Tomato, Tomahto

My step-sons are way way into Garfield comics. And Joe told me he thought Garfield was like the funniest thing ever, when he was a kid.

Well I thought he was funny too but not like they do. Maybe it’s a boy thing. They almost always get a new Garfield book when we go to the library and then they battle over who checked it out so that they know who gets to read it at bedtime. It’s such a kid thing.

Well what I am way way into is comfort food that is comfortable in it’s own skin because it’s healthy without skimping on the good stuff. Like lasagna with a whole bunch of veggies.

I made a really amazing version of this classic last night, and I think Garfield would have approved even though it wasn’t your traditional tomato and ricotta style dish.

The kids approved too, considering how many unlasagna-like things were in it. Pine nuts, kale, onions. And squash. A big heaping serving of it: as much as the noodles or more. Because I like to go easy on the noodles, even though they are really my one true love. They even asked for seconds.

And you know, what would a lasagna night be without a big bowl of Caesar salad, complete with homemade croutons (made from a few rolls leftover from the first time I baked with my sourdough starter) and freshly grated parm. I normally don’t eat this kind of salad because I like salads with a lot of stuff in them, but we had it last week when we went for dinner at a friends and I just needed more, you know? If that’s wrong, then I don’t want to be right. I made myself feel better about how bad it can be for you by making the dressing myself. The boys wanted seconds on croutons too, of course.

And I couldn’t say no because I’d been eating them straight off the pan for like 10 minutes before dinner.

There might be some lasagna purists out there among you, who say that it should always be the traditional thing. And maybe you would say that this is just a casserole with some noodles in it. But I say to you “Don’t be so quick to judge! Lasagna loves you no matter what.” So you should try this dish, no matter what. After all, potato, potahto. Let’s just drink a glass of wine.

What? Those aren’t the lyrics?

Butternut Alfredo Lasagna
Makes one 9×13″ pan

2 lbs butternut squash, peeled and sliced in 1/8″ slices. You could sub another squash here, but the butternut makes nice big slices so that’s why I went with it.
1/2 box lasagna noodles
1/2 bunch kale of choice, or about 4 loosely packed cups, roughly chopped or torn
1 jar alfredo sauce (Yeah, I cheated. Sorry.)
2 medium sized onions
2 cups grated parmesan, more or less depending on your tastes
freshly grated nutmeg, about 1/2 a nut
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
salt to taste
white wine, about 1/2 cup

Heat a large skillet oven high heat, and when it’s good and hot add a splash of olive oil. Toss in the squash slices, add a pinch of salt and the grated nutmeg, and let them cook, stirring occasionally, until they start to soften and some of the pieces are getting browned. Put into a bowl and set aside.

While the squash cooks, prepare the noodles. Just follow the directions on the box for al dente, but subtract like one extra minute so they are very al dente. After draining them run cool water into the pot so that they don’t stick together while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

After taking the squash out of the pot reheat it and add another tiny splash of oil. Toss in all the onions and cook till nice and brown and soft. Deglaze the pan with the wine and let it reduce by about half. It will go pretty fast, so add more if it evaporates too quickly. Then add the kale. Cover and let steam for a couple of minutes, until it’s just soft, then give it all a good stir and turn off the heat.

Coat the bottom of your dish with a couple of table spoons of alfredo sauce and top with a layer of noodles. Next add half the kale and onions, 1/2 the pine nuts, then a handful of grated cheese following that with a layer consisting of 1/3 of the squash. Spread the pieces of squash out to make a flat surface for the sauce to go on, then spoon about 1/2 a cup of alfredo, more if you need it, on to that and spread it thin. Next go back to noodles, and do another round all the way through, using the remaining half of the kale. Once you get to the top layer of noodles, add the remaining squash, top with whatever sauce you have left in the jar and the rest of the cheese. Give it another good grating of nutmeg all over and let it sit for 1/2 hour or so, at room temp, so the noodles can absorb some of the sauce.

While the lasagna sits, heat up the oven to 350ºF. Put the lasagna in the lower third of the oven and bake for about 1 hour, or until it’s bubbly and getting browned on top. Let stand for 10-15 minutes before serving. I know it’s hard to wait, but seriously the lasagna will be sooo much better if you do. Mostly because you won’t have burned your mouth with molten hot cheese and you’ll be able to taste it.

It’s even better the next day. Promise.

A Latke Primer

I don’t really know anything when it comes to most “Jewish” food. I don’t do gefilte, I dislike both pickled herring and lox, and I’ve never made most of your Bubbie’s famous dishes. But give me a frying pan and some potatoes and I’ll make you a latke to write home about. 

We got a piano for Hanukah!
Two nights down…

Since there are still a few days left of Hanukah, and I’ve heard from a couple of people that they can’t ever get their latkes quite right, I decided to pass on my humble knowledge of this famous fried food. I’ve also had Joe tell me he thinks I was born with a Jewish soul simply based on how well I cook traditionally cultural Jewish food even when I’ve never made it before, but I guess that’s just his opinion.

There’s really nothing worse than a mushy, soggy latke. Or one that falls apart in the pan and then just ends up in a million burnt shreds. Or one that’s too dry because the potatoes were grated too fine.

In other words, there’s a lot of ways to get them wrong. But I’m going to help you get them right, at least the way I do it. Your Bubbie may or may not approve.

Breaking my own rules: not enough onion 😦

There are a couple of key steps:

Grate the onion first. The juices from the onion will help keep the potato from browning as you grate it. I usually grate about 1/4 of a medium largish onion per 3 potatoes or so. And every 2-3 potatoes I mix the onion and potato shreds together to coat them all with that onion juice. Don’t grate everything too fine or too big either, or your’ll end up either with mush or with latkes that don’t hold together at all. 

Don’t do your nails fancy before this: the fancy won’t survive.

Add the salt before draining. This helps release any excess juices from the potatoes, allowing you to really drain them well. This leads to the next step which is:

Drain the mix for longer than you think is really necessary, over a bowl. Start early, and let your shredded onions and potatoes drain over the bowl you will mix everything in for at least an hour. Every 20 minutes or so, go over there and really press the mix down into your colander to squeeze out that juice. Do it again right before you mix up the batter.

Dump off all the juice but leave the starch! At the bottom of the bowl that you have been letting your potatoes drain into, there will be a slime of potato starch. Leave it there and mix everything else into it. This extra starch really helps to bind together the rest of the ingredients. And speaking of starch:

It doesn’t look pretty right now, but whatev.

I use flour instead of matzoh, but either one is fine. Finer starch will absorb the excess liquid more quickly.  A couple of Tbsp for every couple of potatoes is a good rule of thumb.

Ditch the egg whites. They don’t help bind all that much, and they have a lot of extra water content, which you just spent an hour getting rid of. Keep your whites though, to make meringues or for egg white omelets if that’s your thing. Use two egg yolks when your recipe calls for one whole egg, or for every 3-4 potatoes. 

Add extra stuff if you want, just keep the ratio of potato:onion:starch:eggs in mind. I like to add green onions, a little cheese, sometimes celeriac or apples, carrots or sweet potatoes. Mix it up and add different spices too. I’ve seen good recipes for samosa style latkes and dessert latkes, and even greek inspired ones served with tzatziki. 

Get the oil good and hot before you start cooking, and don’t be afraid to use quite a bit. If your pan starts to look dry between batches, add a bit more and reheat before adding more latkes.

Get messy. It’s better if you can hand form your latkes: they’ll be thinner and crispier than if you just drop a big glob in the pan. I take about a palmful of batter and form it into a disk, then drop it into the oil. After I’ve filled the pan (but not too many! You don’t want them to be crowded or they’ll just steam.) I go back and lightly press them down with my spatula.

Cook until golden brown and then flip, just once. If they start to burn before you think they’re getting done inside turn the heat down a touch. But don’t worry too much about raw insides because you can always finish them in the oven. If you flip them too many times they’ll start to fall apart no matter how good your batter is.

Drain as you go, onto a paper towel lined sheet pan in a warm oven. They’ll stay nice and crispy for long enough to fry up all the batter so everyone can sit down together.

Sweet Potato Latkes with Cardamom Applesauce and Mascarpone

Spilling the Beans

There are some secrets that people who keep kosher might never tell you. Especially people who have only started keeping kosher relatively recently, like me. They might not want to tell you that kosher food isn’t all fattening. That it isn’t all somehow simultaneously too salty and too bland. That it isn’t just bagels with lox and matzoh ball soup all the time. 

They might not tell you those things, because then they would have to share their recipes with you.

Or if you are me, they might not tell you because they are actually keeping secrets. Things their Rabbi might be shocked to hear. Like how at our house, we stopped buying hechshered meat and started buying local, humanely raised meat instead. 

We don’t eat a lot of meat at our house, for lots of reasons. It’s expensive; it’s not always the healthiest, easiest protein; we prefer cheese and real butter over meat and dairy alternatives; etc. A while ago there was some controversy over the way that kosher meat was raised and slaughtered. Basically, it’s agri-business as usual. I won’t get into the politics of it here because they are too complicated and it will distract me from what I really want to tell you about. Suffice it to say that we chose to start buying local meat instead–at least until we can get a local, kosher option–because we think local and humane is better than kosher for kosher’s sake. 

I took a field trip to the farmer’s market last week. I had a few for sure things on my list. Salmon, peas, cherries. And I wanted to pick up something to grill. I stopped at the Olsen Farms tent, because I knew I could find something tasty there. I drooled for a second over their 100% beef sausages, but in the end I decided on some ribs. Plain old ribs. Just enough for Joe and I, and a few little nibbles for Lilli. Well, those and a package of all beef bacon, but that’s for another day. The ribs were a pretty penny, but they were worth every cent.

I’ve been craving BBQ probably since I started keeping kosher almost 3 years ago. I knew exactly what I was going to do with these ribs–all I had to do was give them a little bit of my time. 

Lilli went down for a nap and I headed straight to the kitchen. Things have been accumulating in the fridge, just begging to be made into BBQ sauce. I had some leftover chopped up onion, the last couple of chipotles from a chipotle apricot chicken kick a while back, and various tomato ingredients from making a version of these delicious white beans earlier in the week. I put everything I had together and let it simmer for a bit, tasting as it went along and adding dashes of this and that. Then I blended it, in a couple of batches to prevent further harm to the blender. I used a bit as a marinade for the ribs and saved the rest to slather on while they cooked on the grill.

At this point it was only about noon, and I was nearly beside myself with impatience waiting for dinner time. I calmed myself by licking the spoon. 

Later, as I par-boiled the ribs so they would be mostly done by the time they got to the grill, I dressed up some sugar snap peas. And by “dressed up” I mean I blanched them, covered them in olive oil, and skewered them. It was a simple costume, but sometimes less is more when it comes to grilling vegetables. 

The sun even came out for our BBQ, which made the evening so much better. We coupled it with some simple rum and cokes (Made by Joe while I started the grill, because he’s not the best griller in the world. He told me it was OK to tell you that.) It was a perfect dinner for three.

Gratuitous shot of the garden

Ice-Box BBQ Sauce 
makes about 4 cups, give or take
1/2 Walla Walla or other sweet onion, diced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 -1 whole can diced tomatoes in juice
1/2 can tomato paste
1/4-1/3 maple syrup, to taste (I use less)
1-2 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (optional, or you could add more if you want it spicier)
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup worcestershire sauce
salt and pepper to taste
A note about making BBQ sauce. It’s kind of an imperfect art. You want a little sweet, a little spice, a little tang. It’s good to start with a base and taste often as you go. You can adjust any of the ingredients as you see fit for the sauce you want to end up with. It’s great on pretty much any type of meat you can imagine.
Heat a saucepan and add a little swirl of vegetable oil. Add the onions and cook until just beginning to brown a bit. Add the garlic. Add the tomato paste and let it get thick and start to brown. Now add the vinegar to deglaze the pan, and let it come to a simmer. Then add the rest of the ingredients, bring to a boil and turn down to medium-low heat. Let it simmer for 10 or so minutes so that the flavors can combine. Taste often and adjust. If you like it sweeter, add more syrup or maybe even some ketchup or brown sugar. Want a little more tang? Add more vinegar. You can experiment with other spices and also you could add bourbon. Just sayin’.
When it tastes like BBQ sauce to you, blend it in the style you prefer. If you use a blender, remember to do small batches so you don’t end up with hot sauce all over your cabinets. Although, sometimes this happens to the best of us. Now slather it on your favorite meat and introduce it to a flame. You will not regret it. Even your baby will love it.