Sunday, March 29, 2009

Spinach lasagne!

It's that time again! The March daring bakers challenge is here!

The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

It was definitely some of the best home made pasta I have ever made.  In the past few months, I've made a few different pasta noodles, from different recipes.  However, this is the first time that I've made already flavored pasta.  I really liked the texture that the spinach added, and the color was fantastic!

This this the flour with the spinach and the egg, I just dumped it on the table and made a well to put add in the "wet" ingredients.

Once the ingredients were all loosely combined, it came into a rough ball of dough, you can see the lumps in it from the flour.

This is the end result of kneading for about 15 minutes, a smooth, very elastic dough.  At this point, I wrapped it tightly in plastic wrap and set it aside to rest for an hour.  After the hour was up, I broke it into 3 balls of dough and rolled them out as thin as I could do it by hand.  I cut it into 1 1/2 inch strips, and hung it over chair backs that had been draped with dish towels.  

I used the basic bechamel sauce given to us this month, but I added a plain red sauce instead of a meat ragu as I don't eat any of the meats suggested in the sauce.

Unfortunately, I didn't get any decent pictures of it once it was cooked.  It was not very pretty, but I assure you what it lacked in looks it made up in flavor!

Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna (Lasagne Verdi al Forno)
(Serves 8 to 10 as a first course, 6 to 8 as a main dish)

Preparation Time: 15 minutes to assemble and 40 minutes cooking time

10 quarts (9 litres) salted water
1 recipe Spinach Pasta cut for lasagna (recipe follows)
1 recipe Bechamel Sauce (recipe follows)
1 recipe Country Style Ragu (recipe follows)
1 cup (4 ounces/125g) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Working Ahead:
The ragu and the béchamel sauce can be made up to three days ahead. The ragu can also be frozen for up to one month. The pasta can be rolled out, cut and dried up to 24 hours before cooking. The assembled lasagne can wait at room temperature (20 degrees Celsius/68 degrees Fahrenheit) about 1 hour before baking. Do not refrigerate it before baking, as the topping of béchamel and cheese will overcook by the time the center is hot.

Assembling the Ingredients:
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 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Oil or butter a 3 quart (approx 3 litre) shallow baking dish.

Cooking the Pasta:
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.

Assembling the Lasagne: 
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 1&1/2 tablespoons of the béchamel and about 1/3 cup of the cheese. Repeat the layers until all ingredients are used, finishing with béchamel sauce and topping with a generous dusting of cheese.

Baking and Serving the Lasagne:
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.

#1 Spinach Egg Pasta (Pasta Verde)

Preparation: 45 minutes

Makes enough for 6 to 8 first course servings or 4 to 6 main course servings, equivalent to 1 pound (450g) dried boxed pasta.

2 jumbo eggs (2 ounces/60g or more)
10 ounces (300g) fresh spinach, rinsed dry, and finely chopped; or 6 ounces (170g) frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
3&1/2 cups (14 ounces/400g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour (organic stone ground preferred)

Working by Hand:


A roomy work surface, 24 to 30 inches deep by 30 to 36 inches (60cm to 77cm deep by 60cm to 92cm). Any smooth surface will do, but marble cools dough slightly, making it less flexible than desired.

A pastry scraper and a small wooden spoon for blending the dough.

A wooden dowel-style rolling pin. In Italy, pasta makers use one about 35 inches long and 2 inches thick (89cm long and 5cm thick). The shorter American-style pin with handles at either end can be used, but the longer it is, the easier it is to roll the pasta.
Note: although it is not traditional, Enza has successfully made pasta with a marble rolling pin, and this can be substituted for the wooden pin, if you have one.

Plastic wrap to wrap the resting dough and to cover rolled-out pasta waiting to be filled. It protects the pasta from drying out too quickly.

A sharp chef’s knife for cutting pasta sheets.

Cloth-covered chair backs, broom handles, or specially designed pasta racks found in cookware shops for draping the pasta.

Mixing the dough:
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.

Stretching and Thinning:
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 4 by 8 inches (10 x 20 cm). Note: Enza says that transparency is a crucial element of lasagne pasta and the dough should be rolled as thinly as possible. She says this is why her housekeeper has such strong arms!

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

#2 Bechamel

Preparation Time: 15 minutes

4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) unsalted butter
4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour, organic stone ground preferred
2&2/3 cups (approx 570ml) 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.

#3 Country Style Ragu’ (Ragu alla Contadina)

Preparation Time: Ingredient Preparation Time 30 minutes and Cooking time 2 hours

Makes enough sauce for 1 recipe fresh pasta or 1 pound/450g dried pasta)

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (45 mL)
2 ounces/60g pancetta, finely chopped
1 medium onion, minced
1 medium stalk celery with leaves, minced
1 small carrot, minced
4 ounces/125g boneless veal shoulder or round
4 ounces/125g pork loin, trimmed of fat, or 4 ounces/125g mild Italian sausage (made without fennel)
8 ounces/250g beef skirt steak, hanging tender, or boneless chuck blade or chuck center cut (in order of preference)
1 ounce/30g thinly sliced Prosciutto di Parma
2/3 cup (5 ounces/160ml) dry red wine
1 &1/2 cups (12 ounces/375ml) chicken or beef stock (homemade if possible)
2 cups (16 ounces/500ml) milk
3 canned plum tomatoes, drained
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Working Ahead:
The ragu can be made 3 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate. It also freezes well for up to 1 month. Skim the fat from the ragu’ before using it.

Browning the Ragu Base:
Heat the olive oil in a 12 inch (30cm) 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.

Reducing and Simmering: 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 1/2 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.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A favorite meal

One of my favorite meals to cook is lemon chicken with pesto pasta. Luckily it is also one of my family's favorite meals to eat! Our grocery store has started selling gourmet specialty pastas.

These pasta nests are one of my favorite things lately. I try not to eat pasta frequently, but these tagliatelle nests are irresistible!

Lemon Chicken
4 chicken breasts
1/2 cup flour
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 lemons, zested
3 cups chicken broth

Fillet the chicken breasts and set aside. Mix together the flour, garlic powder and salt. Dredge chicken in flour mixture. Saute the chicken in olive oil. Once chicken is cooked through, remove from pan and set aside. Add lemon zest to the pan. Add in chicken broth and boil for 5-7 minutes until slightly reduced. Add in lemon juice and chicken, boil until heated through.

Pesto Pasta
1 bunch basil
3 garlic cloves
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup Pecorino Romano cheese
1 pound tagliatelle, cooked

In a blender mix together first 6 ingredients and blend until chopped and mixed thoroughly. Pour onto hot pasta and toss until coated.

Serve chicken atop pesto pasta.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

My favorite kitchen tool...

I grew up in apple country.  The town I lived in had more apple trees than people.  I have many memories from when I was a little girl that include both picking apples and cooking with them.  I used to make applesauce every year with my grandmother, it is one of my fondest memories with her.  After years of asking different family members if they had her old food mill, one of my aunts got the hint, and bought me one for Christmas.

I used it for applesauce and apple butter, and the occasional smooth mashed potato.  It wasn't until I started making baby food that I used it on a weekly basis.  This tool has become the most coveted in the kitchen.  I can make the 8 month old any food he wants to eat.  I've put every fruit and vegetable imaginable through it.

It is amazing to me how easy the food mill is to take apart and put together, with only 3 pieces it isn't complicated at all.  There are no small parts, just the tension rod on top holding it together, making it very intuitive to use.  My favorite thing about it is how easy it is to clean.  It is stainless steel, and dishwasher safe, which is a huge perk.  But without even putting it into the dishwasher, it rinses clean very easily, which makes rinsing it between foods a cinch.

Greek Risotto

A hearty side dish, risotto is a tasty accompaniment to a myriad of different meals.  With a Greek twist, this risotto paired beautifully with roasted lemon oregano chicken.

Greek Risotto:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, diced
1 bell pepper, diced
8 ounces arborio rice
23 ounces chicken broth, warmed
4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled

Saute together the onion and bell pepper until both are tender.  Add in rice and cook until slightly transparent.  Add in chicken broth 1/2 cup at a time, waiting until all of the liquid is absorbed until adding more.  Stir occasionally.  Once all liquid is added and rice is al dente, add in feta and stir until well combined.
Serve immediately.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Lemon Oregano Chicken

I frequently crave Greek inspired food, but not everyone I cook for in enjoys it as much as me.  I made roasted chicken legs with a lemon oregano sauce to satisfy my craving and to make it enjoyable for everyone else who was eating.

Lemon Oregano Chicken
2 pounds chicken legs and thighs, skin on
1 lemon
2 tablespoons oregano
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 garlic cloves
1/2 cup olive oil

Lay chicken legs and thighs in baking pan.  Combine juice of lemon, lemon zest, oregano, red wine vinegar and garlic in a blender, mix until well combined and garlic is chopped.  Slowly stream in olive oil while blender is running to create and emulsion.  Once sauce is combined and thickened slightly, pour most of the sauce, approximately 3/4 of it, over the chicken and bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes, until chicken is cook through and tender.  Remove the chicken from the oven.  At this point, pour the rest of the sauce over the chicken, and let it rest for 5 minutes.