Sunday, January 20, 2008

Dinner in Layers

I combined several recipes to create this lasagna. It has the best of everything - tomato sauce, pesto, two cheeses, meat, and vegetables. The no-boil noodles almost taste like fresh pasta, and the ricotta and pesto combination lightens the dish without taking over the other ingredients.

My Lasagna

a box of no-boil lasagna noodles (Barilla)
1.25 lb spicy Italian turkey sausage, casings remo
28 oz crushed tomatoes

6 oz tomato paste


1 cup chopped onion 2 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 bag baby spinach

15 oz. part skim ricotta

4 T or so pesto

approximately 10 cremini mushrooms, sliced

4 chicken pesto meatballs, chopped

*a little extra tomato sauce

2 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella
1/2 cup grated parmesan

Make sauce (from Barefoot Contessa's Turkey Lasagna):
saute onions in large pot over medium heat for 5 minutes; add garlic and saute another minute add sausage and break up very well, cook over medium low for 6-8 minutes or until cooked through
add meatballs, tomato paste, crushed tomatoe
s, a few sprinkles of oregano
allow to simmer for 15 minutes until thick

turn off the stove

combine ricotta and pesto in a bowl, set aside
spoon 1/3 of sauce into bottom of 9 x 13" bakin
g dish
move sauce pot off the burner, add spinach, stir to wilt it

Continue building lasagna:
arrange noodles and break off pieces so the entire
bottom of the pan is covered
sprinkle 3/4 cup mozzarella over pasta,
spread half of ricotta/pesto mixture over cheese
spoon another 1/3 of sauce (with spinach) over ricotta
add an
other layer of noodles, mozzarella, and ricotta

spread mushrooms throughout (or only on part if you choose)

put the remaining sauce on top, followed by the last of the noodles
*I used a cup or so of meatless sauce I had already made on top of the noodles, and topped it all with the rest of the mozzarella and the parmesan
bake at 350 for 25 minutes, finish at 400 fo
r 5-10 minutes

A meal as involved as this one deserves a special dessert, and the January issue of Gourmet inspired me to try the Mile High Chocolate Cake. If you've seen the picture of it, you probably understand. In case you haven't, here's one of mine during the construction process:

Although it was fun to make, as layer cakes usually are, this one didn't make me want to forget my favorite recipe for chocolate cake. It was slightly dry, which may have been my fault for making four 9" layers instead of 8," but the icing was so rich that it was distracting.

With six sticks of butter as its base, the frosting was never completely smooth, and never regained its spreadable texture once it was refrigerated. It may be "mile high" and impressive in appearance, but there are desserts much worthier of my newly developed lasagna.

What I Didn't Know About Wheat Germ

It can be toasted or raw. And there's a type of tofu called silken tofu, which is often used as a substitute for dairy products, but it's not refrigerated. Soy protein powder can either come in giant jars or individually-sized packets. Oat bran is dispensed from a plastic container like candy.

These are all discoveries I made a couple weeks ago on an outing to Ellwood Thompson's. It's not often that I go to a food store and feel lost, but most of the items I sought aren't normally on my grocery list. Davy and I were inspired by Alton Brown's show about homemade energy bars, so we decided to use his recipe for protein bars.

Despite everything we learned at Ellwood Thompson's about natural and wholesome products, the most relevant finding was that these ingredients taste healthy no matter how you combine them. Not so healthy that the bars aren't edible, but just enough that I don't think I'll be having more health food adventures anytime soon.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Farm Show '08

Need a break from the dull post-holiday grind? Declare a personal food holiday, and stuff your face for an entire day, or even weekend.

The Pennsylvania State Farm Show was a great excuse for Davy, Evan, a couple of friends and me to eat excessively. Not only is there a giant food court with a plethora of delicious options and that beloved lingering smell of animals in the complex, most of the edible items are priced under $5.

After showing the first-timers around the perimeter of the food court, we decided to begin devouring all of the goodies in a methodical, clockwise direction. That meant two steaming and buttered baked potatoes and six fresh potato donuts (half plain, half powdered sugar). The baked potato is a Farm Show staple, but I'd never had the potato donuts. They're dense and fantastic, and I won't make the mistake of skipping them again.

Round two included four decadent squares of fried mozzarella and an order of fried mushrooms. I always burn my mouth when I bite into a mushroom, but the herbed breading is so crispy that it's difficult to resist eating when it's in front of you.

One of the major highlights for me is the apple dumplings with homemade vanilla ice cream. I decided that this is my favorite thing to eat at the Farm Show, and it doesn't even involve chocolate or a fryer. The pastry in the dumplings is a magical substance that is neither too sweet nor buttery, and it forms the perfect flaky shell without being too heavy. Inside the dough is a soft mound of fruit with the perfect amount of cinnamon and sugar. Both the apple and the ice cream transcend anything I've ever tasted or

It's hard to imagine eating anything alongside the apple dumpling, but we managed to consume two sandwiches: roast beef and pulled pork. Both were tasty, but by that time we were full and needed an active break. We made our way through several exhibits to see the butter sculpture, which wasn't as impressive as years past, although it provided enough of a walk to digest and go back to the food court.

Milkshakes are a requirement at this event. Similar to the apple dumpling, the quality of these milkshakes goes way beyond anything you can get in every day life. Some people say that the chocolate by itself is too rich, and may go for the black and white option, which is chocolate on top of vanilla. To me, the Farm Show's chocolate milkshakes are the only milkshakes I'm really interested in. They are divinely thick and have an intense chocolate flavor that doesn't seem possible given the relatively light color they have.

To accompany our milkshakes, we also purchased vanilla soft ice cream with rainbow sprinkles, chicken nuggets, and a chicken sandwich. Evan wasn't convinced that chicken is a Farm Show food, and not worth wasting stomach space on, but I think he was proven wrong. Everything just tastes better there. Hopefully I didn't leave out anything we sampled; there was a definite food coma immediately following the outing. But all of the food, whether classic or newfound favorites, was well worth the resulting stomach discomfort.

If you're excited about next year's show or want to learn more, click here.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Lovely London

Food helps me with unfamiliar territory, even if the food itself is unfamiliar. After learning about a favorite local snack or a culinary tradition, the people and sites in a city seem more accessible.

Borough Market in London, arguably the best food market I've seen, was exciting and intimidating. The exotic, world-famous ingredients and prepared items didn't feel real to me until I saw the first bakery stand with its huge stack of sizable brownies. Most of the market's pretentiousness fell away when I realized that the vendors at these internationally acclaimed booths were playing into people's food fantasies. They certainly got to mine. We hadn't even had lunch but I knew I wouldn't be leaving Borough Market without one of those 2 kg brownies (and an amazing grilled cheeseburger, hot hard cider, chocolate truffles and various samples).

Exploring a city isn't complete unless there are risks to accompany the comfortable culinary bonds. In London, I tried Korean food and authentic pub food for the first time, and Indian food for the second or third time. While these selections may not seem overly exotic, London is known for its international cuisine, and they're not among my normal choices for dining out.

Eating Indian delivery - chicken curry, tandoori chicken, two types of naan and a taste of a pumpkin dish - was a welcome change from finding food while sightseeing. The experience reminded me of the brightness and diversity of flavors in Indian cuisine, and I'm much more interested in trying new Indian restaurants in Richmond.

Korean food isn't quite as available in Richmond as other Asian varieties, although I do intend to locate a Korean venue here soon because of how much I enjoyed the experience in London. Kimchi, which we ordered as an appetizer, is made with spicy, fermented cabbage and other crunchy vegetables. We also had a plate of fish pancakes, which were steaming hot and mild in flavor. Lauren raved about bibimbap, which is an entree that comes in a heated stone bowl. Rice and vegetables are the standard components of
bibimbap, along with a choice of meat (I had pork), and an egg is cracked on top of the other ingredients. It cooks as you stir it into the rice, and blends all of the layers together in a delicious and fragrant meal.

The culinary adventures I had in London added to my understanding of the city and of British culture, and the memories I have from the trip will continue to enhance my eating habits at home.