Monday, September 6, 2010

Cold Day, Hearty Food.

Great day to be alive, if the weather could cooperate a little better. A little chilly again today, but it didn't freeze last night, hovered around 6C or 42F. This morning it's around 8C or 48F, so things are lookin' up!

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I was making lasagna to take to a friend as she is recovering from an operation. This a warm, hearty meal which I always love to make and eat. It takes a while to finish the whole thing off, but it's worth the time. As usual, I did everything I could to reduce the amount of fat in the dish without compromising too much off the flavor. This is not a traditional lasagna with bechamel sauce as I am not a big fan of that style. Truth be told, I avoid cream sauces as much as I can, especially if there are other fatty ingredients surrounding it. It is a big meal to try and tackle, but portion sizes are very important here. It's also a good idea to add certain ingredients which not only add flavor and texture, but health benefits as well. I use ricotta cheese, dry cottage cheese and spinach for this.

I start by cooking down approximately 3/4 kg (just over 1.5 lbs) each of extra lean ground beef and pork in a little EVOO. Do not let it brown. Cook it down enough to release the as much of the fat as possible. Add fresh ground pepper and keep stirring every few minutes. When finished, set aside or pour into a colander to get rid of the unwanted grease. The picture below shows just how much comes out of the meat after I spooned the meat out with a slotted spoon. There is a lot of moisture in there as well, but I would rather replace this with juice from the tomatoes and the tomato sauce.

Preparation is always important. I always make sure my vegetables are ready to go along with any cans you are adding to the mix before the meat is done. As you can see, the onion, garlic and peppers are ready to go (well, the onion I already put in before I took the picture, but you get the idea).

The next step is to add some EVOO to the pot to sweat down the onions and peppers. I add a little cumin to the oil. This adds a nice musty flavor to the onions and peppers. Add sea salt to get the juices to release and a little pepper for flavor. Make sure to season at different levels as to add flavor at every point you can. Watch the salt though. Too much will obviously ruin the dish and eventually you too. When the onions are almost translucent, add the garlic. I usually add 2 or 3 cloves for this size of recipe. This way the garlic doesn't have much of a chance to burn as there will now be juice from the other ingredients.

When onions are translucent, they are almost too soft, but not quite. They still have some texture to them and will add this to the sauce. This is a good way to gauge when to start adding the next wave of ingredients. It's now time to add the meat back into the pot. Stir everything to incorporate the flavors. Add the diced tomatoes, tomato paste and the tomato sauce. You can add any type of tomatoes you like: diced, crushed, sauce or whole. I like the diced with the sauce combination as the diced tomatoes mostly break down with some of them staying in play. Good for texture and flavor. Biting into the odd chunk of tomato isn't really a bad thing. It's a nice burst of flavor. I thought about using San Marzanos, but chose not to as I think I will save those for a tomato sauce where there is really nothing else but them and a couple other ingredients as they stand out on their own without any help. Stir everything in and bring to a boil. When the sauce is boiling, turn down the heat to a simmer and add your herbs. I chose to use rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, 3 bay leaves and Italian parsley. I will add the parsley near to the end. The oregano was chopped up, while the rosemary and thyme I threw in still on the stems. I lightly smacked the rosemary a few times with the back of the knife as to bruise the leaves and release extra flavor from the herb. Mix in the herbs and put the lid on while leaving it cracked a little to let the steam escape. This will help the sauce reduce and condense the flavors.

This sauce is more or less a bolognese, so it takes a while to make. I usually let it simmer for at least 3 hours on low heat. When it is finished, I add the basil, parsley and about 2 to 3 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar to add a little sweetness. You could also add a little smoked paprika to taste, if you like. Make sure you take out the stems of the herbs and the bay leaves.

Boil water in a pot with some sea salt. Make sure to use lots of water. Don't try to scrimp. The Italians always say pasta water should taste like the sea, so feel free to taste the water before you put the pasta in. This may be hard to do if you have never been to the coast and tossed around in the ocean surf. Believe me, I know why people don't drink sea water. Yuck! I used rice lasagna noodles this time around. I find when I do this, the lasagna isn't so filling, but you can use any type of noodle you want. I have used both rice and regular and always get nice results either way.

Oil the pan(s) with a little EVOO before you start. I layered the pan this way for a smaller pan which will feed two people: 2 lasagna noodles, sauce, dry cottage cheese, frozen spinach (which I thawed and squished the moisture out of it with potato ricer), one noodle, sauce, ricotta, sauce. I diced some fresh mozza into 1/2" cubes and spread it out over top. I used this because it was in my fridge. You can use whatever cheese you like. Fresh mozza has a nice, fresh flavor and I love using it for this reason.

The reason why I don't use many measurements here is because you should make the sauce how YOU like it. If you like it a little meatier, then use less tomatoes. If you like it with more onion, go for it. It's your lasagna. I just showed you how to make it healthier and how to get the most flavor out of it. Some people may say I use too many herbs. They may be right, but I don't use them to overpower the dish with it's flavors. I use them to add a healthy benefit and some background flavors. That's all. You can use whatever herbs you wish, but I like these ones the best for this dish. Another tip: let the sauce sit for a couple of days before you use it. This way the flavors have a chance to come together. It makes the dish a lot better.

Little O had a chance to try the lasagna this time. She ate about 1/3 of my wife's serving! Hungry little monkey. O is going through another growth spurt I believe as she is eating some pretty big amounts for her tiny size again. Also, we found out she likes hummus and roasted red pepper kopanisti. I will show you these dishes next time. We started feeding her blueberries again as well. They get mixed in with a little yogurt and she gobbles it down without any issues. I believe implementing protein into her diet, whether it is meat such as pork or chicken, even beef or bison, is a good thing in small doses. Going with a different type such as chick peas is a good idea too. This helps her get used to a wide range of different flavors and textures without putting her health at risk.

The quote of the day reminds us of portion control:

More die in the United States from too much food than from too little.

- John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2007) Canadian-American economist.
Until next time, good eating everyone.

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