Thursday, March 24, 2011


Although I learned to make lasagna from the Queen of the Best Lasagna on Planet Earth (and you know who you are, Francie) I certainly do not claim to be a pretender to that throne. I've made lasagna for hundreds of people, literally, I mean hundreds, I'm not just exaggerating for effect, and it still never turns out quite the same way twice. But, therein is what I love about this recipe: it's infinitely adaptable and can be complex or simple according to what you have in the pantry or what you're in the mood for, including how much time you want to spend on prep. For starters, you can use a good flavored ready-made sauce if you have a favorite (mine is probably Prego Traditional, doctored up with a little sugar, garlic, and extra oregano). Or you can make your own sauce in about 30 minutes, easy and delicious, just takes a little longer. Use meat or don't. You can substitute the meat layers with sliced zucchini and yellow squashes, thin strips of red bell peppers and onions, mushroom slices or whatever the garden yields. So, if you're making sauce, and you really should go for it at least once to see what a difference it makes, start by pulverizing a big onion in the food processor. Really mulch it down so the pieces will disappear into the sauce.Saute that in a 1-2 tbs olive oil, just enough to cover the bottom of a deep heavy pot.

Add a tablespoon of Italian Seasoning and 2-3 tablespoons of sugar to the onions and stir just a few minutes. The sugar will melt and the herbs will really flavor-intensify with a little heat. Crush a few garlic cloves and add for about one minute only so they don't begin to brown and become bitter.

Now add the tomato products. We're not cooking down raw tomatoes. I'm just not that dedicated. The combination of tomato sauce, puree, and paste creates the perfect flavor and consistency. I like Muir Glen Organic but couldn't find that brand in Paste. Hunt's or Red Gold are both suitable. Be sure to add one can of water also.
Whisk the water through to loosen up all that thick paste and blend the seasonings in well. Lower the heat as far down as you can get it. It will splatter everywhere as it slowly bubbles if you don't add the lid, but leave it ajar for steam to escape so the sauce can cook down some and concentrate those flavors.
While this is bubbling along there are lasagna chores to be done. Set the oven to 350 now. Stir the sauce from time to time, scraping that extra special part bubbling around the edges so that it rejoins the rest. Start browning a pound of ground beef or ground Italian sausage (if you'd like more spice) and let's talk about cheese.

Lasagna Cheese Mixture

For the filling, think 3-4 cheeses. At least one needs to be fairly creamy, like ricotta or even cottage cheese, as the base. Use the most of this one - two cups. A second creamy cheese like, oh, Cream Cheese, isn't bad, or you can go all out with some fancy stuff, like this Boursin, which I couldn't resist because I was thinking about all the extra flavor from the herbs in it. Finally, always add at least 1/2 cup of Parmesan and maybe an additional grated strong cheese. This time I'm using a blend or Parm, Asiago, and Romano.
This blend turned out fairly thick, even though I didn't use all of the grated cheese. A few tablespoons of sour cream will make it better and smoother. Salt and Pepper it and give it a taste to see how good it is.

When the sauce has been bubbling for about 30 minutes it should be darker and richer looking and tasting good enough to eat straight from the pot without another thing. If you can give it a whole hour it will be even better. Otherwise, we're ready to start layering up one fabbo dish.  Ladle just enough sauce into the meat to wet it down, then add 1 cup of water (this is for the pasta) and add a handful of Romano if you want to really take it the next level.

Add that handful of Romano too!

Spray a 9 x 13 dish really well and ladle on the plain sauce to cover the bottom of the pan. If you can't find the Barilla noodles it is OK to use another brand. Barilla is the best because they're thin and flat. Other noodles make for too much thick pasta and not enough filling. Either way, you don't need to boil any of them first. They'll soak up all that water you've been adding to sauce and meat.  So, the layering order is: plain sauce, pasta, half the meat sauce, pasta, cheese mixture, pasta, more meat, pasta, then plain sauce. Nine layers, that's right, your friends will taste this and a close their eyes involuntarily with delight.

When layering the pasta you can just snap it apart to get the right size to fill the pan completely.
After the meat sauce more pasta and then add all the cheese. It's easiest to drop it on in big blobs and just sort of push it around the pan with the back of the spoon. Don't raise the spoon! You'll end up ruining your pasta layer.

Now more pasta and a second meat layer on top of that.
Almost there! Before you top the second round of meat sauce with pasta, throw on several big handfuls of Romano or mozzarella . The last topping is plain sauce. UNLESS you'd like a creamy finish and some totally unnecessary fat that just makes this extra delicious. To this end,  I sometime like to mix 1/2 cup or so of heavy cream into 2 cups or so of the red sauce for this last layer. You should still have more red sauce left over and I use that to ladle over the cut pieces of Lasagna just before serving.

I made this in a 9x13 metal pan that is deeper than most glass 9x13's and it is very full. Use the deepest one you have or you may have to skip the second layer of meat sauce. Before baking this I top it with a layer of parchment or wax paper and then a layer of aluminum foil. NO aluminum foil directly on that tomato sauce or you will have a disgusting tasting reaction going on! Bake 30 minutes at 350 covered like this and then another 30 or so uncovered. Top it with more mozzarella when you remove the covering at the half way mark.
Now, since you'll want some garlic bread to go with this, let's go for the ultimate garlic-y accompaniment.
Throw in one of these to cook alongside your lasagna-licious dish:

Roasted Garlic

Slice a bit of the top off a full head of garlic and dribble a little olive oil over it, close the foil up loosely around it and seal the top. When it has roasted those garlic cloves will squeeze right out creamy and rich and a little sweeter than they started out. Perfect spread for the crusty Italian bread. This stuff is so good I often keep a roasted head in the fridge to use instead of raw garlic in all sorts of dishes.


1 Large Onion
2 Heads of Garlic
2-3 T Italian Seasoning
Olive Oil
2-3 T Sugar
29 oz can Tomato Sauce
29 oz can Tomato Puree
18 oz can Tomato Paste
16 oz Ricotta Cheese
2-3 oz sour cream or whipped cream cheese
6-8 oz Parmesan
8-16 oz Romano
8-16 oz mozzarella
2 Boxes Barilla Lasagne sheets/noodles
1 lb ground beef or Italian bulk sausage (optl)
Variety of veg if not using meat (zucchini, yellow squash, red bell pepper, onions, carrots, mushrooms)
1/2 pint heavy cream (also optl)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Baked Chicken Julia Style

If you're like me, you're about to discover that once you've followed Julia's lead in how to put the most flavor in baked chicken and vegetables, you'll be using the same secret to make every roast, soup, stew, or baked whatever-it-is taste oh, so so good. And yes I'm on a first name basis with her, now that she's gone and can't refute that. After the movie Julie and Julia I was on Amazon buying THE cookbook before the clock struck midnight. The minute it arrived I flipped straight to page #315 and started on the famous Beef Bourguignon, intent on cooking my way through the whole book. Four recipes later I moved on to a completely new and much more interesting project I can't remember at all right now.

So, here we go! Oven to 325. Oil to cover the bottom of a Dutch oven lightly. Heat it up to med-hi and let's start with some chicken breast that is still in possession of its skin and bones - remember, we're going for great flavor here. Dry it well (first secret of getting a crispy brown). Turn it over and up on its edges to get plenty of browning all around.
This will just take 5 minutes or so and while they're cooking you can peel and cut up 2 or 3 big carrots to go in next. Why are my carrots so orangey-gorgeous you're wondering? They're organic and it makes all the difference. There are certain organic products that really are worth the price and one is carrots - sweeter, bigger, more flavorful. Ok, chicken to a plate and in go the carrots. Make sure they're dry! (In case you're one of those people who wash a completely clean peeled vegetable.) Now start on the potatoes - 4 Yukon Golds, peel and cut into sixths or eighths longways.
These are done enough. You want to flip them over and get just a touch of brown here and there and that will do. That's right, we're browning every vegetable that is going into this dish, separately, uncrowded, and unhurried. And that is the Julia secret. It will take no more than  20 minutes or so to do them all and everything else happens inside the oven while you mostly ignore it. If anything starts to stick add a bit more oil.

Look at those beautiful brown potatoes. When they come out of the oven later they will be absolutely creamy inside. If I sound like Giada who describes everything as creamy it's just because that's the truth about these potatoes, but also..creamy... really makes you want a bite right now, doesn't it? Oh, am I on a first name basis with her too? Can't say. She's still among the living. Alright, back to business here - you should be slicing up a huge onion while these potatoes are working.
There's a reason I save the onions for last. They give up a lot of moisture and change the character of that nice little oily film on the bottom of the pan and will help you in scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan that are full of flavor. Stir the onions 2 or 3 times as they brown and when they look like this, browned but not carmelized, add a splash of white wine. Anything good enough to drink. You could also use a little chicken stock or even water, but if you forgo the wine you'll miss the ingredient that unlocks extra flavor in all the other ingredients - something broth and water cannot do. At this point, it's time to cut the heat and settle the chicken in on top of the onions and wedge everything else in around it. Smash a couple of garlic cloves and push them in underneath, too. 

Yes, it's my funny garlic "rock" but you can get a nice smooth stone of your choice and run it through the dishwasher for the same purpose. I don't much like the idea of whacking my hand against the flat blade of a knife as is so popular for garlic attacks these days. Having a rock in the kitchen is much more to my liking.

Here it is, dotted up with some butter, and prodigiously salt-and-peppered. Lay that pepper on; southern cooks know plenty of pepper improves many a dish. And that's it. Into the oven for an hour or so till a knife through the chicken proves it's tender. Baste a few times if you have it in you. Add some herbs like sage or thyme or tarragon if you want, but there is no need. Because each ingredient will be flavorful on its own the salt and pepper will be seasonings enough for a delicious dinner. I had it for breakfast the next morning too. 

2-4 Chicken Breasts, Bone In, Skin on
1 Large Yellow or Sweet Onion
4 Yukon Gold Potatoes
2-4 Large Carrots
2 Garlic Cloves
3-4 TBS butter
Splash White Wine (or Broth)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Candied Bacon

If there is a way to make bacon any better than it already is, this is it. Spicy, sweet, smokey, crunchy treat, what more could we ask, I ask you? I'm making this for breakfast but it would be just as good on a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch or served with (fill in the blank) for dinner. I'm having it with coddled eggs and strawberries with Rebecca Sauce, all covered in my last two posts. Now, if you're feeling angst over all the fat, nitrites, nitrates, blah, blah, and blah, well I can't do anything for you about that fat, but I can tell you to go to Whole Foods or possibly even your own grocery and get a natural bacon without all the bad stuff. I get the WF "365" house brand which costs about the same as regular bacon brands in any grocery. 

Here we go! Set the oven to 400 degrees. For one pound of bacon you'll need one cup of brown sugar and a teaspoon of chili powder. I have just about given up regular chili powder, except when actually making chili, for the deep sweet intense heat of this ground Chipotle Chili Pepper powder. BEWARE! This stuff is potent. Only use 1/4-1/2 teaspoon for this recipe or you'll be calling for a frozen Martguerita post-haste. Wait, this is breakfast - nix that Marguerita remark. So, fork these two ingredients together until all the little lumps are gone and it's bacon ready. Before you launch into that bacon though, get a pan ready to receive it. Use foil to line a broiler pan or any large pan with low 1" edges and top it off with a cookie rack or anything you have that will let the drippings through easily. Spray the rack well with cooking spray.

Now press the bacon into the mix, first one side and then the other and stretch it out on the rack. If you need to, make a few little ruffles to keep it from hanging over the edges of the pan. You want to be sure the drippings hit the pan not the bottom of your oven. Crumble a little extra sugar mix over each strip if you have any left over.  Ready to go in!

In the rare case of any leftovers, and I can't really imagine a scenario where this would happen, crumble up the remaining strips over a salad, add some strawberries and a good salty cheese like feta to balance out that salty sweet tangy mix. I used grated Mizithra cheese because that's what I had in the cheese bin and topped it off with Poppy Seed Dressing and almonds. Mmmmmm, mmmmm, mmmmm.
1 Pound Bacon
1 Cup Brown Sugar
1 tsp Chili Powder or Chipotle Chili Pepper, Ground

Strawberries and Rebecca Sauce

Strawberries and whipped cream can happen any day. Today I'm having smokey spicy candied bacon for breakfast and I want to top these strawberries with a sauce that can stand up to that bacon and salute it at the same time. Rebecca Sauce has the slight tang of sour cream with the slightly molasses undertone of brown sugar and one mystery ingredient that equals the sublime.
I'm not apologizing for that gigantic tub of sour cream even though I know it looks excessive. The famous Rebecca Sauce is just this easy: Whisk together about a cup of sour cream and 1/3 c of brown sugar and add one teaspoon of vanilla. What, you ask, is that oddball bottle of stuff to the left? It's my homemade vanilla and you too can make your own and forever change the flavor of every recipe you make with vanilla. (Your vanilla will no longer be vanilla.) This one is made with Makers Mark, but you can use plain old Vodka. Pour it up in a bottle that will hold about 2 cups, split a couple of vanilla beans from top to bottom and drop them in. I stick a little label on there with the date and try to hold off using it for about 6-8 wks. It's worth the wait!
*If you're using regular vanilla in this recipe add a 1/2 tsp of good bourbon or rum to the sauce as well.

1 Cup Sour Cream
1/3 Cup Brown Sugar

For the Vanilla:
1-2 large vanilla beans
2-3 cups Makers Mark Bourbon or any Vodka

Creamy Coddled Eggs

Why not coddle an egg? Must we always take out our whisk and beat the poor egg? The coddled egg is creamy-licious besides being quick and simple. It minds its own business coddling along while the rest of breakfast is being prepared. Yes, I know, not everyone has these fancy-pants little coddlers sitting around in the china cabinet. I bought mine in a consignment store for $5 apiece and ordered a few more on Ebay for a full set. But, you could probably get the same results by cracking the egg into a small ovenproof dish or ramekin and sealing it up really well with aluminum foil, wrapping from the bottom up. It's partially the steam that cooks the egg to such a lovely creamy consistency so a good seal is essential.

Really, it just takes 5 minutes to crack an egg into each cup, top with a bit of cheese and butter. I like to add a tiny dollop of honey mustard and finish with a shake of salt and pepper.

Ready to be capped for the coddling.

Cheddar Cheese
Honey Mustard

Twenty minutes bubbling in the waist deep waters will do it.

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