Sunday, February 17, 2008

Conquering Lasagne

It may sound ridiculous considering all the things I've cooked, baked, served, and decorated in my life, but lasagne has always been intimidating. I know why. When I was growing up, lasagne was always a very special occasion dish that my mother rarely made. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I remember my mom cooking up a lasagne, and I got the clear impression that it was a time-consuming, laborious thing to spend a day doing. When I had lasagne at other people's houses, I was always impressed and felt very honoured that someone would go to the trouble of making it. Sometimes, I got funny looks when I expressed this.

The first ever lasagne I ever made was 10 years ago when I was visiting Italy. I found fresh lasagne noodles at the grocery store, along with mozzarella cheese that looked nothing like the mozzarella cheese I was used to back home. Because we were on a budget, it was a vegetarian lasagne, filled with fresh spinach I found at a local green grocer's. The oven at the apartment I was staying at was gas and had no temperature indicators, and no one in the house had used it for the year they'd been slumming it there.

It was edible. More or less. The mozzarella didn't behave the way I was used to mozzarella behaving; it melted into almost a sauce-like consistency and pooled on the top in large puddles, as opposed to melting and browning and being all gooey-stringy. I should have figured something would be different about it when I tried to grate it. It didn't grate, and seemed more like the texture of raw meat than what I was used to. The spinach had a funny flavour - metallic, almost.

Because we were broke student backpackers, we ate it. But I never made another lasagne until I worked at The Centre nearly three years ago now. We had lasagne pretty regularly, but usually on a day when I was off. I got to eat it, but it only happened that I was on shift once when the lasagnes were actually made. I was surprised at how easily they went together and how quick it was to make enough for 150 people.

Still, I never made it for myself - until today. My roommate frequently makes a veggie version from a Weight Watchers recipe, and she whips it up in no time. I have no idea why I've been so resistant to trying it. Too much lasagne baggage, I suppose.

I happened to have a whole whack of spaghetti sauce I cooked up in the fall, portioned out into 1 cup servings and frozen in small containers. The sauce is made with locally-produced beef sausage seasoned with sundried tomatoes and basil - yum! But for some reason, I'm not interested in eating spaghetti these days. I decided to make a lasagne because I could use up a good amount of the sauce all in one go, and I had some other ingredients already on hand, like ricotta cheese. I marched down to my local overpriced grocery store today and bought oven-ready lasagne noodles and some mozzarella cheese.

Basically following the directions on the back of the box and asking for some advice from my experienced roommate, I assembled and baked the lasagne.

It was absurdly simple.

Apart from needing to bake it twice as long as the box directed, it turned out fantastically! It was a stunning, amazing success! I can't believe I've been afraid of this for so long. And, of course, I now have a week's worth of meals out of it, so I don't have to do much cooking in the coming days. I baked it in a parchment-lined dish to make clean-up easier (we are all familiar with those dish detergent commercials with all the caked on guck...lasagne is frequently the implied culprit).

Here it is...
Not bad, eh?

What's next?

Monday, February 04, 2008

Cookbook Review: Fine Cooking Annual, Volume Two

The flap reads: "Chock full of more than 200 delicious recipes and 300 color photographs, Fine Cooking Annual, Volume 2, is packed with a year's worth of the best recipes, tips, and techniques from Fine Cooking magazine."

Prior to acquiring this book from Random House, I wasn't familiar with the magazine at all, but I am all of a sudden a new fan. The Fine Cooking Annual, Volume 2, is a beautiful, mesmerizing hunk of food porn indeed.

Covering all the usual topics from starters to soups to salads, to poultry to seafood to desserts, the volume also includes very clear instructions on how perform various culinary techniques, like how to cook and pick whole crabs (page 265), how to butterfly a whole chicken (page 167), and to properly dice an onion (page 49). Additionally, there are loads of tips about various ingredients. For instance, page 69 is all about demystifying mesclun mix; page 149 provides an olive guide; and pages 276-277 gives you a step-by-step guide on how to trim baby artichokes.

The three recipes I chose to make for the purpose of this review were the Chopped Shrimp "Waldorf" Salad on page 87, the Grilled Chicken with Tomato, Lime & Cilantro Salsa on page 136 (pictured), and the Double Ginger Pound Cake on page 352.

The "Waldorf" was excellent and very easy to make. I did substitute low fat mayonnaise, however, but that was one of the things I like about the recipes in this book - you can easily make a lower-fat or healthier version of the recipes if you so choose. The same went for the grilled chicken dish; I omitted the olive oil and it was still great. The salsa was very fresh and perfectly complimented the mild spiciness of the chicken. As for the ginger pound cake, it took much longer to bake than the directions indicated, but the cake itself was moist, flavourful, and had a wonderful, velvet crumb.

While there was a ton of variety in this cookbook, there seemed to me to be one category glaringly missing: breads! I would love to have had a chapter full of wicked new bread recipes. Not that I don't have enough as it is, but still, this book seems a bit incomplete without that key element of a great meal.

This book is well worth the investment for cooks of any calibre. The recipes are well-written and contain easily-found ingredients. The photography is beautiful, and the information on techniques, ingredients, and cook's tips are well-illustrated and simple to follow.


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