Monday, June 30, 2014

Skillet Lasagna

Don't you love that pan? It's this.
Keepers is another book that's being passed around to the members of Cook My Book, and when I saw this recipe for skillet lasagna, I was intrigued. I love lasagna, but it's usually a pretty big production. And when I make it, I make a lot.

This recipe seemed like a more reasonable size, and it cooked on the stovetop, which made it much more summer-friendly than cranking up the oven for a long bake.

And it cooked relatively quickly, too. With all the prep and the resting time after - and time to take a couple photos - this was done in about an hour, with enough free time in the middle of cooking to make a side dish and salad dressing.

The original recipe in the book was twice this amount, but I cut in in half since there are only two of us, and we're not as hearty eaters as we used to be.

With some vegetables as a side dish, we only managed to eat about 1/4 of this for dinner. I'd imagine that for heartier eaters, this would feed three or four people.

This was pretty magical. It started out pretty soupy, but by the time it was done, it really was lasagna-like, with a thick sauce and layers of pasta.

The only thing it was missing was the browning of the cheese that you'd get from an oven-baked lasagna. But, if you really miss that browning, all you need to do is put the pan under the broiler for 30 seconds or so.

Skillet Lasagna
Adapted from Keepers by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 pound sweet Italian sausage, remved from casings
1/2 small yellow onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1/2 teasoon dry oregano
1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
1 sprig of basil
Small handfull basil leaves
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 of a 9-ounce package of no-boil lasagna noodles
2 ounces cream cheese
1/4 pound mozzarella, thinly sliced

In a 2-quart or larger saute pan with a lid, heat the olive oil on high heat until it shimmers. Add the sausage, and cook, stirring to break the meat into small chunks. until the meat is cooked through and browned.

Turn the heat to low. Using  slotted spoon, transfer the meat to a small bowl. Leave as much of the oil in the pan as possible.

Add the onions, garlic, and pepper flakes ad cook, stirring as needed, until the onion are softened - but watch carefully so the onions and garlic don't burn.

Add the oregano and tomatoes along with all the juice), crushing the tomatoes with your hands as you add them. Or, you can break up the tomatoes with a spoon or masher after you add them.

Add the meat and any juices that collected in the bowl. along with the oregano. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Cook gently for about 5 minutes, then taste for seasonings. It should be slightly salty - the noodles will need the seasoning. Discard the basil sprig.

Break the noodles in half crosswise. If smaller pieces break off, that's fine. Push half of the noodles down under the sausage and vegetables, distributing them through the pan as evenly as possible. Place the rest of the noodles in the pan, pressing them down so they're  under the sauce.

Cover the pan and cook at a gentle simmer until the noodles are tender, about 12 minutes. he sauce should be slightly thickened.

Put the cream cheese, in small spoon fulls, on top of the lasagna, then swirl it into the sauce as it melts. Place the mozzarella on top of the lasagna, then cover the pan again and cook until the cheese is melted, another 2 minutes.

Take the pan off the heat, remove the lid, and place the basil leaves on top of the lasagna. Let the lasagna rest, ucovered, for about 10 minutes before serving.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Packing for a Picnic?

Recently, I conducted a completely unscientific poll and found that there were three distinct picnic food groups. First came the comfort food version with cold fried chicken and potato salad. Second was the wine and cheese picnic, and third came sandwiches.

My personal preference is probably based on my early infatuation with Aunt Bea’s fried chicken packed in a wicker basket for Sheriff Andy. But I would never turn down wine, cheese and nibbles.

First, You Need a Basket

A picnic basket doesn’t need to be wicker. Or basket-shaped. Red Envelope sells a backpack designed especially for picnicking. It comes complete with dishes, wine glasses, metal utensils, napkins, cutting board, serrated knife, corkscrew, and tiny salt and pepper shakers. Insulated storage for food is in a separate compartment, and detachable wine storage and a picnic blanket complete the set - and you can get the backpack monogrammed, as well.

The backpack basket is great if you’re doing a little hiking to your picnic space, whether that hiking is urban or back-country trails. Or, perhaps for a short bike ride. But since space (and weight) is limited to what makes sense to carry on your back, they’re probably best for wine, cheese, and nibbles, or for a few sandwiches and a few sides, rather than a huge spread.

Wicker baskets evoke that old-timey picnic vibe. From Bambeco, the picnic basket for two includes bamboo plates and utensils, embroidered napkins, wine glasses, and a cutting board. Since the interior is roomy, this sort of basket is well suited for a larger and more varied array of picnic goods.

No matter what type of basket you choose (or an insulated cooler, or canvas bags, or whatever you prefer to carry), you need to do some planning when it comes to packing – because once you get to the picnic area, you can’t run back to the kitchen for an extra spoon.

Keep Your Cool

When it comes to food storage, we probably all know the mantra that heat rises and cold sinks, so for best preservation of chilled foods, it makes some sense to have the ice packs on top (if you’re using them – but more on that in a bit). But there’s another logic involved. Put the foods you’ll want first on top, and leave dessert on the bottom. You’ll conserve more chill by having the basket open for less time.

While ice bags are useful, I found that using a freezable sports bottle filled with water worked just as well. I didn’t fill the bottle completely, since I didn’t want it to burst in the freezer, and it was the last thing to go into the basket when it was packed.

Of course, if you’re going on a long drive, you might need more chilling power, but for a quick trip to a nearby park for lunch, things will stay cold long enough. And, once you’re at the picnic, you have cold water to drink.

Another option for chilling that serves double duty is the Rapid Ice Cooler from Vacu Vin. Actually, there are a variety of these sleeves, designed to fit cans and bottles to chill them and keep them cool. You can wrap them around your containers before putting them in the basket (which has the added benefit of cushioning them, if you happen to be bringing glass) or you can lay the coolers on top of the basket for travel and let people insulate their beverages as they’re drinking. You can also use them to keep foods chilled, if you have them packed in containers of the right size.

How will you serve?

One thing to keep in mind is that your chosen picnic spot might not be close to running water, so if you drop your serving spoon in the grass, maybe you’d rather grab a clean spoon instead of trying clean the dirty one.

In fact, I suggest bringing along plenty of extra utensils. They don’t take much space. For serving spoons and random cutlery, you don’t need to go all-out with high-end equipment. A visit to a local thrift store will probably supply you with a big handful of unmatched and interesting flatware and serving spoons for very little cost. When the picnic is over, wash them, put them in a plastic bag, and store them in the basket so you’re ready to go next time.

Speaking of cutlery, bring along a few extra knives, as well. You don’t need your best equipment, but I’d suggest something better than a butter knife. A knife that comes with its own sheath is a good idea, like the Oni knife from Dreamfarm that’s designed for cutting with one edge and easy spreading with the other. A divot in the handle has a tiny sharp edge for cutting – like when you’re wrestling with one of those chip bags that just doesn’t want to open.

A few small cutting boards can come in handy, too. Remember, you might not have a good way to rinse your used boards, so it might be handier to bring a few extras. While I love small flexible cutting mats, you might be working on a bumpy surface at the picnic area, so solid board might be a better choice. The “small plates” boards from J.K. Adams are small enough to fit into your basket and the designs are pretty enough to use them as serving boards for your cheese – you did think about serving that cheese, right?

For the wine and cheese basket, don’t forget the toothpicks! I packed cheese, olives, and some pickled items, none of which really required plates or utensils to nibble – but toothpicks are certainly more civilized than poking in the olive container with your fingers. Buy a little toothpick dispenser and keep it in the picnic basket.

How about extra glasses? Sure, you can refill your wine glass with lemonade or iced tea, but why not pack a couple extra glasses? Duralex glasses are durable enough to travel, and you can use them for serving that fruit salad you brought, just in case it’s too messy to put on flat plates.

While the picnic baskets I mentioned came with their own napkins, some extras in a dispenser that will keep them from blowing away is a good idea. After the picnic, leave it in the basket or use it for back yard dining. The Simply Pull napkin holder from OXO is a good choice.

Many of the baskets on the market come in 2-person and 4-person versions. Even if you think your picnics will only involve two people, the 4-person version might be a good choice, since you'll get extra plates and utensils that can be used for serving, and you won't need to pack up as many extras.

Food, Glorious Food

I have a tendency to put way too much food on the table for dinner, but that’s fine because leftovers are easy to pack and store. At a picnic, that’s not necessarily the case. No matter how well chilled your food was when it arrived, it’s probably going to be edging towards warm if it’s been out of the basket for serving.

Are you really going to pack that food up and put it in the refrigerator to serve another day? Some things, yes. The potato salad, probably not.

OXO’s LockTop containers come in a variety of sizes, and the 4-ounce container was perfect for a single serving of cole slaw – no need to dish it out – just pop the top and eat. If you think someone will want a second serving, just bring extras in those small containers and keep them chilly in the basket.

A larger LockTop container was great for the chicken and a divided container kept vegetables and olives from getting to know each other too well.

While it’s perfectly fine to pick up olives, hummus, and pickled vegetables from the olive bar at the grocery store, don’t be tempted to use those containers for your picnic. I’ve had those flimsy plastic containers open and spill into my grocery bag, and that’s not something you want to deal with at a picnic.

Besides, if you’re packing munchies for your wine and cheese basket, you’ll probably want a small amount of many things, rather than a vat of hummus and a quart of cornichons. And think about how fun it will be to unpack and nibble on a whole array of small portions, while you slice your cheese and sip your wine.

I used an assortment of containers, including colorful Veggie Savers from Mastrad for the fruit I brought for dessert. To go with the wine-and-cheese basket, star fruit in a bright purple container looked great.

Remember that ice water in a sports bottle? I suggest bringing extra water or other beverages besides the wine. On a hot, sunny day, you might find yourself wanting to chug a whole lot of cold drinks. The Pure Fizz soda maker lets you bring your own carbonated water – flavored or not – and the Bormioli Rocco bottles are a beautiful way to carry your homemade lemonade or iced tea.

Sandwiches, Anyone?

For sandwich packing, there are two options – the pressed sandwich would be fine wrapped in foil and stashed in a plastic bag to thwart leakage, but the Compleat FoodSkin offers another option. It stretches and molds around the food inside, keeping it snug.

For the make-your-own sandwich, sturdy plastic sandwich containers would house bread nicely – one sandwich at a time – and meats, cheeses, and condiments could be stored separately, to avoid the dreaded soggy sandwich issue.

Then we have condiments. Depending on what you’re serving, you might want mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, hot sauce, ranch dressing, oil and vinegar dressing – but you’re only going to use small amounts. Rather than bringing a whole bottle, consider repacking, and then consider easy serving.

The travel bottle from Swissmar is designed to hold 3 ounces of liquid – which you could take on an airplane – but it’s also nice for ketchup, mustard, or mayonnaise on a picnic. For dressings and sauces that are more pourable, the small salad dressing shaker from OXO holds 8 ounces and has a pour spout.

If you want hot coffee with your meal, forget about carrying it in your picnic basket. Use a insulated bottle or travel mug and carry it separately. You can even find insulated containers in bowl shapes for that hot German potato salad or the baked beans that you want to serve with your sandwiches.

Some Extras You Shouldn’t Forget

Don’t forget a blanket, if you’ll be sitting on the ground. The blue checked blanket (from Target; not online) folds and zips to form a pillow with a carrying handle, and if you forgot one last thing, you can shove it into the zipped blanket for easy carrying.

Any blanket will do, really, but keep in mind that the ground might be damp. Bring a thick blanket, one with a waterproof underside (like the blanket that came with the backpack) or a combination of a waterproof ground cover (a plastic tablecloth or drop cloth are fine) along with your own festive blanket.

Don’t forget to bring chips or crackers to go with the cheese, salsa and dips. They’re lightweight, but bulky. It would be ideal if you could fit absolutely everything into the basket … but really, why stress? It’s not like luggage. You won’t get charged extra for bringing another bag. Any sturdy tote bag will do, since we’re not worried about insulation.

While chips come in their own handy storage container to bring to the picnic, think about how you’ll take them home without spillage. Bring bag clips. Not only do they seal your bags, but you can clip one to the corner of your napkin to keep it from floating away on a breeze.

Speaking of snacking, if you’re bringing a little friend along who won’t be partaking in the main event, whether a toddler or four-footed pal, bring something a special. Snickers was amused by this shark container, designed for kids’s snacks.

Now that you’ve committed to bringing a tote bag for the chips, a roll of paper towels might come in handy if things get really messy. And it’s not like they’re heavy to carry. Toss a pack of Wet Naps in the bag, too, if you tend to get messy.

Bring along a trash bag or two, for easy cleanup when the picnic is done. Remember that running water that might not be nearby? Well, after the picnic you’ve got a collection of dirty plates, utensils, and probably some now-empty storage containers. Do you really want them dripping into your basket? Collect them and put them in a trash bag (or other reasonably large bag) to keep your basket clean, and not make a mess of the storage containers that will be heading back to your refrigerator after the picnic.

Remember those chunks of cheese that came wrapped from the store? It made sense to slice and serve at the picnic, but now that the wrapper is ripped, how are you going to bring them home? Bring a few plastic zip-top bags. They take no space to carry and you might find other uses for them as well, like carting off the chicken bones when you realize there’s no trash bin nearby.

If you drove to the picnic, there’s one last thing you might bring, but leave it in the car: a plastic gallon jug of water. Sure, many picnic areas have running water, but what if it’s not available? That jug will come in handy to wash sticky hands or rinse muddy feet, if need be.

And now you can pack up the car and go home.

This previously appeared on Serious Eats. Some products were provided be the manufacturers specifically for this post; other products came from my personal stash.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Almond Sweet Rolls (with a surprising ingredient)

Sometimes I have crazy ideas. And sometimes they even work. When I make sweet rolls, sometimes I add graham cracker crumbs to add body to the filling without adding a ton of sugar. This works particularly well for cinnamon rolls.

It also helps to keep the filling from oozing out of the bottom of the rolls and making a sticky mess on the bottom.

This time, I decided to try wheat germ instead of the graham crackers. Wheat germ isn't the fibery part of the wheat, it's actually the part of the wheat that sprouts and becomes the new wheat plant. To me, it has a slightly nutty flavor, which I thought would work really well with the almonds I put into these sweet rolls - they were sweet enough, slightly nutty, and with plenty of cinnamon.

Almond Sweet Rolls

For the bread dough:
1 cup water
1/4 cup honey
2 1/4 teaspoons Red Star Platinum yeast
3 cups (13 1/2 ounces) bread flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup buttermilk powder
1/4 cup almond meal
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
4 tablespoons unsalted butter

For the filling:
1/2 cup wheat germ
1/4 cup almond  meal
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon

Combine all of the ingredients in the bowl of your stand mixer and knead until the dough is elastic. Cover the bowl and set aside until the dough has doubled in size, about an hour.

Meanwhile, combine the filling ingredients in a small bowl and set aside until needed.

When the dough has risen, flour your work surface and spray a 9x13 baking pan with baking spray.

Turn out the dough and form it into a rough square.

Use a rolling pin to roll the dough to a 16-inch square. It doesn't need to be exact - you can eyeball it.

Spread the filling onto the dough leaving about an inch uncovered on the far end. Use the rolling pin to press the filling into the dough a bit. You don't need to be aggressive about it - just press lightly.

Starting with the edge closest to you, roll the dough, jellyroll style, towards the far end. Don't roll too tightly. When you get to the far end, pinch to seal the seam.

Cut the dough roll into 12 equal slices and arrange the slices, with a cut side up, into the pan. If any of the filling has fallen out of the rolls, you can gather it up and sprinkle it on top of the rolls.

Cover the pan - my favorite 9x13 pan has its own snap-on plastic lid, but plastic wrap will do just fine.

Refrigerate the buns overnight or up to 24 hours (you can also let the dough rise until it has doubled - about 30 minutes or so, but the overnight rest is recommended - and it makes it easier to have fresh sweet rolls in the morning.)

When you're ready to bake, remove the sweet rolls from the refrigerator and heat the oven to 325 degrees. I like to give the oven 30 minutes to come to temperature.

Remove the cover from the pan and bake at 325 degrees until the buns are nicely browned, about 25 minutes.

Remove the buns from the pan and let them cool slightly on a rack.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

If you like, you can drizzle these with a powdered sugar icing, or just sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Disclaimer: The nice folks at Kretchmer's Wheat Germ sent me a jar of wheat germ, but I already had some in the pantry. It's a useful addition to baked goods, so I generally have some on hand.

Friday, June 27, 2014

White and Semolina Loaf

I like baking breads in different shapes, using different methods, and with different sorts of pans.

Sometimes the recipe ingredients are similar - I mean, flour, water, salt, yeast, and maybe some sugar are the basic ingredients. And those ingredients can be used to make a lot of different breads.

This time around, I was playing around with an interesting gadget - the Lekue Silicone Bread Maker that I reviewed here.

It's really more of a baking pan that a "maker" that mixes dough, but it's not just a pan, either. When the bread maker is open, it's bowl-shaped, so you can mix the bread ingredients in it. The company also suggest kneading the dough right in the bowl. You can do that, if you like, but I prefer to knead on a counter top.

After the dough is kneaded, you let it rise in the closed pan, covered with a towel. Then it's shaped and placed back in the pan for the final rise. And finally, it's baked right in the pan.

The crust was similar to the crust I've gotten from baking bread in a clay pot, no doubt because of the steam trapped inside the bread maker. The bread also ended up being a unique shape - sort of a football/submarine hybrid.

If you don't happen to have this particular pan, you can bake this bread in a standard bread pan or free-form on a baking sheet.

The Lekue bread maker doesn't require anything to keep the bread from sticking, but if you decide to bake in another pan, consider using cornmeal under the loaf.

White and Semolina Loaf

1 cup lukewarm water
2 1/4 teaspoons Red Star active dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
2 cups (9 ounces) bread flour
1/2 cup (3 ounces) semolina flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Combine all ingredients and knead by hand (or with your favorite machine) until smooth and elastic.

Cover the dough and set aside until doubled in size, about an hour. If you're using the Lekue bread maker, close it, then cover it with a towel to cover the open ends. If you're using a standard bowl, cover it with plastic wrap.

When the bread has risen, form it into a log-shaped loaf and put it back into the Lekue bread maker (or whatever pan you'll be using.) Allow it to rise until doubled in size, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the oven to 350 degrees.

When the dough has doubled, bake in the closed Lekue pan (or your chosen method) until nicely browned, about 40 minutes.

Remove the bread from the pan and let it cool completely on a rack before slicing.

More about the pan:

This silicone bread maker isn't just for bread. It's microwave-safe, so I used it for cooking vegetable in the microwave. I's a particularly good shape for microwaving on on the cob, if that's something you want to do. you could also use it for cooking or baking other items in the microwave or oven, either open or closed.

Or. use it as a bowl.

I tried cooking bread in the microwave, just for giggles, and it wasn't particularly successful - you'll never get the desired browning. But we didn't really expect that to work, did we?

Disclaimer: I received the bread maker as a sample from the manufacturer.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Gadgets: Lekue Silicone Bread Maker

I'm not exactly sure what to call the Lekue Silicone Bread Maker ($35). I mean, they call it a bread maker, but it's actually more of a bread pan that can be used as a bowl. It doesn't actually do any making of bread.

The idea is that you can mix your bread ingredients in the bowl, do the kneading in the bowl, close it up and cover the open ends to let it rise, then shape, rise, and bake, all in the same container.

It all makes perfect sense for me, except kneading in the bowl - if I'm hand-kneading, I prefer to do that on a clean counter top. But there might be reasons why someone prefers kneading in a container.

The best thing about using this as a bread pan is that the resulting bread is a unique shape - a cross between a football and a submarine, with slices being nearly round. I've bought plenty of baking equipment just because I like the shape, so I'm more than happy to add this to my arsenal.

A bonus is that because the bread bakes in an enclosed space that holds in the steam, you get a crisp crust - and it browns nicely.

Since the bread maker is made from silicone, it's microwave safe. Not that you'd bake bread in the microwave, but it's perfect for cooking corn on the cob in the microwave, if you're inclined to do so. If you leave it closed after cooking, it will help keep the corn warmer than if you leave them in an open container.

And of course you can cook, bake, or roast other foods in it as well, and it's dishwasher safe.

I'd like this if it was just a bread pan because I like the shape of bread baked in it, but the fact that it can be used for cooking other things makes it a little more practical.

Wondering about that bread - the recipe will be posted tomorrow!

The product was supplied for the purpose of a review on Serious Eats; this was previously published on Serious Eats.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Honey Vanilla Ice Cream

I was inspired to make a second recipe from the box of goodies I got from Jenny, who blogs at Creative Cooking Gluten Free, as part of a 37 Cooks challenge. One of the items she sent me was a jar of Run Dog Farm Pure & Raw Honey.

Mmmm... honey.

I sort of forgot about it when I was thinking about what recipe I could make, but then the lightbulb lit. Why not make honey ice cream?

Yeah, that's what I said.

It was pretty simple, really. I used honey instead of sugar - and not as much honey since it tastes sweeter than sugar - and the rest was a pretty basic recipe.

You can really taste the honey in this, and the vanilla adds a nice richness. As I was mixing it up, I was trying to think of a third flower-related flavor to add, but then I decided I didn't want to muddle the honey and vanilla, and I let it be.

Honey Vanilla Ice Cream

2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup raw honey
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup whole milk

Mix the honey into the cream until it dissolves. If it doesn't want to dissolve, you can heat the cream gently to encourage the honey to melt. You won't need to get it more than lukewarm, so don't get carried away

Add the salt, vanilla, and whole milk and stir until it's all combined.

If your ice cream maker has its own compressor, you can start churning right away. Otherwise, refrigerate the mixture until it's fully chilled before churning.

Churn the ice cream according to the manufacturer's instructions. Transfer to a storage container and freeze until firm.

I wouldn't tell anyone if you decided to drizzle a little extra honey on top when you serve.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Watermelon-Berry Margaritas

While local watermelons won't be available for a while, there are plenty of nice-looking watermelons at the grocery store. From giants to personal-sized watermelons, they're all represented. Seedless and yellow, too.

I love watermelon. It's so ... cooling. Refreshing. Bright. Crisp.

And, the flavor makes a great cocktail.

Yes, I said cocktail. A nice, fresh, summery cocktail.

This time around, I combined the watermelon with some strawberries - might as well keep the color consistent - and then there was tequila.

To make the watermelon-strawberry juice, I used a juicer. I suppose you could use a blender to make a beverage with a smoothie-like texture, or you could blend then strain to remove seeds and excess pulp. My juice had a little body to it, but it wasn't super-thick.

Watermelon-Strawberry Margarita

1 ounce tequila
1/2 ounce agave syrup
1/2 ounce lime juice
Watermelon-strawberry juice, as needed (recipe follows)

You can make your margarita three different ways - blend with ice in a blender for a frozen margarita, serve it over ice, or shake with ice in a shaker, then strain. How you make it is up to you.

And ... of course you can adjust the sweetness or tartness by adding more or less agave syrup or lime juice.

But I think this formula is a good start. Then give it a taste and adjust to your liking. Once you've got the exact formula, mix up a pitcher or two.

Garnish your glass with a slice of lime. Some chunks of watermelon on a skewer would also be great. Or just have a small bowl of watermelon chunks to munch on. It's amazing how quickly they disappear.

Hint: if your watermelon isn't as sweet as you'd like it to be, add a teeny sprinkle of salt, and it will taste sweeter. You don't want salty watermelon, so be conservative.

Watermelon-Strawberry Juice

1 pint strawberries
6-8 cups chunked watermelon.

Process the berries and watermelon through your juicer. Transfer to a storage container and refrigerate until needed.
Watermelon Berry Margaritas (and how to make watermelon-strawberry juice)