Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Chop, Chop

I recently attended a potluck dinner, which I knew was short on salads. I thought long and hard about what to bring and finally settled on a chopped vegetable salad. I chose it because it was brightly colored and looked good, and also because it would be easy to serve and eat.

This one was a snap to make: two plum tomatoes, one English cucumber, one yellow and one red bell pepper, and one bunch of scallions. The dressing was a simple lemon vinaigrette flavored with fresh basil and parsley.

As I was preparing the vegetables, I realized how much I enjoy chopping by hand. It is such a basic, elemental daily task. Yes, I have a food processor, but I use it only for large-quantity cooking, because I also have a wonderful assortment of knives. Some were inherited from my great-grandfather. Although I have several stainless steel paring knives and one stainless bread knife, my favorites are made from carbon steel. I own a pretty impressive collection: a roast beef knife, a ham slicer, boning knives, several all-purpose knives, including one that has always been known as a pig sticker, and a few Chinese cleavers.

One cleaver has been my general slicing tool for decades. It fits my hand perfectly, and it slices vegetables quickly, cleanly, and effortlessly. Recently, though, I sliced through some chicken and nicked the blade, leaving a gouge in the straight edge. Although the knife had been bought in an Asian grocery store, it looked remarkably like a chalef, the ritual knife used in kosher slaughtering. Such knives  are not allowed to have any imperfections on their blades. My imperfect blade now speaks silently to me, telling me either to fix it or buy new. I have to find out whether the old blade is fixable, but I hope that it is, since a new knife requires serious getting-used-to. Who would have guessed that an old knife would become such a friend?

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Oven Baked Meatballs

They don't look special, but they sure taste special
Recently, I was given some farm-raised grass-fed ground beef. It came with a warning: "This is much leaner than commercial ground beef, so cook accordingly." The beef looked like buffalo meat--dark red with almost no white or light areas. I decided that hamburgers would not be a good choice, since they were not likely to be juicy. So I settled on meatballs, where I could add some moisture.

I made them much like I make meatloaf:

  • 1 lb. beef
  • 1/4 cup Italian flavored breadcrumbs
  • 3 Tbsp. tomato juice (from canned tomatoes)
  • 1 egg
  • half onion, chopped fine
  • 2–3 Tbsp chopped parsley

I beat the egg, added the tomato juice, and soaked the crumbs in this mixture. Then I mixed everything together and made a dozen meatballs; each was about 2 inches across. I put the meatballs on a rack on top of a baking sheet and baked at 400 for 20 minutes.

While they were cooking, I heated up some oven roasted tomato sauce, which tends to be quite thick, and added a medium-sized can of diced tomatoes. I added a few cloves of chopped garlic and let this simmer while the meatballs cooked. Then I added the cooked meatballs and let everything sit on a low burner for half an hour or so.

The results were wonderful. The meatballs had a slight crust from the oven roasting; their insides tasted like the beef I grew up with: rich and very flavorful. Over the next few days, they flavored the sauce, so I could have made everything a day or two ahead. But I couldn't wait. I served them on pasta, in sandwiches, and finally chopped up on pizza.

As a kid, I loved steak, but my taste for it declined over the years. I thought that was the result of changing tastebuds. Now I'm convinced it is the result of changing beef. I have two grass-fed beef steaks in my freezer. I can hardly wait.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Is Lasagna the Food of the Gods?

a favorite comfort food and company dish

I ate a lot of Italian food as a kid, but I did not even know about lasagna until I hit college. At that point, a man I was dating took me to his favorite pizza joint and whispered, "Try their lasagna!" I loved it, and I've been a fan ever since. However, I'm a bit fussy. I like only good lasagna, one that has the proper proportions of meat, sauce, cheese, and pasta. I don't like any single ingredient to dominate, although I do think that having a good red sauce may be the most important single item.

I make lasagna only in the winter, and since it trashes the kitchen (a large pot for the noodles, a large pot for the red sauce, a pan to brown the meat, and several other bowls and utensils), I don't make it often. But I make a LOT of it, because it's as simple to make a lot as it is a little. You need many different ingredients, so just get large sizes and make several pans of it; lasagna freezes beautifully.

I think I make really good lasagna, so I'm sharing my tips:

  • Use the noodles that you boil before baking. I know, it takes longer and is messier than using the no-boil noodles, but I think the results are far better. 
  • Make a red sauce that very juicy.I start with a standard tomato sauce of some sort and then throw in a large can of stewed tomatoes that I chop up, This adds little pieces of tomato, which taste good, and keeps the sauce liquid enough so that it soaks into the pasta during baking. 
  • Add a bit of meat to the red sauce. I usually add some ground turkey and a bit of Italian sausage, either pork-based or chicken-based.
  • Add a package of frozen chopped spinach to the ricotta-egg-cheese mixture. It adds color, interest, and taste. 
  • Use genuine ricotta and mozzarella cheese. Although I use part skim mozzarella, I use full-fat ricotta. 
  • Don't over-bake. You want the top brown and the cheese melted, but you don't want the noodles dried out. If you freeze some, leave ample time for reheating from a frozen state; this food is dense. 

Although lasagna is a complete and balanced meal in itself, it is truly wonderful when served with a fresh green salad and fragrant garlic bread.