September 20, 2012

Favorite Lasagna

Favorite Lasagna
This might be my husband's favorite thing that I make- and every new baby meal I have ever taken to a friend, this has been it!  This lasagna is great- mostly because of the sauce, and because it uses fresh mozzarella and freshly grated Parmesan and Pecorino Romano.  Yes, I have a slight Pecorino Romano obsession- it's just so deliciously salty, can't help it!

I've experimented with this sauce over the years, and this week, I made a surprising discovery!  My discovery was that the sauce hinges ENTIRELY on the inclusion of carrots and celery, and using diced tomatoes instead of crushed.  Really?!  You say?  Well, yes, and this is how I found that out- With my regular sleep deprivation and general Mommy brain, I went to the grocery store to buy the ingredients for this dish.  Carrots and celery did not make it into the cart.  I decided to go ahead and make the sauce anyway.  I also hadn't paid much attention to what kind of canned tomatoes I had in the pantry, it was crushed, instead of whole or diced.  I used crushed.  Well, the sauce was edible.  That's how I'd describe it.  When my husband came home from work and asked what was for dinner I said, 'Well, there's some meat sauce.'  He looked at me a little confused.  'Is it good?' He asked.  'It's edible,' I shrugged.  Who knew carrots and celery were the key.  Go figure!  (And the crushed tomatoes are a) too acidic and b) too much liquid vs. the diced tomatoes, where the liquid simmers off and you're left with a lovely, complex sauce that hasn't become overly tomato.)  Anyhow, THAT sauce wasn't used for this lasagna.  I went back to the store and got the correct ingredients and here they are- just in time for fall.

Favorite Lasagna
This is roughly enough for 8-10 people.  I make two lasagnas, a large one in a 10x14 dish and a smaller one in a 3x6 dish that I freeze.

1 Tbsp olive oil
2 pieces raw bacon, cut into 1/4" pieces
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
3 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 whole carrots or 10-15 baby carrots, peeled and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, through a press or finely chopped
1 lb. sweet Italian pork sausage
1 lb. ground beef, 80 or 85% lean
1 tsp sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp tomato paste (from a tube, sometimes labeled 'double concentrated')
1 cup red wine
1 or 2 cans (28 oz each) diced tomatoes (1 can for a less tomato focused sauce, 2 for more tomato flavor and content)  If diced tomatoes aren't available, get whole tomatoes and cut them in pieces, then add both the tomato pieces and the juice to the sauce.

2 lb. fresh mozzarella
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan
1 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano
1 15 oz. container whole milk ricotta
1 box lasagna noodles (I usually use about 15-17 noodles)

Bacon, onions, carrots and celery
This is sort of a long process, so sometimes I make this over two days.  I make the sauce one day, then I assemble and bake it the next day.  Let's begin and make our sauce!  In a large stock pot, heat the olive oil over medium low heat.  Add the bacon, allow to brown, stirring occasionally.  Add the onion, carrot and celery once the bacon has browned nicely, and allow to soften for a few minutes.  Add the garlic.  Let this cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent and there are a few instances of browning- but there doesn't need to be a lot.  Now it is time to add the meat.  If the sausage is in casings, just squeeze it out and add it to the pot in small pieces, no bigger than a gumball.  Add the ground beef in similarly sized pieces.  Allow to brown, use a wooden spoon to stir as well as break down pieces of meat that are too big.  Add the salt and pepper.  Once the meat has browned roughly all over, add the tomato paste and wine and stir to incorporate.  Allow this to simmer until you can tell the liquid has reduced, it doesn't have to be completely, just enough so that you notice it.  Next, add your can of diced tomatoes.  Reduce the heat to low, partially cover, and simmer for 1 hour.  Check on it occasionally and stir it, you don't want the heat so high that the bottom will burn.  If you're making it ahead of time, allow it to cool slightly, then transfer it to something that isn't hot to store it in the refrigerator.  If you're making the lasagna all at once, just set it aside, you'll use it shortly.

Finished meat sauce
Partially boiled lasagna noodles in moist towels
Put a pot of water on the stove and get it to a boil, we are going to boil our lasagna noodles ahead of time, not all the way, but enough so that we won't have uncooked pasta in our lasagna.  I don't bother to salt the water for this since the cheeses used in this dish already have a fair amount of salt.  I have tried making this lasagna with several different lasagna noodles- some of which promised that I didn't have to boil them ahead of time.  Sorry, this step is unfortunately needed.  Maybe it's the way the rest of the lasagna is put together, but I promise that if you don't boil them, you'll be sad :(  and have crunchy lasagna...  who wants that!  Ok- this is how I do my pasta here- I boil four lasagna noodles at a time in the pot, once it's reached a boil, and I remove them after about 3 minutes, when they are starting to bend in the water.  I remove them and place them on moist paper towels in layers, this keeps them separated and moist for you while you go about the rest of your work.  You may also use moist kitchen towels.  The reason I do this in batches of four noodles is that I find they stick together if there are too many noodles, and I've burned my little fingers many times trying to pull them apart!

To assemble the lasagna, you'll need to slice your fresh mozzarella into pieces- I can never get them thinner than about 1/4" thick since the texture is so soft, that's fine- also, go ahead and grate your cheeses.  You do want to grate them as opposed to buying them grated, the flavor is superior.  Now we'll go through your layering steps- and while you put the lasagna(s) together, go ahead and preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

Step one- a layer of sauce- as you can see, the sauce is very chunky and not much of a 'sauce,' this is partially because this example used only one can of diced tomatoes.  If you use two, it will appear a little differently.  In addition, I was assembling with cold sauce, so it appears thicker and to have less liquid than it really does.

Step one, layer of sauce
Step two- a layer of partially cooked noodles.  How you lay them out will depend on the size and shape of your pan.  This pan needs six noodles per layer, but I have pans that only need four, or less.  You can either arrange them all whole, or cut them as needed.  If you cut them, they won't come apart cleanly, so just be prepared for that.  Will still taste good, just won't be as pretty.

Step two, layer of noodles
Step three- ricotta, I use a fork and my fingers for this, first I put some on with a fork, then I spread it out with my fingers.  A spoon would also be just fine.  If you feel like the ricotta is really, really firm and it's having trouble spreading out, mix it with some of the used pasta water.  (Or, if you already poured it out, just water is fine!)  Whether or not you need to do this depends on your ricotta.

Step three, ricotta
Step four- grated Parmesan and Pecorino Romano

Step four, Parmesan and Pecorino Romano
Step five- pieces of fresh mozzarella.  Some thoughts here- this layer shown is a healthy layer, if you are less of a cheese fan, put less of this.  This variable is what will make the inside of your lasagna seem particularly cheesy or not.  The ricotta and grated cheeses disappear a little more during the cooking, this is partially because they are not a 'pulled cheese,' the way mozzarella is, whereas other cheeses have the ability to melt and become a part of something else, pulled cheeses have more difficultly doing this, you know what I mean if you've ever tried to add mozzarella to macaroni and cheese.  Just plain stringy!

Step five, Mozzarella
Step six- we are back to sauce- a nice layer of sauce here.  This amount shown in the picture is on the conservative side.  For a more sauce heavy and tomato flavor heavy lasagna, use more sauce.

Step six, layer of sauce
Step seven- back to noodles- you get the picture here.  Keep creating layers using this order and how many layers you have will depend on your pan.  This large pan that I'm showing you with is rather shallow, so I was only able to use two layers of noodles.  After I put the sauce layer on top of the second set of noodles, here is the final step-
Step seven, layer of noodles
Final step- mozzarella and grated cheese.  This layer needs to have significantly more coverage than your internal mozzarella layers.  It's ok, though, to have some sauce peeking out.  Try, though, to have no noodles peeking out, they will get crispy or potentially burned.

Final step, Mozzarella and grated cheese
Now, put your beautiful creation in the oven for 20 minutes, then, if you have an uneven oven like I do, turn it around and leave it in for another 10 minutes.  If you have a nice even oven, there's no need to turn it.  How do you know if your oven is uneven?  If things brown unevenly or cook unevenly, you do, but it's a very easy fix, just turn things from time to time during the cooking time.

Baked lasagna
In addition to this large lasagna, I make a small one with the leftovers and I bake it using the same instructions, then I freeze it.  To get a frozen one ready to eat, I would put it in the refrigerator overnight, then you can most likely cut it in pieces and microwave it.  If you'd prefer not to microwave it, cover it with foil and heat it at around 300 until it's heated through, depending on how frozen it still is, this will depend.  But, I'd recommend covering it with foil to prevent additional browning and keep moisture inside.  Enjoy!

September 5, 2012

Short Ribs in Red Wine with... Polenta!

Little baby girl is ready for short ribs!
I know it's still warm, despite it being September, and I realize I am jumping the gun a little here!  But!  I LOVE comforting, slowly braised short ribs in a flavorful sauce, and serve it over some polenta- we have a weeknight winner!  The very wonderful thing about a dish like this, though, is that it can be made ahead of time and then just pulled together quickly, making it a GREAT weeknight option.  That's precisely what I did here- I made this on a Sunday afternoon (while doing other glamorous Sunday tasks- laundry, dishes, catching up on everything...) and then I put it in the refrigerator.  We ate it the next night and all I needed to do was to warm the meat in the oven, reheat the gravy on the stove, and make some polenta, which, if you read the post on polenta you know it only takes a few minutes, and there you have it!  Open a lovely red, put the littlest baby in their Bumbo seat, and you have a great meal!

Short Ribs in Red Wine
(serves 3 adults and one presently finicky toddler)
2 large carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
5-6 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic (through a press or just peeled)
fresh thyme (3-5 sprigs)
fresh rosemary (1 small sprig)
1 bay leaf (small to medium sized, mine are Turkish)
1 tsp. sea salt
freshly ground white or black pepper
2 cups chicken broth (I use 'better than bouillon')
2 cups red wine
3 long or 6 short short ribs (this will depend on how your butcher prepares them- the 'short' are about 3-4" long and the 'long' are double that)
canola oil
olive oil

Browned short ribs
Let's begin!  First, pat your short ribs dry with a paper towel, this allows them to brown nicely.  Heat some canola oil at high heat in a pan on the stove- you'll only be using this pan to sear the outside of the short ribs. Brown all sides of the short ribs, just a few minutes on each side, then set aside.  You won't need to keep the fat from this that will now be in the pan (although if you'd like to use it for something else, you can!)

Coarsely chopped carrots, onion and celery
Now, in a large dutch oven, heat 3 Tbsp olive oil over medium heat.  Add the carrots, onion, celery and garlic.  All of these ingredients just need to be chopped coarsely, they won't be served, so it does not have to be pretty.  We're just getting all their wonderful flavor here.  Cook these, stirring occasionally for a little while, it may be 10-25 minutes depending on the heat and the surface area of the pan, you want the onions to be translucent and for there to be a small amount of browning occurring.  You don't need to cook these for such a long time that caramelizing starts.  Go ahead and add the salt and pepper.  Now, add the remaining ingredients- place the short ribs on top of the vegetables, add the stock, wine, and herbs- I've included pictures of the amount of thyme and rosemary because sometimes I find it hard to judge from written directions only.  This is the amount I used- I find that thyme is sometimes a bit shy and rosemary can easily overwhelm, so be sure to be prudent in the amount on that one!

Fresh thyme
Fresh rosemary
Let's bring this beautiful pot to a simmer and cover, on my stove that is 'low,' you want this low and slow, completely covered, for about 2 hours and 45 minutes.  If your liquid doesn't completely cover the meat, turn it with tongs at about the half way point.

Removing the membrane that attaches to the bone
Now, remove it from the heat after the 2 hours and 45 minutes and remove the meat.  One or more of the short ribs may have come unattached from it's bone, that is fine, we're going to remove them anyhow!  If you've eaten short ribs before, you may or may not have come into contact with the membrane that surrounds the bone.  What I like to do it remove that and just reserve the top portion of the meat that doesn't have any unattractive funky parts like that (and I don't think this part is very appetizing). Anyhow, your meat is nice and soft and you should be able to easily do this with a knife and fork, but, you'll need to be very gentle to keep the rest of the meat in tact- like I said, it's nice and soft!  Try to keep them in tact as best you can and then refrigerate these pieces of meat until you are ready to serve them.

Everything added to the pot before braising
For the sauce, you are going to say thank you to all these lovely ingredients and you are going to just strain this and reserve only the liquid.  Don't worry, it has PLENTY of flavor on its own.  In a small pot, boil the liquid for about 15 minutes, or until it's about half of the amount it was.  Now we refrigerate it until we need it!

Fast forward to the next day, when you are going to save the day and pull together a delicious dinner in a snap.  Preheat your oven to 225.  Place the meat in a foil covered dish and place in the oven for 45 minutes.  When you are about 15 minutes away from eating, start heating your gravy on the stove and let's pull together a nice basic polenta!

Between 3/4-1 cup of freshly grated parmesan and or pecorino romano
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup whole milk
1 cup polenta
freshly grated white or black pepper

In a medium to large pot, heat the milk and chicken broth.  Once it's simmering, add the polenta in a steady stream while stirring.  Depending on the polenta, it will take between 2 and about 10 minutes to absorb the liquid.  You want this to have the consistency of mashed potatoes, so add liquid as needed (in equal amounts water and whole milk).  Once it is the consistency you'd like it to be, turn off the heat and add the cheese and the pepper.  You won't need salt because both the chicken broth and cheese have significant amounts of salt.  But, taste it to make sure it's to your liking.

Adding gravy to polenta and short ribs
You have your meal!  To plate this and present it, place some polenta in a dish, I use soup plates, place the meat on top, then pour some of the gravy over this- delicious!

For another take on polenta, and musings on its origins, check out: