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Archive for the ‘Eating Well’ Category

Three Hour Lasagna

I bought a pasta maker attachment for my Kitchenaid the first year I lived in New York, and I quickly realized I lacked one of the key ingredients for making fresh pasta: space.  In my first two attempts to make fresh ravioli, I ended up with sheets of pasta strewn over every available surface in the apartment I shared with my two roommates.  I do my best culinary work in a calm, controlled environment with minimal mess, so after only two uses, my pasta maker was stowed away in the deep, dark recesses of my cabinets.  Recently, however, I felt inspired to take it out again and give it another chance, now that I have a bit more counter space and only one roommate who has no problem with fresh pasta on the sofa.

I attempted to make ravioli last Sunday night, but there was a bit of a snafu with a Fresh Direct delivery, so I’d rather not relive that painful memory.  Instead, I wanted to share a few thoughts I had about making Alice Water’s Spinach Lasagna from The Art of Simple Food.  I went all out, and made everything from scratch, including the pasta, tomato sauce and béchamel.  I probably embarked on this mission a little too casually, because truth be told it was a LOT of work and consumed a lot of time.  If you are going to replicate this experiment, I would suggest making the tomato sauce a day in advance, or at least a few hours before you begin preparing the béchamel and the spinach filling.  You could also easily make the pasta dough earlier in the day, and just take it out when it’s time to cook the noodles I felt a little panicky having so many irons in the fire simultaneously, so to speak, and I think the lasagna would have turned out a little better if I had planned my attack more thoroughly.

That said, everything came together in the end, and I enjoyed eating my creation both for dinner last night and lunch today.  Here are the necessary recipes, if you want to try this at home:

Spinach Lasagna
Adapted from Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food
1 recipe Fresh Pasta (see below)
1 ½ cups White Sauce (see below)
1 recipe Simple Tomato Sauce (see below)
1 bunch spinach (½ pound)
1 garlic clove, minced
½ pound ricotta cheese
¼ cup + 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
pinch of grated nutmeg
olive oil
salt
pepper
Wash and drain the spinach. Warm up a tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Cook the spinach until just wilted, seasoning with salt. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute more. Set aside and let cool. Then, gather the spinach into a ball and squeeze to remove excess moisture. Chop fine.
In a bowl, mix the ricotta with the spinach. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and salt to taste.
In another bowl, mix the warm white sauce with ¼ cup Parmesan cheese, a pinch of nutmeg, and salt.
Roll out the pasta into 5 – 6 inch long sheets. You should have seven of them. (If you have more or less, no worries, just tailor the lasagna assemblage to what works.) Cook al dente in a big pot of boiling, salted water. Drain, rinse under cold water, and then drain again. Put the noodles in a bowl with a tablespoon of olive oil to prevent sticking.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Oil a 10 by 12 inch baking pan. To assemble the lasagna, first spread a few spoonfuls of white sauce on the bottom. Then a single layer of pasta. Spread this with a third of the ricotta mixture. Add another layer of pasta, and then half the tomato sauce. Pasta again and then half of the white sauce. Another layer of pasta. Repeat until all of the pasta is used up, making sure you finish with a top layer of pasta. Drizzle with olive oil, and cover completely with foil.
Bake for 20 minutes. Remove and discard the foil, sprinkle with 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, and bake for 15 minutes more, until bubbling and golden brown. Let stand for five minutes before serving.
Fresh Pasta
from The Art of Simple Food
2 cups flour
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
Put the flour in a large bowl and make a well in the center with your fork. Pour in the eggs. Mix, like you’re scrambling the eggs, incorporating the flour a bit at a time. When it becomes too stiff, mix with your hands. When it all comes together, pour it out onto a floured surface and knead lightly. Add a few drops of water if it’s too dry. Shape the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic, and let stand an hour.
When you’re ready to roll the dough, you can either use a rolling pin on a floured surface (folding the dough in half a few times and rolling it out again until its thin and even) or you can use a pasta machine. For this, roll the pasta through the widest setting, fold into thirds, and roll again. Do this a couple times, and then begin decreasing the setting on the machine until the pasta is your desired thickness.
White Sauce
from The Art of Simple Food
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
nutmeg
salt
Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed pot. Stir in the flour. Cook over medium heat for about 3 minutes, whisking the whole time. Then, add the milk bit-by-bit, still whisking in order to avoid getting lumps. Bring the concoction up to a boil. Then, turn down to a bare simmer and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and nutmeg. Keep warm until use, or it will solidify.

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The past month has been a blur of work and work-related travel, and I am ashamed to realize I have not posted anything since the end of January.  It’s a shame, because I did enjoy some great meals in recent weeks, including excellent mussels paired with a Belgian style beer Jeff and I brewed, and a delightful dinner of scallops and risotto on Valentine’s Day, but I suppose life got in the way of my food reporting in February.  My most recent travels have been to California, so I thought a good way to get back on the blog horse would be to give a short overview of some of the delicious food I have enjoyed during my week in Palo Alto, Berkeley, San Francisco and Davis.

On Monday I spent the day in Palo Alto, conducting interviews on the Stanford campus, with a break for lunch with a colleague at the excellent restaurant Evvia.  We shared an order of spanikopita to start, and I select a decadent lamb sandwich as my entrée.  Both dishes were delicious, particularly the lamb, which was cooked to perfection and served with a tasty little salad and a few crispy, roasted potatoes.  Thanks to my mom for the great recommendation!

I spent the middle of the week in Berkeley, home to not only the locavore’s mecca, Chez Panisse, but about a hundred Chez Panisse spin-offs.  For lunch I stuck with simple, cheap meals, like a tasty BLT with avocado and a not-so-tasty sesame tofu salad, but I did allow myself one indulgent dinner during my stay.  On Wednesday night, I went to Gather, perhaps the most Berkley-ish restaurant in all of Berkeley.  The food is locally sourced, largely vegetarian and vegan and, of course, organic.  The restaurant is housed in “the greenest building in the East Bay” and its interior is built from reclaimed wood.  Even the cocktails are organic.  If the food weren’t so damn good, this restaurant would be ripe for parody.

Thankfully, the food, drinks and service were all great, so Gather gets two enthusiastic thumbs up from me and my fellow diners.  My friend Seth opted for an entrée of smoked artichoke with various vegan accoutrements, while my friend Marion and I went for the far less healthy choice of pizza.  My pizza featured pancetta, a fried egg over-easy, and some other delightful toppings that now escape my memory.  Marion’s pizza, which was the special of the night, included duck meat, duck fat and a fried duck egg.  It was ridiculous.  One of the other highlights of Gather was that it offered wine on tap.  Wine on tap!  Only in California.

The other culinary highlight of my trip was, of course, eating my mother’s home cooking at the Fenton homestead in Davis.  I had the good fortune to consume a Moroccan-y stew with chicken, preserved lemons and olives; some pork roasted to perfection, courtesy of UC-Davis’ meat lab; delicious home-grown broccoli; zesty pizzas made with a cornmeal crust; and, the pièce de la resistance, goose!  Yes, on Friday night my family feasted on two geese, which our cousin had shot during the very brief goose season.  What a rare treat!

I am heading back to New York tonight, and will hopefully find some time to post a bit more regularly in March. In the meantime, enjoy a few photos of the wealth of vegetables and herbs my mother’s garden in Davis has to offer!

Leafy greens and broccoli galore

Why do I buy rosemary when my mom has so much?Artichokes!

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Granola for a Song

I am often shocked and appalled by the price of granola in stores and at my farmer’s market.  Granola is incredibly easy to prepare at home, and most of the ingredients (oats, oil, dried fruit) are cheap and easy to come by, so there is absolutely no reason not to make your own at a fraction of the cost of a commercial brand.  I will admit that nuts can be expensive at the supermarket, but I am confident that even if you prepare granola with the priciest bag of almonds at Whole Foods, it will still be a considerably better value than buying a box of Bare Naked, or whatever other trendy granola you can find in stores for $6.99 a bag.  I might add that homemade granola is generally healthier and tastier than what you will find in stores, so with all this in mind, I wanted to share my own method from preparing granola, which will take less than an hour and will probably cost less than $1 a cup.

I don’t typically follow any one recipe when I make granola, but I am fairly consistent about the proportions of ingredients from one batch to the next.  I usually start with about five cups of old fashioned oats (no quick cooking!), and then add three cups of chopped nuts.  Walnuts are my favorite nut for granola, but almonds and pecans are also a safe bet.  I used to use about a cup of oil and syrup per batch, but I have gradually decreased it to more like 2/3 a cup and have incorporated a little agave to ensure my granola is sufficiently sweet. If you want more clusters in your granola, feel free to add a little more syrup.  I like to stir in about a cup and half of mixed dried fruit after I have baked my granola, but that is entirely optional.  With no further ado, here is an approximate recipe for my latest batch of granola.  Enjoy!

Ingredients:

5 cups old-fashioned oats
1 and 1/2 cups chopped pecans
1 and 1/2 cups chopped walnuts
About 2/3 cup olive oil
About 2/3 cup maple syrup
A dash of agave
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup golden raisins
3/4 cup dried cranberries

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Mix oats, nuts, oil, syrup, agave, salt, cinnamon and vanilla in a large bowl until mixture is uniform.  Spread mixture onto baking sheets; each baking sheet should have a thin layer of granola, so it will probably take three sheets total.  Bake the granola for fifteen minutes, and then stir thoroughly before baking for another 15 minutes.  If the baking sheets are on different racks in the oven, you might want to swap the sheets halfway through baking to ensure they cook evenly.  Also, keep a close eye on the granola in the last 5 minutes of baking; the line between crunchy granola and burned granola is very thin.  Remove granola from the oven and allow it to cool to room temperature before adding dried fruit.  Enjoy with yogurt, fruit, oatmeal, or whatever suits your fancy!

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Learning to Love Salad

It shames me to admit it now, but for much of my 20s, I really was not much of a salad person.  There was no one to blame for this personal failing except myself.  When I was growing up my mother served a lovely salad with dinner most nights, and during my many in France I had more than my fair share of fresh and delicious salade niçoise.  I don’t want to suggest that I actively disliked leafy greens; when I happened to find a salad on my plate at a dinner party or a restaurant I always enjoyed it well enough.  The issue was more that I rarely went out of my way to consume salad when I dined out, and at home it seemed like too much trouble to chop and wash all those vegetables if I were eating alone.

I think part of my salad transformation came about through living with Jeff.  I definitely put more time and effort into preparing meals now that we eat together most nights, and I am a terrible nag about his diet, and hold him to a much higher standard than I did for myself when I was living alone.  At some point, probably a year and a half or two years ago, I started serving a small salad with dinner most nights, and somehow that act of preparing and consuming it regularly has turned me into a total convert.  In the past, when I wanted to prepare a quick and easily meal for myself, I often made a grilled cheese sandwich or perhaps scrambled eggs.  Now a salad is definitely my go-to meal when I am dining alone, and my thinking about what ingredients belong in a salad have evolved dramatically.

To be fair to myself, when I think about the kinds of salads I probably consumed at friends’ houses in college and shortly thereafter, it makes sense that I was not a die-hard fan.  I remember more than my fair share of bowls of iceberg lettuce topped with under-ripe tomatoes, slices carrots and store-bought Italian dressing.  In my mid-twenties, I encountered many manifestations of the classic spinach salad with cranberries, blue cheese and apple – I think that must have seemed really grown-up to my friends and I at the time – and while it was definitely an improvement, it didn’t really capture my imagination.  I think I had to discover for myself what I liked about salad, and to realize that preparing healthy meals sometimes does take a little time, but the payoff is well worth the investment.

While I do appreciate the simplicity of a bowl of greens with a tangy vinaigrette, I generally prefer a salad with a little more flair.  These days I almost always include a handful of toasted walnuts and some crumbly cheese, as well as whatever fruits and veggies happen to be in season.  I have recently discovered how wonderful grapefruit can be in a salad, and I am always delighted by the addition of avocado.  As far as greens go, I am not terribly particular, but I do like to mix and match whenever possible.  A bowl of crisp green lettuce is good, but with the addition of endive or radicchio, I can take my salad to the next level.  I do like spinach as a base for salad (like the one I had for lunch today), but I have discovered that raw kale is a little too wholesome for my taste.  As far as dressing goes, a homemade vinaigrette is always best in my opinion, but it’s even better if I remember to add some minced garlic.  Yum.

 

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NYC Restaurant Week

I have been so very, very delinquent about posting since I returned from Guatemala, but thankfully today I have something very exciting to report upon: NYC Restaurant week!  Yes, it’s that time of year when many of the city’s finest dining establishments open their doors to vagabonds like me, and offer daily prix-fixe menus for a mere $24 for lunch and $35 for dinner.  I have had transcendent experiences at NYC restaurant, and, quite frankly, I have been burned, so I thought I would share a few thoughts about how to make informed decisions about where and when to dine during this feeding frenzy.

My first piece of advice is you should always check the website of the establishment where you hope to dine before committing to a reservation.  While some restaurants seem to really get into the spirit of Restaurant Week and offer amazing deals on delicious dishes, others  seem to use it as an excuse to get lazy and serve mediocre meals.  Most restaurants will post their Restaurant Week menu well ahead of time so you, the customer, can attempt to gauge how seriously they take their prix-fixe meals.  If tuna tartar and foie gras are among the options for your appetizer, that is probably a good sign.  If instead you have a choice between tomato soup and Caesar salad, I would say skip it.

I would follow by advising diners to be adventuresome, and try some restaurants that might not otherwise have been on their radar.  It seems to me that some of the old war horses of the NYC dining scene are the most guilty of serving sub-par meals during Restaurant Week, so perhaps save Le Cirque or Cipriani for an occasion when you actually want to spend some money.  My inclination is to seek out some newer establishments that are still hoping to build buzz, and are more likely to put together a knock-out Restaurant Week menu (and to offer wines that aren’t quite so hard on the wallet).  On a similar note, I would recommend seeking out smaller establishments, where you won’t be fighting for your server’s attention and fighting to hold a conversation over the cacophony of a packed dining room.

My last suggestion would be to not ignore lunch.  Sadly I have a full-time job that prevents me from indulging in multi-course meals in the middle of the day, but if you have the flexibility to take off a couple of hours at lunch time, that seems to me a great way to go.  Not only are the prix-fixe meals cheaper at lunch, but reservations are easier to come by, and many of the best Restaurant Week participants only offer deals at lunchtime.  I was deeply disappointed to learn that L’Ecole, where I had a fabulous dinner last year during Restaurant Week, is only offering lunch this year.  C’est dommage!  Likewise, Red Rooster and A Voce, both of which have long been on my list of restaurants to try, are only serving lunch.  Please, free lancer friends, go enjoy some great midday meals so I can live vicariously through you.

Personally, I am heading down to Kutsher’s in Tribeca tonight to sample some “modern Jewish American bistro” cuisine in what may be my only Restaurant Week meal this year.  I am not quite sure how this dinner will fit into my eating plan (it’s going relatively well, thank you for asking), but I am looking forward to sampling my first gefilte fish.  I’ll let you know how it goes!

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Risotto, how do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.  I love thee for thy versatility, with peas and leeks in spring, wild mushrooms in summer, and root vegetables in fall.  I love thee for thy texture, achieved not through copious quantities of butter and cream, but rather through patient stirring and homemade broth.  I love thee for thy simple nature, which requires not a recipe.  I love thee for thy leftovers, which I shall surely bring to work on the morrow.  I love thee best after I have eaten thee.

To make a long story short, I made a tasty dinner tonight, which was inspired by a recipe for  risotto with parsnips and kale I saw in the New York Times.  I used sweet potatoes instead of parsnips because that’s what I had on hand, and I simplified the steps a bit by cooking the sweet potato in the risotto, instead of roasting it in the oven.  I am sure it would have been delicious either way, but I preferred to minimize the number of pots my dinner required.  Paired with a green salad and seltzer, it was a hearty and healthy winter meal of which Alton Brown would have approved.

 

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In my last post I mentioned the food options available to me in Guatemala were often not terribly wholesome, and I finished my trip feeling that some kind of healthy eating plan would have to be established upon my return.  Quite a few of the dinners I consumed, particularly in the Antigua leg of our trip, consisted of meat and starch, but more often than not there was nary a vegetable to be found (one particularly bleak night, the menu consisted of spaghetti in butter, mashed potatoes and dinner rolls).  I have never been much of a dieter, because I generally lack the willpower to deny myself delicious foods, but for while I have been interested in an eating plan established by Alton Brown, and I thought perhaps this January would be a good time to give his “Live and Let Diet” a try.

In explaining the principles behind “Live and Let Diet,” Brown was quick to note he was using the term “diet” with its original Greek meaning of  “a way of life or mode of living.”  In other words, he designed this eating plan with the idea that a person could easily follow his guidelines indefinitely, and not simply for a few weeks to quickly shed unwanted pounds.  “Live and Let Diet” is based upon four lists, which I have posted below for any interested readers.  The first two lists are essentially “friendly foods,” with list one consisting of foods to consume every day, and list two containing foods one should eat at least three times a week.  The delectable foods on the third list (red meat, dessert, pasta, etc.) should only be consumed only once a week, and the foods on the fourth list should be avoided altogether.  The only other caveat of the plan is to eat breakfast every day, which I do faithfully on my own, so all in all, it seemed like a fairly manageable regime to follow for a month (or hopefully more!).

I have decided in advance I will not be too hard on myself if I stray from Brown’s lists occasionally, because my intent is not to lose weight, but simply to feel better after two weeks of unhealthy eating.  I suspect I may consume a little more alcohol than I ought, because I have a refrigerator full  of home-brewed beer that is calling my name. I am also not sure I will convince Jeff to eat as many sweet potatoes as Brown prescribes, but I feel confident winter squash would prove a reasonable alternative.  One way or another, I’ll report on my progress throughout the month and share some recipes of which Brown would approve.  In the meantime, here are the heretofore mentioned lists:

Foods to Eat Daily
Fruits
Whole Grains
Leafy Greens
Nuts
Carrots
Green Teas

Foods to Eat 3 Times per Week
Oily Fish
Yogurt
Broccoli
Sweet Potato
Avocado

Foods to Limit to Once per Week
Red Meat
Pasta
Desserts
Alcohol

Foods Totally Eliminated
Fast Food
Soda Pop
Processed Meals
Canned Soup
Any type of “diet” foods

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