Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Luscious Lemons

During the winter, the fruits that I enjoy most often are the citrus fruits. I cannot eat grapefruit, because it interacts with my chemotherapy, but I can eat all the other types. I  probably use lemons the most often. (It doesn't hurt that they are so pretty to look at.)

I have already written about lemonade, which is my summertime staple, but during the winter I am more likely to use lemon either as an additive to cooked fish, or as a major flavoring for favorite dishes. One such favorite--admittedly eaten infrequently--is hollandaise sauce. I have never found a good substitute for it. An essential ingredient in Eggs Benedict, it also adds distinction to most green vegetables, but especially asparagus, broccoli, and spinach. Although some people create it in a double-boiler, I've always been partial to the blender method.

For quick light meals and satisfying snacks, I often reach for hummus and tabbouleh.  They are staples in my refrigerator. Both contain a definite lemon flavor when they are good. In the winter, I buy these already prepared, but in summer I make my own.

One of my favorite uses for lemons is in desserts. My favorite desserts contain lemon flavor: lemon squares, lemon pudding cake, lemon chess pie, and lemon sherbet. The one place I don't use lemon is in my tea. There I prefer milk. Go figure!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Enjoy Your Eggs

Folks in New England Prefer Brown Eggs

For years, talking about egg dishes you enjoyed was tantamount to saying, "I want to die young from a heart attack." Eggs were maligned, because they tend to be high in cholesterol and people thought that they raised your heart attack risk. Then a funny thing happened; research showed that people who ate moderate amounts of eggs actually had had no more heart attacks than other folks. The egg was exonerated, and now I can announce to the world that I eat them regularly. They have many virtues: they are inexpensive, versatile, last for weeks in the refrigerator, and are a good source of protein and other nutrients.

True, some eggs transmit salmonella, but I always buy Country Hen eggs, which advertise that they have never had salmonella on their farms. (The rise in salmonella, I believe, is due to the miserable conditions in which some chickens are raised.) So I never worry about my eggs poisoning me if they are not hard cooked.

In general, I'm not a huge fan of eggs for breakfast, or at least not breakfast as soon as I get up. However, I love eggs for lunch and dinner. I often make a quick omelet if I have small odds and ends of meat, cheese, or vegetables. A quarter of an onion, a single mushroom, and a few tablespoons of spinach might look pitiful to you, but to me they are the perfect filling for a 2-egg omelet. If I had a bit more of one or more of these foods, I might make a quiche or a souffle.

A souffle is really just glorified scrambled eggs with added air; they are simple to make if you follow two rules. First rule: fold in the beaten eggs whites in thirds. Fold the first third in thoroughly; fold the second third in less thoroughly; fold the third third in very quickly and lightly. Second rule: make sure oven is preheated before folding in the egg whites, and serve the souffle immediately after removing it from the oven.

In summer, I usually hard boil a few eggs at a time. Two or three become egg salad, and one gets chopped up into spinach salad. My egg salad is very simple. I chop the eggs fine; I add a tiny bit of grated onion; a stalk of crisp celery chopped fine; a heaping TBSP of Hellmann's mayonnaise; and salt and pepper. It's great on sandwiches, crackers, or stuffed inside tomatoes.

To learn how to hard boil eggs successfully, or cook them in any of the ways mentioned, visit Eggs 101 How To. Their instructions are clear, simple, and accurate.

Friday, February 15, 2013

My Debt to Julia Child

It made me believe.

While I was a child living with my parents, the family had a cook who prepared most meals. (Actually, we had a succession of cooks: Susie, Tempie Lou, and Earline were the main ones.) My mother seldom cooked. As a youngster, she had been sent out to work and help the family finances, while her younger sister stayed home and learned housewifely skills, including cooking. My father was an enthusiastic cook, but we all scattered when he entered the kitchen, because he could be cranky.

One consequence was that I never played in the kitchen, as my own children did, making odd items from leftover dough. I was supposed to let the cook alone when she was working. So when I got married, I had no idea how to cook. This made me nervous, since I would be eating only what I prepared from that point on. Luckily, I like learning from books. My mother had given me a copy of her favorite cookbook, The Settlement Cookbook, and I had a copy of my mother-in-law's favorite cookbook, The Joy of Cooking. These were useful but not inspiring.

What was inspiring was Julia Child. In the early days of my marriage, she had a cooking show on public television. I watched it religiously. She made cooking seem not only easy but also fun. When I first bought her cookbook, shown above, I was intimidated by the long recipes. But since I had watched her on TV, I could hear her voice in my head and realized that she was just being thorough--the recipes often were not that difficult. So I learned to cook, thanks to Julia, and I really enjoyed it. I tried many of her recipes and never had a disaster.

Cooking has changed in the decades since I first learned, but several of Julia's recipes are still favorites. One, rapee morvandelle, is a standard in my household, because it is delicious for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Others, including French Onion Soup, Beef Bourguignon, Ratatouille, and Poached Salmon with Cucumber Sauce are not standards, but beloved friends I enjoy visiting occasionally. Recently, I saw an online list of the 100 most beloved recipes of Julia Child. I am surprised at how many of them I have cooked.  Thanks for the memories, Julia, as well as for the skills.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Lasagna: You Can't Make Just a Little

I like lasagna to hold its shape 
    I never ate lasagna until I was in college. Then I had some on a date and was hooked for life. It took me years before I could ever make any that was even half as good as what I had back in 1962, but after much trial and error I succeeded.

    Made from scratch, lasagna really can trash a kitchen. First of all, it has numerous ingredients, steps, and containers. Second, everything seems to dribble or spatter, but perhaps that's just me. I sometimes make the sauce one day and the rest the next day, but other times I just spend half a day and do everything sequentially.

    I have tried many variations for the sake of health and I have found some that work and a few that don't. Substituting turkey for beef or pork makes little difference, at least to me. Using low-fat ricotta is a recipe for trouble, as is substituting cottage cheese for the ricotta.

   Because lasagna has so many ingredients, you cannot make a small amount. So I often go whole hog and make a double batch. That way, I only need to make it once or twice a year. It freezes beautifully and is one of the few foods not ruined by microwaving when you want to reheat it.

    There are many different recipes for lasagna, but here's the one I use. First, I make a rich tomato sauce. I like mine with meat. I used to make it with ground beef and Italian sausage; nowadays I use ground turkey and poultry-based Italian sausage or turkey plus pork sausage.

Using a large frypan, saute in olive oil until soft:
  • 1 - 2 large onions, chopped fine
  • 1 or 2 green peppers, chopped fine
  •  mushrooms if you like
  • 4 big cloves garlic, diced

 Once cooked, throw the veggies into a large pot. Then, in the same frypan, cook the ground turkey and the sausage. If you're using turkey sausage, chop it; it pork sausage, remove it from its casing and crumble.  Once cooked, add these to the vegetables in the large pot. Then put in:
  • 2 large cans crushed tomatoes
  • 1 can tomato paste
  • 1 or 2 large jar marinara sauce
  • 1/2 cup red wine
  • 1 bunch parsley chopped

Cook approx. 1-2 hours. Add salt to taste at end.  Can make this a day ahead. When the sauce is done, start boiling water for lasagna in a tall pot. Add TBSP salt. Drop in lasagna a few pieces at a time until box is empty. Cook until done (read package--usually 9-10 minutes. OK if slightly underdone) While it's cooking, mix in a large bowl:
  • 2 lbs ricotta
  • 3 beaten eggs
  • about 3/4 of a one-lb. mozzarella chunk, cubed. (Save the uncubed part for the topping.)
  • 1/2 cup shredded or grated Parmesan
  • 1-2 boxes chopped spinach, thawed, drained, and squeezed 

ready for assembly as soon as the noodles drain
After the lasagna noodles are cooked, drain them well. Then assemble this way:
Smear olive oil on the bottom and sides of two 11 x 17 pans. Pour about 3/4 c. tomato sauce in bottom of each pan. Add a layer of lasagna noodles to each pan.
Using about half the ricotta mixture, drop spoonfuls on top of noodles. Just make blobs, since they will melt. Neatness doesn’t count. Sprinkle all the spinach on top of cheese, and then in each pan pour about 1 1/2 cups tomato sauce over everything. Then add another layer of lasagna, rest of the ricotta mixture, and more sauce. If you have any noodles left, put those on top and then spread sauce around to cover the noodles. Shred or chop remaining mozzarella and sprinkle on top.
Bake at 350 for an hour. If serving right away, bake 15 minutes more. If making a day ahead, which is better, let it sit and cool. Then either freeze or refrigerate. I usually freeze a few single-portions as well as a larger piece. Remember that it takes hours to thaw. You can cook it frozen, but that takes a long time as well.