Sunday, March 16, 2014


First, a confession. I really don't like lasagna. Most are overpowering with their cloyingly over-reaching tomato sauces, most of which use way too much tomato paste. I'm never quite sure what I'm supposed to be tasting. And, then, I lump lasagna into the trinity of Italian foods: lasagna, pizza, spaghetti. Really, all three are basically the same: starch, tomatoes, meat. Maybe a few veggies. Of the three, I'll take a good pizza any day. So that's what I based this lasagna on: the tastes I like in a pizza that appealed to me.

I wanted a rich "sauce" that wasn't all tomato-y. I like black olives and green peppers on my pizza. So I added them. I love fennel. I love basil. Both are present in this recipe.

This is a rich-tasting lasagna from the long-simmered sauce. It is redolent with herbs, which includes the Ricotta, all of which plays nice with the pasta.

I highly recommend basil in a tube. It's a great product and keeps in the fridge for quite a long time. The taste is exquisite. There is no chopping. Often, the Ricotta layer in a lasagna is bland if not tasteless. The addition of basil changes all that.

I also love Barilla no-bake lasagna sheets. I love the rustic, homemade look. Just be sure to soak them in hot tap water for about ten minutes before using.

I like my sauce a bit on the thick side. If you don't, go ahead and add a bit more liquid toward the end of simmering. This also makes for a great sauce over spaghetti.

Don't skip on the garlic. One thing I learned from my Italian neighbor Rose, was to add nibs of garlic and splashes of water as the "gravy" simmers. 

Use quality canned tomatoes. I used Muir Glen organic, diced, fire roasted tomatoes. Go easy on the tomato paste and be sure to cook it a bit to soften the bitterness.

Go easy on the cheese. Nothing is worse than a greasy lasagna. In all I probably use a bit over two cups of grated cheeses. I used a pre-shredded artisan Italian blend. Lots of flavor.

And, yes, making a lasagna is a lot of work. I won't lie about that. But with proper planning and prep, it doesn't have to be tedious or confusing.

  • 1/2 pound ground beef
  • 1/4 pound Italian sausage
  • 1 meaty pork neck bone
  • 2 slices meaty, smoked bacon, trimmed of fat
  • 3/4 cup chopped yellow onion
  • 1/4 - 1/2 cup chopped green pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon (scant) red pepper flakes
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic and more for later
  • 1-2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 28 oz. (about 3 cups) diced tomatoes, preferably "roasted"*
  • 1/2 - 3/4 cup water plus more as the sauce simmers*
  • 1 scant tablespoon Italian seasonings
  • 1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
  • 1 small can sliced black olives, drained, rinsed and dried
  • 1 - 2 good teaspoons brown sugar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 9 Barilla, no-bake lasagna sheets
  • Filling
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk Ricotta cheese
  • 1 egg yolk slightly beaten
  • 1 - 1 1/2  tablespoons basil paste from a tube
  • 1-2  tablespoons grated Parmesan or Romano
  • 1/2 cup shredded Mozzarella
  • 1 1/2 cups Mozzarella
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan
  • 1 small can tomato paste for presentation (optional)
  • Parsley, for garnish (optional)

Heat olive oil in a heavy Dutch oven. Add onions and peppers and cook until onions are golden in color. Add garlic and stir just until fragrant. Push aside. Add pork bone and cook until browned on all sides. Add ground beef and sausage, cook, breaking up for about ten minutes or so, until its water has evaporated. Continue to cook until ground beef is browned.

Push meat mixture to side and add tomato paste. Cook for several minutes. Add Italian seasonings, red pepper flakes, fennel and a bit of wine, scraping up the brown bits from the bottom of the pot and until wine is evaporated. Pour in tomatoes. Rinse can with water and add. Stir. Salt and pepper to taste. Add brown sugar. Bring to a good simmer and cook, uncovered, stirring often for about 2 hours or until sauce takes on a deep-red, mahogany hue, adding more water a little at a time, as needed, to maintain level of sauce as it cooks. If you are not using a heavy pan, be careful your sauce doesn't scorch.

You want the sauce thick, but not dry. Remove neck bone (yum!). You should have 3 cups sauce.

Prepare cheese filling. To the Ricotta, add the basil paste beginning with one tablespoon. Add the cheeses. Taste. Add more basil if needed. Now whisk in the egg yolk.

Soak pasta in hot tap water for a good ten minutes.

Lightly grease or spray a 10 x 7 or 8 x 8 baking dish. Spread a few tablespoons of meat sauce on the bottom. Cut pasta to fit pan. I used three sheets per layer cut width wise for a 10 x 7 dish.

Begin layering. Lay down three sheets of overlapping pasta. Spread pasta with 1/3 third of cheese filling. Sprinkle 1/3 of cheese on top. Spread with one cup of meat sauce. Scatter of few black olives if using. Repeat two more times ending with meat sauce and scatting Parmesan or Mozzarella on top.

Note the deep color of the sauce.

Lightly spray/grease a piece of foil and secure over finished lasagna. Bake for abut 30-35 minutes in a 375 F-degree oven. Remove from oven and remove foil. Raise oven temperature to 400 F and continue to bake an additional 15-20 minutes or until cheese melts and top is bubbly.

Remove from oven and allow to sit for at least 30 minutes before slicing. To serve, put a dollop of tomato sauce on plate and top with a square of lasagna. Sprinkle with parsley and grated cheese.

Before baking, I sprinkled my lasagna only with Parmesan cheese which created more of a crust.

Wonderfully seasoned. Moist. Not drowning in "sauce."

*If you'd like a "saucier" lasagna, simply add one 8 ounce can tomato sauce and increase the water or add another 14 ounce can diced tomatoes and increase water.

Notes: I used Sargento brand 6 Cheese Italian blend, 8 oz. or 2 cups and Gourmet Garden brand fresh basil paste usually found in the refrigerated section of the produce department.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Dill Pickle Pot Roast with Mushrooms

Yes, you read it correctly. Pot roast with dill pickles! Strange sounding? Perhaps. First, some background.

I've been desiring to make this recipe since 1985! That's when I bought my copy of "The Frugal Gourmet," by Jeff Smith whose PBS cooking series took the nation by storm. It was Smith who introduced the country to the delights of the international community and their culinary contributions.

Smith's later and final years were besmirched with scandal, lawsuits, and out-of-court settlements. Be-that-as-it-may, he has left us with a rich legacy of recipes and cookbooks that have, indeed, changed the way we cook and the ingredients we use.

This recipe is an example. It is typical Eastern European, specifically, Poland. (I have updated this recipe, so do not miss observations at the end of the blog.)

The original recipe calls for several dried mushrooms resuscitated in hot water, the water strained and added to the pot along with the chopped mushrooms. I used fresh. Also, use a "briny" dill pickle. The briner the better. This a great recipe to use up that lonely, half-filled jar of pickles you have wasting away in your fridge. It also calls for one bay leaf. I'm not a believer in dried bay leaves or what they "add" to any recipe other than a, perhaps, artistic flourish.

When I make this again, I will use a few pepperocini peppers for a bit of "heat" or maybe one diced Fresno pepper for its red color and mild heat or, one long-Italian pepper, chopped.

After about one hour of a slow simmer, I could not stop myself from dipping lightly-buttered ripped chunks of crusty Italian bread into the broth. That was a meal in itself.

Pay attention to cooking time. You want the roast tender but still firm enough to slice. You can, of course, go over the recommended cooking time so that the roast "shreds." In that case, serve on crusty rolls with a bit of Provolone cheese on top.

This is a very forgiving recipe, as most "peasant foods" are. (It was Smith who introduced us to that term.) Carrots? Add some. A bit of celery? Why not? Taters? Of course.

  • 1, 2.5 - 3 pound beef roast. Smith suggests bottom or top round roast. I used a rump roast. Wipe clean with damp paper towel.
  • 2-3 tablespoons peanut oil.
  • 8 oz. chopped onion (a good one cup)
  • 8 oz. chopped baby bella mushrooms (not in original recipe, but a good, one cup.)
  • 8-10 oz. diced dill pickles (about 3-4)
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled, roughly chopped (not in original recipe)
  • 4-6 whole peppercorns
  • 1/4 cup beef stock (you will need more)
  • 1 cup sour cream--oh, YEA!
  • Salt and Pepper

Place Dutch oven, large enough to accommodate roast and other ingredients, over medium heat until hot. Add oil. Salt and pepper your roast. Brown roast on all sides. 

Using paper towel, absorb spent oil leaving behind the "burnt parts."

Add onion, mushrooms, pickles, peppercorns. Sweat just until tender. Add garlic and cook just until fragrant ... about two minutes or so.

Add beef stock. It should cover roast by half. Add more if necessary, or add water with
the beef stock. Bring to a slow simmer and simmer for about two hours or until just fork tender. Remove to a plate, covered with tin foil

Stir in sour cream to pot and continue to simmer for an additional 30 minutes. Taste for seasonings and add what is necessary.

Slice roast. Serve over fluffy egg noodles or mashed potatoes with plenty of rich sauce.

NOTES: The original recipe calls for 3-4 dried mushrooms rehydrated in boiling water (just cover with  a bit more than needed). Squeeze, but save the water. Save the water (but not the sediment) and add to roast. Also, use 3-4 bay leaves, not just one. Bay leaves are an integral part of Polish cooking. If using fresh use less. Fresh, of course is best.)

*Sorry, no pics of finished recipe. It was late and we had a sleet storm .. so it was very dark, indeed, to take decent pics.