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.


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