Lasagna a la Uncle Scooter

Welcome back, gentle readers!  I’ve been away from the computer (and the kitchen) for a little while as I’ve been settling into my new role as the gm for Firefly, a landmark neighborhood institution here in San Francisco.  Now that I’m fully plugged in, I wanted to get back to feeding you, too.

Lasagna, for me, falls into a special category of foods; good today, better tomorrow.  So when I can, I get started on this dish a day in advance.  However, pulling a dish like this together and not eating it, requires more will power than I have the time to cultivate.  Ah well.  This style of lasagna, bound together with a cheesy sauce, was introduced to me by Michael Park back in the day.  I don’t make it any other way now.  Also, I like the “no boil” noodles, but do what your heart wants.  Let’s jump right in –

When I make a lasagna, I like to make the sauce separately.  In this case I made a pork and beef red sauce, with onion, garlic, carrot, fennel, and orange.

Here’s the soffritto shot.  In the French tradition, the aromatic base for a dish is mirepoix, (onion, carrot, celery) in the Italian tradition; soffrito (onion, garlic, carrot, fennel, other tasty things).  The Italian style uses olive oil, but the principal is the same for both, sweat some tasty bits of vegetables until they are soft and sweet and delicious.

Next, brown the meat(s), deglaze with a little wine and reduce that wine by half.  Then I added the tomato product and aromatics.  Fresh oregano and a little orange zest went in the pot.  Next up, cheese sauce!

By my count, we’ve seen the above process (or some variation) fifteen hundred times already at swfoodworks.com.  We do however have a technique newcomer; singer (sawn-jay).  Here’s what Larusse has to say:  “Singer  A French culinary term meaning to sprinkkle ingredients browned in fat with flour before adding liquid (such as wine, stock or water) to make a sauce”.  But that’s not all, “[t]he term previously meant to colour a sauce with caramel, which was familiarly called jus de singe (‘monkey juice’)”.  Which only reminds me of Eddie Izzard’s Dressed to Kill monolouge in french.  I’ll spare you the laborious reading, and point you here if you have questions about what makes a roux, bechamel, or mornay.  I’m making a quart of sauce, so I started by sweating some garlic cloves and bay leaf in a couple table spoons of butter.  When that smelled great, I sprinkled a couple of heaping table spoons of flour in the pot and whisked it around for a few minutes.  Then I added the quart of whole milk and stirred until the whole mess thickened.  Voila!

For the lasagna proper, I wanted to make a vegetable filling of potatoes (above sauteed with garlic), red onion, oregano, and citrus zest (below, in the bowl).

Now that the meat sauce has simmered and is delicious, the bechamel is prepared, and the filling is ready, we have to assemble the dish.  I have some fresh mozzarella to add some cheesy-body and I wanted to add a little ricotta along with the filling.  Here is the assembly process in photos, and the directions in haiku:

Sauce, noodles, filling

cheese, sauce, noodles, cheese, filling

cheese, noodles, sauce, cheese

Of course, please finish with seasonings (salt, pepper, nutmeg?), wrap with foil and bake in a hot oven (350 or so).  Peek under the foil after an hour to see how everything is coming along.  If the sauce is bubbly, you’re good to go.  Remove the foil and bake (or broil) looking for a nicely browned top layer.  Comme ça.

Now, let that steaming tray of delicious sit on out and start to cool.  If you can stand it, wait for several hours before cutting out a slice and making lunch.  If you can not, at least wait while you set the table.

Then, heat up your ragout, cut out a slice, and sauce the noodles.  If you are making this plate after the lasagna has had a chance to rest, it’s easy to heat up the individual servings on a sheet tray or small oven proof dish.

No fancy wrap-up for this posting.  I just want to wish the best for your family, friends, health, and happiness.  Au revior,  Scott.

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Baking with a Levain Starter

Over my last visit home, I was lucky enough to spend the afternoon with my paternal Grandmother.  She started a cafe in Mason City, Nebraska about fifty years ago, and I’m pretty sure that my penchant for restaurant life is directly connected to her genetic makeup.  Thanks, Grandma Doris, it’s been a great ride so far!  I mentioned that we’ve been baking a lot with a levain starter here at home, and she let me know that her own mother had kept a starter around for baking as well.  We talked a little about the care and feeding of a starter, and using it in pancakes and waffles for leavening and a little tang.  I guess my love of baking is plucked from my family tree as well.

Let’s take a look at what this kind of bread baking looks like.

Once you’ve build a happy levain, the bread baking process is really pretty straight forward.  You need bread flour, water, your starter, and salt.  That’s it.  For this bread I used a garnish of pepper jack cheese, but anything goes.

Invest in a scale if you plan to be doing any baking on a regular basis.  Just a thought.  Most baking recipes are really ratios, and you will get weights for ingredients instead of volume measures.  That being said, most home-baker recipes don’t go down that path.  For this method I take my standard ratio for bread, 5:3 (five parts bread flour to three parts water) and replace 10% of each portion by the starter.  In other words I use a ratio of 4:2:2 – Flour, water, starter.  There are some variables (like all bread baking) but this has been very successful for me.

Measure out the flour, and then the starter and water.

Don’t forget the salt.  A couple of good pinches will work for most recipes.  Not only does the salt help your bread taste better, it also help add color, slows the fermentation process slightly (developing more flavor), and  helps to strengthen the gluten proteins which give the bread structure, texture, and shape.

Bring all of the ingredients together with a dough hook attachment, working on a low speed.

As the dough comes together, it will start pulling away from the sides of your mixing bowl.  If this doesn’t happen, you may need to add a little more water, but be patient, and see if it will come together on its own.

As the gluten develops, the dough will climb up the dough hook and start to make interesting shapes as it gets knocked around in the mixing bowl.

When you are curious about the state of your dough, stop everything and take a look.  Grab a small piece and pull it around a little.  If you can stretch it thinly so that light passes through it, and the gluten strands keep the dough held together without tearing, you’re in a good place to continue the process.  This is called making (pulling) a window, by who bake bread for money.

At this point, get your garnish ready too.  I try not to add extra bits until the gluten has developed.  Adding non-flour items often breaks the gluten up, resulting in a more dense, less risen bread.

Here I’ve incorporated the cheese, and shaped the dough into a ball.  I covered this with a towel, and let it rest.  The yeast needs to feast, and make the dough double in size before we move on.

While you wait for the dough to get going, feed your levain.  When my levain is pretty active (very bubbly) I feed it in a 1:1:1 ratio of levain, water, and flour.  However, if I haven’t fed it in a while, or it seems a little sleepy, I feed it a little more with a 1:2:2 ratio.

Once the dough has doubled, I scale it into two pieces.  Another indication that the dough is ready to be shaped is that when you poke about an inch into the dough, the indentation (mostly) remains.

Piece one will rest in this big ceramic bowl.

Piece two got divided and shaped into longer loaves, resting on a well floured board.

Then they both got tucked in for a little nap.

Now the dough has doubled again, and a poke with your finger should get pushed back out pretty well.

We have a ceramic baking stone that I like to use.  I also have a pan that I throw a little water onto to create a steamy environment for the first part of the baking.

Scoring the bread is an important step.  this allows the bread to expand as much as it needs to, and also provides more visual and textural interest.  I use a large serrated knife if I don’t have a nice new razor blade around.  For cheese breads, I also like to add more cheese right on top of the bread.

Pop them into the oven!  I’m baking at 400 degrees with these free form loaves.

I can’t help myself from checking on the baking process throughout.

Here are these two little guys, fresh from the oven.  The larger loaf came out much the same, as you can see below.

When I’m curious about whether the bread is ready, I often just take its temperature.  Anything over 165 degrees is good for me.  That’s really about all there is to baking bread.  It’s a straightforward practice that yields really delicious end results.

Of course, you need to get a feel for some of the finer points, but that will come with practice.  Baking, like other things in the kitchen is a meditative time for me.  You can’t really rush things along; they work at their own pace and all you can do is be responsive.  There are things in life that will require your attention and yield great satisfaction.  Cooking, baking, and enjoying the fruits of that labor are some of my most satisfying.

Here’s to feeding yourself body, mind, and soul –

-Scott

Twiced Baked Goat Cheese Souffle

Souffles seem to be shrouded in mystery and admonishments; “Don’t walk near the oven while baking”, “Speak in hushed whispers, if at all”, “Never, ever, open the oven door while baking!”, and so on.  The following recipe and technique will help you call ‘bullshit’ on those ideas, and allow you to continue blaring your Kings of Leon album while you’re baking.

This recipe is brought to us by Chef Louise Duhamel (hi chef!) and my friends at www.lickmyspoon.com (hi steph and hua!).  A quick calculation shows me that I must have produced this recipe over 100 times during my time with Chef, teaching dozens of students how to make it.  And the Cypress Grove cheeses which inspired me to make this version were a gift from Stephanie and David after a long and well fought battle at this years’ Fancy Food Show.

The best thing about this “Swiss Style” souffle is that you can make it in advance, and then re-bake it to serve.

Soufflés a la Suisse

Here’s what you’ll need

  • 6 oz butter (melted) plus more (4 oz) for buttering dishes
  • 6 oz AP flour
  • 1.5 cups cream
  • 4.5 cups whole milk
  • 12 oz cheese
  • 12 eggs (separated)
  • 2 cups bread crumbs or grated dry cheese (like Parmesan) for coating dishes
  • 2 quarts or more of water for water bath
  • Salt, pepper, nutmeg, all to taste

Souffle is a pretty straightforward technique.  The two items that will ensure your success are; proper planning, and pretty much non-stop execution.  So turn that oven to 400 degrees and follow the pictures below!

Get all of your ingredients together.

Butter some ramekins really well.  Then coat them with the dry cheese, or bread crumbs.  Smaller, straight sided dishes work best, but I’ve also baked this in large pans with good results.  You’ll be baking these in a water bath, so make sure they fit into another, larger pan that can hold water up to 1/2 the height of the dishes.  🙂

Separate your eggs.  I like to use this 3-bowl method.  I separate three or four whites at a time into the smaller (white) bowl, and them dump them into the bigger (red) one.  That way, if I mess up some whites, I don’t screw up the whole batch of whites, just a couple.

Measure out the butter and start to melt it.

Measure out the flour.

Measure out the cheese.

Once the butter has melted, whisk in all of the flour at once.  Thus begins the roux.  Keep the heat on a medium-low setting and keep an eye on it.  Whisk regularly.

This recipe asks for a blonde roux, which cooks for about four minutes, and should look like this as it cooks.

Loosening a little.

Bubbling.

More bubbles and kind of mealy looking is where we stop cooking.

Whisk in the dairy, and continue whisking through the thickening process.

You’ll see the mixture start holding to the sides of the pot.

And then it will thicken to a heavy paste-like consistency.  Make certain that the mixture comes to a boil, and then let it simmer for about 3 minutes, while whisking.

Then, pour this hot mixture over the goat cheese, and whisk it all together.  Conversely, if you were using a firm cheese (cheddar, smoked Gouda, etc.), you would want to add the cheese to the pot while on the heat to melt the cheese well.

NOTE:  If you need to stop for a coffee, or text message break, this is your chance!  You will need to let the mixture cool a little before you continue.  When you come back, make sure the oven is ready with a rack in the lowest setting, make sure the water is simmering, and get ready to proceed.

Season the mixture with salt, pepper, nutmeg, (cayenne?!) or other appropriate garnish.  Remember to over-season slightly.  The last step is the incorporation of egg whites which will not be seasoned, and which will expand your base two fold.  For each future bite to be tasty, you must correct the seasoning now.

Once the mixture is only warm (not hot) whisk in the egg yolks all at once until well combined.  If you are worried that the mixture is still hot, but you want to get on with it, temper (by slowly whisking) some (up to half) of the hot mixture into the yolks, and and then whisk the egg-batter into the remaining dairy batter.

Start whipping the egg whites.  We’re going for a soft peak egg white.  There’s a little science here, and it’s worth thinking about.  If you over-whip the whites (stiff peak, or -gasp- dry) the souffle won’t rise as much as it could.

Temper in 1/3 of the egg whites into the dairy/cheese mixture.  (Then finish with the rest of the whites.)  Fold the whites in pretty gently.  The first step will lighten the batter so that you don’t have to work as hard to incorporate the remaining 2/3 of whites, and they will have a greater chance of retaining their captured air.

Ladle this fluffy mixture into your buttered/crumbed(cheesed?) dishes, leaving 1/4″-1/2″ room from the top.  Then, carefully pour the simmering water into the pan(s), covering the souffle dishes by 1/3 up to 1/2.  Pop these pans into the preheated oven on the lowest rack and bake.  The time will depend on the size of your baking dishes and other variables.  Check them after 15 minutes and then every 3-4 minutes.

Here’s how they should look when they are done.  Nice and golden, about double in height.  Whether you will eat them now or later, take a paring knife and carefully run it around the outside of the dish, to loosen the souffle.  If you want to eat these right away, go for it.  They are great right from the oven.  If you want to use them another day proceed with the following:

Remove from the oven, and let them sit for five minutes in the water bath.  Then, remove from the pans, and allow them to cool somewhat.  As soon as you can handle them (even with a kitchen towel), un-mold the souffles, and set them upright on a wire rack to cool further.  Once they are about room temperature, they can be refrigerated for future use (well wrapped, on in an airtight container).

To bake for “Twice Baked’ goodness:

  • Allow the little guys to come to room temperature (or give them a short zap in the microwave, you can pronounce it Meek-row-wave if you want it to sound fancy).
  • Brush (or pour) a little cream (or half and half, or just plain milk) on the top.
  • Place souffle on a piece of parchment or little square of aluminum foil, or a small oven safe dish.
  • Pop them into a 350-400 degree oven until the souffle has re-risen well, and has reached 140 degrees internal temperature (check with thermometer or by feeling the warmth of a knife blade inserted into the middle of the souffle)

Once the souffle has reached the right temperature, serve it with a little salad, or some fresh fruit, or whatever sounds good to you.

If you don’t have little ramekins, use an oven safe baking dish like this one.  When you un-mold the souffle, cut it into servings and proceed with storing and re-baking steps.

We ate this goat cheese number with a green apple salad and walnut vinaigrette.  This recipe makes quite a few souffles, depending on the size of your dishes, so feel free do reduce it by half.  Or just bake a whole bunch of them.  They don’t stay in the refrigerator for very long because they are just right for every meal of the day.  I hope you find this recipe to be a fun one.  I know that I really enjoy the process and the results.  The twice baked version has a light and fluffy interior along with a slightly crisp and caramelized top, which is a great combination in both the flavor and texture categories.  Have fun with this one, and let me know if I can help!

Bon Appetite!

-Scotty

Tuscan Tomato and Bread Soup

I’ve just recently accepted a client who wants me to make one soup per week for him.  For the whole year.  This offering is a great start for our relationship.  It’s easy to make, it utilizes some items your might have kicking around anyway, and it only gets better as the week progresses.  When I was working as the Sous Chef for Ottimista in the Marina, I used to make this pretty often.  There are a few dishes based on the ‘cucina povera‘ or cooking of the poor that have been popularized over the last several years.  Old bread (or stale bread) is put to use in several of them.  Here’s what you’ll need to pull this off:

-Some bread (baguette, Tuscan loaf, or some other un-garnished bread), herbs, onion, garlic, tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, some stock or broth.

The Basic Recipe (yields about 1 gallon)

  • 2 onions (small dice)
  • 1 head garlic (thin slices)
  • 1 small (6 oz) can tomato paste
  • 1 pound bread (small dices, toasted)
  • 1 tsp. crushed chili flakes
  • 1 small bay leaf
  • 2 cups red wine
  • 2 medium (28 oz) cans tomato puree
  • 4 (14oz) cans stock
  • 4-8 TBSP. Fresh Herbs (minced)
  • 2-4 TBSP. red wine vinegar
  • Salt and Pepper to taste

Start by cutting the bread into little pieces.  Get an oven going at 350 and toss these guys in until they are slightly toasted and dry.  Set a timer for about 15-20 minutes and check them every few minutes if they aren’t quite done.

Meanwhile, cut up the onions –

And the garlic.  I like to use a little Japanese mandolin.  Mind the finger tips!

Sweat the onion, garlic, and chili flakes together with a little olive oil until the vegetables are soft and translucent.

Like this –

Now, add the can of tomato paste and cook it for a couple of minutes.  This will develop a little richer flavor.  Next, add the wine, and reduce the wine by at least half.  Then add the crushed tomatoes and half of the stock.

It might look something like this –

At this point add the toasted bread bits.

Add the herb (and bay).  I like to use leafy herbs in warmer months (basil, tarragon, parsley), and stemmy herbs (rosemary, thyme, even sage) in colder months.

Put a lid on it, and let the soup simmer for 20-30 minutes.  Check the consistency, and add the remaining stock if desired.  The bread will continue to soak up liquid during the cooking process, so depending on the type of bread you’ve chosen, and the consistency you prefer, you will find you need more stock (or not).

This is the thickness that I like.  It’s sort of reminds me of a chili soup.  Now you should make your tastes for seasoning.  Adjust with the red wine vinegar, salt, and pepper as needed to your liking.

I chose to garnish with some creme fraiche,  balsamic, and a little extra virgin olive oil.  Fresh herbs are also a welcome finish, as is grated cheese, or whatever your heart desires.

I hope you enjoy this soup.  It is hearty, and bright all at once, and you can take it in many directions.  52 weeks of soup are looming large on my horizon.  I’ll try and send the best ones your way.

Cheers, my dears-

-Scott

Cooking Notes and Vocabulary (Gnocchi)

I’ve been waiting to make these little treats for the last two days.  Actually, I’ve been looking all over San Francisco for a gnocchi paddle.  Two days, five wasted hours, and an indulgent trip to Kamei Restaurant Supply; still no paddle.  But, a new pasta roller, shinny martini shaker, bread knife, and crazy grooved rice scoop / gnocchi paddle stand-in did make it home with me.  So tonight, the gnocchi!

If you’ve made (or eaten) these guys before, you know they are delicious little chunks of potato fluff.  Most recipes ask for you to boil the potatoes, but I would like to recommend a different approach.  Bake them.  And keep the skins on too.  The potato skin has most of the aroma, and potatoes cooked in their jackets retain more of that aroma in the flesh (in my opinion).  If you think about it, bake them a day (or two!) ahead of time.

Baking the potatoes will yield a less waterlogged flesh than boiling.  And that’s good.  When making the gnocchi, you want to incorporate a little egg, and just enough flour.  With boiled potatoes, I find that I end up adding a lot more flour to get the consistency I’m looking for.  Also, some recipes will ask for you to boil, mill, and then bake the potato flesh.  This seems like a lot of work (and time) just to end up with baked potato flesh.  But I’m open to feedback here 🙂

Here’s the recipe that follows below:

Chef Louise’s Parmesan Potato Gnocchi

Yield : About 250 pieces (i.e. sh@tload)

  • 6 ea Russet potatoes (baked, peeled, shredded)
  • 3 3/4 cups all purpose flour (plus some for shaping)
  • 1 1/2 cups grated parmesan cheese
  • 3 eggs
  • 3 yolks
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Here are some important things to remember.  Once the potatoes have cooled and been peeled (I try to wait a few hours, and up to two days), think about this process as a work of pastry.  Try to keep the potato light and fluffy.  Work lightly with just the fingers to incorporate the flour.  Try to get almost all of the little potato bits covered in flour.  You should end up with something that looks a lot like wet sand or the beginning of a biscuit mix.  Incorporate the cheese in the same way.  Add any salt / pepper / dry seasoning (I like a little nutmeg) the same way.  Then incorporate the egg all at once with a fork.  Bring the dough together, and give it a few turns (knead it a few times) to make sure that everything is incorporated and holding together well.  Then proceed with the shaping process.

Gnocchi Basics

Peeled Russet

Shredded Potatoes

Flour, Incorporated

Seasoning

Fork It

Brought Together

Gnocchi Loaf

Start with a small piece of dough on a lightly floured surface.

I find that pulling the dough towards me with one hand keeps everything together and makes a uniform roll.  Once the roll is big enough, I move to both hands.

Roll the piece out to a uniform diameter.  Usually, a half inch is a good size.  If the gnocchi are uniform in size they will cook at the same time.  You don’t have to freak out about this, but you are welcome to.

Cut pieces off that are pretty close to the same size.  I use my thumb joint as a guide.

Put each gnocchi on the grooved surface, with the cut ends parallel to the left-right motion of the thumb.  Some people will use the tines of a fork for this process.

This doesn’t entail several hours looking for a gnocchi paddle, but as my good friend says “To each, they own”.

Fork gnocchi / Paddle gnocchi

Here’s another point of interest.  Cook the gnocchi in simmering, salted water.  They will rise to the top when they are almost done.  Let them simmer for a minute and then remove them.  They will be cooked through and fluffy.  Some recipes ask for you to cook in boiling water.  I prefer to simmer.  Do what you like best.

You can reserve to a perforated tray, or even a resting / wire rack.

If you plan on eating these right away, toss them with oil (to keep from sticking) and keep them in a covered container, or put them into your sauce and serve.  Otherwise, proceed once the gnocchi have cooled a little bit, toss them with oil (olive or neutral), and set them out to cool on some parchment or a clean kitchen towel.  Reserve for your future use.

When you are ready to use the stored gnocchi, you can steam, saute, simmer, (microwave?) and serve with whatever sauce / garnish sounds tasty.

For my treat tonight, I sweated some diced onion, zucchini, and garlic with some chili flakes and rosemary.  Then I threw in some diced tomatoes and kumquats.  It was just what I was looking for.  I used 10 gnocchi for this portion which was a nice (smaller) side dish size.  I snacked on about 15 naked gnocchi while I was making them.  Quality control, of course.

Your first gnocchi may not be picture perfect, but hopefully they taste great.  It takes a little while for some people to get a ‘feeling’ for both the dough and the shaping.  If they look really terrible, just dim the lights, eat them with lots of red sauce and grated cheese, and find an excuse to try making them again soon.

Eat well and Be well!

-Scott

Tagliatelle, potatoes, Pt. Reyes Blue, walnuts, mushrooms, and black garlic –

Come Closer -

Yep.  That’s right.  Winter as we know and use it has gently settled into the bay area, and it’s time for some hot carb on carb action.  This is a variation of a dish that Michael Park made for me back in the days of Restaurant Vintage Park (Kearney, Nebraska).  We ate some great pasta there at the restaurant, and also (as my roommate from that period reminded me the other day) quite a lot of pasta at home as well.  Here’s to a healthy helping of cozy carbohydrates draped in creamy warmth.  Enjoy the show below!

For me, what’s great about this dish is its balance of flavors.  Bitter (from the walnut skins), sweet (black garlic, cream), sour (blue cheese), salt (blue cheese once again), savor or umami (from the walnut, cheese, and mushrooms).  There is also a earthy, and starchy goodness along with a pleasant blend of textures.  I like the nutmeg as an aromatic note, and the cayenne lends its heat which is welcome with a richer sauce.  Enjoy the season, and experiment with this pasta idea.  Substitutions, additions, subtractions and tweaks can all be employed with this forgiving bowl of comfort.

Be well and Eat well –

-Scott