Lamb, Chard & Ricotta Lasagna

December 28, 2010

Language is the archives of history.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Admittedly, it’s been much too long since pen has touched paper here. But, fear not—there are plenty of contrivances in the kitchen to unleash. The hearty number below is for those hunkering down in the white chills back east and across the pond.

Lasagna (pl. lasagne) is somewhat dual faced—both a form of pasta and the actual casserole made with that noodle. The pasta is broad, long and well suited to supine layering. The American version is usually rippled lengthwise on the edges while the true Italian noodle is customarily flat.

Not unlike ourselves, lasagna has a slightly fractured history. One school asserts that lasagna derives from the Greek word λάγανον (laganon), a flat sheet of pasta dough cut into strips, a word that still describes a Greek unleavened bread. Other linguists focus on the vessel itself and posit that the word lasagna comes from λάσανον (lasanon) meaning “chamber pot.” It follows, they say, that lasanum which is the Latin word for “cooking pot” became the precursor to today’s lasagna concept.

Seemed like a fairly benign etymology, until about a decade ago when the English laid claim to lasagna’s origins. You can only imagine the profound insult felt in the streets of Rome…that arms waving vitriol. Apparently, researchers claim that the court of Richard II was savoring lasagna as early as the 14th century. When pouring over the Forme of Curry, one of the first written cookbooks, they found a recipe for loseyn, pronounced “lasan.” In Middle English it reads something like this: Take a gode broth and do i an erthen pot, and do payndemayn and make pof paft with wat, and make pof thynne foyles as pap with a roller, drye it harde and feepe it i broth take Chefe ruayn and lay it in dish with powdo douce. and lay pon lofeyns ifode as hoole as poo mizt and above powdo and chefe, and fo thwyfe or thryfe, & sue it forth.

Did not the Romans occupy the English Isles for several centuries a millenium before Forme of Curry was compiled?

Back to the boot. It goes with saying that lasagna is a distinctly regional dish in Italy—a traditional Ligurian rendition differs from that found in Rome. Varying versions abound throughout home kitchens and restaurants here, there and elsewhere. For instance, this recipe does have some meat but does not have tomato sauce. So, beware those who use the phrase “authentic lasagna.” Just craft one with innards to your liking.

As with pizzas, paninis, and pasta, please avoid overburdening the lasagna between layers as the noodle should still play the leading role.

LAMB, CHARD & RICOTTA LASAGNA

1 lb lamb, freshly ground
1 T extra virgin olive oil
2 plump, fresh garlics, peeled and smashed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 t dried oregano, crumbled between fingers and thumb

2 1/2 C whole milk
1 bay leaf
2 small sprigs thyme

6 T unsalted butter
5 T flour

Small grating of nutmeg
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

3/4 lb red-ribbed chard, stemmed and rinsed
3/4 lb green chard, stemmed and rinsed

2 T extra virgin olive oil
2 T unsalted butter
1 C shallots, peeled and chopped
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves
3/4 lb fresh crimini mushrooms, sliced
3/4 lb fresh shitake mushrooms, stems removed and sliced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 lb dried lasagna noodles
Sea salt

8 oz semi soft cheese, such as Italian Fontina, Gruyère or Comté, freshly shredded
3/4 C parmigiano reggiano, freshly grated

16 oz whole milk ricotta

Preheat oven to 375 F

Drain the ricotta in a sieve positioned over a bowl about one hour. Discard liquid and set ricotta aside.

Lamb
Heat a heavy medium skillet over medium high heat and add olive oil and smashed garlics. Stirring occasionally sauté lamb until medium rare, about 3-5 minutes. Remove and discard garlics. Season with salt, pepper and a pinch of oregano to taste. Allow to cool to room temperature and set aside.

Sauce Béchamel
Bring milk, bay leaf and thyme to a quiet simmer in a heavy, medium sauce pan.

In another heavy, medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium low heat. Add the flour and whisk constantly with a for 3-5 minutes to make a blond roux. Do not allow the roux to brown. Remove bay leaf and thyme from milk, gradually add to the flour and butter mixture, whisking until smooth. Then add a grating of nutmeg, salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook gently until it coats a spoon, whisking throughout, about another 8-10 minutes. Set aside on a very low burner and keep gently warm for assembly later.

Chards & Mushrooms
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Blanch chard for one minute, then drain, pressing out the water in a towel as you would with spinach. Chop coarsely. Heat olive oil and butter in heavy medium skillet. Sauté first the shallots and garlic for a few minutes, and then mushrooms for a few minutes more, until shallots and garlic are softened and the mushrooms are just tender. Add blanched, chopped chard and season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir again, allow to cool to room temperature and set aside.

Assembly
In a large pot of boiling and generously salted water, cook the lasagna until al dente. Drain well and dry, then layer the sheets carefully between clean paper towels for later.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix together the chard and mushroom mixture with the lamb.

(1) Spread one third of the béchamel on the bottom of a 13″ x 9″ baking dish. Arrange the lasagne side by side, slightly overlapping, completely covering the bottom of the dish. Spread half of the chard-mushroom-lamb mixture over the pasta. Then spread some ricotta in an even layer atop. Strew half of the shredded cheese and grated parmigiano reggiano over the ricotta.

(2) Repeat layers by arranging in an overlapping layer of lasagne in the pan. Then, add the remaining chard-mushroom-lamb mixture. Again, spread ricotta evenly over that layer. Then, add the shredded cheese and grated parmigiano reggiano. Spread another one third of béchamel sauce over the cheeses.

(3) Arrange the final layer of pasta sheets in a slightly overlapping fashion on top and spread with béchamel sauce once again.

Cover lasagna with aluminum foil, place dish on a large baking sheet, and bake until top is bubbling, about 30 minutes. Remove cover and continue to bake until golden brown, about 20-25 minutes. Let stand at least 20 minutes before serving.

Prosopography unbound. How a being so homely can morph into such a lustrous beauty. Do not be dissuaded by the cover of this root with its brownish, knotted and hairy skin, and gnarly roots.

Consider a subterranean triad of celery root, turnips and russet potatoes either simply mashed or puréed much as below—in ratios to your liking. If you opt for this, cut the celeriac and turnips in smaller cubes than the potatoes for the initial simmer. In the end, this is nothing more than root manna.

CELERIAC PUREE

4 C whole milk, warmed
3 C vegetable or chicken stock
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
2 T sea salt

3 large celeriac bulbs (about 3 lbs), peeled and cut into 2″ cubes

8 T butter, cut into pieces
1 t white pepper
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper

A slight drizzle of white truffle oil, to taste

Bring celeriac, milk, stock, garlic, thyme, bay leaf and salt just to a boil in heavy stock pot over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer until celeriac is just fork tender, about 20-30 minutes. Drain, discarding cooking liquid, garlic, thyme, and bay leaf.

Transfer celeriac to a food processor and add butter, white pepper, salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper and purée in bursts until very smooth. Add a gentle drizzle of truffle oil, process a little further and season to taste.

The nut does not reveal the tree it contains.
~Egyptian Proverb

Tapenade, that luscious Provençal olive spread, takes on a nutty tinge by adding roasted pistachios.

Even though the base ingredient is olives, the word, tapenade, actually derives from the Occitan word for capers, tapèno. Hark back. Those delectable caper buds were once preserved in amphoras, graceful, long-necked and two-handled ceramic vases, brimming with olive oil. Over time, the tapèno would meld together to form a paste which became the precusor of modern tapenade.

Tapenade can be prepared using a mortar and pestle or a food processor fitted with a metal blade. It is exquisitely versatile: breads, pizzas, paninis, pastas, potatoes, eggs, poultry, meats, fish, and so on. Tightly sealed, it keeps in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

GRILLED VEAL CHOPS WITH PISTACHIO & GREEN OLIVE TAPENADE

4 – 1 3/4″ thick bone-in veal loin chops
Herbes de Provence
Freshly ground black pepper
Fresh rosemary sprigs

1 C pistachios, shelled, roasted and coarsely chopped
1 C pitted green Lucques or Picholines olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
3 T capers, rinsed and dried
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled, smashed and chopped
1 high quality anchovy fillets, rinsed, dried and chopped
2 t Dijon mustard
2 T fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1 T fresh parsley leaves, chopped

1/2 C extra virgin olive oil
Zest of 1 lemon
Freshly ground black pepper

Tapenade
If the anchovy is salt packed, let it stand in a bowl of milk for 15 minutes to exude the salt. Then, drain and pat dry thoroughly.

Combine the pistachios, olives, capers, garlic, anchovy, mustard, and herbs in a food processor and purée by pulsing. With the processor running, add enough olive oil in a slow, steady stream until thoroughly incorporated and a thick, spreadable paste forms. Add the lemon zest, season with pepper, stir well and then let the tapenade to stand for an hour or so to allow the flavors to wed.

Lightly season the veal chops with pepper and herbes de Provence. Then, spread half the tapenade over the veal chops, cover and refrigerate for several hours. Reserve the remaining tapenade.

Veal Chops
Remove veal chops from the refrigerator. Prepare the grill for direct medium high heat. The grill is ready when pain demands you retract an open hand held about three inches above the hot grate with spread coals within 3 seconds. Before grilling, veal chops should be nearing room temperature.

Drop rosemary sprigs into the hot coals to impart aroma to the meat. Grill the veal chops for 5-7 minutes or so on each side for medium rare. Cooking time will vary depending on the thickness of the veal chops and the heat of the grill. The meat should be firm and only gently yielding to a finger. Remove the chops from grill and allow to rest for at least 5 minutes. Then plate the chops, topping each with a generous spoonful of the reserved tapenade.

Something so statuesque as a veal chop should be served atop a frog prince, puréed celeriac.

White Bean & Sausage Soup

December 6, 2010

We’re having a heat wave,
A tropical heat wave,
The temperature’s rising,
It isn’t surprising,…

~Irving Berlin

The longest night and shortest day of the year, winter solstice, nears. It occurs when the Earth’s axial tilt is furtherest from the sun, signalling a reversal of the gradual lengthening of nights and shortening of days.

In Norse mythology, winter solstice was sacred to Frigga, goddess of marriage, childbirth and motherhood. (Ironically, rumors swirled that she was unfaithful to her husband, the chief deity Odin.) This night, Frigga toiled at her spinning wheel, weaving clouds and the world’s fates. So, the winter solstice is often called “Mother Night” for it was in darkness of night that Frigga tirelessly labored at her loom to bring exalted light to birth once again.

From the solstice, a celebration ensued which was dubbed Yule, from the Norse word Jul, meaning wheel. The ubiquitous christmas wreath, a symbol adapted from Frigga’s spinning wheel, reminds us of the cycle of the seasons and the continuity of life.

Here, it goes from chilly to the teens when the southerly, low-angled sun prematurely spills over the edge. I have yet to acclimate. So, time to bring on the winter comfort, and bean soup always fits the bill. These white beans are small, round, ivory legumes with a nutty, earthy flavor and chocked full of fiber and protein. A medley of vegetables, fresh herbs and mellow Italian sausages with distinctive scents of pork and anise make beloved pot, then bowl mates.

WHITE BEAN & SAUSAGE SOUP

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 lbs Italian sausage, sliced diagonally about 3/4″ thick

2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
2 celery stalks, diced
1 turnip, peeled and diced
1 parsnip, peeled and diced
1 onion, peeled and diced
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1/2 T tomato paste
1 t ground dried cumin
1 t dried oregano

1 1/2 lbs dried Great Northern or Cannellini beans, picked over and rinsed
6 C chicken stock
4 C cold water
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 fresh thyme sprigs
2 fresh rosemary sprigs
2 fresh sage sprigs
1 bay leaf
1 T balsamic vinegar

Balsamic vinegar
Extra virgin olive oil

Heat olive oil in a large, heavy stockpot or Dutch oven over medium high. Add the sausage and brown, about 5-7 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel. Set aside.

Return stockpot to medium high heat and add the carrots, celery, turnip, parsnip, onion, and garlic. Season with salt and pepper and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste, cumin and oregano and cook another 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Stir in the beans, stock, water, salt, pepper, thyme, rosemary, sage, bay leaf and balsamic vinegar. Turn the heat to high and bring to just a boil and then reduce heat to low or medium low and simmer gently until the beans are tender, about 2 hours. If necessary, add more stock and water to assure the beans remain submerged.

When the beans are al dente, return the sausage to the pot and simmer for another 5 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings to your liking. Ladle into bowls and serve lightly drizzled with additional balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

Five Spice

December 1, 2010

I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversation.
~George Bernard Shaw

An underused classic, five spice (五香粉) is intended to coalesce and balance an array of elemental flavors: sweet, sour, pungent, bitter, and salty. It need not be confined solely to Chinese cookery but can be integrated across the board. Fear not, as the blend does not have to be absolutely precise, freeing you to concoct your own favored ratios.

A word to the wise. Using stale spices to meld this mix may bring unrelenting reproach from the kitchen gods.

Fresh five spice should be used prudently as it can be uniquely pungent and intense. Just add in moderation and taste frequently, keeping the palates of your table dwellers in mind. A pinch goes far.

CHINESE FIVE SPICE

2 T fennel seeds
2 T whole cloves
2 T whole Szechuan (Sijuan) peppercorns
12 star anise pods
5 cinnamon sticks, broken into small pieces

Toast spices in a heavy, medium large skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until aromas are just released. Do not brown or burn. Allow to cool. Combine all spices in mortar and pestle or spice grinder and pulse until mixture resembles somewhat coarse black pepper.

Store in an airtight jar in a cool dry place.