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Imagine being 7 years old and being offered an array of cookies and cakes for breakfast every morning. For my son Liam, that was one of the highlights of accompanying me on a six-week long research trip through the European Mediterranean the summer after he finished first grade. I also took my best friend’s 20-year old daughter Rachel, Liam’s beloved babysitter, so he would have somebody to play with. Nonetheless, it was sometimes not very much fun for him to be dragged from one place to another just so his mom could find and eat great food. Liam has always loved great food too, but constant traveling can be hard for a 7-year-old.
It was all worth it for him, though, when we arrived at Il Frantoio, an old olive oil farm that is also an azienda agrituristica, or farmhouse hotel, in the southern Italian region of Apulia. Il Frantoio is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Every room in the elegant house has been lovingly restored by the owners, Rosalba and Armando Ciannamea. Wherever your eye turns, it falls on something pleasing to see. Olive groves, some of them more than 500 years old, with beautiful, huge trees, stretch for miles within the whitewashed walls of the property. Armando produces several different olive oils, and the farm also produces wheat, fruit and vegetables, everything organic.
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The beauty of the place and the unforgettable dinners may or may not have been lost on Liam. What he will always remember about Il Frantoio is that they served cookies for breakfast. Every morning, when you cross the quiet courtyard and enter the dining room, you encounter a lace-covered buffet with bowls of fruit from the farm’s orchards — plums and peaches, apricots and nectarines in summer, apples and pears in the late fall — and baked goods from the kitchen — several varieties of cookies and cakes, breads and pastries made with flour ground from Il Frantoio’s own heirloom wheat; homemade jams and honeys. Pitchers of fresh orange and grapefruit juice are covered with handmade lace doilies to protect them from flies. Needless to say, Liam woke up early every day and couldn’t wait to get to breakfast. He always went straight for the cookies.
Italian Butter Cookies with Anise and Lemon Zest
Makes about 4 dozen cookies
180 grams (6 ounces) unsalted butter, preferably French style such as Plugrà, at room temperature
125 grams (⅔ cup) sugar
55 grams (1 large) egg
1 teaspoon finely chopped lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons aniseeds, crushed in a mortar and pestle
275 grams (2¼ cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
5 grams (1 rounded teaspoon) baking powder
1 gram (¼ teaspoon) salt
1. In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter with the sugar until fluffy and pale, about 4 minutes. Scrape down the bowl and beaters. Add the egg, lemon zest, vanilla and aniseeds, and beat together.
2. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. On low speed, beat into the butter mixture, just until combined. Gather the dough into a ball, then press down to a 1-inch thickness. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate overnight or for up to 3 days, or place in the freezer for 1 to 2 hours. Alternatively (if you don’t want to roll out the dough), remove spoonfuls of half of the dough and plop them down the middle of a piece of parchment paper to create a log about 2 inches in diameter. Fold the parchment up around the log to and refrigerate for 2 hours or longer. Repeat with the remaining dough.
3. Preheat the oven to 350 F with the rack adjusted to the lowest setting. Line baking sheets with parchment.
4. Cut the dough into 2 or 4 pieces, and roll out one piece at a time on a lightly dusted work surface, or preferably on a Silpat, to about ¼-inch thick. Cut into circles or shapes, dipping the cutter into flour between each cut, and place 1 inch apart on the baking sheet. Keep the remaining pieces of dough in the refrigerator or freezer.
5. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, turning the baking sheets front to back halfway through. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack.
Note: You can brush the cookies before baking with a little egg wash if you want them to look shiny.
Chocolate Walnut Biscotti
Makes about 4 dozen biscotti
125 grams (1 cup, approximately) unbleached all purpose flour
120 grams (approximately 1 cup, tightly packed) almond flour
60 grams (approximately ½ cup) unsweetened cocoa
10 grams (2 teaspoons) instant espresso powder or coffee extract
10 grams (2 teaspoons) baking powder
4 grams (1/2 teaspoon) salt
55 grams (2 ounces) unsalted butter
150 grams (approximately ¾ cup, tightly packed) brown sugar, preferably organic
110 grams (2 large) eggs
10 grams (2 teaspoons) vanilla extract
100 grams (1 cup) walnuts, chopped
1. Preheat the oven to 300 F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment. In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, almond flour, cocoa, instant espresso powder if using, baking powder and salt.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar for 2 minutes on medium speed. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the beater with a rubber spatula and add the eggs, coffee extract if using and vanilla extract. Beat together for 1 to 2 minutes, until well blended. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the beater. Add the flour mixture and beat at low speed until well blended. Add the walnuts and beat at low speed until mixed evenly through the dough. The dough will be moist and sticky.
3. Divide the dough in two and shape 2 wide, flat logs, about 10 to 12 inches long by 2 ½ inches wide. The logs may spread while you bake, so it’s best to place them on two parchment-covered sheets. Place in the oven on the middle rack and bake 40 to 45 minutes, until dry, beginning to crack in the middle, and firm. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 20 minutes or longer.
4. Place the logs on a baking sheet and carefully cut into ½-inch thick slices. Place on two parchment-covered baking sheets and bake one sheet at a time in the middle of the oven until the slices are dry, 30 to 35 minutes, flipping the biscotti over after 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
Top photo: The breakfast table at Il Frantoio. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman
I was so saddened by the recent death of food writer Penelope Casas. I never met her, but I’ve long depended on her work for my own research. Her first cookbook, “The Foods & Wines of Spain,” was published in 1979 and was for decades the only act in town if you wanted to know about authentic Spanish food. She wrote a book about tapas long before small plates became fashionable (“Tapas, The Little Dishes of Spain,” 1986), and a comprehensive book on the regional cuisines of Spain (“Delicioso! The Regional Cooking of Spain,” 1996), a tome whose index does not include El Bulli, Ferran Adrià or foams.
Casas was not Spanish herself, but Greek-American, born in the borough of Queens in New York City. She studied Spanish in high school and majored in Spanish literature at Vassar. When she was 19, she went to Madrid on a student exchange program and fell in love not only with Spain and Spanish cooking, but also with Luis Casas, a medical student and the son of the woman who hosted her. He guided her through the tapas bars of Madrid that semester abroad, and eventually became her husband.
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Sometime in the early 1970s, when the couple was living in New York, Craig Claiborne made an error of nomenclature when writing in The New York Times about a Spanish tapa called angulas. Casas wrote a letter to him about the mistake, and this eventually led to a Spanish dinner that she prepared for him in her home. He was very impressed by the meal and urged her to write a book; this became “The Foods & Wines of Spain,” published by Knopf and edited by Judith Jones.
One of my favorite Penelope Casas books is “Paella! Spectacular Rice Dishes of Spain,” which she published in 1999. This book, with more than 60 paellas, needed to be written, as Americans have long had misconceptions about what paella is and how to prepare it correctly. “The horrors that have befallen this exquisite dish and the indignities it has suffered!” Casas writes in the opening paragraph of the book’s introduction. “Paella is not a steamed rice, cooked in a covered pan, but generally a ‘dry’ rice that cooks uncovered in a wide, flat paella pan. It is not bright orange (that comes from artificial coloring) and it is not a precooked pot of Uncle Ben’s rice to which lobster, chicken and clams have been strewn on top to give a pretty appearance and to disguise what is usually very ordinary rice.”
Paella is meant to show off the rice itself and to highlight a few special ingredients. These can be vegetables, fish, shellfish or meat. Sometimes you will find sausage in a seafood paella (though rarely in Valencia, home of paella, where mixing sausage and seafood is heresy, according to Casas), but you will not also find chicken in that dish; you’ll find chicken in a typical paella Valenciana, however, and possibly rabbit.
Whatever paella you make, it should use short- or medium-grain rice, which should be cooked uncovered in a flavorful stock. You can get the highly regarded Spanish Bomba rice at specialty markets, but at more than $7 a pound I usually opt for a California-grown Valencia-style “pearl” rice from Goya Foods. It’s fun to make paella over a grill, and a bit easier than making it on the stove unless you have a large center burner. I don’t, so when I use the stove I position my paella pan over two burners and rotate it every five to 10 minutes while the rice is cooking.
I made a big seafood paella recently for a dinner party I gave for what I thought was going to be a dozen people and turned out to be 14. I had sold the dinner at my son’s school auction and didn’t know anybody who was coming except for the principal, but figured a festive paella would be a great dish for breaking the ice, if ice had to be broken. Paella is the perfect party dish because it’s a one-pot meal, and because it feeds a crowd (I didn’t know that there was going to be an extra couple at the table until we sat down and I found that I was two places short; I scrambled to set places but had no worries about having enough food). You can get much of the cooking done in advance, and the finished dish can sit for some time before you serve it. You can make it with seafood or meat, as well as vegetarian (I ate a wonderful vegetable paella in El Palmar, a small town near Valencia known for its paellas, and published the recipe it inspired in “Mediterranean Harvest“).
I didn’t know that Penelope Casas had died when I decided on my dinner party menu, but I’m glad to have cooked a tribute to this wonderful, pioneering food writer.
Paella de Mariscos
For the stock:
24 littleneck clams, scrubbed and purged (see Notes)
1 cup dry white wine
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 pound medium shrimp, in their shells
8 jumbo shrimp, in their shells (use 1½ pounds shrimp in all if jumbo shrimp are not available)
7 cups water, fish stock or chicken stock
Salt to taste
Generous pinch (about ½ teaspoon) of saffron threads, crumbled
For the paella:
½ pound uncooked sweet Spanish (NOT Mexican) chorizo sausage or mild Italian sausage, cut in ½-inch thick slices (optional)
¼ cup olive oil
1 pound monkfish, cut in 2-inch pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 roasted red pepper or 2 pimientos, cut into strips
3 large tomatoes, cut in half, seeded and grated against the large holes of a grater
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 pound short- or medium-grain Spanish rice or Arborio rice
1 bay leaf
1½ cups fresh or thawed frozen peas or lima beans
1½ cups blanched green beans, preferably flat Italian romano beans, cut in 2-inch lengths
20 mussels, scrubbed and purged (see Notes)
1½ cups aioli, for serving
1. Combine the purged clams with the wine, ¼ cup water, and a tablespoon of the chopped onion in a lidded pot, turn heat to medium high, cover and cook 5 to 6 minutes, or until all the clams have opened. Remove clams from shells, rinse and set aside. Strain the broth through a fine-mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth and set aside.
2. Shell the shrimp and jumbo shrimp, leaving the heads on, and retain the shells. Combine the shells in a large pot with the clam broth, the quartered onion, the garlic clove, bouquet garni, and the water or stock. Bring to boil, reduce heat to low and simmer 30 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth. Measure out 7 cups (freeze extra). Taste and season generously with salt. Stir in the saffron.
3. Cook the sausage over medium heat in a wide paella pan, skillet or casserole until cooked through, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
4. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil to the pan set over a large burner or two smaller burners (or prepare a charcoal fire in your grill). Add the monkfish and cook for 2 minutes on each side, until it is opaque. Remove from the pan and set aside. Add the shrimp and jumbo shrimp and cook just until they turn orange red, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat and set aside.
5. Add the remaining oil and the onion and cook, stirring, until tender and beginning to brown, 5 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic, stir for about 30 seconds, and add the red pepper and cook, stirring, for about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes, paprika and salt to taste, and cook, stirring, until the tomatoes have cooked down slightly and smell fragrant, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the rice, sausage, lima beans or peas, green beans and bay leaf and cook, stirring, until the grains are coated with oil, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the broth. Add the mussels and push them down into the broth. Place the fish, shrimp, clams, and jumbo shrimp over the top of the rice, without pushing them down into the broth. When the stock comes to a boil, reduce the heat and cook without stirring or poking, uncovered, for 20 minutes, or until the broth has been absorbed and the mussels have opened. Rotate the pan every 5 minutes so that the rice cooks evenly. Remove from the heat, cover tightly with foil, and let sit undisturbed for 15 minutes. Uncover and serve, passing the aioli at the table for guests to spoon onto their paella.
- For brightness, top the paella with more thawed frozen or cooked fresh peas.
- To clean and purge the clams (and mussels): Inspect each one carefully and discard any that have opened or have cracked shells. Place in a large bowl, fill the bowl with cold water, add a tablespoon of salt and leave for 15 minutes. Drain and rinse several times, swishing them around in the water, pouring out the water and refilling. Clean the shells if necessary with a brush. With mussels, pull out the beards just before cooking.
Top photo: Seafood paella. Credit: iStockphoto
“You must have the courage to be rough or the eggs will not loosen themselves from the bottom of the pan.” – Julia Child, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”
One August weekend, when I was still teaching myself to cook but was accomplished enough to have a vegetarian catering service, I got a call while I was in Los Angeles, visiting my parents and escaping the summer heat of my home in Austin. There was a big rock concert coming up at Willie Nelson’s ranch on the Blanco River in the Texas Hill Country, and did I want to cater breakfast on a houseboat for all of the talent and the press, who would be whisked up to the houseboat by motorboat, fed breakfast, then whisked on to the ranch? It would be about 200 covers.
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The only challenge was that I hadn’t quite perfected my omelet yet. So I went to the store, bought 10 dozen eggs, and didn’t stop practicing making two-egg omelets on my mother’s stove until I’d used them all.
If you were serious about cooking in the 1970s, mastering the French omelet was a rite of passage. Julia Child was my mentor, and I also read every other French cookbook I could find for tips on how to manipulate the pan and the eggs. Of course everybody I read had a slightly different technique, but they were all clear about a few things: The pan had to be hot when you added the butter, the butter had to be hot when you added the eggs, and the eggs shouldn’t be in the pan, which was in constant motion, for much longer than a minute. We didn’t have heavy nonstick omelet pans at that time, so if you didn’t get the temperature right you could count on your omelet sticking to your pan. Today, learning to make an omelet isn’t as challenging because we have those pans, though it still takes a tour de main to get it fluffy and right. You could flip the omelet with a quick jerk of the pan or take a gentler approach, folding the eggs over with a spatula. That weekend I lost a lot of eggs to the stove and the floor, but by Monday morning I was pretty confident about feeding the crowd.
I went back to Austin, 100 wicker paper plate liners in my suitcase, and got to work. I had five days to pull this together. I arrived at the dock at Lake Austin at 5:30 a.m. on the day of the concert to load my food and equipment: a 5-gallon container for beaten eggs that we would ladle into the hot pans, gallons of ratatouille and salsa ranchera, pounds of grated cheese, vats of fruit salad, coolers filled with ice, a dozen loaves of homemade bread.
We also loaded a couple of kegs of beer and 5 gallons of bloody Mary fixings — the mix not from a bottle but my father’s delicious recipe (V8, Worcestershire, Tabasco, garlic salt and pepper is what I’m remembering now); and therein lay my downfall. Not exactly downfall, for I had no trouble with the omelets, but drink a bloody Mary (or two, just to make sure they’re good) not too long after sunrise on an August morning in Central Texas and work outside for the next seven hours straight as the temperature climbs into the triple digits, and you will feel hung over before you even experience the pleasure of being inebriated. Our houseboat chugged along from the Lake Austin dock toward Willie Nelson’s ranch; I so wanted to take a nap, but my co-workers and I persevered despite my crushing headache, turning out one omelet after another. I hardly had time to look up, but I do remember when The Band arrived. They came, they ate, they left.
As I (sort of) remember, we got backstage passes to the concert, and it took us quite a while to get back to the Lake Austin dock. When I got home at around 7 that evening I picked up a message on my machine from a friend, inviting me to come over for a potluck. Great, I thought, I can bring some of these leftovers. I’ll just lie down and have a little rest before I go over. I lay down on my bed, closed my eyes, and woke up the next morning.
How to make an omelet
This is how I do it. I’m sure, readers, that many of you will have your own way that works and it may be different from mine. In the days before nonstick you had to use about twice as much butter. Olive oil was strictly a Mediterranean thing, but I like it and often use it; it depends on the filling. I always use two eggs for my single-serving omelets. Restaurants often use 3, but I never sit down and eat three eggs at one sitting.
Break 2 eggs into a bowl and beat with a fork or a whisk until frothy. Whisk in salt and pepper to taste and 2 to 3 teaspoons milk.
Heat a heavy 8-inch nonstick omelet pan over medium-high heat. Add 2 teaspoons butter or olive oil. When the butter stops foaming or the oil feels hot when you hold your hand above it, pour the eggs right into the middle of the pan, scraping every last bit into the pan with a rubber spatula. Swirl the pan to distribute the eggs evenly over the surface. Shake the pan gently, tilting it slightly with one hand while lifting up the edges of the omelet with the spatula in your other hand, to let the eggs run underneath during the first few seconds of cooking.
As soon as the eggs are set on the bottom, sprinkle the filling over the middle of the egg “pancake,” then move the pan away from you and quickly jerk it back toward you so that the omelet folds over on itself. If you don’t like your omelet runny in the middle (I do), jerk the pan again so that the omelet folds over once more. Cook until set, shaking the pan the entire time. Tilt the pan and roll out onto a plate.
Another way to make a 2-egg omelet is to flip it over before adding the filling. Do this with the same motion, moving the pan away then quickly jerking it back toward you, but lift your hand slightly as you begin to jerk the pan back toward you. The omelet will flip over onto the other side, like a pancake. Place the filling in the middle, then use your spatula to fold one side over, then the other side, and roll the omelet out of the pan. Serve at once.
Top photo: Making an omelet. Credit: Wikimedia / cyclonebill
In the ’90s, prewashed and bagged baby salad greens changed salad eating in America forever. I was as excited about bagged baby spinach as the next person. No more endless washing of bunch spinach, only to end up with a handful after I cooked it. I averted my eyes from the price tags on the 6-ounce bags and found great bargains at my local Iranian market for big bags packed tight with 2½ pounds of the small flat leaves.
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I’ve had my spinach epiphany, and now I enjoy the time that I spend at the sink stemming and washing my farmers market spinach, in the same way that I enjoy shelling English peas; the prize is worth the task. I admire the feel and look of it as I break off the stems and rub the gritty but lush sandy leaf bottoms where they meet the stems between my fingers. The inner leaves are often light at the stem end, pink or purple in some varieties (I ask the farmer what the variety is, but I never remember the names). The sand departs easily from the leaves when you swish them around in a bowl of water, lift them out, drain the water, and swish them around again in a second bowl. The leaves, no longer gritty, feel plush in my hands.
Delicious spinach plain or buttered up
When I wilt spinach, I have to keep myself from eating it right away if it’s destined for a particular dish. For I love a pile of blanched or wilted spinach unadorned, or enhanced with little more than olive oil or butter, salt, pepper and sometimes garlic. This penchant began in earnest when I lived in France. My neighborhood brasserie was Le Muniche in the rue de Buci — alas, now gone — and my standard meal there was a simple piece of grilled salmon or a plate of marinated saumon crue aux baies roses (raw salmon with red peppercorns), always served with pommes de terre vapeur and a generous helping of spinach, blanched, buttered and salted. There must have been one poor young soul in the Le Muniche kitchen brigade whose only job was to stem, wash and blanch kilos of spinach all day, every day.
Spinach, more than any other green, changes when you cook it for too long, and not for the better. That’s why Popeye had the job of trying to make kids eat their spinach way back in the days when canned spinach was the norm. It loses its forest green color, fading to olive drab, and its flavor becomes drab too, even downright unappealing, a strong metallic aftertaste overcoming the freshness and promise that was once there. Twenty seconds of blanching is all it needs, or a minute in a steamer. You can wilt it in a pan or wok in the steam created by the water left on the leaves after washing, but with the exception of stir-fries I rarely use this method because it’s easier to cook the spinach evenly, in one quick go, if I blanch it.
Plain or Seasoned Spinach
Blanching is my preferred method of wilting spinach because it’s so efficient. People will tell me that I’m losing nutrients in the boiling water, but it’s such a quick blanch — 20 seconds. If you prefer to steam, see the directions below.
Serves 2 to 4
1 or 2 generous bunches spinach
Salt to taste
1 to 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Optional: 1 to 2 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
1. Stem the spinach and wash well in two changes of water. Meanwhile, if blanching, bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt generously.
2. Fill a bowl with cold water before you add the spinach to the boiling water, as it wilts immediately. Add the spinach to the boiling water and blanch for about 15 to 20 seconds.
3. With a large skimmer transfer to the cold water, then drain and squeeze dry by the handful. Don’t be dismayed by how little spinach those lush bunches have yielded. Just enjoy what’s there. It’s so nutrient-dense, a small serving is quite satisfying.
4. Chop the wilted spinach medium fine or leave the leaves whole.
5. To steam the spinach, add to a steamer set above 1 inch of boiling water and cover. The spinach will wilt in 1 minute. Rinse with cold water and squeeze dry by the handful.
6. To season, heat 1 to 2 tablespoons (depending on the amount of spinach you have) olive oil over medium heat in a heavy, medium size or large skillet and add 1 to 2 minced garlic cloves.
7. Cook until the garlic begins to sizzle and smell fragrant, 30 seconds to a minute. Add the herbs if using, spinach and salt and pepper to taste, and stir and toss in the pan for about a minute, until nicely infused with the oil, garlic and herbs. Remove from the heat.
Top photo: Spinach at the farmers market. Credit: iStockphoto
This lasagna recipe is Martha Rose Shulman’s family favorite, a two-day affair with made-from-scratch Bolognese ragù.
I was awakened one beautiful morning in June, when I was about 17, by the sound of my stepmother Mary running up the stairs by my bedroom door, weeping. I thought somebody had died. There had been death in my family before, and the running and the tears sounded eerily, scarily familiar. I ventured from my bed, down the stairs to the kitchen, where I found my stepsister amid some broken crockery. She looked very serious and sad. “What happened?” I asked, afraid to know the answer.
“Phydeau stole the lasagna.”
Phydeau was a crazy male Weimaraner that my parents had gotten when they bought our big stone house in Wilton, Conn., on two fenced acres of flat land. But no amount of running could calm that dog down. The lasagna in question was one of Mary’s specialties. She had spent two days on it; she’d made Bolognese ragù. She hadn’t made the pasta, but this was before no-boil lasagna noodles, so you had to cook them before layering them with the sauce, the béchamel and the Parmesan.
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Phydeau wasn’t known for his brains but he clearly had cunning. He couldn’t reach the back of the stove but somehow he must have jumped and pushed it along, jumped and pushed it along, until it reached an edge and fell, shattering the dish on the kitchen floor and splattering lasagna everywhere.
Phydeau’s days with us were now numbered. My parents found him a nice home with their handyman, Mr. Dewing, who could whistle like a warbler and adored the dog. They replaced him with two Hungarian Vizsla puppies named Bonnie and Clyde. They too were smart and cunning, but not as cunning as Mary. She found a higher shelf for cooling her lasagna and never left one out overnight again.
Lasagna with Ragù
Serves 6 to 8
The recipe for the ragù makes more than you need for this lasagna, but it will keep for five days in the refrigerator and freezes well for a few months.
For the ragù:
¾ pound lean beef, such as chuck blade or chuck center
¼ pound mild Italian sausage
1 ounce prosciutto di Parma
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 ounces pancetta, finely chopped
1 medium onion, minced
1 medium stalk celery, with leaves, minced
1 small carrot, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
¾ cup dry red wine
1½ cups poultry or meat stock
1 cup milk
1 (28-ounce) can plum tomatoes, with about half the juice, crushed or coarsely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
For the béchamel:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons sifted all-purpose flour
3 cups milk (may use low-fat milk)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste
For the lasagna:
¾ to 1 pound no-boil lasagna noodles, as needed
3 cups ragù
3 ounces freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (¾ cup, tightly packed)
2 tablespoons butter, for the top of the lasagna
1. Make the ragù a day ahead if possible. Coarsely grind together the beef, sausage and prosciutto, using a food processor or a meat grinder. Set aside.
2. Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large, heavy non-stick skillet, and have a heavy 4- or 5-quart saucepan or casserole ready next to it. Add the pancetta, onion, celery and carrot, and cook, stirring, until the onion is just beginning to color, about 10 minutes. Stir the garlic and ground meats into the pan and turn the heat to medium. Cook, stirring and scooping up the meats, until all the pink has been cooked out, 10 to 15 minutes. The meat should not be browned, just cooked through. Spoon the mixture into a strainer set over a bowl and give the strainer a shake to drain some of the fat. Transfer to the saucepan or casserole.
3. Add the wine to the frying pan and reduce over medium heat, stirring any glaze from the bottom of the pan up into the bubbling wine. Reduce by half, which should take from 3 to 5 minutes. Stir into the pot with the other ingredients, and set over medium heat. Add ½ cup of the stock and bring to a simmer. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, until the stock evaporates, 8 to 10 minutes. Add another ½ cup of the stock and repeat. Stir in the remaining stock and the milk. Turn the heat to low, partially cover, and simmer 45 minutes to an hour, stirring often, until the milk is no longer visible. Add the tomatoes and their juice, salt to taste, and stir together. Turn the heat very low, so that the mixture is cooking at a bare simmer. Cook very slowly, partially covered, for 1½ to 2 hours. Stir often. The sauce should be thick and meaty when done. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
4. Make the béchamel. Heat the butter over medium-low heat in a heavy saucepan. Add the flour to the butter and cook, stirring, for about 3 minutes, until smooth and bubbling. Whisk in the milk and bring to a simmer. Simmer, stirring, for about 10 minutes, until the sauce has thickened and lost its raw flour taste. Season with salt, pepper, and pinch of nutmeg. The béchamel isn’t meant to be very thick.
5. Assemble the lasagna. Have the ragù, béchamel, lasagna noodles and grated cheese within reach. Butter or oil a 3-quart baking dish or gratin. Heat the oven to 400 degrees F.
6. Reserve about 6 tablespoons each béchamel and cheese for the top layer of the lasagna. Spread a thin layer of béchamel over the bottom of the baking dish. Arrange a layer of pasta over the béchamel and spread about 4 tablespoons béchamel over the noodles. Top with a thin layer of ragù (about 4 to 5 tablespoons) and a lightly sprinkling — about 1½ tablespoons — cheese. Repeat the layers until all but one layer of noodles and the béchamel and cheese that you set aside is used up (you might have some extra pasta). Add a last layer of lasagna noodles, cover the top with the béchamel you set aside, and finally, the cheese. Dot with butter. Cover with foil.
7. Bake the lasagna for 30 minutes, until bubbling and the pasta is cooked al dente. Uncover and continue to bake 5 to 10 minutes to brown the top. Remove from the heat and allow to sit for 10 minutes before serving.
Advance preparation: The lasagna can be assembled a day or two ahead and kept in the refrigerator, or frozen for up to a month, well covered. Keep it in the refrigerator — don’t make the mistake Mary made.
Top photo: Meat lasagna. Credit: istockphoto
Recently I listened to cookbook author Maricel Presilla, an authority on the cuisines of Latin America, talking on NPR. She was making yucca fries with the host of “Morning Edition” and was apparently sitting down while she cut up the yucca. Presilla mentioned the fact that she does many of the kitchen tasks in her book, “Latin American Cuisine,” while sitting down.
“Women all over Latin America sit together in the kitchen to accomplish tasks like making tamales and empanadas,” she said. This evoked visions of women sitting together and gossiping in home kitchens all over the world — Greeks making dolmades, North Africans preparing couscous, Lebanese skinning mountains of fava beans or chickpeas. I thought of my son’s French godmother, Christine Picasso, a terrific cook who now at age 84 almost always sits on a stool at her pink marble counter in Provence to prepare food for the wonderful meals she makes for us.
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Amra gave me a bowl with 10 peeled potatoes and showed me how she cut them into very small dice, about ¼-inch square. She used the exact same method that her mother was using for the apples and that Christine uses when she cuts cucumbers into tiny dice for her cucumber and fromage blanc salad. It’s a knife task that is as easy to do sitting down as it is standing up. As for the knife you use, a paring knife will do (it will help if it’s sharp).
Knife technique improves dice
What you do is cut a grid down the length of the produce and slice off the grid so that it falls in neat little squares into a bowl. You hold the potato (or cucumber, or zucchini or cored apple) in one hand and make thin slices in one direction down the length. Then you turn it a quarter turn and do the same, and finally, holding the whole potato over a bowl, you slice across the vertical cuts. The slices can go almost the entire length, leaving the potato intact at the other end, or you can work sections, an inch or two at a time (that’s the way I like to do it). It’s not fancy knife work; it’s slow and methodical, and it results in fine, even dice that can be as tiny as you need them to be.
Most restaurant chefs don’t have the luxury of sitting down; they’re working too fast in cramped kitchens. But in a home kitchen it’s worth thinking about, especially if you cook a lot. I for one often forget that certain kitchen tasks are as easily done seated. If my feet, legs and back could talk, surely they would remind me. They’re always grateful for the rest.
Christine’s Fromage Blanc aux Concombres
Makes about 3½ cups, serving 6
We can’t get the same kind of fromage blanc that the French eat as commonly as yogurt in the States, so use a blend of cottage cheese and yogurt. Christine seasons this with lots of black pepper; we eat it all summer long in Provence.
1 long European cucumber or 3 or 4 Persian cucumbers (equivalent weight)
Salt to taste
1 cup small-curd cottage cheese
1 cup low-fat plain Greek style yogurt
Lots of freshly ground pepper
1. There’s no need to peel the cucumbers if they aren’t waxed. Rinse and dry. Ideally, the weather will be warm and you can find a beautiful, shady spot to sit outside. Using the method described above, cut the cucumber into very small dice. Optional: sprinkle with salt and allow to drain for 15 minutes in a colander (Christine doesn’t do this but it will prevent the dish from becoming watery later).
2. In a bowl, using a fork, or in a food processor fitted with the steel blade, blend together the cottage cheese and yogurt. It can be smooth or lumpy, to your taste. Transfer to a bowl if you used a food processor.
3. Stir in the cucumber, season to taste with salt and lots of pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning.
4. Chill until ready to serve. Serve with toasted bread, or as a salad.
Top photo: Fromage blanc with diced cucumbers. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman