Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Chicken Curry Leftover Update

In consuming my chicken curry leftovers, a few more things occurred to me that I should share with you. First, the fennel seeds, while imparting a wonderful flavor, were too much when crunched between the teeth. I would hate to lose their flavor so perhaps I will grind the seeds up first before adding. The problem with that, for me anyway, is that I have a coffee bean grinder that I actively use for coffee and I do not relish the idea of fennel-flavored coffee. The second thing I will change is that I would decrease the amount of onions from three to two onions. I know, I know, I am the consummate onion lover. However, I think that two onions will still provide enough flavor while allowing the smooth sauce to shine. With three onions, I felt that I couldn't enjoy the sauce, it was more like chewing mouthfuls of onions suspended in a few bits of sauce. Again, don't try to trim time by sauteeing the onions for a short period of time. Really let them cook down, past the point of being translucent, until they are very tender and without bite.

New Obsession

I am in love with this tea! N. made some at his house last week and I can't stop drinking it, with lots of milk and honey. It's full of vanilla, cinnamon and cardamom, wholly delicious and very comforting.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Chicken Curry

My new recipe of the week was inspired by the Chicken Curry recipe in my Cook's Illustrated cookbook but I really deviated it from it so much that I can't claim it. But it was still really tasty and I'm betting that it will be even better for lunch today.

Chicken Curry
2-3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts cut into chunks
splash lemon juice
1/2 t. fennel seeds
1 t. ground ginger
1 t. ground cardamom
1 t. ground clove
1 T. curry powder
1 T. garam masala
salt and pepper
2 T. butter
1 T. olive oil
3 medium onions, sliced thinly
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 t. fresh ginger, minced
16 oz. can whole tomatoes and their juice, chopped
1 1/2-2 c. chicken stock
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
1/2 c. yogurt, room temperature
1 T. curry paste, I like the hot variety

1 c. plain yogurt
1/2 onion, minced
1/2 c. cilantro, chopped
1/2 small cucumber, chopped
1-2 t. cumin
salt and pepper
lemon juice

Toss the chicken in the lemon juice and spices and marinate at least an hour. Add oil and butter to a pan and brown the chicken in two batches. you don't have to cook all the way through, just get a nice sear. Remove the chicken and add the onions, cooking very slowly on low heat. This may take an hour or so. Once the onions are soft, transluscent and deeply colored, turn the heat back to medium, add the garlic and ginger. Cook for two more minutes, add the tomatoes, stock, cinnnamon and bay leaf. Bring to a simmer and let reduce on medium-low heat for about 20-30 minutes. Turn the heat off. Let this cool for about ten minutes and then stir in the room temperature yogurt. If you do this when the chicken is too hot or the yogurt is too cold, it will curdle. Add the curry paste to taste and bring the heat back up to continue simmering. Top with cashews and cilantro over rice. It's even better with raita and chutney.

Notes: As usual, I dumped some of everything in my spice mixture, use whatever combination of spices you like. I also didn't have any chicken stock so I used 1/2 c. sake and a cup of water. I added the curry paste at the end because it needed some more kick but certainly leave it out if you wish.

Monday, January 28, 2008

World's Best Meatballs. Really, It's True.

I often see recipes that claim they are the best, blue-ribbon recipes, always imitated but never the winner. I usually scoff at that but I made these meatballs the other day that were out of this world. To show you how serious I am about that, I'll go so far as to admit that my sauce wasn't all that. Not that I didn't lovingly prepare my sauce but I skipped the layers of pork and that was a mistake. But we're talking meatballs here. So...I usually make meatballs with ground beef but I decided to go all out and do the veal-pork-beef combo. I also watched a meatball-off this weekend on the Food Network and the winner put a whopping FOUR eggs in per pound of meat. I usually do one and I was wary of such excess so I settled on two per pound. I also added some chopped banana peppers for a little zing and a couple shots of vodka because, well, why not? It's delicious in vodka sauce, right?

1 lb ground beef, preferably chuck. Don't go all lean and healthy here
1 lb ground pork
1 lb ground veal
olive oil
3 c. chopped onion
10-15 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c. chopped parsley
1/3 c. chopped banana peppers
3/4 c. romano cheese
1/2 c. breadcrumbs
6 eggs
A few glugs vodka, or milk, or wine
salt and pepper

Of course, caramelize the onions in olive oil for about 20-30 minutes. Add the garlic and cook a couple more minutes. Let cool. Mix all the other ingredients in together and let sit for about 15 minutes. I don't know why but it's better that way. I almost always bake them as opposed to frying them but I did both this time and I liked them either way. Some say that frying creates a nice brown crust that cannot be achieved in the oven. Mine have so much cheese and whatnot in there that, even in the oven, they get pretty golden and crusty on the outside as well. Plus, it's so much less work. I made this triple batch last week and I'm happy to say, my freezer is neatly stacked with delicious, cheesy, spicy meatballs. They should last me the next couple of weeks, at least.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Potato-Kale-Beer Chowder

My friend and co-worker told me she was making a potato-kale chowder with chorizo, which sounded delicious so I made the appropriate "mmmm" sounds until she promised to bring some in for me the next day. She didn't, but I didn't think about it until Sunday when I thought to my self "Hey, that sounded so tasty and mighty comforting during this cold spell." Although I didn't have any chorizo, I had just bought some fantastic organic kale from the Co-op. It was long, slender and very tender, unlike the curly, woody stems usually found languishing as a garnish on dinner plates. The beer was an afterthought. I hate wasting things and couple of weeks ago, I opened a beer that I could not finish. No, I'm not that dainty, I had two before that. Anyway, I didn't want to waste it and I am so glad I didn't. It was a dark beer, perhaps stout, I can't remember since I threw the bottle out already. I added the beer to deglaze the pot, after cooking the onions, and it really rounded out the soup and gave it a biting, nutty undertone. I'm really going to have to approximate the amounts in this recipe, I kept adding this or that.

Potato-Kale Chowder

1 T. olive oil
1 T. butter
1 onion, diced
1-2 T. flour
1/2 bottle dark beer
2 c. diced potatoes
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into rounds
1 bunch kale
2 cups chicken stock
pinch salt and pepper
pinch nutmeg
pinch thyme

Heat the olive oil and butter, add onions and cook about 15 minutes. Once cooked, add the flour and stir. After a minute or two, once the brown fond starts to form, add the beer to deglaze. Add the potatoes and carrots, then the stock. Cover and cook until the vegetables are tender. You can keep the soup like this but I fished out the potatoes and pureed them, then added the mash back to the soup pot to give it more body and heft. I sauteed the kale separatley and added it to the pot to simmer away a bit more but I did it like that so it was easier for me to remove the potatoes. Add seasoning. I ate this as is but yesterday, I aded some milk as I reheated the soup and, of course, that made it creamier and fuller. You can add more stock or milk if the soup is too think.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Zucchini Bread Update

I posted a recipe for the best zuchinni bread I ever made here a couple of weeks ago. Sadly, it did not survive longer than two hours so I decided to make it again this weekend, albeit with some minor tweaks. In an effort to make this bread even more healthy so that I could justify eating the whole thing by myself, I made the following changes and it still turned out marvelous.

-Instead of 1/3 c. whole wheat flour and 2/3 c. white flour, I made the ratio 1:1. Increase the iron and fiber while adding to the texture of the bread? It's a win-win situation. I was afraid of messing up the balance and yielding a heavy loaf but it was light as air.

-I decreased the the amount of sugar from 3/4 c. to 2/3 c. I was able to get away with this by the addition of dried fruit.

-I bought some apricots on Saturday for no reason and, as I gnawed my way through them Sunday morning, I thought I'd chop up the remaining ones and add to to the mix. I also was bringing this to a friend with a nut allergy so I skipped the pecans in favor of the apricots. Then I made another loaf with apricots AND almonds. Delightful.

-Even more black pepper. Still not enough. Next weekend, I'll try 15 turns of my pepper mill for maximum effect.

And finally, my mother served this alongside another one of those chocolate truffle pies she made last week (She made it becasue she had creme fraiche left over and of course, since there is no other known use for creme fraiche, she simply HAD to make another one. Flawless logic.). I thought my apple-butter, dried apricot concoction would taste like sawdust next to the truffle pie but it actually stood up quite well and provided a nice foil to the intense chocolate.

Next Up: World's Best Meatballs (No, I am not humble.)

Monday, January 21, 2008

Happy Birthday My Lovely Lucy!!!!!!

I wish I could be there with my gorgeous niece on the anniversary of her birth but I cannot. So I will eat this cake in her honor. Also, sending enormous, beautiful, congratulatory thoughts to my sister and her husband for creating this little person!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Week in Review

Oh my, a whole week has gone by? Well, six days, excuse me. I have a lot going on at work, I had two birthdays in one week and I'm training for a race so I'm busy!

I didn't make anything remarkable this week and by that I mean microwaving a sweet potato was the highlight of my culinary expression. I did have a very good Indian feast at my mother's house on Tuesday that included chicken curry, vegetable biryani, several chutneys, raita, mango lassis and this most incredible pie. My mother said she was making a chocolate pudding pie and in my head I thought "where the hell did she get that idea?" I had a vision of chocolate pudding out of a box, slapped into a frozen pie shell and topped with Cool Whip. Not my thing and definitely not my mother's. So I was blown away by this dessert, appropriately dubbed the dessert of the year by Bon Appetit magazine. The crust was of the chocolate graham cracker variety, the top was a mound of creme fraiche but the inside, oh, the filling!!!! It was like biting into the inside of a truffle; dense and so intensely flavored of chocolate that it almost gave me a headache. But I can handle the pain for the reward, which was so sweet. Marvelous dessert, very bad name. Nothing that amazing should be called a chocolate pudding pie.

Thursday night, we went to North, a restaurant that recently opened in the old and infamous Hotel Lenox. I felt kind of like I was entering a speakeasy after descending a few steps to go through a tiny door. After passing through the bar area, which is large and scattered with booths, we were seated in the back dining room. The company was wonderful and the food, while inexpensive, was not noteworthy. We also received some of the worst service I've had, if not ever, then certainly in a long time. Halfway through the meal, N. remarked that he felt like we were in a David Lynch movie. The decor, the characters, the odd soundtrack, the old-style powder room outside the bathroom, it did all create an interesting ambience. Weirdly, although nobody's meal was particularly good, I'll probably be back, perhaps just to sit in one of the bar booths and eavesdrop on the conversation between the bartender, the pimp and the accountant.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Misadventures in Spring Roll Making

Nicole left lots of goodies from her brief stay here last summer, things I rarely, if ever, buy. Things like arborio rice, nori and spring roll wrappers. I'd been eyeing those spring roll wrappers for some time and I had most of the ingredients from my pad thai experiment earlier in the week. So Saturday I invited my boy over to make spring rolls.

As we julienned cucumbers and soaked rice noodles, I realized that I needed hoisin sauce (for the marvelous dipping sauce) and limes (to create a dressing for the vegetables within the rolls). N. graciously agreed to run around the corner to A. Chau for me. He returned, wowed by the vast array of products in a tiny space. When we had finally finished all the prep work (the rice noodles were cooling, the shrimp had been poached), I decided to clean my work area and set up for the assembly process. I have to laugh at myself now, I mean, I went to all this trouble to make spring rolls and I couldn't even find the wrappers. N offered to go back, yet again to A. Chau, although I was worried they might become suspicious of this man returning hourly to buy inconsequential items. But go he did, thanks honey, and now we were just minutes from our very own, homemade spring rolls.

The spring roll wrappers are soaked in warm water, one at a time, for a couple of minutes before the ingredients are laid down; first the cilantro and basil, then the minced jalapeno, sticks of cucumber and carrot, topped with lettuce, rice noodles, nestle some shrimp along the top and sprinkle chopped peanuts over the lot. I am not an adept roll wrapper so they came out very large and not very tight. I'll just have to keep practicing!

2 T. lime juice
1 t. sugar
1 T. fish sauce

1 large cucumber, peeled and cut into matchsticks
1 c. shredded carrot
1 cup lettuce
2 oz. cooked rice noodles
1/4 c. cilantro
1/4 c. mint (I used thai basil, still delicious)
2 jalapenos, minced
1/2 c. minced peanuts
1 lb poached shrimp
spring roll wrappers

Dipping Sauce
1/4 hoisin sauce
1/4 peanut butter
1/4 c. water (I used shrimp stock)
2 T chili-garlic sauce
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/3 c minced peanuts

Toss the first three ingredients together and put aside. Prep the vegetables and pour the sauce over the top and mix. While I was doing this, I brought a couple of cups of water to a boil. Once boiling, I turned off the heat and added the shrimp. They cooked for 3-4 minutes, then I drained them but reserved the liquid. Once cool, peel and discard shells/tails. You don't really need the liquid but I saved it to make the dipping sauce, which by the way, you just mix all ingredients until smooth and top with peanuts. This sauce is so good, make sure you have this on hand or the spring rolls won't be nearly as good.

As for the assembly, get a clean work area with all the different ingredients within reach. Add damp kitchen towels and a pie plate with warm water to your station. The first step is soaking the spring roll wrapper in warm water until pliable, about 2 minutes. DO ONE AT A TIME! Once softened, lay on damp towel, add vegetables, then rice noodles, then the shrimp and lastly the peanuts. Fold over once, then fold each side in over itself and continue to roll up. I made the mistake of filling them too full so they were enormous and unwieldy. Place the finished rolls on a plate and cover with a damp towel to keep them from drying out.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

I Like to Eat Fried Things on Friday

I don't have a standing appointment with my father on Fridays but frequently one of us will call the other for a Friday fish fry date. When we're feeling lazy, we head to Boomerang's on Niagara, just around the corner, for a perfectly acceptable fish fry. Other times, the feeling of adventure strikes and we try a new place. Last night was just one of those adventurous nights so we headed to the wilds of Riverside to try out Viking Lobster Company. From what I can tell, this establishment was open in the 70s, closed down and has seen several other restaurants in its place, as well as many years of plain vacancy. The corner of Tonawanda and Austin streets is not where I expect to find any restaurant, much less one that flies in lobster fresh each day.

We entered the unassuming building and found ourelves in a quaint foyer, complete with lobster lamp and chalkboard featuring daily specials. There seems to be a series of small rooms and we were ushered into the front, a warm area with lots of cozy dining nooks. Our waitress (whose mother was working in the kitchen, I loved this) was very pleasant and rattled off a number of very affordable lobster specials, inclduing the lobster bake with a lobster, mussels, clams and corn for $29.95. They also have what's called the Viking Seafood meal, which inlcudes a lobster, crab legs, shrimp, mussels and clams or the Ultimate which adds a chicken breast and a rack of ribs to that mess. Whoa. I'd have to starve all day to be able to eat that.

The specials were appealing, but I was there to check out the fish fry. Their version comes with a choice of soup, I went for the clam chowder over the french onion. It was very tasty, but more like clam soup than chowder. It didn't seem to have any milk or cream but instead was thickened simply by the potatoes. The fish fry itself was fantastic: no beer batter here but was coated with a batter lightly seasoned with cornmeal. The fish was tender and fresh and cooked perfectly. Their coleslaw, while homemade, was just okay. Some coleslaws are much too wet, even mushy. This coleslaw suffered from the opposite problem; the thick wedges of cabbage did not have enough moisture to break down a bit and so it was too dry and very crunchy. I prefer thick-cut french fries, these were of the shoestring variety but pretty good anyway. We ended with coffee (included in our $9.95) and that was surprisingly good too. It was strong and even lightly scented of almonds.

This would be a great place to get a group of hungry friends together, slide into the roomy, wrap-around booth and feast on mountains of seafood. I'm surprised that I haven't heard much about this place by word of mouth but I'm doing my best to get the word out!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

All Zucchini Bread Is not Created Equal

I still have a freezer full of zucchini from the summer's harvest and I figured I had better start using it before it reaches its limit. Usually when I make zucchini bread, I go online, google some recipes and go from there. I do not have a go-to zucchini bread recipe. Until yesterday that is. I found a recipe on recipezaar that gave this recipe its basic structure but I tweaked it a bit. I tried a few things that could have all flopped but the bread turned out richly-colored and deeply-flavored.

Best Zucchini Bread

1-1 1/2 c. shredded zucchini, pressed through a cloth napkin to get rid excess moisture
1 egg
3/4 c. sugar
1/4 c. vegetable oil
1/4 c. apple butter
1 t. vanilla
2/3 c. white flour
1/3 c. wheat flour
1/4 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
1 t. cinnamon
a couple of turns on the pepper mill
1/2 cup toasted pecans

Mix together wet ingredients (excluding zucchini) and dry ingredients in separate bowls. Add the wet ingredients a bit at a time to the dry until well mixed. Stir in the zucchini and nuts, if you're including them. Pour into a greased loaf pan and sprinkle with sugar. Raw sugar looks especially nice. Bake for about 50 minutes at 350 degrees.

Notes: The zucchini out of the freezer retains a lot of water. I was shocked how much came out when I squeezed it through the napkin. I think that it is very important to get rid of that so the batter isn't watery. I like to believe this is low-fat and all-around healthy since I halved the amount of oil and subbed apple butter, as well as using white and wheat flour. Both these substitutions make for a very sticky, dark bread. For whatever reason (probably because I am obsessed with my new Unicorn pepper mill) I thought this would lend itself well to freshly cracked black pepper. Weird, possibly, but I thought it was great and will probably add more pepper next time. I wasn't sure how this would come out, it looked very dark but it was dubbed "phenomenal" by my trusty taste testers and this is certainly my new go-to recipe for zucchini bread.

Monday, January 7, 2008

A Pad Thai Tale

This post has many parts, be patient with me.

It all started in 1999 when I worked at Stickers in Portland, OR. Stickers was owned by an American couple who lived all over Asia for years and came back to open a restaurant that featured their favorite dishes from various countries. Buffalo doesn't, or didn't, have a sizable Asian population as I was growing up so my exposure was limited. Pad thai was one of the dishes on the menu at Stickers and it was the first time I'd ever tasted it. Thailand's national dish, it consists rice noodles, bean sprouts, egg, herbs and peanuts in a spicy-sweet sauce. Thai food is kown for its wonderful balance of pungent, savory, salty, sour and sweet and this dish really exemplifies that well. Since then, I've ordered pad thai at other places and have never been satisfied; glutinous noodles, overly sweet, I had pretty much given up.

With Nicole's fantastic gift of the Cook's Illustrated cookbook, I spied a recipe for pad thai and I decided to try this one out. I've seen several recipes, made a few, and haven't been pleased. Some even call for ketchup! Who would ever think ketchup has a place in Thai food is sick indeed. So this is my new recipe of the week.

There were some special ingrediants I needed to pick up so I swung by A. Chau on Niagara Street. It's run by a Vietnamese family but they have a wide assortment of unusual (to me, anyway) fruits and vegetables, dusty packages with mysterious markings, kitchen utensils and the like. I don't have any idea how much things cost individually but I bought a lime, two shallots, basil, an industrial size bottle of fish sauce, peanuts, tamarind concentrate and dried shrinp for $9.66. Nice.

So, ready and armed, I returned home to put together my concoction. It was fairly labor intensive but so worth it. I'll go through the reicpe and then explain what I did differently or what I'll change next time.

Pad Thai

3 T. tamarind concentrate, soaked in 3/4 c. boiling water
3 T. fish sauce
3 T. sugar
2 T. vegetable oil
1 T. rice wine vinegar
3/4 t. cayenne

The Rest:
8 oz dried rice noodles
2 T. vegetable oil
12 oz mediem shrinp, peeled and deveined
1 medium shallot, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 t salt
1 T dried shrimp, chopped fine (optional)
2 T chopped, salted preserved radish (optional)
1/4 c. unsalted, roasted peanuts, plus extra for garnish
3 c bean sprouts
5 scallions, sliced on the diagonal
1/4 c loosely packed cilantro leaves
1 lime, cut in wedges

1. OK, this first part, I will admit, is a huge pain in the ass. Tamarind concentrate is a sticky block that includes pits and all. You have to soak it for ten minutes in boiling water and then push it through a fine mesh strainer. I did this for about 5-7 minutes and gave up. This is necessary though. Don't be lazy. After you're done with that, mix in the other sauce ingredients. Be careful with the fish sauce. I squeezed the bottle with exuberance and I'm pretty sure I squeezed some right into the heating vent. That's not going to smell good tomorrow.
2. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil, turn off the heat, add rice noodles and let sit for ten minutes. That's right, I said turn off the heat. Otherwise they get all mushy. I actually would do it for about 8 minutes next time but I like a little bite to my noodles. Drain and set aside.
3. Heat the oil in a skillet over high heat. Add the shrimp, sprinkle with 1/8 t of salt and cook until shrimp are opaque and lightly browned on the edges, about three minutes, remove and set aside. Let me be frank. I'm balling on a budget so there was no fresh shrimp in my dish. But I'm sure it would be way better. You can also use tofu (extra-firm) for a good and common addition to the dish.
4. Add shallot, garlic and remaining salt to the pan. Speaking of the pan, I used my trusty 12 inch cast iron skillet. Go bigger if you can. I spilled all over the place. Anyway, cook over medium heat for a few minutes until golden brown. Stir in the eggs, mixing constantly until scrambled and barely moist, about 30 seconds. Interestingly, the eggs were perhaps one of my favorite bits, just picture it, all full of shallot and garlic. Mmm.
5. Add rice noodles, dried shrimp and radish. I think next time I will add 2 T. of choppped shrimp, the earthy, briny flavor didn't really stand out. The radish was optional anyway, which is good because I didn't find it. So you can skip that. Add the sauce and toss to combine evenly.
6. Add cooked shrimp (if you're not broke like me, that is), peanuts, bean sprouts and scallions and cook until the noodles have absorbed the sauce. The best bits are the ones that get nicely browned on the bottom. Turn off the heat and toss with cilantro. I added equal parts julienned basil and truly, I can't believe Cook's Illustrated didn't add that. I think the dish wouldn't be the same. Anyway, top each portion with more chopped peanuts and a couple wedges of lime.

A final word: If you don't have these ingredients, don't substitute. It won't be good, I promise. As I was eating it, I thought, this is good but something is missing. So I went back to the kitchen for more peanuts (just dump them on, the crunch is beautiful) and realized I forgot my lime wedges. I squeezed the lime atop my platter and I was rewarded with the exact brightness and acidity I was craving. This was really delicious and highly recommended. Although the recipe says whatever it says about limes and peanuts, I would say to have extra peanuts and lime on hand. They really make the dish.

Kuni Ku Ku

Kuni's, the famed Elmwood sushi spot, quietly reopened last year on Lexington, doing a brisk business in takeout only. This works fine for me since I was never able to get a table at the old place anyway.

We ordered a feast on Saturday night. I have never had their wasabi shumai and they were outstanding. I love wasabi and always add it bit by bit to my soy sauce. It's never enough and then I always make the mistake of adding just a bit more and completely ruin the balance. Well, the wasabi in these little dumplings achieves that perfect balance of nostril-flaring heat without subsequent head throbbing.
My other two favorites were the spicy tuna roll and oddly, the avocado roll. I always thought the avocado roll was so boring, avocado and rice when I can have three kinds of fish, tobiko, unagi and sprouts all in one? In my older age, I have come to appreciate that less is sometimes more and when less means perfectly ripe avocado with sticky, well-seasoned sushi rice, then I'm all about it. We also ordered just a fillet of a salmon, grilled, nothing extra and it was golden-crusted on the outside and moist and tender inside.

I hear their lunchtime bento box special is the way to go so anyone looking for a lunch date, let me know.

Butternup Squash Soup

I think this is a pretty standard soup these days. I like the sweetness that an apple or pear adds to the soup and simply roasting the ingredients brings out all their flavors. Unfortunately, I added too much stock so that it was too thin for my taste. Next time I will add a bit at a time.

1 squash-I used butternut
1 apple
1 large onion
2 cups chicken stock
salt and pepper

Roast the squash, onions and apple. Puree with a bit of chicken stock. Add to a large pot and slowly add the chicken stock to desired consistency. Simmer 10 minutes. I topped the soup with a dollop of yogurt muixed with cilantro and curry paste.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Cook's Illustrated Lasagna

N. requested lasagna this week and, since I resolved to make a new recipe from my Cook's Illustrated cookbook this week, I decided to abandon my typical recipe and see what they had to say about the venerable classic. My lasagna usually takes forever because I spend the day before making sauce; browning the meat, simmiering the aromatics, deglazing with wine and cooking for hours. Cook's Illustrated suggested a simple and quick simmered tomato sauce, which I found interesting for a couple of reasons. First, they recommend the more Italian style of cooking pasta, meaning that with sauce, less is more. I am ever so Italian-American in my tendency to drown things in sauce and then douse more sauce on top of the finished product. Second, to cut down on cooking time, the recipe indicated that the tomatoes should be drained on their juices, which are reserved, then sauteeing the onions, garlic and tomatoes until all the moisture evaporates and a brown fond is formed. Then deglaze with wine and add the reserved juices. This worked well because most recipes, including my own, dump the tomatoes with all their juices right into the mix, adding water and reducing by a lengthy cooking period. So I made this sauce in under an hour and it produced probably less than two cups.

To assemble the cheese mixture, Cook's Illustrated stated that ricotta just had too much water and after several test batches, they came up with a mixture of mozzarella and parmesean. Well, I was willing to give this a try but when it came down to it, the mixture looked so very dry. So I added an egg and pureed a cup of cottage cheese that I had on hand. I know, it sounds unorthodox but I was already experimenting so what the heck? I also couldn't bear the thought of unseasoned cheese so in went some parsley and nutmeg. The recipe was very specific about using 12 lasagna noodles. This irked me because it doesn't reach to all sides of a 13 by 9 inch pan. I usually load as much pasta and cheese as I can in there but I thought "Just give it a try and stop being so stubborn!" The final difference was that the last layer of noodles be topped only with cheese, no sauce. Hmmm. Well, the results were quite good, I thought. The mixture oozed out during the baking so you could never even tell that the noodles didn't fit the pan snugly. I really like the cheese-only layer on top; it reminded on me parmesean crisps and provided a nice contrast to the dense, tomato-rich interior.

I'm not including a recipe because, really, you already know. It was more about changing my methods, or at least learning another style and the downfalls of some of the traditional ways. But if you're really dying for the recipe, let me know, I'll send it your way.

Death by Poutine

Since I live on the US-Canadian border, I am privileged to have sampled and loved the only Canadian culinary contribution I am aware of, the esteemed poutine. Poutine is essentially a Quebec thing but is certainly available throughout the other provinces. It consists of french fries and cheese curd swimming through a sea of brown gravy. It's irreverant, it's disgusting, it's delicious. It's really great when the fries are thick-cut with the skin still on, the cheese curds get soft but retain their shape and the gravy is rich and salty.

I went to Toronto for New Year's Eve and about twenty minutes past the border, my car inadvertently swereved off the road towards a nearby Harvey's location. Harvey's is a fast-food restaurant and this remarkable outlet was teamed up with a Swiss Chalet, both inside the same building! Is that classy or what? As I entered the building and saw a haze of deep fryer smoke in the air, I knew I was in a for an artery-clogging treat. I was not disappointed. Nicole thought this was not the best representation of the fine dish but since I get poutine so rarely, I thought it was just dandy.

I'm not sure of the origins of the dish, nor can I figure out its murky etymoloigcal background but I do know that if you find yourself on the other side of the border, order the poutine.