If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. Or, just find ways to cook dinner without using your gas oven.

It’s not even June, and it’s already reaching temps of over 90º here in Athens. When this thing — this oppressive, unavoidable series of unfortunate months known as “summer,” longed-for by a few (I’ve never understood why, especially those in the deep south), dreaded by this particular soul — comes upon me, one of the first things I do is try as hard as possible not to turn on my oven. Our oven is of the gas variety, and while I love, love, love my stovetop, the oven acts as a veritable furnace. Maybe it’s because our oven is old, and cheap at that?

There are a couple of things I must continue to use my oven for, bi-weekly or so: making bread and granola. Other than that, our entire summer consists of either grilling, baking in the convection toaster oven, or cooking on the stove. Tonight I happen to be making food for our friends with whom we swap meals once a week, and the evening’s recipe was Stovetop Lasagna. This is from a sample issue of Cook’s Country, and I first had it about a year ago when Cassia made it for us a few days after returning home from the hospital with Townes. It’s an easy, one-pot, quite delicious meal, a welcome twist on the oft-times heavy, dry or soupy, overly-cheesy american-favorite pasta bake. It has room for creativity, too — we’ve made a vegetarian version, and I usually add whatever veggies I have on hand for the meat version too. Tonight it was mushrooms.

So here’s the recipe. I’m not quite sure if it’s legal for me to rewrite it here, but I figure I’m giving them credit, and I doubt my readership is a threat to their current circulation. Let me know if you make it, and what changes/additions you think work.

SKILLET LASAGNA*

  • 1 (28-oz) can diced tomatoes
  • water
  • 1 Tbs olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, minced
  • salt
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/8 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1 pound ground beef (or mixture of beef/pork, beef/sausage)
  • 10 curly-edged lasagna noodles, broken into 2-inch lengths
  • 1 (8-oz) can tomato sauce
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 Tbs grated parmesan cheese
  • pepper
  • 1 cup ricotta cheese
  • 3 Tbs chopped fresh basil

1) Pour tomatoes with their juices into 1-quart liquid measuring cup. Add water until mixture measures 1 quart.

2) Heat oil in large nonstick skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion (and additional veggies, per your liking — anything you’ve had in a lasagna) and 1/2 tsp salt and cook until onion begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic and pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add ground meat and cook, breaking apart meat, until no longer pink.

3) Scatter pasta over meat but do not stir. Pour diced tomatoes with juices and tomato sauce over pasta. Cover and bring to simmer. Reduce heat to med-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until pasta is tender, about 20 minutes.

4) Remove skillet from heat and stir in 1/2 cup parmesan. Season with salt and pepper. Dot with heaping tablespoons ricotta, cover, and let stand off heat for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with basil and remaining parmesan. Serve.

*courtesy COOK’S COUNTRY magazine, June/July 2006

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How to use a gallon of strawberries, part 2: make freezer jam

Yesterday morning I thumbed through The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook, remembering a brief section covering jams and jellies (thanks for underscoring the idea, Amy). I found the simplest recipe for freezer jam — it’s a no-cook fruit jam that doesn’t require pressure canning, but does require freezing until you’re ready to use it:

  • 4 cups prepared fruit
  • 2 cups sugar (wow)
  • 2 Tbs lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup water
  • one package pectin

This was ridiculously easy — the hardest parts were stemming and chopping the strawberries, and boiling my adorable new squatty Ball jars. Now, the recipe warned that freezer jam isn’t quite as thick as regular canned jam, but from the looks of what’s currently inside these jars (they were supposed to sit at room temp for 24 hours before freezing), it’s more the consistency of strawberry sauce. Which is fine, I’m up for topping some ice cream, but does anyone know how to make it set more firmly?

In an unrelated incident, we found out this morning that tomorrow will be Ada’s MMO (Mother’s Morning Out) teacher’s last day, so we were thinking we should send her a little gift. In a rare moment of planning clarity, I decided that this need could be fulfilled by a squatty jar of strawberry freezer jam/sauce. I’ve never felt so domestic in my life. Next thing you know, I’ll be wearing dresses to vacuum and having a cocktail ready for Tim when he walks in the door.

How to use a gallon of strawberries, part 1: make shortcake

[shawrt-keyk]

1) a cake made with a relatively large amount of butter or other shortening.

2) a dessert made of short, sometimes sweetened, biscuit dough baked or split in layers, with a filling or topping of strawberries or other fruit. 1

Well, well, well. Turns out the whole sweet biscuit thing is the very definition of strawberry shortcake. I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me — short cake. I think it was all those years, growing up, thinking that strawberry shortcake had to be made with those cellophane-packaged, spongy, hyper-preserved “cake bowls” that you can still find in the produce section of large supermarkets. You took one of those, filled it with strawberry pie filling, and topped it with cool whip. That’s why I never liked strawberry shortcake. As it turned out, I never actually had strawberry shortcake.

This recipe is from an old issue of Everyday Food, if you have a subscription you might remember it on the cover. It’s quite simple — if you have a food processor, it comes together super-quick, but if not, it’s just like making biscuits. While the cakes bake, you let the strawberries sit with a little sugar to get just a touch syrupy, and whip the cream. Voila, you have one of the first tastes of summer.

1shortcake. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Retrieved May 23, 2007, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/shortcake

Strawberries!

One of the things I like about living in Athens, yet rarely take advantage of, is living minutes away from rural farmland. Yesterday morning, our friends Greg and Whitney suggested we take the kids and go pick strawberries at a local farm. I did this once several years ago, but it’s the type of thing I’ll forget about until, say, August, when strawberries are long past their southern prime. It’s also the very thing that I usually need someone else to suggest, since these days my mind is locked primarily on getting through each day accomplishing at least two things on my never-ending list of domestic duties, and those two things usually require every ounce of mental power I possess.

But look at these berries!!! Yes, they really are that red. And they are smaller, but much sweeter than the last time we picked them. We got a gallon bucket for eight bucks, and after the kids learned how to not pick every white or salmon-colored berry they saw, they actually became quite helpful at filling it.

So, my question is: what in the name of all that’s berry am I supposed to do with a gallon of strawberries? Greg and Whitney froze some of theirs, which I think is a grand idea, but I still want to best utilize a good many of them in their fresh, perfectly-ripe state. What do you do with sweet, ripe, freshly-picked strawberries? Don’t be shy — I want to hear from all three of you.

Bacchanalia (be warned: it’s a long one)

Friday night we celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary (a week late) by maxing out all five senses with feasts of food and music. It was almost too much. The night started with a traffic jam on 85 south that had me nervously wringing my hands in the passenger seat, considering whether my new black wedge heels would handle a quick 4-mile jog to the restaurant after abandoning our car on the interstate. I decided they couldn’t handle it (notice how I blame the shoes), but Tim artfully exited and took an alternate route. We were only 20 minutes late for our 6pm reservation.

Bacchanalia is located in what appears to be an old warehouse or industrial-use building. Its storefront is Star Provisions, the sister venture where you can buy gourmet foods and wares. I was a little confused at first, thinking I’d walked through the wrong door. But after strolling lustfully past food items that I cannot even begin to afford, I caught a glimpse of the restaurant entrance in back.

We apologized for our tardiness, but it seemed easily forgiven by the hostess who turned out to be one of the owners. She seated us at a corner table, and we both quickly surveyed the scene to see if our dress was appropriate. It was, and we probably could’ve gotten away with going more casual. We saw everything from coats and ties to bluejeans, but the atmosphere definitely lends itself a bit more to the former, so while I don’t think a tie is necessary, I wouldn’t wear denim. But that’s just me.

We were immediately greeted by a server who asked us in a very soothing voice if we’d like to start off with a drink, some champagne perhaps? We declined, and as he walked away, another white-coated server appeared with menus, describing how the prixe fixe ordering works, and after he walked away yet another server appeared bearing gifts “from the chef” — two puff pastries filled with cheeses. As we munched our pastries a fourth server appeared, asking if we had any questions about the menu. Our habit is to ask for recommendations — and take them based on the level of knowledge and/or excitement communicated in delivery — but this particular server just looked a bit confused and said something about everything at Bacchanalia being recommended. He turned out to be our least favorite — and yes, we did have about five different servers. That was a bit hard to get used to, and I can’t say I really liked it.

But, on to the food. I’ve been trying to come up with a good analogy to help describe what we experienced. It’s not enough to say that what we ate was “good” or even “fantastic,” because that necessarily puts it on par with any other meal that I’ve described in the same way. See, by a course or two in (it was a prixe-fixe, four-course meal) we were keenly aware that what we were experiencing was not like any meal at any restaurant ever before. The best analogy I’ve come up with is a fashion one (my analogies are usually about food, but that obviously fails me here): the meal was like having a couture dress fitted precisely to my size and shape (or, Tim having a custom-tailored suit). Owning a dress like that would be like owning a piece of art. It couldn’t be compared to a dress I bought at TJMaxx — a cheap dress that is a favorite, is more appropriate on most occasions, and more comfortable. But it’s not fine art. What we ate was just that. And it helps to go into it with that in mind.

The menu changes almost daily, so I won’t bore you with an exact description of all we had. Instead, a selection of personal favorites:

  • The favorite appetizer: Gulf Crab Fritter with Thai Pepper Essence
    This wasn’t something I would’ve picked off the menu, since I was a little wary of the “essence” (blame Emeril for my newfound distaste of the word). But it was recommended by a more helpful server, and described as one of their signature dishes. And it was just flat out and up front delectable. Sweet and spicy, perfectly textured, worth fighting over the last bite.
  • The favorite entrée: Poached Prime Tenderloin Pot au Feu with Roasted Marrow, Kobe Short Rib & Aromatic Broth
    Oh, my, I am so glad I’m not a vegetarian. This tenderloin brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it. I don’t know how, but it got better with each bite — every forkfull brought clearer realization of perfection in texture and melt-in-your mouth flavor, unlike any beef I’ve ever had. It was three slices of tenderloin, with sides of marrow and kobe rib. You heard me. Marrow. I even got a fun utensil to scoop the marrow out of the bone that was standing upright on one end of my plate. I hesitated for a moment, but plunged in, with reward. It wasn’t like the tenderloin, but was reminiscent of a rich mushroom broth, with a texture not entirely unlike a raw oyster. The kobe short rib was the flavor punch — one server explained that it was braised 3-4 hours in wine and condensed veal stock. It was very nearly the most tender beef I’ve ever tasted, with flavor to match.
  • The favorite cheese/contrast: Shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano with Medjool Dates
    This was a tough call. Our other cheese selection was a more subtle goat cheese with a selection of beets, one of which slipped from beneath my fork and ended up on our table, staining the white cloth a bright magenta-red. But the parmigiano and dates were phenomenal. They could’ve passed for our desert — the dates were so sweet and soft, it made me question whether I’d ever before eaten a real date. The cheese, with its salty, slightly crunchy texture, perfectly balanced the date, creating the ideal segway to desert. This might be my “must-have” recommendation from the evening.
  • The favorite desert: both.
    Strawberry Soufflé with Chocolate Créme Anglaise, and
    Coconut Tres Leche with Lemon Basil Gelato
    When the server brought the deserts, he stuck a spoon into the puffed soufflé and poured the warm anglaise into the middle. I could’ve drunk the anglaise straight from its tiny pitcher, but it belonged in that soufflé. It was a luxurious take on the classic duo of ripe strawberries and chocolate.

    The tres leche was a finely textured cake, soaked with sweet coconut milk (and two other milks, apparently, hence the “tres” part), but between the slightly tart gelato as an accompaniment and the spicy chipotlé-laced cookie on the side, this take on a traditional latin-american desert was over the top.

Other things are worth mention. We were brought no less than six extra tasting items from the kitchen. A small cup of chilled asparagus soup, an orange and fennel float, tiny pastries that included homemade marshmallows and chocolates, and a cupcake in honor of our anniversary (don’t worry, they didn’t sing to us). The wine — two of the cheapest glasses of red on the menu — was probably some of the best wine we’ve ever had. The wine that makes you realize how much cheap wine you drink. And the service. I had the distinct impression for the entire night that we weren’t in Kansas anymore. We were being pampered, as was everyone else in that room. I tried to check my insecurities at the door, and was happily free from them the minute we started eating. The last reward came as we were leaving. We were caught gazing into the windows that line the kitchen, and the co-owner of the restaurant asked us if we wanted to go in. I looked quickly at Tim, since I knew we were late for our show, but found myself saying, “Sure!” as I caught his gaze. So she took us in to the quietest kitchen we’ve seen in our limited restaurant experience. It was running like a well-oiled machine as we stood there watching, with Anne Quatrano describing the working order of her kitchen. Call me a food geek, but it was almost as good as the time I stood speechless in front of Hugh Acheson at the Five Points Bottle Shop.

The only negative aspect of the whole experience: harken with me back to the first paragraph of this post, where I stated that “it was almost too much.” It reminded me of the times I’ve been in a really good, really big museum, like the Art Institute of Chicago, the Orsay, or the Louvre. It’s so staggeringly overwhelming to see so many priceless works of art in one place, feet apart, that the pieces start to lose their significance. I would find myself, after an hour or so, walking past lesser-known Picassos or Cézannes, thinking, yeah, whatever, I’m ready to get to this other room. I didn’t give the respect or attention to pieces, lost in their sea of masterpieces, that I’d give them if they were in, say, someone’s house. Or even in a smaller exhibit at the High Museum in Atlanta. The same with this food. Everything we ate was nothing short of perfect, but the plates that had subtler or less familiar flavors (say, the foie gras) were overshadowed by the louder, more rambunctious, front-of-the-palate headliners. I feel like I could’ve spread the whole meal over a week, and given it more justice.

But alas, it was only one night. One night in five or so years (that’s about how often the budget will allow the extravagance). And a full one it was — from there, we saw a characteristically mind-boggling performance by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, at the Fox. But, some friends noted yesterday after we described our evening that we seemed more excited about the food. And neither of us could disagree.

Pineapple-walnut burritos

We had friends in from out-of-town for dinner last night, and the suggestion for the meal was Pineapple-Walnut Burritos. I started making these a few years ago — the concept was stolen from Lula, and while I have no idea how close they are to the original — my memory fails me — they are, as they say, a “crowd-pleaser.” People are usually a bit suspicious, but in the end believers. Here’s how they work:

They are a regular burrito, as in, a filled flour tortilla. The fillings include, generally in this order:

  • cooked white rice (make sure it’s seasoned with salt)
  • something green — last night we used roasted asparagus, and if it’s in season, it’s the winner. you can roast asparagus in a shallow roasting pan at 500º for 8-10 minutes. drizzle with a little olive oil first, and season it after it’s done. if you need more details, it’s straight from the Joy of Cooking. you can also use fresh spinach, steamed green beans, etc.
  • sautéed tofu (we use Grit-style tofu, described in their cookbook)
  • pineapple salsa (I’ll give the recipe later, but if you have the Moosewood cookbook, that’s the recipe I use)
  • toasted walnuts (I do them in the toaster oven, the same setting as toast)
  • shredded monterey jack (the original Lula recipe used manchego, a wonderfully delicious spanish cheese. but manchego is a luxury, a bit expensive. so we most often use mj.

So you put all the fillings in the burrito — don’t get too filling-happy, or it won’t close up — and roll it up. Put them seam-side-down in a casserole dish, sprinkle with a little more cheese, and bake in a 400º oven for about 10-15 minutes, just long enough to melt and maybe brown the cheese and to make sure they’re heated through. We ate them with sour cream and chopped scallions to top.

Now last night, Taffy made mojitas to accompany. Great choice, or just drink your favorite south-of-the-border, lime-infused beer (she provided that for us, too — thanks Taff!).

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