Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Splendid Table: Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna

Apparently I'm bored, because I decided I wanted to make a lasagne with fresh spinach pasta. I mean, I have never made pasta before. And my history with lasagne always involved no-boil dried noodles and plastic tubs of ricotta cheese. This lasagne had neither. And of course it also gave me an excuse to order a Marcato Atlas 150 pasta machine with a motor to go on the side.  New toy!

Everything came together really well (after about two days of slaving in the kitchen). The pasta was amazing...soft, tender, and nothing like the reconstituted dried noodles that I normally use. The rest of the sauces I wasn't a huge fan of. I'm more of a ricotta and tomato sauce girl, but at least I have a new toy to play with.

Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna
From The Splendid Table by Lynne Kasper

10 quarts salted water
1 recipe Spinach Pasta cut for lasagna (recipe follows)
1 recipe Béchamel Sauce (recipe follows)
1 recipe Country Style Ragu (recipe follows)
1 cup (4 ounces) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Have all the sauces, rewarmed gently over a medium heat, and the pasta at hand. Have a large perforated skimmer and a large bowl of cold water next to the stove. Spread a double thickness of paper towels over a large counter space. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Oil or butter a 3-quart shallow baking dish.

Bring the salted water to a boil. Drop about four pieces of pasta in the water at a time. Cook about 2 minutes. If you are using dried pasta, cook about 4 minutes, taste, and cook longer if necessary. The pasta will continue cooking during baking, so make sure it is only barely tender. Lift the lasagne from the water with a skimmer, drain, and then slip into the bowl of cold water to stop cooking. When cool, lift out and dry on the paper towels. Repeat until all the pasta is cooked.

Spread a thin layer of béchamel over the bottom of the baking dish. Arrange a layer of about four overlapping sheets of pasta over the béchamel. Spread a thin layer of béchamel (about 3 or 4 spoonfuls) over the pasta, and then an equally thin layer of the ragu. Sprinkle with about 1½ tablespoons of the béchamel and about ⅓ cup of the cheese. Repeat the layers until all ingredients are used, finishing with béchamel sauce and topping with a generous dusting of cheese.

Cover the baking dish lightly with foil, taking care not to let it touch the top of the lasagne. Bake 40 minutes, or until almost heated through. Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes, or until hot in the center (test by inserting a knife – if it comes out very warm, the dish is ready). Take care not to brown the cheese topping. It should be melted, creamy looking and barely tinged with a little gold. Turn off the oven, leave the door ajar and let the lasagne rest for about 10 minutes. Then serve. This is not a solid lasagne, but a moist one that slips a bit when it is cut and served.

Spinach Egg Pasta (Pasta Verde)
2 jumbo eggs
10 ounces fresh spinach, rinsed dry, and finely chopped; or 6 ounces frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
3½ cups all purpose flour

Mound the flour in the center of your work surface and make a well in the middle. Add the eggs and spinach. Use a wooden spoon to beat together the eggs and spinach. Then gradually start incorporating shallow scrapings of flour from the sides of the well into the liquid. As you work more and more flour into the liquid, the well’s sides may collapse. Use a pastry scraper to keep the liquids from running off and to incorporate the last bits of flour into the dough. Don’t worry if it looks like a hopelessly rough and messy lump.

With the aid of the scraper to scoop up unruly pieces, start kneading the dough. Once it becomes a cohesive mass, use the scraper to remove any bits of hard flour on the work surface – these will make the dough lumpy. Knead the dough for about 3 minutes. Its consistency should be elastic and a little sticky. If it is too sticky to move easily, knead in a few more tablespoons of flour. Continue kneading about 10 minutes, or until the dough has become satiny, smooth, and very elastic. It will feel alive under your hands. Do not shortcut this step. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and let it relax at room temperature 30 minutes to 3 hours.

If using an extra-long rolling pin work with half the dough at a time. With a regular-length rolling pin, roll out a quarter of the dough at a time and keep the rest of the dough wrapped. Lightly sprinkle a large work surface with flour. The idea is to stretch the dough rather than press down and push it. Shape it into a ball and begin rolling out to form a circle, frequently turning the disc of dough a quarter turn. As it thins outs, start rolling the disc back on the pin a quarter of the way toward the center and stretching it gently sideways by running the palms of your hands over the rolled-up dough from the center of the pin outward. Unroll, turn the disc a quarter turn, and repeat. Do twice more.

Stretch and even out the center of the disc by rolling the dough a quarter of the way back on the pin. Then gently push the rolling pin away from you with one hand while holding the sheet in place on the work surface with the other hand. Repeat three more times, turning the dough a quarter turn each time.

Repeat the two processes as the disc becomes larger and thinner. The goal is a sheet of even thickness. For lasagne, the sheet should be so thin that you can clearly see your hand through it and see colours. Cut into rectangles about 4x8 inches. Note: Transparency is a crucial element of lasagne pasta and the dough should be rolled as thinly as possible.

Dry the pasta at room temperature and store in a sealed container or bag.

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tablespoons all purpose flour
2⅔ cups milk
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste

Using a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter over low to medium heat. Sift over the flour, whisk until smooth, and then stir (without stopping) for about 3 minutes. Whisk in the milk a little at a time and keep the mixture smooth. Bring to a slow simmer, and stir 3 to 4 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the sauce thickens. Season with salt, pepper, and a hint of nutmeg.

Country Style Ragu (Ragu alla Contadina)

3 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
4 ounces boneless veal shoulder or round
4 ounces pork loin, trimmed of fat, or 4 ounces mild Italian sausage (made without fennel)
8 ounces beef skirt steak, hanging tender, or boneless chuck blade or chuck center cut (in order of preference)
1 ounce thinly sliced Prosciutto di Parma
⅔ cup dry red wine
1½ cups chicken or beef stock (homemade if possible)
2 cups whole milk
3 canned plum tomatoes, drained
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat the olive oil in a 12-inch skillet (frying pan) over medium-high heat. Have a large saucepan handy to use once browning is complete. Add the pancetta and minced vegetables and sauté, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, 10 minutes, or until the onions barely begin to color. Coarsely grind all the meats together, including the prosciutto, in a food processor or meat grinder. Stir into the pan and slowly brown over medium heat. First the meats will give off a liquid and turn dull grey but, as the liquid evaporates, browning will begin. Stir often, scooping under the meats with the wooden spatula. Protect the brown glaze forming on the bottom of the pan by turning the heat down. Cook 15 minutes, or until the meats are a deep brown. Turn the contents of the skillet into a strainer and shake out the fat. Turn them into the saucepan and set over medium heat.

Add the wine to the skillet, lowering the heat so the sauce bubbles quietly. Stir occasionally until the wine has reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Scrape up the brown glaze as the wine bubbles. Then pour the reduced wine into the saucepan and set the skillet aside.

Stir ½ cup stock into the saucepan and let it bubble slowly, 10 minutes, or until totally evaporated. Repeat with another ½ cup stock. Stir in the last ½ cup stock along with the milk. Adjust heat so the liquid bubbles very slowly. Partially cover the pot, and cook 1 hour. Stir frequently to check for sticking.

Add the tomatoes, crushing them as they go into the pot. Cook uncovered, at a very slow bubble for another 45 minutes, or until the sauce resembles a thick, meaty stew. Season with salt and pepper.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever: Almond Chicken with Broccoli and Cream Sauce

I think I was traumatized by the curry casserole.  No really.  That was a pretty disturbing color and flavor.  And it's pretty rare that something I make is so bad that it ends up in the trash.

But what do you do when you experience something disturbing?  Get back on the horse.  Or in this case, crack open the cookbook and scour it for something that sounds even halfway normal.  Chicken and broccoli and cream is normal, right?  Nothing scary here.  Fingers crossed.

Well, it was a lot of darn work for a so-so payoff.  I can't believe I'm going to say this, but I almost think a can of cream of mushroom soup might have saved this one.  I know, I know, I have blasphemed in the worst way.  But on a high note, this cookbook is going to the used bookstore to find a new home.

Almond Chicken with Broccoli and Cream Sauce
From The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever by Beatrice Ojakangas

3 tablespoons butter, plus extra for the dish
6 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (about 2 pounds total)
2 cups water
2 teaspoons salt
1 large bunch (about 2 pounds) fresh broccoli, trimmed, stems peeled
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
3 tablespoons dry sherry
½ cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon dried tarragon
½ cup whipping cream, whipped until soft peaks form
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
½ cup cornflakes
2 tablespoons melted butter
½ cup sliced almonds

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Butter a shallow 9x13-inch baking dish.

Place the chicken breasts into a skillet and add the 2 cups of water and the salt. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 25 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through. Set aside in the water.

Put the broccoli into a saucepan, add water to cover, and heat to boiling. Continue boiling for 6 to 8 minutes, until just tender. Drain and arrange the broccoli in a single layer in the baking dish.

Remove the chicken from the skillet and strain the broth. Lay the chicken over the broccoli. Return the strained broth to the pan and boil until reduced to 1 cup.

In a saucepan, melt the 3 tablespoons butter and stir in the flour. Whisk in the reduced broth and the milk and cook until the sauce is thickened. Whisk in the sherry, mayonnaise, lemon juice, and tarragon. Fold in the whipped cream and ½ cup of the Parmesan cheese.

Spread the sauce over the chicken and top with the remaining ½ cup Parmesan cheese. (The dish can be assembled ahead up to this point and refrigerated for up to 1 day. After adding the topping, bake for an additional 10 minutes.)

Toss the cornflakes in the melted butter and sprinkle over the casserole. Top with the almonds. Bake for 20 minutes or until heated through and the top of the casserole is lightly browned.

Makes 6 servings