Classic lasagna al forno

Lasagna: an indefatigable classic

Originally appeared in the December 20, 2012 edition of the Southside Times.

Clasic lasagna al forno (1)

Lasagna is an indefatigable classic—sure, we could quibble over styles (think of the variations between cheeses: cottage or ricotta or the complete absence of either), but the traditional combination of pasta sheets, tomato-based sauce, and some sort of dairy or cheese—all baked together in a savory stratification—make for a hearty, family-style dish that’s difficult to beat no matter the permutation.

An old cooking chum once shared a story with me that his grandmother, in addition to red tomato and white cottage, employed a layer of spinach to her lasagna as a nod to the Italian flag—red, white, and green, of course.  I can appreciate those familial and familiar version, but with this week’s recipe I’ve included two elements that will be exercise for your cooking chops—Bolognese and white sauce.

The Bolognese (also called a ragu) is a mix of aromatic vegetables and chopped or ground meat, and the white sauce is a basic béchamel (one of the five leading or “mother” sauces) with an addition of two types of cheese.  And al forno is just a term that denotes a softened pasta noodle achieved through baking.

Classic lasagna al forno

Serves 4 -6

  • 9 oven-ready lasagna sheets
  • ½ onion, grated
  • 1 carrot, peeled, grated
  • 2 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 8 ounces minced sirloin steak
  • 8 ounces ground pork
  • A few pinches dry oregano and dry basil
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 8 ounces tomato sauce
  • 14 ½ ounces canned crushed tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 ounces red wine
  • 2 – 4 ounces whole milk
  • To taste, kosher salt and cracked black pepper

Cheese sauce

  • 1 ounce all-purpose flour plus 1 ounce unsalted butter
  • 12 ounces whole milk
  • Pinch ground nutmeg
  • 2 ounces grated white cheddar cheese
  • 2 ½ tablespoons grated parmesan (plus more for topping)

1.  Preheat oven to 350° F.  In wide-bottomed, high-sided sauté pan or sautoir, heat small amount of olive oil over medium-high heat.  Add onions and carrots, reduce heat slightly; sweat veg several minutes before adding garlic; continue till veg are translucent and fragrant.  Add in minced steak and ground pork; lightly season with salt and pepper; add dry herbs, bay leaf.  Using a wooden spoon, add tomato sauce; incorporate and reduce slightly; add crushed tomatoes, Worcestershire.  Pour in red wine and reduce until syrupy.  Remove from heat, stir in milk.  Reserve warm.

2.  In a high-sided saucepan over medium heat, add flour and butter, allowing butter to melt to form a paste.  Whisk in 1/3 of milk, removing any lumps by stirring.  Add in another 1/3 of milk along with pinch nutmeg.  Add last 1/3 of milk, bring to gentle boil.  Remove from heat, add in grated cheese in small installments; whisk in parmesan, season with salt and pepper.

3.  Evenly spread 1/3 of meat mixture to a 8-inch by 11 ½ -inch by 2-inch casserole dish (or 2 quart baking dish).  Line with three sheets of oven-ready lasagna; spread out 1/3 of cheese sauce and top with another 1/3 of meat mixture; add three more sheets of lasagna.  Pour out remaining 1/3 of meat mixture, spread evenly before applying final amount of cheese mix.  Top with additional parm; cover with aluminum foil, bake at 350° F for 30 minutes.  After removing, allow lasagna to rest for 15 minutes before slicing and serving.  Top with extra parmesan.

Published in: on December 24, 2012 at 5:55 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Whole wheat spaghetti with kale and pistachios

All hail kale

Originally appeared in the October 25, 2012 edition of the Southside Times.

One of my favorite combinations is kale tossed with pasta; and to further accent the health benefits the aforementioned member of the cabbage species, I’ve selected whole wheat spaghetti for this week’s installment.  This is an ideal time for this sort of dish—it’s hearty yet healthy, savory and full of flavor.  The pistachios add a touch of crunch and a salty hint of bitterness.

Because the kale is so sturdy, I recommend tearing out the center rib before slicing.  When it comes to slow-steaming the leaves, you want to make sure you soften the kale without overcooking it, as overdoing it will not only damage the color but (like most heat-abused vegetables) deteriorate the nutritional value.  That being said, there is some research indicating that some varieties of this species of kale can withstand steaming and other gentle cooking techniques with little to no detriment to tis nutritional composition.

Use chicken stock or water to sloe-steam the kale.  And of course, if you’d like to make a switch with the butter, you can simply substitute olive oil.  Garnish with a sprinkle of parmesan cheese and a scatter of pistachios, and you have a pasta dish ideal for a brisk October evening.

Whole wheat spaghetti with kale and pistachios

Serves 2

  • 5 – 6 large leaves of kale, center ribs removed a leaves sliced
  • Roughly 8 fluid ounces low-sodium chicken stock
  • 6 – 7 ounces whole wheat spaghetti (or pasta of choice)
  • 1 clove garlic, rough chop
  • Pinch crushed red pepper
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • As needed, grated parmesan cheese
  • 2 tablespoons shelled, rough-chopped pistachios
  • To taste, kosher salt and cracked black pepper

1.  Heat a small amount of olive oil in a large sauté pan; add kale and toss in hot oil to coat sliced leaves.  Add 2 – 3 ounces of chicken stock, lower heat to a simmer, and cover pan.  Repeat this process by stirring and adding stock to gently steam the kale until tender (you may not need all the stock).

2.  Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil; cook pasta to al dente.  Drain well.

3.  Once tender and liquid has completely evaporated from pan, remove kale and reserve.  IN same pan, melt butter slow and allow to brown slightly.  Add crushed red pepper and garlic.  Once garlic is aromatic, pour in pasta and coat in butter; add kale and toss to coat.  Stir in parmesan.  Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.  At service, garnish plates with chopped pistachios.

Published in: on October 27, 2012 at 7:45 am  Leave a Comment  
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Orecchiette with pan-fried pancetta

Lend me your “ears”

Originally appeared in the September 20, 2012 edition of the Southside Times.

With fall-like temperatures sneaking in lately, my mind is already gearing up for comfort grub.  Pastas, of course, are ideal ways to accommodate complex and hearty flavors without getting too “heavy.”

Here’s a what I believe is a seldom-used pasta among food enthusiasts:  orrechiette, the indented-disc shape of which resembles a small ear.  In fact, the word has its root in the Italian “orecchio,” meaning ear, and “etto” meaning small.  Pancetta is the Italian, salt-cured version of bacon.  You may not readily notice this savory selection at your local market, but go to the deli counter and ask.  In other words, if it’s not up front under glass, sometimes they have it in the back.

I like adding peas for their sweetness and color, but one of the unique features of orecchiette is its ability to cup or cradle vegetables and sauces.  It would be easy to go overboard under that guidance, but keep things simple—a few meticulously handled ingredients with a user-friendly execution.  This dish makes for a great, midweek snack, or a gray-day comfort food.  So, friends, readers, culinarians, please allow me to lend you these ears.


Orecchiette with pan-fried pancetta

Serves 2

  • 1 ½ cup dry orecchiette pasta
  • ½ cup chopped pancetta
  • 1 cup chopped baby bella mushrooms
  • ¾ cup frozen peas
  • ¼ cup sherry wine
  • ½ tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 4 – 5 grape tomatoes, halved
  • As needed, kosher salt and cracked black pepper
  • As needed, grated parmesan (for garnishing)

1.  Being a medium stockpot of salted water to a boil; add orecchiette pasta, stirring frequently to prevent sticking.

2.  Meanwhile, in a sauté pan over medium-high heat, add pancetta and sauté until crispy; add mushrooms and sauté until slightly tender; add peas.  Once peas have warmed, add wine and allow to reduce.

3.  Strain orecchiette and add to sauté pan.  Add in butter and stir to incorporate.  Add tomatoes, adjust seasoning, toss with parmesan and serve.

Published in: on September 20, 2012 at 5:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

Parmesan-crusted pork with asparagus pasta

A little boiling, a little broiling

Originally appeared in the June 7, 2012 edition of the Southside Times.

For this week’s installment, you’ll be employing a little boiling and a little broiling—the former with the pasta (fettuccine), the latter with the parmesan.

While the protein centerpiece of this dish is the pork (a thick-cut loin cutlet), my favorite part is the pasta.  Here, it’s fun to exercise a bit of friendly deception with the asparagus, which is meant to mimic the shape of the fettuccine.  This is easy to accomplish:  simply place your asparagus (about 6 – 8 pieces for a 2-serving portion) flat on a cutting board, and use a vegetable peeler to shave long ribbons away from the stalk.  (I have taken to using vegetable peelers with fine, serrated teeth, which are good for gripping your product; but a good old fashioned peeler should do the trick.)  Cut off the delicate tips and incorporate them into the pasta.

Now, on to the pork.  After grilling or pan-searing you pork, arrange your oven rack closer to the broiler, and crank the broil temp up to about 500° F. before prepping the parmesan along with rest of your ingredients.  The parmesan pork makes for a nice pairing with the lighter, fresher, asparagus pasta.

Parmesan-crusted pork with asparagus pasta

Serves 2

  • 2, thick-cut  pork loin chops
  • ¾ – 1 cup hand-grated parmesan
  • 6 ounces fettuccine noodles
  • 6 – 8 stalks of asparagus
  • As needed, olive oil
  • ½ tablespoon unsalted butter
  • ½ tablespoon chopped, fresh basil
  • As needed kosher salt and cracked black pepper

1.  Season pork chops with kosher salt and cracked black pepper.  Using a grill pan or sauté pan, sear pork loin on both sides; afterwards, place in preheated oven (if needed) to finish cooking to desired doneness.  Cover chops with aluminum foil and allow to rest as you finish prepping remaining ingredients.

2.  Boil fettuccine in salted water.  Meanwhile, use a vegetable peeler to shave ribbons of asparagus.  Drain pasta.  In a sauté pan, gently heat olive oil; add in asparagus and cook briefly; add in pasta, adjust seasonings; add in basil and toss in butter, coating the noodles and asparagus.

3.  Evenly sprinkle the parmesan over the top of the pork and place under the broiler.  Allow to melt and get crispy.  Serve pork over bed of fettuccine and asparagus.

Published in: on June 7, 2012 at 5:03 pm  Leave a Comment