Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A menu for the week of February 26, 2006

Well, it's been a crazy couple of weeks, but things are clearing up, so it's time to plan a couple of menus!

By the time I got home, I was so exhausted that cooking was out of the question, and Sam was out for the evening, so I worked on cleaning up some leftovers.

Freedom! With a major project behind me, it's time to cook a nice meal. So, lasagna!
My lasagna recipe comes from my Italian mother, and is quite honestly without peer. It is a time-consuming recipe, made entirely by hand down to the noodles (it's even possible to make the mozzarella if you're feeling REALLY extravagant.)

The best way to make doing lasagnas reasonable is to prepare different parts at different times. I usually make a large amount of the bolognaise sauce that I use at the end of the growing season when it's time to use up all of the tomatoes from the garden before it gets cold, and freeze it so that making the lasagnas themselves is more of an assembly process than anything else. The noodle dough can also be frozen, and is useful not only for lasagna but other types of flat noodles as well.

Sauce for lasagna:
  • 3/4 of a medium sized onion, VERY finely minced
  • 1 carrot, VERY finely minced
  • 1-2 stalks celery, VERY finely minced
  • A splash of olive oil
  • 1 3/4 lbs lean ground beef or venison
  • 2 glasses white wine
  • 3 large cans of crushed tomatoes, or equivalent amount of fresh tomatoes (about 8 cups)
  • 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
  • 1/3 green bell pepper (whole)
  • 2-3 tsp basil
  • 6-8 whole cloves
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Sautee the minced onion, carrot, and celery in a large pan with the olive oil over medium heat until the mixture turns golden brown and begins to dry out and stick to the pan. Add the ground meat, turn the heat on to high and brown, stirring. Add a generous shake of salt and pepper, and cook the mixture down until the juices dry up and the meat is dry and brown. At this point, add 1 glass of white wine to rehydrate the mixture, and again cook down until very dry. Add the second glass of wine, and once again cook down until dry, then add the crushed tomatoes, crushed red pepper, basil, cloves, and the chunk of green bell pepper. Simmer covered over medium-low heat for 20 minutes to an hour.

Noodle Dough:
  • 3 eggs
  • A splash of olive oil
  • White flour (see amount in directions below)
This noodle dough is very simple to make using a food processor. Start by spinning the eggs and olive oil in the food processor. Add 1/3 C flour and spin again, then continue to add flour until the ball that is formed breaks apart and the mixture looks like coarse sand. The dough will just stick together and will be very stiff to knead, but should not crack apart - if you get it to be too dry, toss it back in the food processor, add another egg and a bit more oil, and try again. Form the dough into a ball, knead it for a minute or two, then rub down with olive oil and wrap in plastic wrap. Let sit for at least 20 minutes before use; this dough can also be frozen.

To make the noodles, you will need a noodle maker unless you want to do a lot of work with a rolling pin. I use a Marcato Atlas 150 hand-cranked noodle maker. Cut a slice about an inch thick off of the dough ball, dip it in flour, and roll out to about 1/8 of an inch in thickness with a rolling pin. Use the noodle maker to roll the dough out into very thin noodles - on my machine the top setting is a 9, which is a bit too thin, but setting 8 gives noodles that are still too thick so once I've rolled them through once at setting 8, I cut the noodles into 4" wide sections and run them through again at setting 8 with the sections running perpendicular to the direction that they were originally rolled.

To cook the noodles, boil a large pot of water and add about a tablespoon of salt. Cook the noodles a few at a time for about 2 minutes per batch. When a batch is cooked, use a slotted spoon to transfer the noodles to a pan of cold water to stop them from cooking further, then spread them on the edge of a bowl to make them easy to get to when you go to assemble the lasagna.

With the noodles done, we're almost ready to assemble the lasagna. We'll need just a few more things: a recipe of white sauce, and grated mozzarella and parmesan cheeses.

White Sauce:
  • 1 C cold milk
  • 1 T corn starch
  • 2 T cold butter
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/8 tsp white pepper
Stir the corn starch, salt, and white pepper into the milk in a small saucepan, then add the lump of cold butter to the pan. Over medium high heat, stir constantly until the butter melts and the sauce bubbles and thickens, then remove from heat.

At this point you will need to have the following:
  • 1 recipe red sauce, described above
  • 1 recipe white sauce, described above
  • About 1/4 recipe of noodle dough made into noodles
  • ~1 C coarsely grated mozzarella cheese
  • ~1/2 C finely grated parmesan cheese
To assemble your lasagna, use a glass baking pan. Start by adding a thin layer of red sauce to the bottom of the pan and sprinkle a little parmesan cheese in with the sauce. Add a layer of noodles, then a thin layer of white sauce and sprinkle of mozzarella. Add another layer of noodles, red sauce, and parmesan, and continue this alternation until the lasagna is about 2" thick. Depending upon the size of your pan you may need to make additional white sauce or cook more noodles to get to the desired thickness. The lasagna usually ends up having about 15-20 layers - the more the better, so make sure to make your sauce layers as thin as possible!

Make a fresh full batch of white sauce to pour over the top surface of the lasagna. Bake at 350 for about half an hour - everything is cooked, so it's just necessary to heat it through and get all the cheeses nicely melted.

Enjoy! This recipe is a lot of work but well worth it. Also, these lasagnas can easily be frozen in the pan prior to being cooked, making for a gourmet meal that can be made ahead of time and simply defrosted the day it is to be eaten. Due to the amount of work involved, I will usually make at least 2 or 3 lasagnas at once and will freeze those that aren't to be eaten immediately.

Venison Stew. Stew season is almost over, so I'd better make a bit more before it gets warm!

My parents make fajitas on a regular basis, but I haven't done so yet. With the weather getting warm, it's time to try something new on the grill, and fajitas sound good!

Perhaps a fairly simple meal for tonight: Kung Pao Chicken. This is one of our standbys.

I will need some lunch meat for next week, so Saturday will be a good day to do a roast, probably of pork or chicken.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Dungeness Crab

Here's the crab recipe from Monday, thanks to Sam!

Prep/cook time: 20 minutes. Serves two.

Buy one whole, precooked Dungeness crab. Fresh crab is best, but frozen is fine. The advantage to buying a fresh crab is that you can ask the person behind the meat counter to clean it for you, although frequently they may not know exactly how to do so.

If you need to clean the crab yourself (or want to talk the folks behind the counter through the process,) here's how to do so. If you bought a frozen crab, you'll need to thaw it in the refrigerator overnight or in hot water ahead of time. It can be cleaned as soon as it has thawed.
  1. Slide a knife along and under the straight seam along the back of the top shell. As you jimmy it, it comes loose and pops off whole.
  2. Quickly scrape ALL of the innards out into a trash bag. The innards are usually rather smelly, so you'll want to take the trash out more or less immediately. Be very thorough and remove everything from the body cavity, especially the feather-like 'devil's fingers' as they will make you quite sick if you eat them. These may sometimes even look white like the meat, but trust me on this and throw away everything that you can clean out of the body cavity without breaking the body apart. You should only be eating white, firm meat- no yellow, green, red, or feathery stuff.
  3. Remove the mouth-plates- there's nothing edible about them. Also, there's a plate on the bottom that can be popped off easily to help break it in two.
Divide your cleaned crab in half (they usually split evenly with a little finesse) and set the crab halves in a large pot of water.

Bring to a boil, and depending on how fresh or thawed the crab was, only boil it to re-heat the meat. It doesn't take long: 5-15 minutes. Drain the water, let the shell cool to the touch, and pick up crab half by the leg so any water can drain out from the main body cavity. Arrange it on a plate next to something colorful like asparagus or half an artichoke*.

Serve with a side dish of melted garlic butter for dipping.

One crab will serve two people, provided that you have a little something else on the side. I highly recommend the asparagus or '1/2 artichoke each' idea, with a nice side-salad to end with to cleanse the pallet of the butter heaviness. It's better to eat extra of the cooked or raw greens than add bread.

*While the crab is cooking, prepare and cook your asparagus or artichoke. An artichoke only takes 8 minutes in a pressure cooker. Asparagus is best under-cooked so still slightly crunchy, so cook it for less than 5 minutes in boiling water.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

A menu for the week of February 5

Well, I'm posting this menu a couple of days late. I finally had a weekend where I didn't have to work on the house the whole time, so I went to a martial arts seminar on Saturday and then snowboarding on Sunday.

Last night we had a very nice dinner of Dungeness crab and asparagus with the leftover hollandaise sauce from last week. I'll post the directions on how the crab was prepared as soon as Samantha lets me in on her secret.

Tonight Sam will be getting home late, so I'll prepare a venison stroganoff. The recipe is quite simple, and just about any cut of venison or beef can be used.

  • 1/2 lb lean meat (venison, beef, or chicken work best)
  • 1 whole yellow onion, sliced.
  • 1 lb ordinary white mushrooms
  • 1 1/2 tsp powdered mustard
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 T sour cream
Before you begin cooking, mix the powdered mustard with salt and pepper and a bit of water in a bowl to make a paste. You will want to let the mustard paste sit for a few minutes before using it. In a bit of oil, cook the onion over medium heat until slightly soft, then add the mushrooms and continue to cook until the mushrooms are soft and the onion is lightly browned. Remove the mushrooms and onion from the pan and quickly cook the meat until it is just evenly browned - you don't want to overcook it or it will get tough. Immediately add the mustard, mushrooms and onions to the pan and stir, then add the sour cream and stir a couple of times until it makes a sauce. Remove from the heat and serve over egg noodles or a mixture of brown and wild rice (my preference.)

Since I didn't manage to cook the cornish hens last week, I'll try again Wednesday. And I promise to get the recipe posted!

Sam is planning to make a roast of some sort so that I'll have something left over for lunch meat. Not sure yet whether we'll do pork or chicken - most likely pork, given that we don't have a whole chicken in the freezer at present and we're trying to eat down the pantry a little bit. In the process of our remodeling, we realized that we've got enough frozen food to last us for quite a while, and we should really get working on it before some of it gets freezer burned.

Friday night we're going to a concert, so it'll need to be something quick. Perhaps pizza or pasta, or leftovers from Wednesday if I decide to cook a couple of hens.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Thinking about food

If I ever make a great discovery, it'll probably come to me while I'm mowing the lawn.

Tonight I'm painting the basement. Painting is a wonderfully simple, productive activity - your progress is visible, you're making things look nice, and most importantly, it gives you time to think while your hands are busy. It's like cooking, only you don't have to worry so much about when to take the lasagna out of the oven.

Anyway, tonight I was painting and thinking, and of course for me that means thinking about food. And what occurred to me was this.

A lot of people will say that they don't know how to cook, and while this may be technically true, I don't think that this is the real problem. As any chef knows, there's not a great depth of mystery to the art of cooking - it's a highly empirical science perfected only through extensive trial and error. The real problem is that they don't know why to cook.

For me, this has always been a bit of a no-brainer; my mother is Italian, and food is about love. However, the reasons to cook go deeper than even the love expressed by the cook for the... eater? English doesn't even have a word for the recipient of food lovingly made!

Eating a frozen dinner or some sickly meal in a restaurant, prepared impersonally by machines or an anonymous chef fundamentally disconnects the person eating from the process of labor and love that brought the food to the table, disconnects him from the land where the food was grown and the lives of the animals he eats. It disconnects us from the risks posed by pollution and pesticides, from the inhumanity of corporate animal farms and the bestial practice of forcing animals to become cannibals. It disconnects us fundamentally from the physicality of our world, making the source of our lives an abstraction of dollars and cents instead of the good earth. When you bake bread, you cannot but help to think of the grain grown in the fields and milled between stones. When you roast a chicken, you see the fruits of life, the muscle and the fat, and think about the life of that bird and recognize the sacrifice that was made. Of course, if you choose to hunt or to raise your own livestock, you are even more fully connected to the process of your own life, and what it costs the world.

When we mechanize the production of food, we take a great risk: by disconnecting our idea of the self from the land that provides for us, it becomes easy to disregard our environment and to make choices that ultimately diminish the quality of life for all.