Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Lasagna and Lessons Learned

Maybe the fact that the Vegetarian Lasagna recipe in Joy of Cooking calls for 6 pounds of eggplant and zucchini would phase some cooks. Not me. I didn't even bat an eye when I wrote 'eggplant (3 pounds) and zucchini (3 pounds)' on my grocery list. "Why?", you ask. Because I am devoted recipe-follower.

There are several reasons for this. First, I am my mother's daughter.

The second reason, and one I have only realized recently, has to do with this stage in my culinary life. Right now, I am learning how to cook. I am learning about techniques (Oh my, I love to chiffonade). I am learning about ingredients (What, you can make your own creme fraiche?). And I am learning about flavor combinations (Wait, peaches and tomatoes?). At the end of the day, I don't think I can become a better cook without understanding these basics of cooking. Before getting crazy and grating nutmeg all over everything, I should know why you use nutmeg, what recipes traditionally call for it, and what other ingredients it compliments. And one terrific way to learn is by following recipes from other cooks who have the experience and knowledge that I don't yet have.

Third, I like keeping track of what works and doesn't work, so one day I can have 'classic recipes'. You know, those tried and true recipes that you just own. If you follow a recipe once and you don't like it, you can keep track of what you didn't like and adjust it the next go round. I find when I just wing it, whether it works out well or horribly, it is incredibly difficult to repeat.

So, back to the lasagna that calls for 6 pounds of veggies... Well 6 1/2 pounds if you count the extra mushrooms I threw in. Apparently, 6 1/2 pounds of veggies may be a tad too much. In fact, there were so many veggies in this lasagna, I couldn't even fit in the last layer of pasta. But, this is good to know, next time I make veggie lasagna maybe I will shoot for 3-4 pounds of veggies. Consider my Joy of Cooking so annotated. See, isn't following recipes fun?!

Here's the making of it. I mostly followed the Joy of Cooking recipe, although I did take advice from a friend on the layering part. (She suggests that having veggies on the bottom provides more stability to the whole lasagna.)

First for the veggies. Did I mention there were 6 1/2 pounds of them?
I chopped them up.

Then it was time to roast them. I started to pile them onto my baking sheets. Only to quickly realize that if I wanted them to be in a single layer (which is a must for roasting), two sheets was definitely not enough.
Look at all that was left over.
So, in order to follow the recipe, I had to do two rounds of roasting,
and sauteed the mushrooms.
This ended up tacking on quite a bit of time. So lesson learned: when living somewhere without two ovens, only include the amount of veggies that will fit on two baking sheets. My guess is around 3-4 pounds.

While the veggies threatened to take everything over, I made the ricotta mixture. Have you met my cheese grater? This is the OXO Good Grips cheese grater. This is the best cheese grater ever. Because, you see that little box on the bottom? You perch your grater on top of that box, and it measures and catches your cheese as you grate it. Once you are done, remove the box, and you can either use the grated cheese, or pop the lid on the box and put it in the frig. Seriously, I love this tool.
For the ricotta mixture: ricotta, eggs, parmesan, salt, pepper, and nutmeg(!). See, if you read up on nutmeg, you learn that it loves things like ricotta mixtures.

Once I boiled my pasta, I got my assembly line ready.
Veggies, sauce, mozzarella, noodles, ricotta, repeat.

So, veggies.
Sauce. I always have the problem of under-saucing, and even this time, I used almost twice as much as Joy of Cooking called for and it still wasn't quite enough.
Mozza... oh wait, I misread the directions and did ricotta. Not dire, by any means, but it did get a little pink.
The mozzarella that was supposed to be ricotta.
And I repeated it until I got to what was supposed to be the final pasta layer. Much to my recipe-following chagrin, there was absolutely no room left for those last three noodles.
6 1/2 pounds of veggies will apparently do that to you. Then again, I did use a layering technique not in the Joy of Cooking, so perhaps I oughtn't blame the recipe.
So, I finished it off with some cheese, prayed that I wouldn't drop it, and popped/lugged it in the oven. 30 minutes covered with foil, 20 minutes without the foil. And, voila:
Come on, now. Look at that goodness.
Some lasagna, some salad (arugula with pear and gorgonzola), and an Italian red-blend: who wouldn't want this for dinner?
Garnished with some fresh basil, my 6-1/2-pounds-of-vegetables-lasagna was fantastic.
The many lessons learned:
-6 1/2 pounds of veggies is too much for a 13x9x2 pan. Include only as many vegetables as can be roasted on 2 baking sheets (about 3-4 pounds)
-if you do use 6 1/2 pounds of vegetables and you want all the layers of pasta in, try with the pasta on the bottom
-even if you can't include that last layer of pasta, this lasagna is delicious
-assembly lines for lasagna are brilliant
-you don't have to feel bound to eggplant and zucchini, you could use almost any vegetable that you wanted as long as it roasts well: peppers, summer squash, onions...
-if you want a sauce-y lasagna, don't follow normal directions; they call for very little sauce. For this lasagna, two 24-oz jars of marinara would have been ideal. Maybe a little less if you are doing fewer veggies
-when you cover your lasagna with tin foil, it helps to spray one side with Pam. This way, the melted cheese won't stick to the foil.

Roasted Vegetable Lasagna
(adapted from Joy of Cooking)
Eggplants (about 3 pounds), cut into 1/2 inch slices (I used Chinese eggplants, but if you use a globe eggplant, quarter it length-wise) (I would go with 1 1/2 pounds)
6 medium zucchini (about 3 pounds), cut in 1/2 inch slices (again, I would go with 1 1/2 pounds)
8 oz cremini mushrooms, sliced
4 cups shredded mozzarella
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 24 oz jars of marinara
15 oz ricotta
2 eggs
1/2 cup olive oil
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly grated black pepper
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg (or to taste)
1 pounds dry lasagna

Preheat the oven to 450. Grease a 13x9 pan. Toss the vegetables with 1/2 cup olive oil, 1 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp black pepper. Divide the vegetables between several baking sheets, spreading them in a single layer. Roast for 15 minutes. Toss the vegetables and continue to roast until well browned and soft, 15-2o minutes more. Transfer the vegetables to a large bowl.

Reduce the oven temperature to 375. Cook pasta in a large pot of salted, boiling water, stirring occasionally for 6-7 minutes, until barely tender. Drain the past and run cold water over it. Separate and blot it dry.

In a medium bowl, stir together the ricotta, eggs, 1/2 cup grated Parmesan, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp black pepper, and nutmeg.

Get all your lasagna components in a row. Spread a thin layer of sauce over the bottom of the prepared pan. Cover with a layer of pasta, slightly overlapping. Spread with one-third of the ricotta mixture. Sprinkle one-quarter of the mozzarella and grated Parmesan over the ricotta. Spoon one-third of the roasted vegetables on top and then add 1/2 cup of sauce (I added almost 1 cup). Add another layer of pasta and continue layering the lasagna until you have 4 layers of pasta and 3 layers of filling. Spread the remaining sauce on top and sprinkle with the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan. [see below for alternative layering technique]. Dot with butter (optional).

Spray aluminum foil with Pam , cover the pan with the foil (Pam side down), and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and continue to bake until golden and bubbly, 15-20 minutes. Let stand 15 minutes before serving. Garnish with basil or parsley.

Alternative layering technique: 1/3 of the veggies, about 1 cup of sauce, 1/4 of the mozzarella and Parmesan, pasta, 1/3 of the ricotta, 1/3 of the veggies, about 1 cup of sauce, 1/4 mozzarella and Parmesan, pasta, 1/3 of the ricotta, 1/3 of the veggies, about 1 cup of sauce, 1/4 of the mozzarella and Parmesan, pasta, sauce, 1/4 of the mozzarella and Parmesan. (Note: I did not get this last layer of pasta in).

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Beet Bread, the quick kind

Beets are awesome: shredded raw or roasted and warm, I rarely have them around for long enough to do anything with them other than just eating them straight up.  Luckily, I've been busy and not cooking much, so when i got to them this week, my beets were tired, shriveled, and soft. So I decided I would bake with them!

Here's my thought process: zucchini bread is delicious. So why wouldn't beet bread be equally delicious?

I scoured the interweb for some beet quickbread recipes, but to my surprise, could not find any.  So I took a zucchini bread recipe from epicurious and ran with it. I still can't get over how beautifully color-saturated the batter was, and how all that color dissipated after being cooked. But nonetheless, the bread was delicious! (pictured above with a basic cream cheese-lemon spread, the slightest bit sweetened).

Adapted from Epicurious.com's Sweet Potato and Zucchini Bread:

  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cups sugar (1.5 would have been better)
  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3 cups grated beets (raw) 
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts, toasted

Preheat oven to 350.
Mix together all the dry ingredients (flour through salt) in medium bowl; mix together all the wet ingredients (sugar through vanilla) in a large bowl, then add the beets, then the dry ingredients and then the walnuts.
I cooked them in mini loaves, so it only took 40 minutes. If you're making a big loaf, count up to 80 minutes of bake time (or until a toothpick comes out clean).

As noted in the recipe, next time I'll use a bit more sugar (I cut the amount in 1/2 from the recipe I was following) and I think I might try using zucchini along with the beets because i think it would be pretty... And i have to play around with the spices a bit more... any recommendations are welcome!

Monday, September 21, 2009

A recipe you can burn: Roasted Bell Peppers

It turns out I love recipes that ask you to burn things. (Well, technically 'char', but whatever). Let's be honest, baking is an ordeal. You want to pull those cookies out just before they are done so they can finish on the sheet, but then they don't look done, so you put them back in the oven for a minute, and pull them out again, and... the cookies are overdone. And these are just cookies! Don't get me started on cake.

So, the fact that this recipe for roasted peppers asks you to burn, okay 'char', the peppers delights me to no end.

Also delightful about this: at the end of it, you have roasted peppers. So many possibilities for these gems. One of my favorites: on pizza. Emmanuelle and I actually made these peppers for a pizza topping in January.
Another marvelous use: as bruschetta. While people may be accustomed to regular tomato bruschetta, wait til they have this. And with tomato season waning, a non-tomato bruschetta alternative is most welcome. See below for the recipe.

More uses: in a sandwich, on a salad, pureed in a soup, as a soup garnish, over any sort of meat, in pasta, as a snack by themselves. This go round, I made 5 peppers so I could have enough to freeze. We'll see if they make it that long.

The recipe, while a little bit time consuming, is very easy. And, I think, worth it. These are so much better than jarred peppers you buy in the store.

First, lay your peppers on a baking sheet. How pretty are these?
Put them in the oven until they are burnt.
Take them out of the oven, put them in a bowl, and cover the bowl with foil. You let that sit for 30 minutes.
See that steam? It loosens the skin on the peppers and allows you to peel it right off. Trust me, you don't want to rush this part. If you do, not only are the skins awfully difficult to get off, you'll burn your fingers. It hurts.

Now, they are ready to go.

So, peel them.
Seed them.
A trash bowl is excellent in circumstances such as these.
(I actually rarely cook anything without a trash bowl. Just put a bowl next to your cooking area and throw all your seeds, peels, egg shells, et cetera in it. Try it; you will never go back.)

This is what the pepper will look like when it is peeled and seeded.
Cut them into strips. This is fun.
Toss them with olive oil, salt, and pepper. If you want, and I highly recommend it, give the peppers a splash of balsamic. Seriously, I am fairly certain roasted peppers are in love with balsamic. The flavor combination is fantastic and the acid cuts everything really nicely.
Now, you have a pile of gorgeous peppers on your hands to use as you will.

Basic Roasted Peppers (adapted from Ina Garten)
1-5 bell peppers, preferably orange and red (the yellow ones tend to burn quicker)

Preheat the oven to 500. Place peppers on sheet (do not overlap). Bake 30-40 minutes, turning twice until completely charred and skins are loose. Remove from pan into a bowl. Cover with aluminum foil for 30 minutes. Seed, peel, and cut into strips.

Toss them with extra virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper. If you want (and why wouldn't you?), given them a splash of balsamic vinegar. Or add some variation of the mix found in the following bruschetta recipe.

Roasted Pepper Bruschetta (adapted from Ina Garten)
4 roasted bell peppers
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 Tablespoon balsamic
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 Tablespoons capers (optional)
Julienned basil (optional)

For the crostini:
Thin slices (1/4-1/3 inch) of baguette, ciabatta, or other rustic bread
Extra virgin olive oil
Garlic cloves, halved (optional)

After peppers have been seeded, peeled, and cut into stripss, add the remaining ingredients. Refrigerate for a few hours before serving.

For the crostini, preheat the oven to 375. Arrange your slices of bread on a baking sheet, don't overlap. Drizzle olive oil over the bread. Toast in the oven about 7-8 minutes, until the bread is slightly golden. Remove and, if you want, rub each slice 3 or 4 times with a garlic clove. The heat from the bread will cause the garlic clove to melt and cover the bread with its delicious oil. These can be made a day ahead and stored in an air tight container.

This bruschetta is fabulous plain, but if you want to jazz it up, try serving it with some gorgonzola or goat cheese.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Box-of-garden-vegetables, Round Two: Ratatouille

There is nothing quite like hearing a knock on your door, opening the door, and finding a box full of vegetables on your doorstep. You want to know why? Because this garden...

...gets packed in a box in the garden and sent to me.
(for more pictures of the garden, look at the end of this post)

This is the second box of vegetables my father has sent me. It doesn't get much better than this. He packs the box in the garden, drops it off at the post-office, and a few days later I have fresh corn, peppers, squash, zucchini, eggplant, okra, onions, shallot, cucumber, and radishes.

With the box in hand, my mind started racing through recipes and my fingers started thumbing through the 'vegetable' section of my Joy of Cooking. I settled on a recipe for Ratataouille Provencal.

This hearty, stew-like dish is packed with flavor. First, you have all the wonderful veggies: eggplant, squash/zucchini, peppers, onions, garlic, and tomatoes. Then you have some wonderful herbs: thyme, bay leaf, and basil. This dish could easily have turned into a disaster of mush-y, indistinguishable vegetable-like pieces. Fortunately, this recipe made it possible for the vegetables to marry together, and yet retain their individual flavors and shapes. What a perfect way to showcase these lovely, fresh Matherne-garden vegetables.

The prep:
Get the veggies out. And revel in how beautiful the are.
I started with the eggplant and squash. And, yes, I used a scale to weigh 1 pound of each and a ruler to cut 1-inch chunks. Here's the Japanese eggplant, slender and more tender than regular globe eggplant.

And the squash. I threw in a little zucchini for good measure.
Next, these lovely peppers. This time, I went ruler-free.

Then the onions. If they are sent to you from the garden, be sure to clean them well.

Mince up the garlic.

Gather your basil.

And you are ready to start cooking. Get some oil heating in your Dutch oven.

You start with the eggplant and the squash. You use high heat at this point, because you want to get a golden crust on the eggplant and squash, without overcooking them. They start like this:
And, once they are golden like this:
... remove them to a plate.

Reduce the heat to medium-high, add a bit more oil, and toss in your onions.

Once they are softened, add the peppers and garlic.
Let those cook until just tender.

Then for the tomatoes. I decided to drain a can instead of peeling my own.

Now, you add in the tomatoes, thyme, and bay leaf.

Cover and let that marry for about 5 minutes. Then add the eggplant and squash back in.

Cover that and let that marry for another 20 minutes or so. The timing is important on this because you don't want the vegetables to turn to mush. You want everything to still have body and be distinct. Remove the lid and throw in a handful of chopped basil.

Spoon that into your serving bowl. Garnish with some basil and a little grated parmesan.

Serve that with a side of corn on the cobb, and you have one fantastic way to use vegetables that were delivered by the mailman.

Ratataouille Provencal (adapted from Joy of Cooking)
1/4 c, plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium eggplant (about 1 pound), peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 pound zucchini (or squash), cut into 1-inch chunks
1 1/2 cups sliced onions
2 large bell peppers, cut into 1-inch squares
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups peeled, seeded, chopped fresh tomatoes or one 14-oz can diced tomatoes, drained
2 to 3 sprigs of fresh thyme or 1/2 tsp dried thyme
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper
1/4 cup chopped basil

Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven over high heat. Add eggplant and squash. Cook, stirring until golden and just tender, about 10-12 minutes. Remove the vegetables to a plate and reduce the heat to medium-high. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and onions. Cook until the onions are slightly softened. Add bell peppers and garlic cloves. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the peppers are just tender but not browned, about 8 to 12 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add tomatoes, thyme, and the bay leaf. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook for 5 minutes. Add the eggplant and zucchini and cook until everything is tender, about 20 minutes more. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Stir in basil.

Serve garnished with basil and parmesan cheese.

Use this Ratatouille as a side dish, over meat, on a hummus sandwich, or on a salad.

More pictures of the garden and its delights:
Japanese eggplants,


zucchinis, cucumbers,
and rows of corn...