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When cooking in winter, go for the layered look

Sunday, January 12, 2003

By Suzanne Martinson, Post-Gazette Food Editor

My three-month leave is winking seductively at me, and it's time to decide what I'm going to do.

My main task will be writing a cookbook featuring the food and life of Fallingwater with Elsie Henderson, who cooked for the Kaufmann family at their vacation home over the waterfall, but there are nooks and crannies to be filled in around this recipe-testing and reporting job.

So I'm making a list and checking it twice, but feel free to ask me for an update on what I've accomplished when April rolls around. When a person has 13 weeks scheduled away from the office, the small jobs and nagging details around the house that entangle us day to day beg to be straightened out.

Fortunately, one stumbling block has been removed.

Two weeks before I was to begin my hiatus, I logged onto my computer and the screen went pink. Now I don't mind the teal screen I have on my computer at work, but putrid pink was too much. How can a recipe for a lovely lobster bisque be typed onto a pink screen?

One day last week I stumbled in the door after work, and my husband, Ace, greeted meet warmly.

"Come upstairs and see your new screensaver," he said, taking my arm.

"Now?" I was in no mood for screensavers. I was in the mood for a cup of soothing soup.

But he propelled me up the stairs, and there on the screen was the message: "Be kind to Suzanne today. She deserves it"

It must have been done in a hurry, because no period completed this kind thought, yet there was no doubt who it was directed at: the bane of my existence -- my cranky computer. (Notice that I say who, not what, because I believe computers are alive and out to get us. Not that I'm paranoid.)

"Notice anything else different about the screen?" Ace asked.

"It isn't pink anymore!"

"It's brand-new, and it's bigger," he said. At 16 1/2 inches, much bigger, though I wouldn't have noticed, I was so overcome by the not-pink monitor.

Next door, in our daughter's room, was the junkyard of worn-out, used-up computers. It looked like a technological landfill. I saw our old Apple GS with a screen the size of a postage stamp and my old pink prose model, which seemed tiny next to the new model.

So the pressure to write is on, and not just from Ace. In a photo of my 89-year-old friend Elsie, pictured sitting at her desk in Shadyside, she stares right at me.

"I'm not getting any younger," she joked before we undertook this project.

It's not that I don't have writing company. Ace is toiling on a mystery novel in that computer graveyard next door. (Mary Alice Gorman picked out the perfect Christmas gift for me to give to him. His new mug reads: "Take a mystery author to bed tonight.")

And I figure I'm going to sleep easier now that I have a bit of time to take care of those nagging details. It will not be all work and no fun, though. Here's my To Do list:

Sort out the piles of photos and put them in an album. I'm not sure if doubles are a blessing or a curse. My friend Sharon once sent me some pictures of a place I'd never been, believing, I guess, that my desk was a dumping ground for her doubles. Her salve was not my salvation. Now and then, I come across these mysterious snapshots and wonder, "When did I shoot these?"

Drink a cup of hot cocoa every night. Jane Citron -- one of the other collaborators on the Fallingwater cookbook -- brought me a box of that wonderful Mexican chocolate called Ibarra, which has a bit of cinnamon. ("Stones for Ibarra" inspired me to try the chocolate. Wonderful book, too.)

Clean out the silverware drawer (how did a piece of spaghetti and our daughter's North Hills band picture become lodged here?) Then I'll take a right turn and tackle the two cooking-tool drawers. Step II: Throw out any gadget I haven't used in a year. Should fill a Dumpster.

Rearrange my cowboy/cowgirl room, making a prominent space for a present from my daughter -- Buttermilk, a replica of Dale Evans' buckskin horse and a companion to Roy Rogers' Trigger, the golden palomino, from my neighbor Linda.

Give away any cookbook that I haven't used in 10 years. (I may need the space for Fallingwater books. Our fourth co-conspirator, Bob Sendall, can auction a few at his lavish dinner parties.)

Dust the picture frames. Ace does windows, he does floors, he does carpet. He does not do dust. He doesn't even notice dust.

Rearrange our posters, pictures, paintings, so we can squeeze in a few more. I don't dare buy one new thing until I have space to hang it, and Ace and I have agreed we want -- no, need -- a piece of our neighbor Susanne's art.

Write our valentine cards. OK, we fell a little behind on Christmas cards. Ditto birthday cards for high school friends who also celebrated the same milestone birthday I did. At the time, I felt too shell-shocked to even address an envelope.

Spend the day in the kitchen with one of Lidia Bastianich's recipes. Her Istrian Wedding Pillows have been on my mind since I first tasted them in Kansas City, before she opened her restaurant in the Strip District.

Write a bread-and-butter note to Alice and Mario, whom we visited on Labor Day. It's taken so long to write their thank-you note that the bread's gone stale and the butter must be rancid. I hope they understand.

Have fun in the kitchen.

Oh, wait, I already have. And you will, too, if you try these two versions of lasagna, one vegetarian and one with meat sauce. Both are made with the no-boil noodles. For a while there, I thought I'd skewed the outcome of the Steelers/Browns game because I had forsaken my favorite -- Franco Harris' recipe -- to try these new ones. But perhaps my T-shirt from the game that never was -- the Heinz Field opener between Cleveland and Pittsburgh on Sept. 16, 2001 -- brought the win home in the final minutes.

Not that I'm superstitious or anything.

Simple Lasagna With Hearty Tomato-Meat Sauce


    • 1 tablespoon olive oil
    • 1 medium onion, chopped fine
    • (about 1 cup)
    • 6 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through garlic press (about 2 tablespoons)
    • 1 pound meatloaf mix, or 1/3 pound each ground beef chuck, ground veal and ground pork
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
    • 1/4 cup heavy cream (we used half and half)
    • 28-ounce can pureed tomatoes
    • 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
    • Ricotta, mozzarella and pasta layers:
    • 15 ounces whole milk or
    • part-skim ricotta cheese
    • 2 1/2 ounces grated Parmesan cheese (1 1/4 cups), divided
    • 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
    • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
    • 12 no-boil lasagna noodles from 8- or 9-ounce package
    • 16 ounces whole-milk mozzarella cheese, shredded (4 cups)

    Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees.

    Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering, about 2 minutes. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft but not browned, about 2 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes.

    Increase heat to medium-high and add ground meats, salt and pepper; cook, breaking meat into small pieces with wooden spoon, until meat loses its raw color but has not browned, about 5 minutes.

    Add cream and simmer, stirring occasionally, until liquid evaporates and only fat remains, about 4 minutes.

    Add pureed and drained diced tomatoes and bring to simmer; reduce heat to low and simmer slowly until flavors are blended, about 3 minutes; set sauce aside. (Sauce can be cooled, covered and refrigerated for 2 days; reheat before assembling lasagna.)

    Mix ricotta, 1 cup Parmesan, fresh basil, egg, salt and pepper in medium bowl with fork until creamy; set aside.

    Smear entire bottom of 13-by-9-inch baking dish with 1/4 cup meat sauce (avoiding large chunks of meat). Place 3 noodles in dish to create first layer. (We used four Barilla lasagna noodles per layer.)

    Drop 3 tablespoons ricotta mixture down center of each noodle, and level domed mounds by pressing with backside of measuring spoon. Sprinkle layer evenly with 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese. Spoon 1 1/2 cups meat sauce evenly over cheese.

    Repeat layering of noodles, ricotta, mozzarella and sauce two more times.

    Place 3 remaining noodles on top of sauce; spread remaining sauce over noodles and sprinkle with remaining 1 cup mozzarella, then with remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan.

    Lightly spray a large sheet of foil with nonstick cooking spray and cover lasagna.

    Bake 15 minutes, then remove foil. Return lasagna to oven and continue to bake until cheese is spotty brown and sauce is bubbling, about 25 minutes longer. Cool lasagna about 10 minutes; cut into pieces and serve.

    Cookbook's recommendation on noodles: Ronzoni Oven Ready Lasagne "recommended" (also sold under the San Giorgio label) and "recommended with reservations," Barilla Oven-Ready No-Boil Lasagna (we used these).

    "Here in America's Test Kitchen: All New Recipes, Techniques, Equipment Ratings, Food Tastings and Science Experiments from the Hit Public Television Show "

    Lasagna Casserole

    • 2 large eggplants, sliced 1/8-inch thick
    • Salt to taste
    • 1 cup olive oil (yes, the egg- plant soaks up this much)
    • 2 pounds potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/8 inch thick
    • Lasagna noodles (we used 12 Barilla oven-ready lasagna noodles)
    • 4 cups tomato meat sauce (to make the dish vegetarian, we substituted Mama Rosa brand pasta sauce; your favorite jarred pasta sauce should work, too)
    • 2 cups Bechamel Sauce (recipe follows)
    • 4 ounces grated Pecorino Romano cheese

    Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

    Sprinkle sliced eggplants with salt. (We cut it as thinly as we could, but it was difficult to get it 1/8 inch.)

    Let rest 30 minutes, then drain off any liquid and pat dry. Fry eggplant in olive oil until brown on both sides, and set aside.

    Blanch potatoes and set aside. (We thinly sliced the peeled potatoes in the food processor, then boiled them about a minute, draining well.)

    Lightly coat bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with olive oil; cover with lasagna noodles (we used 4 noodles per layer), and coat evenly with tomato sauce. Place one layer of eggplant (we used 1 large eggplant, rather than 2, as we wanted the potatoes to dominate), and top eggplant with a layer of potatoes.

    Spread a layer of Bechamel Sauce evenly over the potatoes and top with cheese.

    Repeat process until all ingredients are used (3 to 4 layers -- we had 3).

    Finish with a layer of Bechamel and cheese. Cover pan with aluminum foil and bake for about 1 1/2 hours. Remove foil and cook an additional 15 minutes. Let lasagna stand at room temperature for approximately 30 minutes. Cut into 4-by-4-inch squares and serve.

    Serves 6 (generously).

    Bechamel Sauce

    • 1/2 cup butter
    • 1/2 cup flour
    • 4 cups milk, scalded
    • 1 teaspoon salt
    • 1 teaspoon pepper
    • Pinch of nutmeg

    Note: We halved the recipe, starting with 1/4 cup butter and 1/4 cup flour.

    In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and slowly mix in the flour, cooking for about 2 to 3 minutes until it forms a light golden brown paste, called a roux. Add the hot milk, about 1/4 cup at a time, whisking well to whip out any lumps.

    Continue until milk has all been added, then add the salt, pepper and nutmeg, and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring often, until the sauce has thickened. Cool in the refrigerator until ready to use. (Our sauce became very thick after refrigeration and was difficult to distribute. Thus, we used all that we had made.)

    Makes 8 cups (4 cups when recipe is halved.)

    Notes: When covering a dish to bake, lightly spray the aluminum foil with vegetable spray. It prevents sticking and leaves the cheese where it belongs, on top. Also, reheating a large dish of lasagna takes almost as much time as the original baking. Heat it under foil to prevent overbrowning.

    Adapted from "Buca di Beppo's Into the Sauce! From Our Cucina to Your Kitchen"

    Suzanne Martinson can be reached at bsjmar2@aol.com.

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