Friday, November 27, 2009

"The French Laundry Cookbook" - Eric's Staff Lasagna

Date I made this recipe: November 25, 2009

The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller
Published by: Artisan
ISBN: 1-57965-126-7

Recipe: Eric’s Staff Lasagna – p. 116

Thomas Keller was a guest judge on last week’s Top Chef episode. I don’t know whether to be impressed or depressed by the fact that this great chef is judging a cooking contest on a reality TV channel.

Thomas Keller owns and operates The French Laundry restaurant in California; it is considered a Mecca to many. Thomas Keller is a hero to many culinary aspirants. Sadly, Thomas Keller is unknown to likely three-quarters (if not more) of the population. That is not a good thing.

Thomas Keller should know that although I admire all the recipes made with lobster and fish and whatnot, I did not make them. I don’t really like fish, Thomas Keller, and lobster is out of my budget. The fact that there are several recipes for these ingredients in this book cracks me up, Thomas Keller, seeing as how your restaurant is in Napa Valley—emphasis on “valley.”

And so I did not aspire to recreate a Thomas Keller original because that would be way too hard; rather, I made the lasagna recipe made for a staff meal by Eric (no last name given).

Now lasagna is something I have a handle on and this recipe is close to but in no way compares with the master chef in my family, my Aunt Rose. And so whereas I am no Thomas Keller in the making, neither is Eric (no last name) my Aunt Rose. My Aunt Rose could cook the pants off these guys in a New York minute (never mind that she lives in New Jersey).

This lasagna recipe was okay – neither good nor bad – and I can’t believe I am saying this because I’m not a fan of salt but it could have used more salt. And some sugar in the sauce (although I added some myself).

Why sugar, you ask? Because tomatoes are tart and unless you add something to cut the acidity, you will be mightily puckered up by the end of dinner. I always start off small, adding a quarter teaspoon at a time until my taste buds are satisfied. I could have gone with a little more here but it still worked out fine.

The other thing that Eric (no last name) did that didn’t really dawn on me until the very end was that he only used the mozzarella on top of the lasagna. While it certainly created a cleaner flavor, let’s be honest here: is there anything more fun that pulling on goopy strings of melted mozzarella cheese? I think not!

Here’s what else I think: this dish is probably best made in the summertime when tomatoes are at their peak but hey, what are you going to do? The man was on TV in November and so one thing led to another and voila – here we are! I can’t control the timing of these things.

So eat and enjoy your lasagna but do add some salt and sugar to the sauce as you go along. It’ll make my Aunt Rose happy!

Eric’s Staff Lasagna – makes about 9 servings
½ cup olive oil (I’d recommend a little less—you don’t want this to be oily)
1 ½ cups minced yellow onion
2 tablespoons minced garlic
½ cup tomato paste
8 cups cut-up peeled tomatoes (about 12 to 14 medium tomatoes, cut into rough 1-inch pieces)
¼ cup chopped oregano or ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons chopped basil)
As well as some sugar (a couple teaspoons or to taste) and definitely some salt!

1 ½ pounds whole-milk ricotta (Note: I bought a 2 pound contained and used it all. There is no such thing as too much ricotta)
3 large eggs
½ cup chopped parsley
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 pound lasagna noodles
½ pound mozzarella, grated
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the sauce: Heat the oil in a large heavy pot. Add the onions and garlic and cook gently for 4 to 5 minutes, or until translucent. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes (the tomato paste will separate from the oil and the oil will turn a vivid orange). Add the tomatoes and stir to combine.

The sauce can be completed on the stove top or in the oven. The oven method requires less attention but a longer cooking time. For the stove top, simmer the sauce gently for 1 ½ to 2 hours, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot every 10 minutes to prevent scorching. (Ann’s note: Yeah, right, like I’m going to bound into my kitchen every 10 minutes! I am a busy gal and you probably are too so take it from me when I say that you can put this on the lowest setting and leave it alone for at least a half hour, if not more, without stirring and scraping and the sauce will be fine. If not, a little charcoal never hurt anyone!)

For the oven method, preheat the oven to 325. Bring the tomatoes to a simmer on top of the stove, cover the pot with a parchment lid, and place the pot in the oven for 3 to 4 hours.

When the sauce is done, it should be thick, slightly chunky, and reduced to about 1 quart. Add the oregano (or basil) and let cool to room temperature (about 1 hour) before assembling the lasagna.

Meanwhile, for the filling: In a large bowl, whisk together the ricotta and eggs until completely blended. Add the parsley and salt and pepper to taste and mix until well combined. Refrigerate until you are ready to assemble the lasagna.

Cook the noodles in a large pot of boiling salted water according to the package directions. Drain the n oodles and allow them to cool slightly.

Preheat the oven to 350.

To assemble the lasagna: Spread a think layer (3/4 to 1 cup) of sauce over the bottom of a 9- by 13-inch baking pan. Place a layer of noodles (no more than one quarter of them) in the pan, slightly overlapping them. Spread half the ricotta mixture evenly over the noodles and top with another layer of noodles. Reserve 1 cup of the remaining sauce and spread the rest over the noodles, completely covering them. Arrange another layer of noodles on top and cover with the remaining ricotta mixture. Top with a final layer of noodles and spoon the reserved sauce over them. Toss the grated mozzarella with salt and pepper to taste (to give the cheese more flavor) and sprinkle it over the top.

Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the mozzarella is a spotted golden brown and the lasagna is hot throughout. (This line actually reads “is a spotted golden grown…” in the book. I think that is a very cosmic typo consider this recipe calls for fresh tomatoes!).

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"The Metropolitan Opera Cookbook" - Pasta with Tuna (Pennoni al Tonno)

Date I made this recipe: November 15, 2009

The Metropolitan Opera Cookbook – Foreword by Placido Domingo, Edited by Jules Bond
Published by: Stewart, Tabori & Chang
© 1988 – ISBN: 1-55670-039-3

Recipe: Pennoni al Tonno (Pasta with Tuna)
Well folks, yesterday I spent an entirely delightful day (of my own volition) listening to opera hopefuls vie for a spot in the Metropolitan Opera. You heard me, the Metropolitan Opera.

Some people would consider giving up an entire Saturday to sit and listen to people screech their way through a song in another language to be akin to death…or worse. Not me. Although I am not a big fan of the opera, I don’t hate it, either, and being an audience member during these tryouts is a lot of fun - far better, to be sure, than actually trying out.

Now you might wonder if I motored to the Big Apple to take in these auditions but the beautiful thing is that I didn’t need to. For the past 57 years, the Metropolitan Opera has held regional tryouts in St. Paul and for a good 15 of those years at least, my friend, Tall (real name, Carol) and I have been part of the audience cheering (never jeering) the hopefuls on to greatness.

Although I am a singer, I moved away from classical training to jazz early on and while I think jazz singers can do classical pieces, I don’t think classically-trained singers can do jazz, at least not to my ear. Don’t get me wrong, many have tried but with apologies to those classical singers who have (and there have been many), it just ain’t a happenin’. You either feel the rhythm of jazz or you don’t. Either you are Ella Fitzgerald or you’re not. I don’t make these rules.

But boy oh boy, when classical singers actually play inside their own sandbox, the results are phenomenal as we hear year after year after year. Every year in the regional audition round, 20 or so singers try to outsing each other for the chance to move on to the district auditions, also held in St. Paul in February and then the winners of that competition go to New York for the one, big chance to try to get into the Met in any which way they can. (Suffice it to say, most probably start in the chorus since we can’t all be Renee Fleming, now can we?)

So, there we were, all front and center (and I mean that) and one by one the singers came out and gave it their best shot. This year’s field was pretty darned good with only one soprano cracking a note and with many of the tenors sounding like young Pavarotti’s.

But folks, while I believe my analysis of the singers, having studied their techniques, is usually pretty decent, I would be lying if I told you that I was there for the singing alone. Because this is an opportunity for me and Tall to become hosts of our own little “What Not To Wear to An Opera Audition.” As I am fond of saying to anyone who will listen - “If you want to be a diva (or divo, if there is such a thing for me -- not to be confused with Devo, a popular ‘80’s band), you must dress like a diva.” So while other audience members are busy writing notes all over their programs about the contestants and their vocal abilities, I write fashion statements, to wit:

Contestant 1 – male tenor – nice suit but what is with the silver, glitzy tie? Day or nighttime, dude, you decide!
Contestant 2 – male bass- the guy I call “Mr. GQ” is back again this year. Three-piece suit is sharp but just like last year we need to see some shirt sleeves peeking out of the jacket. (This seems to be a problem for most men this year).
Contestant 3 – female mezzo soprano – “I’m thinking best dressed!” This outfit was fantastic—a 60’s-looking chiffon cocktail dress with long beads and fun shoes. Wish her voice would have lived up to the outfit—nice, but weak.
Contestant 4 – male bass-baritone – “Where’s the tie?” One does not go to an opera audition looking as though one rolled out of bed thinking “Hey, I know. I’ll just throw on a shirt and a suit and go to try out for the Met.” Maybe in other cities, buster, but not here.
Contestant 5 – female soprano – “Ummmm….no.” The dress was a de-zas-ter. Very formal on top, very casual on the bottom. She also broke the cardinal rule of color continuity and instead opted for a silver top, a burgundy middle and an even darker skirt in what looked like brown – shudder! The woman definitely needs a Tim Gunn (“Make it work”) in her life.
Contest 6 – male bass – “Again with missing tie? Didn’t your mothers teach you anything?” This outfit was a mess – gray pinstripe suit, missing tie, checkered shirt and…ohmygod – are those brown shoes?!!
Contestants 7 and 8 – Acceptable but boring. Wearing black is usually okay but not if one blends with the piano.
Contestant 9 – female soprano - That lace dress looks like something out of a Mad Men episode – matronly and totally from the 60’s. This is the year 2009, dear. Try to keep up.

And on and on we went. More shirts with no ties, more gray suits with brown shoes and so on and so forth. And then we came to the day’s over-all fashion victim winner and the runner up – Miss “Big Nooooo” and Miss “What the hell were you thinking?!”

The runner-up, Miss “What the hell were you thinking?!” was very attractive but her selection of accessories for her satiny bridesmaid dress (I’m thinking J Crew bridal) ruined the look. She had on silver hoop earrings that didn’t match the look of the dress, a necklace that also didn’t match the look and a watch. Yes, a watch. Because….she needed to count the minutes until the audition was over? As the registrar of my law school used to say (quite often, I might add): “People, people, people” (followed by some admonishment such as “turn in your papers by 5 p.m. and I mean it!”) A watch with a bridesmaid dress is tacky and that is all there is to it.

As to Miss “Big Nooooo,” she hands down won the award for Worst Dressed Diva by wearing a black top that was way too small for her ample chest, with a matching skirt and a…it pains me to say this…glittery silver scarf/belt/”what the hell is that?” tied around her hips. Good golly, Miss Molly! A person garners our vote for this award when Tall and I turn to each other and on cue say “No.” That’s it, that’s all it takes to win that awards and by the way, she didn’t even need to open her mouth to capture that crown. We are so fair it is ridiculous.

But despite that fact that the two fashion victims landed on my version of “Mr. Blackwell’s Worst Dressed List,” they landed on the opera judge’s Best Singer List along with a tenor who just blew the roof off the dump. I am still singing his final number. Now, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t ding him ever so slightly for the boring tie he wore. The color was appropriate (yellow to compliment a brown suit) but I would have liked to have seen a splash or two of color, perhaps a little red like the red in the tomato sauce from today’s recipe.

Today’s recipe, Pennoni al Tonno (pasta with tuna) is from The Metropolitan Opera Cookbook. (Patience is a virtue when it comes to reading this blog, no?) I love that I just happened to have this book on hand for today’s tryouts. This recipe is one of Luciano Pavarotti’s submissions and gee, while the man could sing like nobody’s beeswax, this recipe came close to being a culinary Big No. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t all that good, either. In fact, for the first time ever since I started this blog, Andy and I ate our portions and never said a word about the recipe, good, bad or indifferent.

I think this recipe could have been better had we left out the anchovies or used slightly less than called for (or even used anchovy paste) and we probably could have waited for the pasta to cool a bit more before adding the cheese since all it did was create a gloppy mess in the pan. (“But other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”)

So to recap: the singing at the tryouts were great (well, except for the two fashion-victim finalists whose voices we did not like), the fashion boo-boos were minimal compared to previous years and Pavarotti may have been a great opera singer but he needed some work on the culinary side. I think I’ll get going on my “What Not To Eat After An Opera Audition” notes straight away! (And Clinton and Stacey of TLC’s What Not To Wear call me!)

Pennoni al Tonno (Pasta with Tuna) – Serves 6
2 tablespoons corn oil (or olive oil)
1/3 cup finely chopped onion
3 (6 1/2 – ounce) cans imported tuna (Italian or Spanish), packed in oil
1 (2-ounce) can anchovies, cut small
½ (6-ounce) can tomato paste (Note: using tomato paste in a tube is far easier)
1 (12-ounce) can tomato juice
Garlic salt to taste
1 ½ cups grated Parmesan cheese
1 pound pennoni or other pasta, cooked until al dente (Note: pennoni is very similar to penne and that is what I used)

In a saucepan, heat oil and sauté onion until transparent. Add then tuna and anchovies, and stir for 2 or 3 minutes. Add the tomato paste, tomato juice, and garlic salt. Stir well and simmer for 15 minutes. Add sauce to cooked pasta, mix well, and sprinkle on grated cheese. Serve immediately.

Monday, November 9, 2009

"Recipes of All Nations" - Pork chops kassel (German pork chops)

Date I made this recipe: November 8, 2009

Recipes of All Nations -[Recipes] Compiled & Edited by Countess Morphy
Published by: Wm. H. Wise & Company
© 1935
Recipe: Pork chops kassel (Kasseler Rippespeer) – p. 380

I recently read an article in the New York Times comparing the world’s reaction to 9/11, the day when planes hit the World Trade towers, and 11/9, the day the Berlin Wall fell, allowing East Germans to stream back into West Germany to be reunited with friends and family. (By the way, this year marks the 20th anniversary of that event—hard to believe). Whereas 9/11 had us gathered in our collective grief, 11/9 was the cause for much rejoicing. It was hard to conceive of planes hitting the trade towers but in some ways, it is harder still to contemplate how a group of people from the same country were separated by a wall dissecting the city of Berlin for almost 30 years.

When I was growing up, reports of people trying to escape from East Germany into West Germany abounded. Try to picture making a run for the Minnesota-Wisconsin border only to be felled by bullets – it’s beyond weird. Harriet Tubman and her (slave)Underground Railroad was the precursor to a vast underground movement to get people out of the east and back into the west. Several thousand people tried to escape; several hundred died in the attempt.

I also grew up watching the former East Germany (known then as GDR) spit out thousands of hulked athletes who used to blow the roof off the dump in the Olympics. I especially remember images of the East German women’s swim team – those women were built like…(well, you know) – but man, could they swim…and do gymnastics and every other sport under the sum. It’s hard to believe that once upon a time, the US got its butt kicked in sports but the GDR was nothing if not a powerhouse. After the wall fell, so did the old east’s athletic prowess. Sometimes, change is a good thing all around.

So in honor of the day that the wall fell down and East and West Germany started the road to reunification, I decided to cook a German meal and kids, it wasn’t easy. I don’t exactly have a keen interest in German food and so my selection was limited to one cookbook and only one cookbook and the recipes left a little to be desired. Need I tell you, reader, that I passed on making the eel soup? (Say it with me now: “Ewwwwwww”). If only eel season hadn’t just ended….

After a few hems and haws over what was left in the book (not much), I decided on making this pork chop recipe and it turned out to be a (surprise) hit. You can’t go wrong with making pork since it’s practically the national dish of Germany and it was easy and fast. (Since you know how much I obsess about the weather in this blog, this weekend was absolutely divine – temps in the 60’s and so who wanted to be inside cooking?).

By the way, my favorite local radio station, The Current (89.3 FM) played Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” in honor of the anniversary. That station is just way too cool.

Pork Chops Kassel– serving size not indicated. Note that the recipe doesn’t give specific measurements so this is my best attempt
4 pork chops (to serve 2 people)
1 apple, finely chopped
1 cup prunes, finely chopped
Butter and lots of it!
A splash of brandy (my suggestion and totally optional!)
2 eggs, separated
About 1 cup breadcrumbs

The cookbook says “There are different ways of preparing this dish, but this recipe has been chosen as being more typically German than the others.”

Chop the apples and prunes and sautee with about 3 tablespoons of butter (eyeball it) until they are cooked soft. Add a little lemon peel and/or a splash of brandy.

Flatten the pork chops so you can lay one on top of the other. I purchased two very thick boneless pork loin chops and split them in half with a very sharp knife. Spoon the apple/prune mixture into the middle.

Using a pastry brush, apply the egg yolk to the pork chops. Dip one side into the bread crumbs, then apply the yolk to the other, coat and place in a hot skilled into which you’ve loaded say…3-4 tablespoons of butter! Fry in the butter until done, about 5-10 minutes or so (check as you go).

The author suggests serving sauerkraut with this dish but my husband put his foot down and said if I made (i.e. opened a can or jar and heated) sauerkraut, I’d be eating it alone so I pulled some potatoes and onions from my pantry…and butter…and set about making fried potatoes. I have to admit that I’ve never fried a potato before (yes, I know, how did I make it this far?) but this was easy. I recommend partially cooking the potatoes (I did mine in the microwave for about 12 minutes) as well as the onions (I sliced them then microwaved them for about 4 minutes) before adding them to the fry pan to reduce cooking time. And voila, you have a perfect German meal!