Saturday, August 12, 2006

Handy workout tip for the day

If you've been working out and you're sweaty, don't use a toilet seat cover.

nuff said.

Monday, August 7, 2006

Happy Surprises

This evening I was pottering in the garden when I decided to yank up a plant in my raised bed. I didn't know what it was, but have been babying it for awhile, and tonight I decided I was tired of the way it was flopping over on the chives, so out it came. See, I have been putting up with this plant, because when I started the raised bed this spring I planted a bunch of seeds I had received in a seed exchange. Then, coz I am a lazy girl, I tossed all the seed packets and couldn't remember what I had planted where. I was convinced this was some kind of perennial that wasn't going to bloom until next year. Imagine my suprise when I found these attached! The only thing I can figure out is that they grew from some potato scraps I threw in the bed over the winter.

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Two baby potatoes, one for me and one for The Boy!

I'm thinking baked, with butter and sea salt?

Sunday, August 6, 2006

Why I will never be mistaken for Rachel Ray

So, I have this recipe for Lasagna from Cooks Illustrated that has been calling my name for a few weeks. Cooks Illustrated recipes are foolproof, because they test a recipe backwards, forwards and inside out before it's published.

Lesson #1: Foolproof is not the same as Fiwaproof.

I go the the grocery store armed with my list.
No boil noodles - check
Pureed tomatoes - check
Diced tomatoes - check
1 pound of meatloaf mix - Nope.

Yeah, see, it woulda been way too easy if I could find all the ingredients. I suspected going in that the meatloaf mix was going to be a problem. Meatloaf mix is prepacked ground hamburger, veal and pork, and it makes a really nice and moist mix. But no dice. So I go for the next best thing, which is a large package of hamburger and a small package of ground pork. I don't bother to look at those pesky weights on the package, I just get the one that looks like it's goldilocks size.

Ok, back to the list...
Ricotta - check
Parmesan - check
Whole milk mozzarella - Nope.

Yeah, whole milk mozzarella. If you pay attention to the packaged cheese in the store, most mozzarella (because of the freakin food police) is made with skim milk. Which means it dries out and gets rubbery when you bake it. I'm with Cooks Illustrated on that - I tried making a pizza with the skim mozzarella once - it's like trying to melt a hunk of tire on your pizza. So after looking at every package in the dairy aisle, I get the bright idea to go look in the specialty cheeses section in the deli. Sure nuff, THERE is the whole milk mozzarella. And by god, 16 oz is NINE FREAKING DOLLARS! Sorry Cooks Illustrated, I'm just too cheap. I couldn't justify it; so I went back to the dairy aisle and got a block of skim mozzarella to grate myself. At least that would help with the taste a little bit, as the already grated cheese gets so dried out that it compounds the problem.

Armed with the goods I go home and get to cooking. The first sign that this wasn't going to be a winner was when I put all the meat into my dutch oven. So much meat that it came almost to the top. But not to be daunted, I work at mashing it down and stirring it into my beautifully sauted onions and garlic. Oh yeah... I think I forgot to mention that I came up with the bright
idea of substituting mushrooms for the veal that I couldn't find. Smart idea huh?! So I'm stirring and stirring and thinking how much meat this is, when out of the corner of my eye I see the meat package lying on the counter. I pick it up (remember those pesky weights?) and look closer and suddenly realize that I have about twice the amount of meat I'm supposed to use - not to mention the mushrooms. Ok, that's ok, I'll just have a heartier sauce, I tell myself. It's a bad sign when you catch yourself trying to placate yourself.

Lesson #2: Look at the weight on the package!

Stil feeling optimistic, I keep going. I add in the liquid, which is supposed to be 1/4 of a cup of cream, but because I just can't leave well enough alone, I reason that since I have more meat I should of course add more liquid. But that seems like a lot of cream, so I compromise and add the cream and then 1/2 a cup of red wine. Wine is good in meat sauce, right?! Ok, it's bubbling away, the 4 minute mark passes and the liquid is no where NEAR evaporting like the recipe says. But to be fair to Cooks Illustrated, I realized I had compromised the recipe at this point, and I'm on my own. So I suck it up and soldier on, basically leaving the meat to cook another 5 minutes. At this point I get impatient to go on, so I go ahead and dump in the rest of the wet ingredients and move on to assembling the cheeses while it simmers for 5 minutes. Now the cheese mixture calls for some basil, and I did not buy this at the store because I have my own growing at home. I very proudly skip outside with my kitchen shears, and while I'm there I think "Hmmm... that Oregano looks really pretty. Don't most spagetti sauces call for Oregano? I wonder why Lasagne wouldn't? Well it looks so pretty I think I'll just go ahead and add some, cause deviation has worked so well up to now, right?! I snip off a good handful and go back to the kitchen to chop it up and add it and the basil to the cheese mixture.

Now back to the sauce. Except it's not really a sauce, it's a watery looking meat mixture, and the meat is in huge chunks which don't look very appetizing. So I decide to pull out my thunder stick and go to work pulverizing that sauce. Which helps the meat alot, but turns the sauce into a grey-pink color that is not very attractive. At this point I'm hot, and starting to suspect that this is going to end badly, but since I'm alone in the house and there is no one to witness my failure, I keep moving on. It's time to assemble the ingredients, so I go to pull out my baking dish, only it's not there. %&*#!!! My kitchen is so small there's nowhere else for it to hide, so I start to thinking back and realize it's stuck in that quagmire that is my friend Rick's house. Love the boy, but he's horrible about borrowing and not returning. So, cussing Rick, I pull out the closest thing to a baking dish that I now have, which turns out to be a roasting pan. Which is significantly larger than a 9x13 baking dish. I already know this isn't optimal, but I make the best of it and start layering the ingredients, breaking up the no-boil noodles to fill in. I thought the noodles would be my problem, I thought I would run out before I finished layering. Nope, turns out the cheese mixture was my problem, but I didn't realize it until I had spread the last layer and didn't have enough to even begin to cover.

For god's sake, what else could go wrong?!

I cobble it together the best I can and throw it into the oven. Two glasses of vino later and I'm back to feeling eager to taste my Cussagne. At least the french bread looks pretty. I assemble my plate, grab another
glass of wine and take my plate out to sit by the pond. I must say, despite all my mistakes, it did at least look pretty. First bite = big disappointment. But not really a big suprise. Too much oregano, too much meat and not enough sauce. The one positive thing I can say is that no-boil noodles rock! They were perfectly tender and moist.


Or, be prepared to accept the blame if you do.
The one thing I have to be thankful for was that I *was* expecting to serve this to a guest. Thanks be to our lady of parmesan cheese that plans were changed at the last minute, or I would have been really embarrased. Now the question becomes, do I have the patience to try again and stick to the recipe without variation?

After that pathetic tale of woe, perhaps you will allow me to brag just a teensy bit. My one shining moment of success this weekend - homemade bread.

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And here is the actual Cooks Illustrated "Fast Lasagna" Recipe:

Tomato-Meat Sauce:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped fine (about 1 cup)
6 medium cloves of garlic, minced
1 pound meatloaf mix or about 1/3 pound each of ground pork, ground beef chuck and ground veal. If you cannot find even those, substitute 1/2 pound
sweet italian sausage (casings removed) and 1/2 pound ground beef.
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 can (28 oz) pureed tomatoes
1 can (28 oz) diced tomatoes, drained

Ricotta, Mozzarella, and Pasta Layers:
15 oz whole milk or part-skim ricotta
(suprisingly tasters couldn't tell the difference when whole was used vs. skim with the ricotta)
2 1/2 oz grated parmesan cheese (1 1/4 cups)
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
12 no-boil lasagna noodles from one 8 or 9 oz pack
16 oz whole milk mozzarella cheese, shredded (4 cups)

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Heat oil in a large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering but not smoking. Add onions and cook, stirring occassionaly, until softened but not browned, about 2 mins. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Increase heat to medium-high and add ground meats, salt and pepper; cook, breaking meat into small pieces with wooden spoon,
until meat loses its raw color but has not browned, about 4 minutes. Add pureed and drained diced tomatoes and bring to a simmer, reduce heat to low and simmer slowly until flavors are blended, about 3 minutes; set sauce aside.
3. Mix ricotta, 1 cup of parmesan, basil, egg, salt and pepper in medium bowl with fork until well-combined and creamy; set aside.
4. Assemble first layer as such: Smear entire bottom of a 9x13 inch baking dish with 1/4 cup of the meat sauce. Place 3 noodles on top. Drop 3 tablespoons of ricotta mixture down the center of each noodle. Level them out by pressing flat with the back of a spoon. Sprinkle evenly with 1 cup of the shredded mozzarella. Spoon 1 1/2 cups meat sauce evenly over the cheese. Repeat layering of noodles, ricotta, mozzarella, and sauce two more times. Place 3 remaining noodles on top of sauce, spread remaining sauce over noodles, sprinkle with remaining cup of mozzarella, then with remaining 1/4 cup of parmesan. Lightly spray the bottom of a large sheet of foil with nonstick cooking spray and then cover the lasagna. Bake 15 minutes, then remove the foil. Return lasagna to oven and continue to bake until cheese is spotty brown and sauce is bubbling, about 25 minutes longer. Cool lasagna about 10 minutes; cut into pieces and serve.