Food

Food for Thought

Cook up a cliché, the leftovers are great

Clichés.

They’re useful.

They fit; a cliché grips and serves as a template in a universe in which things recur, a universe neither as magically random and creative, nor as ponderously deep as we would like to think it to be.

Cliché.

As in lasagna.

You’re having a crowd over for dinner. It’s winter, snow is on the ground, its cold and blustery out there.

What to feed the horde?

Well, wade into the pool of clichés, cast a line and fish something out. There’s plenty of tummy warmers available — fuels to fill the stomach and tease the taste buds. Without breaking the bank.

Big Momma braises, for example. Stewlike concoctions, simmered all day in a yawning slow cooker. Noodles, breads, salads to go along.

A large hunk o’ meat, roasted, carved, served with standard sides.

Casseroles — gigantic chicken pot pies, shepherd’s pies, etc.

Pasta of some sort.

If I follow the pasta trail (and I follow it as often as I can, despite the fact Kathy has a wad of alternative lifestyle warnings in hand, concerning the life-threatening potential of refined wheat flour) I end up at one of two options: baked ziti, or The Big L — the cliché of food clichés — lasagna.

Once firmly committed to The Big L, the most tentative exploration of cookbooks or cooking sites on the Web reveals a wealth of different tacks. The Big L is one of the most flexible options in the cook’s arsenal. I ate seven or eight different kinds of lasagna during a recent trip to Italy — each significantly different from the others, each a delectable variation on the theme.

Unfortunately, when feeding a big crowd, most of the options must be set aside. One must stick fairly close to the vest. The prototype flies and satisfies most needs; one has to purchase the ticket, and take the trip … in economy class.

“How about lasagna?” asks the bride. She has “convinced” me to help her entertain a bunch of her theater buddies at a cast party.

“Uhhh …”

“I figure you can make something simple. Something like lasagna. You can whip it out in no time and I can have everyone bring a side of some kind. You and I will provide the lasagna, and garlic bread.”

Ah, yes, “You and I.” Another cliché.

I’m in the groove with her up to this point, though I wouldn’t call lasagna an “easy” dish to make, unless you cut so many corners you are in the let’s-get-a-couple-huge-pans-of frozen-lasagna mode. Then it’s easy; all you need to know is how to set the oven temperature, and the only cooking skill required is memory — as in remembering to take the cardboard lid off the pan of frozen lasagna before you put the pan in the oven.

If I ever get in that mode, I want someone to take me to the vet and have me put down.

I don’t get worried until Kathy says, “And we can provide some wine. You got that case delivered last week, so we have plenty.”

If I was at all drowsy, consider me fully awake at this point in the conversation. I am, in fact, instantaneously at DEFCON 5 — full alert. There are several tremendous Chateau Neuf du Papes in the cellar, three or four bottles of a snappy Cahors — the essence of Malbec — and several 2005 Cotes du Rhones (one of the best years in recent memory for Cotes du Rhone). Let’s see, I also have a bottle of a phenomenal, high-end Napa Bordeaux-style blend, and …

I make a note: Go to liquor store, buy something affordable, but serviceable. Go to hardware store, get hasp and lock for wine cellar room. Hide key.

“Okey dokey,” I reply, trying to appear as carefree and cheery as possible.

I plan my strategy.

It is a two-day cliché.

I will make a couple, large pans of lasagna. This will require the typical ingredients: first, lasagne noodles. No, I am not going to make the noodles fresh. I have done this. I am put in mind of Voltaire’s comment, “Once a philosopher, twice a fool.” (I am also put in mind of a lasagna I ate at a decrepit, former farmhouse set atop a hill above Sorrento, the sheets of soft pasta big enough to cover the entire surface of the pan and worked by hand by some hefty Italian gals. It’s worth the effort, as long as the effort is made by hefty Italian gals.) Then, a tomato sauce, a thick bechamel, ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, lots of garlic, olive oil, eggs, herbs, salt, pepper. No spinach, lest I tempt the gout. No mushrooms, for the same reason.

I decide to go sleek, and dense — three layers. The bottom of the oiled pan is slicked with sauce. Down goes a layer of noodles, slightly overlapped. On to the noodles is slathered a thin layer of sauce, and a thin layer of ricotta, mixed with beaten egg, a bit of grated Parmesan and seasoned with salt and pepper and, perhaps, some chopped, fresh basil. The surface is covered with shredded mozzarella and a bit of shaved Parmesan and two or three ribbons of béchamel are dribbled down the length of the mass. On goes another layer. A cap of noodles is put on. It is slicked with sauce, sprinkled with mozzarella. The béchamel ribbons wind their way down the surface, which is then dusted with Parmesan. Foil goes on, pan goes into a 350 oven for a hour or so. Foil comes off for the last few minutes in the oven. The mess comes out and rests for a bit before it is cut into squares.

Two days.

Day one: the ragu and the bechamel.

The tomato sauce is no prob. I use two big cans of imported, Italian crushed tomatoes, a serious amount of chopped, crushed garlic, dried oregano, a bit of thyme, extra-virgin olive oil. I cook the garlic in oil over medium heat, taking care it doesn’t brown. When the garlic is soft and golden, I toss in the tomatoes and a cup or so of dry, red wine. I add oregano and thyme (go easy on the thyme) and I set it to simmering, partially covered.

I take a pound of hot, Italian sausage, par boil it, drain the fat, add a half of a white onion, finely diced, and cook over medium heat until the onion is soft. I keep the fat rendered from the sausage in the pan this time around. Fat equals flavor.

I taste the sauce after a half hour or so at the simmer, add more herbs, a touch of salt, a touch of sugar and the meat mixture. I continue to simmer the sauce, partially covered, while I make the bechamel.

I am daring: I make the bechamel over direct heat. Concern for guaranteed results would require a double boiler, but I am fearless. Actually, I have nothing better to do than stand over a hot stove for 40 minutes or so. I melt five tablespoons butter in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. I add four and a half tablespoons flour and whisk, cooking the flour to get the floury taste out, but not so much that the roux begins to get blond — bechamel is a white sauce. I slowly add a half cup of whole milk, whisking constantly. When the mix thickens, I add more milk, a little at a time, whisking the sauce constantly. I turn the heat down to low and repeat the process until I have added a bit more than three cups of milk, maybe close to four cups, and the sauce is fairly thick. I toss in a bit of ground nutmeg and a half a handful of grated Parmesan. I season to taste.

The sauces come off the stove, cool, and are put in the fridge, awaiting the Big L assembly process the next day.

On Day Two, I have everything ready. The oven is preheated and the pans are oiled. I warm the bechamel (using a double boiler — this is no time to tempt fate) and the tomato sauce.

I cook the dried lasagna noodles until al dente; too much time in the water and they mush up in the oven.

The bottoms of the pans are slicked with the sauce. I slightly overlap the noodles and make sure there is a good seal around the edges. Then, the layers. When I put the final layer of noodles on, I press down to compact the fillings below before I add the final slather of goodies and cover the pan with foil.

Cliché.

I’ve had better (refer to above-noted former farmhouse in Sorrento) and I make a note to make a lasagna with a ground veal and béchamel filling — just a teensy amount of tomato sauce, relatively thin and delicately seasoned. Perhaps make a lasagna with ground lamb, with Greek seasonings. Mexican? who knows?

The pans come out of the oven and we await the guests.

Fortunately, the turnout is less than expected. Those who do show are great guests, and we have an enjoyable evening, sitting around the dinner table, chowing down and talking about all manner of things.

And, when all are gone … cliché.

Leftover lasagna.

Enough for another dinner and a couple lunches. And, as we all know, this cliché gets better if it sits a day or two in the cooler. Some things recur for the better.


What's Cookin?

Walnut Brittle

1 cup sugar
1 cup light-colored corn syrup
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon butter
1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped walnuts
1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Line a jelly-roll pan with parchment paper and coat paper lightly with cooking spray.

2. Combine sugar, syrup, water and butter in a heavy saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves.

3. Cook 20 minutes or until candy thermometer registers 275 degrees. Stir in walnuts; cook 2 minutes or until candy thermometer registers 295 degrees, stirring constantly.

4. Remove from heat, stir in baking soda and vanilla. Mixture will be bubbly. Quickly pour mixture onto prepared pan; spread to 1/4-inch thickness using a wooden spoon coated with cooking spray.

5. Cool completely; using a wooden spoon, break brittle into bite-sized pieces.
Yields 24 servings. Per serving: 125 calories, 20g carbohydrates, 5g fat, 1g protein, 1mg cholesterol.


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