and energy, waiting and working, I was ready to turn my ordinary old chicken into FRIED CHICKEN! This is the fun/scary part of the process. I have only deep-fried a few times in my life, but it’s actually not as tricky as I thought it would be. All you need is a big pot, a deep-frying thermometer, and a big, kind of gross, amount of oil. Peanut oil is best (because of its high smoking point), but vegetable or canola oil work as well. I used half peanut and half canola, and it worked great. The deep-frying contraption is as simple as this:
I heated the oil to 320 F. To keep it between 320 and 330, it was important to keep a close eye on the thermometer—it can go over 330 quickly, so I was raising and lowering the heat throughout the process.

I used tongs to transfer the drumsticks into the oil and to move them around. They took about twelve minutes to cook through, turning once in the middle. I was looking for a nice deep golden brown on the outside. One of mine went a little over, veering more towards burnt, so they need close supervision. But would you look at this?
Is that gorgeous, or what? I served it with peas and homemade cornbread, and it was fantastic. Obviously, this is the kind of meal you have to plan ahead for. I know a lot of people find that a big pain, and I can certainly appreciate the advantages of being spontaneous. Personally, though, I often find that food tastes better when it’s something I’ve planned ahead, thought about, and worked on for a long time. When I tasted my fried chicken, the fruition of a project two days in the works (a long time to make supper!), I had such an appreciation for everything that went into making it. I could taste the elements of the carefully prepared brine, gently flavoring the chicken; I could feel the crunch of the buttermilk batter when I bit into my drumstick because I took the time to let it adhere to the meat properly. It all came together deliciously. So was it worth all the time and energy it took? Yes, absolutely. Andrew agrees:

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Joy of Sushi-Making

Guess what Andrew and I made for dinner last Saturday night? No, seriously, guess!

OK, are you done guessing? SUSHI! No joke! Oh, was that obvious? Did the title maybe give it away? Well, isn’t it amazing?

Seriously, though, if you haven’t made sushi before, you’re maybe as intimidated as I was by the thought of putting together this trendy dish all by yourself. However, if you have made sushi before, then you should know how fun and surprisingly simple it actually is. And this was a team effort. Andrew and I made sushi together, not because it was so complex and time-consuming that it had to be a two-person job, but because it is fun to do together. You could have a sushi-making party! Or a sushi-making family night, or a sushi-making date. Do you have a long lost sister, father, uncle, or cousin to reconnect with? Make sushi together. It’s a great icebreaker.

Now, how did we accomplish this daunting task? How did the complex and intimidating become the simple and fun? Allow me to address some of the concerns I previously had regarding making sushi at home:

Problem: Raw fish is dangerous—what if I get food poisoning?
Solution: Don’t use raw fish! Use cooked shrimp, scallops, crab, smoked salmon, etc., as well as tofu, vegetables, fruit, cheese, even chicken or beef.

Problem: I have no idea where to buy the more uncommon ingredients: the seaweed (nori), pickled ginger, wasabi, and sushi rice
Solution: Most supermarkets actually carry this stuff now, either in the Asian food section, or at the sushi-to-go stand, if your supermarket has one.

Problem: Rolling sushi is difficult.
Solution: No, it isn’t! It’s actually quite simple. Seriously.

Problem: My guests/boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse/kids/self is/are picky and would never eat sushi
Solution: Remember, sushi can encompass all kinds of foods. You can include and exclude whatever you want in your rolls. Pretty much the only thing you really have to like is rice, and you can make sushi that is vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, lactose-free, or fat-free … or not!

Um, am I missing any? Well, this should at least give you an idea of how doable this is.

You can be pretty flexible with ingredients. The essentials are: rice, rice vinegar, and nori. You’ll probably want some or all of the standard condiments: soy sauce, wasabi, and pickled ginger, and then, of course, your fillings.

I used:
-Bamboo shoots
-Mandarin Oranges
-Green pepper
-Blue cheese
-Cooked shrimp
-Cooked crabmeat
-Smoked salmon

And there are about a billion other options. Well, I don’t know if there are actually a billion—don’t quote me on that—but, you know, LOTS. Let your imagination run wild!

The rice is very simple to prepare: use regular white rice, and prepare it as you normally would. Once it’s cooked, transfer it into a large, non-metal bowl. Stir in about a tablespoon of rice vinegar per cooked cup of rice. Keep stirring it around until it reaches room temperature. As for how much rice you’ll need, keep all this in mind:

-Each roll requires approximately one cup of cooked rice
-Each roll makes about six pieces of sushi
-If sushi is the main dish of your meal, expect each person to eat anywhere between12 and 18 pieces of sushi

So, if you’re making for four people, you’ll probably need 60 to 70 pieces of sushi, or 10 to 12 rolls. That means you’ll need about 10 to 12 cups of rice. That might seem like a lot, but what can I say? Rice is essential in sushi.

Once your rice is about room temperature, you can start rolling. This is the fun part! Yes, it’s even more fun than cooking rice. Here’s me, getting ready to go:

The pros use bamboo mats to roll, and they aren’t too expensive or hard to find—they’re often sold at supermarkets in the same place as the other sushi stuff. You can also get them at most kitchenware stores. They aren’t essential, though (we didn’t use them). A sheet of heavy-duty foil will do the trick as well. Place a sheet of plastic wrap on your bamboo mat or foil, and then place one sheet of nori shiny-side down on the plastic. Now, wet your fingers, and start pressing down about a cup or rice on your nori. You’ll want to leave a space of about ¾ of an inch at the top and bottom of the sheet, and then the rest should be covered in a ½ inch thick layer of rice.

Now, add your fillings. You can get really creative here—try out any combination of fillings that tickles your fancy. Just be careful not to over-pack your roll. Here are a few we tried:

-Avocado, carrot, and crab
-Cucumber, shrimp, orange
-Bamboo shoots, avocado, smoked salmon
-Green pepper, procuttio, scallion
-Procuttio, pear, and blue cheese (I got this idea from Cat Cora’s Cooking From the Hip)

Just lay them out in a narrow row along the edge of the square closest to you. Then, begin rolling the mat away from you, using the mat and plastic to keep your roll neat and tight—just don’t roll them up in the sushi. Now, I realize this might have been the ideal spot to stick a demonstrative photo (or, better yet, video), but in my great excitement to be making sushi, I forgot to take a picture. Sorry, folks!

Once your roll is done, slice it into one-inch thick pieces, just like Andrew:

Need a closer look? Check it out:

One thing that we neglected to do, that I recommend you guys try is to keep track of what’s in which roll. It might seem obvious while you’re in the process, but it’s easy to get confused once they’re all rolled up. You pretty much can’t go wrong, though: most every combination of fillings will taste good.

Here are a few of our finished products:

The photo quality might suck, but the sushi quality was quite good, if I do say so myself!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Sausage Lasagna

I haven’t cooked lasagna very many times, but it’s one of those great Italian dishes that allows for a lot of play. I tend to get screwed up with the order of the layering, which actually really doesn’t even matter that much. As long as you’ve got layers of saucy-goodness, ricotta-yumminess, cheesy-gooeyness, and noodle-um … noodleyness(?), you’re good to go. I always use oven-ready noodles (because I’m a big cheater), so the only important thing to remember with that is that your noodle layers have to be immersed in liquid (sauce) so that they cook properly.

Now, I believe that the key to a good lasagna is all in the sauce. It oozes into every layer, and gets cooked into the pasta, so it’s going to be the most over-powering element in your lasagna.

I started with some bulk Italian sausage meat and browned it up well. I used mild, but if you’re a spicy kind of gal or dude, by all means, go for the hot stuff! Break up the meat while it cooks—you don’t want big chunks—and make sure there’s no pink left:

I also tossed in just a touch of allspice. I almost always do this when I’m cooking with ground beef—I love that tiny hint of spice it gives. It works with sausage too. Once that’s done, use a slotted spoon to transfer that to a separate bowl. Add a little vegetable oil to the leftover juices in the pot, and then throw in lots of sliced mushrooms, some diced onion, shallot, and tons of minced garlic, then season with some salt and pepper. I sautéed this stuff until the onion and mushrooms just began to brown—don’t caramelize them. These are just about there:
Next, deglaze with some red wine, and let the wine simmer and reduce a couple of minutes. Now, we can get the sauce going! I love making sauces—can’t you tell? I love the whole process of simmering and tasting and seasoning until it’s just right.

Once the wine has cooked down a little, I threw in some jarred marinara sauce (it’s really important to use one that you like, but also, the more basic, the better, because it allows for you to season it the way you like), tomato sauce, dried oregano, basil, thyme, sugar, salt, and pepper. Mix it well, then stir the sausage back in. I let the sauce simmer for about thirty minutes or so, but that’s something you can really be loose about. The longer it simmers, the more the flavors intensify, so it’s really up to you. I would say it needs a minimum of about twenty minutes or so. Don’t forget to taste it along the way, and adjust the seasoning as needed. This is something I’m really working on doing well—it’s a great way to develop your palette. I really try to pick out precisely what flavors are working well in the sauce, and what I need more of. Or, possibly less of: you can’t exactly take stuff out of the sauce, but you can compensate to balance out the tastes. If it’s too spicy, a little sugar will even that out; if it’s too salty, more tomato sauce, or even a little water should do the trick.

Mmmm, looks good, doesn’t it?
The rest is really a cinch. I mixed my ricotta cheese with a beaten egg and some spinach. The spinach is something my Mom always does, and that I love. I use the frozen stuff—just thaw it in the microwave and mix it into the ricotta. You can really taste the spinach in the final product (though it’s not at all overpowering), not to mention that it’s hella-good for you. In fact, it’s a great way to get yourself to eat spinach if you normally don’t like it.

For the cheese, I used a mixture of mostly mozzarella, and some cheddar and Parmesan. Just grate it up, and mix it together!

Now, for our layering. This isn’t rocket science, people. Just remember to get a good layer of sauce on or under your pasta layers if you’re using the oven-ready noodles. I started with a layer of sauce:
Noodles (don’t forget to leave a little space for them to expand):
Then more sauce, then cheese:
Now, another layer of pasta, and then ricotta, sauce, cheese, pasta, sauce, cheese. Like I said, it won’t be the end of the world if you mix up some of the layers. Cheese on top is key, though. Lots and lots and lots of cheese.

You can kind of see the layering here:
Now, cover it and pop it in the oven and wait for your lasagna-licious meal to be complete!

Check out mine, fresh out of the oven:
Is your mouth watering? Mine is. Man, I can make some good food. Hey, I can’t help it if I make my own mouth water—it’s an involuntary physical reaction.

Now, go make a lasagna and make your own mouth water!

Sausage Lasagna
Makes one small (8x8x2) lasagna

1.5 lbs. bulk Italian sausage
Pinch of allspice
Approx 1 tbsp. vegetable oil
½ lb. mushrooms, sliced
1 medium onion, chopped
1 shallot, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper
1/3 cup dry red wine
1 ½ cups good jarred Marinara sauce
1 cup tomato sauce
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. each dried basil, oregano, thyme

Brown sausage meat in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in the allspice, and continue to cook until no longer pink.

Remove sausage meat from the pan with a slotted spoon and transfer to a separate dish. Add enough vegetable oil to the sausage drippings to equal about 2 tablespoons, and reduce heat to medium. Add the mushrooms, onion, shallot, and garlic to the pan and season with salt and pepper. Sautee until onions just begin to brown, then deglaze pan with red wine and allow to simmer 1-2 minutes.

Add the remainder of the ingredients, salt and pepper, and the sausage. Stir to combine. Bring up to a boil, then reduce to a gentle simmer. Continue to simmer uncovered for at least twenty minutes, tasting and adjusting seasoning occasionally.

Ricotta mixture:
1 ½ cups ricotta cheese
1 egg, beaten
1 box frozen spinach, thawed

Combine all the ingredients.

Sausage sauce
Ricotta mixture
Approx 2 cups grated cheese, either all mozzarella, or a mixture
of mozzarella, cheddar, and Parmesan (mostly mozzarella)
6-8 oven-ready lasagna noodles

Preheat oven to 350 F

In an 8x8x2-inch baking pan, spread about ½-¾ cup of the sausage sauce—just enough to cover the bottom of the pan in a thick layer. Place two lasagna noodles over the sauce, leaving a bit of space at the sides to allow the noodles to expand. Spread about ½ cup of ricotta mixture evenly over the pasta. Cover the ricotta with a thick layer of sauce, being sure to cover the pasta completely. Sprinkle with about ¾ cup of grated cheese.

Then, another layer of lasagna noodles, then ricotta, sauce, cheese, noodles, sauce, cheese (lots and lots of cheesy goodness).

Cover with foil, and bake in the preheated oven 30 minutes. Remove the foil, and bake 10 to 15 minutes more, until the cheese is hot and bubbly. Let stand about 5 minutes before cutting.

Eat lots and lots of yummy sausage lasagna.

Friday, November 7, 2008


Hi, my name is Jessica, and I have a confession to make. Actually, I have a few …

I have never flambéed.

I often substitute bouillon cubes in the place of real stock.

I’m always apprehensive about cooking anything without a recipe.

Until recently, I had no idea what sabayon was. And I only know now because I looked it up on Wikipedia.

I have never dined at a five-star restaurant. In fact, I’m not entirely sure whether or not I have, and doesn’t that make it even worse?

If you asked me now, I couldn’t name a single famous chef who doesn’t have a show on the Food Network.

But these things are also true:

The aromas of sautéing onions, roasting meat, and simmering sauces make me swoon.

I get excited to go grocery shopping.

I try a different recipe nearly every night, and the ones I return to are often the ones I failed at the first time, because I am determined to get it right.

If there is a warning at the top of a recipe that it is difficult, I want to try it even more.

I never think of cooking as work. In fact, cooking dinner is usually the highlight of my day.

When traveling, trying the local food is often more important to me than seeing the famous sights of the place.

I love cooking.

I love food.

My thirst for food knowledge is something that excites and inspires me, and, consequently, is something I want to talk about … all the time. And while my boyfriend Andrew is kind enough to indulge me and listen to my tales of how I got that particular flavor in the ragu, or why I’m going to use more flour in the gravy the next time I make it, I know I would be trying his patience if I went on about this stuff for as long as I want to. And no matter how great one person’s opinion is, it’s always better to get a few more. By keeping all this in mind, the solution for finding more people to discuss my passion for food with has become clear to me: start a food blog. I like writing. I like writing about things that I love. I love food. It’s pretty much a no-brainer.

So follow me on my adventures learning about the wonderful world of food, both exotic and familiar, both complex and simple. If you’re an amateur like myself, maybe you can learn along with me. If you’re a seasoned expert, perhaps, at the very least, you will be entertained. Either way, just don't forget to bring your appetite.