Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Fall Decorating and Homemade Lasagna

Let Fall begin! 

I know it's not supposed to be capitalized, but it just looks better that way.

Big baskets of mums have been installed on the porch, sharing space with the Boston ferns of summer that will continue to hang on until the first frost. I always want to bring them inside to enjoy, at least until the dry indoor heat begins to turn their tender leaves a crackly brown. However, I do not enjoy those greased-lightning lizards that leap out of the ferns the minute I set them inside. When we had cats, they took particular pleasure in slapping a paw down on a lizard's tail, only to find they were more than willing to wiggle free and continue life, sans tail. Sorry ferns - your days are as short as a stump-tailed lizard!

Moving on myself. I've been saving the picture of this gorgeous Fall arrangement my friend, Sally, sent me last year. Simple and elegant, even without the bright oranges and golds we associate with the season, don't you think? When I ran across the picture, I was reminded that it is time to haul out my own box of faux Fall decorations and move the Halloween and Thanksgiving storage boxes to front and center. It won't be long until we'll be needing those pumpkins and Pilgrims!

Here in Southern Illinois, our leaves have been turning brown and falling for a few weeks, due mostly to our bone dry summer, but so far they show no hints of the brilliant red, orange or gold we love so much. I suspect the dry summer may leave us with less-than-spectacular foliage this year. The temperature may have just cooled off this past weekend, but I'm already looking forward to all-out Fall and the joys of the changing seasons -- football games, tailgating, sitting around an outdoor fire and the annual neighborhood block party.

Cooler days mean I can finally be outside without feeling like I'm melting. Of course, this also means it's time to shift gears from light meals with Summer fruits and vegetables to Fall favorites and heartier preparations. Fortunately the growing season around here will stretch out for a few more weeks, so we won't have to give up on the garden or farmers' market just yet. And there are a few bits of color lingering in the garden for some natural arrangements like the bright one above.

I guess I might be rushing the season a bit, but comfort foods are already showing up in my kitchen. Here is the Lasagna I promised a few weeks ago to go with the Homemade Italian Bread. I pulled the recipe out, along with the one for bread, and served it to my reunion committee for one of our working dinner meetings. I made sauce from scratch and used De Cecco thin, no-boil lasagna noodles for the first time. The finished lasagna seemed very authentic and had a nice ratio of noodle to sauce and cheese. The thin, flat noodles were also far easier to handle than the thick, ruffled variety that are oh-so-slippery when wet. Definitely worth trying the next time you make it for yourself.

Lasagna is a true comfort food and actually very easy to prepare. It's also perfect for big-batch cooking and dividing into smaller portions -- bake one for now and freeze some for later. You'll be glad you did!

olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 1/2 lbs. ground beef
6 cloves garlic, minced
3 28-oz. cans tomato sauce
2 small cans tomato paste
dash of Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. basil
1 tsp. oregano
2-3 tsp. white or brown sugar
salt and pepper to taste

Pour some olive oil to cover the bottom of a large heavy skillet or Dutch oven. Add onions and saute for 2-3 minutes. Add onion and minced garlic and cook until meat is browned. Drain excess fat  and return cooked meat to pot. Stir in tomato sauce, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, basil, oregano and sugar. Simmer over low heat for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Season with salt and pepper to taste as sauce cooks. Add more basil and oregano, if needed.

1 large carton ricotta cheese
2 eggs
2 tbsp. chopped parsley
4 cups shredded Mozzarella
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

In a small bowl, stir eggs and parsley into ricotta cheese and set aside.

2 boxes De Cecco No-Boil Lasagna Noodles
2 boxes lasagna noodles (boil according to package directions before using)

1 large baking or roasting pan
2 boxes of lasagna noodles
1 recipe of sauce
1 recipe of ricotta cheese mixture
4 cups shredded mozzarella

Spoon sauce to thinly coat bottom of lasagna pan. Make Two Layers using ingredients in the following order and then repeating: lasagna noodles (overlap slightly), sauce, ricotta cheese, shredded mozzarella, grated Parmesan cheese. Finish with a final layer of noodles and sprinkle with a small amount of mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. Cover lightly with foil and bake at 325 degrees for 35 minutes. Remove foil and continue to bake until cheese melts and begins to brown slightly - about 10-15 minutes. Remove from oven and remove foil. Allow to cool for about 10 minutes. Slice and serve.

Lasagna may be baked, cooled, covered and refrigerated. To reheat: cover with foil and place in a preheated 325 degree oven until warmed throughout.

Recipe may be divided into smaller pans and layered in the same order. Wrap tightly with foil and freeze. To bake frozen lasagna, keep covered and bake at 325 degrees until hot in center, then remove foil cover and continue to bake until cheese on top is slightly browned. May take 60-90 minutes to heat completely.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Summer is Going ... Going ... Gone!

(my monthly food column for Heartland Women)
September 2010

One day it’s summer and the next thing you know – it’s gone! Overnight, it seems, the temperatures are too cool for the pool. The sunlight casts longer shadows. The kids leave the house early in the morning and are gone all day. Suppertime is earlier and there’s homework for dessert. And it is a challenge to cram a week’s worth of fun into a single weekend of fall festivals, craft fairs, parades and sports.

As the pace of life picks up for families, and even those of us who are students or empty nesters, it’s easy to lose track of things like fading-but-still-productive summer gardens. The frenzy of juggling school, extra-curricular activities and suppertime all on the same night consumes our thoughts as much as, or more than, what we will actually be eating.

Inside the narrow window of opportunity between the beginning of fall semester and the kick-off of football season, I like to go digging through my files looking for good recipes for using the last little bits of herbs, tomatoes and squash from the garden. And I try to recall some of my favorite recipes or those I’ve set aside to try for heartier foods, tailgating treats and easy weeknight suppers.

To me, September is the perfect time of year to kick the kitchen into autopilot. I don’t want to have to spend time planning meals, when all I want to do is sit outside and relish the last warming rays of the sun, unencumbered by humidity.

Long time readers may have kept some of their favorites from past issues of this column, but newer readers may not be familiar with these seasonal dishes for late-summer. In that case, I have decided to bring some of them back around, as a reminder of what’s good this time of year – for new and old readers, and every kind of cook.

So here are a few of my favorite seasonal recipes that I think are worthy of a second look. But if you don’t see exactly what you’re looking for – or you want more, more, more! – please go to the archives on for more delicious dishes to make before summer is completely gone. 

4 red peppers, roasted
4 cups tomato juice
4 cups V-8 vegetable juice
pinch of sugar
2 tablespoons fresh herbs (any combination of
basil, thyme, oregano, parsley)

Roast the peppers and remove the skins, cores, and seeds. Puree peppers in a blender with a little of the tomato juice. Place pureed peppers and remaining ingredients in a saucepan and heat. Serve with a garnish of fresh herbs. 

Adapted from Libby’s
1 can (15 oz.) Libby 100% pure pumpkin
1 ½ cups chicken broth
1 tsp. ground sage
1 can (12 fl. Oz.) Carnation evaporated milk
¾ cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese
1 large green onion, finely chopped

Cook pumpkin, chicken broth and sage in large saucepan, stirring frequently, until mixture comes to a boil. Stir in evaporated milk and cheese. Reduce heat to low; cook, stirring frequently, until most of the cheese is melted. Sprinkle with green onion before serving. Season with freshly ground black pepper. Soup may be warmed in a slow cooker until serving time.

romaine lettuce
apples or pears, cored and diced
pecans or walnuts, chopped
blue cheese, crumbled
Italian salad dressing

Wash and dry lettuce. Tear into bite-sized pieces. Assemble remaining ingredients; toss together with salad dressing just before serving. 

Adapted from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, by Ina Garten
zest and juice of 1 large navel orange
zest and juice of 1 lemon
3 lbs. Granny Smith apples
3 lbs. McIntosh, or other red apples
½ cup light brown sugar
¼ lb.unsalted butter
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
½ tsp. ground allspice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place the zest and juice of the oranges and lemon in a large bowl. Peel, quarter, and core the apples and toss them in the juice. Pour the apples and juice into an ovenproof enameled or glass dish with a cover. Add the brown sugar, butter, cinnamon, and allspice and cover the pot. Bake for 1 ½ hours, or until all the apples are soft. Mix with a whisk until smooth. Serve warm or at room temperature. 

1 eggplant
kosher salt and pepper
½ tsp. thyme
6 tbsp. chopped parsley
1 onion, finely chopped
2 red peppers, finely chopped
6 large tomatoes
16 oz. sliced mozzarella cheese
1 ½ cup cream, half and half, etc. (your choice)
3 eggs
2 egg yolks
½ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg

Peel and slice eggplant. Dredge in flour seasoned with salt and pepper. Fry in hot, deep oil until nicely browned and soft. Place half the eggplant slices in a large oblong baking dish. Season with salt, pepper, a pinch of the thyme and 2 tbsp. chopped parsley. Peel, seed and slice tomatoes. Cover eggplant slices with half the tomatoes. Sprinkle tomatoes with salt, pepper, more parsley, half the onion and half the peppers. Cover with half the cheese slices. Repeat layers ending with cheese. Beat the cream, eggs egg yolks and nutmeg together. Pour over layered ingredients. Bake in 425-degree oven 30-40 minutes or until the custard is completely set and cheese is deeply browned. Remove from oven. Let rest 5 minutes before serving. Makes 6-8 servings. 

adapted from Barefoot Contessa Parties! by Ina Garten
3 tbsp. or more Olio Santo or other good extra virgin olive oil
1 loaf dense French bread, cut or torn into bite-size pieces
kosher salt
2 or more large ripe tomatoes, cut into 1-in. chunks
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, cut into 1-in. chunks
1 large red, green, and/or yellow bell pepper, seeded, cut into 1-in. chunks
1 red onion, cut in half and thinly sliced
small bunch of basil leaves, coarsely chopped

½ - 1 tsp. finely minced garlic
½ tsp. Dijon mustard
3 tbsp. red wine vinegar
½ cup Olio Santo or other good extra virgin olive oil
½ tsp. kosher salt
¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Heat enough oil to cover surface of a large pan. Add the bread; cook over low to medium heat, tossing frequently for about 10 minutes, or until nicely browned. More oil may be needed to coat bread cubes. Remove bread cubes to paper towel or brown paper and salt lightly.

Whisk together the ingredients for the vinaigrette in a bowl large enough to hold all the salad ingredients. Add the tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and basil to the blended vinaigrette and toss to coat. Add the bread cubes and toss again. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Let stand, at room temperature, for about 30 minutes (or longer, if necessary) for the flavors to blend before serving. Excellent for a light supper with grilled chicken, fish or shrimp.

(Make the day before serving for full flavor)
1 lb. ground ham
1 lb. ground pork
2/3 cup milk
2 eggs
2 cup crushed crackers
½ cup tomato juice
1 cup brown sugar
½ cup vinegar
2 tsp. dry mustard

Mix ham, pork, milk, eggs and crushed crackers and shape into a loaf pan. In a small bowl, mix brown sugar, vinegar and dry mustard to use as basting sauce. Pour tomato juice over the loaf and bake at 350 degrees for 1 – 1 ½ hours, basting frequently with sauce mixture. Remove from oven to cool. Refrigerate meatloaf and juices in pan overnight. Remove solid fat, if any, and reheat in 350-degree oven, basting with remaining juices from pan. Note: Mix up extra sauce ingredients and reduce over heat; use as sauce when serving ham loaf. 

adapted from
1 cup + 3 tbsp. pure Grade B maple syrup (or commercially prepared maple syrup)
1 cup + 2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
4 tbsp. Dijon mustard
2 pork tenderloins (12 – 14 oz. each)
1 tbsp. powdered or rubbed sage
1 tbsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. freshly ground pepper
2 tbsp. + 1 tbsp. butter

In a small bowl, whisk together the maple syrup, 1 cup cider vinegar and Dijon mustard to blend; set aside. Rinse pork tenderloins and pat dry. In another small bowl, blend sage, salt and pepper and rub all over the pork. Melt 2 tbsp. butter in large skillet over medium-high heat until hot and bubbling. Add pork tenderloins and cook, turning to brown on all sides – about 6 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and cook until thermometer inserted into pork registers 150 degrees, turning occasionally -- about 10-15 minutes longer (OR place entire skillet with tenderloins into a 350 degree oven for 15 –20 minutes to reach 150 degrees). Transfer tenderloins to a platter; cover to keep warm and make the glaze. Add remaining 2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar to the skillet over medium-high heat to deglaze the pan. Reduce heat to medium-low. Add reserved maple syrup mixture and then pork to the skillet and turn until coated in glaze – about 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Transfer to cutting board and slice into 1-in. thick slices. Stir remaining 3 tbsp. maple syrup and 1 tbsp. butter into glaze. Arrange pork slices on plates or platter. Spoon some glaze over the pork and serve additional glaze in a bowl.

Adapted from
¼ cup maple syrup (choose Grade B pure maple syrup, if available, or commercially prepared maple syrup)
1 garlic clove, minced
¼ cup good balsamic vinegar
6 4-oz. salmon fillets
¼ tsp. kosher salt
1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 450 F. Lightly coat a baking pan with cooking spray. In a small saucepan over low heat, mix together the maple syrup, garlic and balsamic vinegar. Heat just until hot and remove from heat. Pour half of the mixture into a small bowl to use for basting, and reserve the rest for later. Pat the salmon dry. Place skin-side down on the baking sheet. Brush the salmon with the maple syrup mixture. Bake about 10 minutes, brush again with maple syrup mixture, and bake for another five minutes. Continue to baste and bake until fish flakes easily, about 20 to 25 minutes total. Can also be prepared on the grill. 

2 cups flour
½ cup granulated sugar
1 tbsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. ground nutmeg
½ cup milk
¼ cup butter, melted
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup chopped apple
½ cup honey
½ cup brown sugar
¾ cup finely chopped pecans or walnuts

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease or spray mini or regular size muffin pans. In bowl combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and nutmeg. In another bowl, combine milk, butter, eggs and vanilla until blended. Stir dry mix into wet mix until just moistened. Fold in chopped apple. Spoon into pans and bake 10-12 minutes, or until lightly browned. Meanwhile, heat honey and brown sugar to a boil in a saucepan, stirring to dissolve sugar. Dip warm muffins into hot glaze, then into a bowl of chopped pecans. Makes 36 mini muffins or 12 larger muffins.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Italian Bread for Beginners

It's the third anniversary of Cora Cooks and I made some of my very favorite, very easy Italian Bread to celebrate! Oh, yeah, and some ooey, gooey cheesy lasagna!

This is one of the very first - very best - and easiest recipes in my files. I guess I've been making "artisan" breads since ... well ... a very long time. When I got this recipe from a friend of my mother's, I was never concerned with the "science" of bread baking, I just loved the fact that I could make my own at home, without any baking experience.

My favorite newlywed dinner menu -- made about a gazillion times for company while we were stationed in Texas for pilot training -- was homemade lasagna, including sauce from scratch, a great big salad and this homemade Italian bread.

I'm not sure which was better -- the lasagna or the bread -- but everyone seemed to love them both, so I made them with the reckless abandon of a beginning cook, who thought nothing of spending a whole day in the kitchen making everything from scratch. In those days, no recipe was too complex, as long as the ingredients were readily available from our tiny base commissary and yielded a dish that reminded us of the comforts of our homes, far from the wide open spaces of west Texas.

Whether you are a beginning baker, or you've been making bread at home for years, I don't think you'll ever find an easier recipe that results in such a beautiful and satisfying loaf. In fact, in my humble opinion, it is easier than the no-knead artisan loaves that have been all the rage for the last couple of years. Though I've never made a study of the ingredient ratios, perhaps someone did way back in the beginning. Or maybe it was concocted by someone for whom bread making was a deeply ingrained instinctual task. I like that idea better!

No matter how it came to be, it is delicious -- a crispy, deep brown crust with just enough tooth, a light chewy center filled with little holes, bigger holes and a very nice crumb. Real artisan bread from my very own kitchen -- or yours!

The not-too-thick-or-thin crust and the moist, tender center of the loaf slices easily with a serrated bread knife, even though I try to let it cool just slightly before tearing ... er, a ... slicing into it. Whether you like it slathered with creamy butter or dunked into a fruity olive oil mixed with herbs, I guarantee you won't be disappointed.

The good -- so easy to measure the simple ingredients into a bowl and stir them all together.

The better -- mixing bowl to slicing in just under 3 hours.

The best -- one recipe, one bowl, two loaves. One to enjoy and one to share!

I think it would even make wonderful garlic bread to go with my lasagna tonight, if it lasts that long, that is. A double recipe might have been a good idea! Maybe then at least one loaf would last long enough to slice and fill with a velvety butter and garlic mixture spread on each slice, wrap in foil and heat in the oven. Mmmmm ...

Tonight I'm serving lasagna and Italian bread for my class reunion committee. Cooking for them has been so much fun, I almost hate for reunion weekend to arrive later this month. I'll be without a table full of friends to feed once a week. Maybe they'll just show up for dinner, even if we don't have any business to discuss.

I wonder if there is anyone else I know who might like to come over for homemade lasagna and Italian bread? I could ask around, I guess.

2 1/2 cups warm water
2 tbsp. melted butter
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. kosher salt
1 tbsp. sugar
4 1/2 tsp. dry yeast (I use SAF Instant)
6 - 7 cups flour (all-purpose or a mix of all-purpose and bread flour)

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and mix well by hand. Turn dough out onto floured surface and knead for about 5 minutes. Oil a large bowl and place dough inside. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise 1 - 1.5 hours. Turn dough out onto floured surface and fold over a few times. Pat into oblong shape and cut in half lengthwise with a serrated knife. Place loaves, cut side up, on a baking sheet sprinkled with corn meal. (Can also be baked on a baking stone place on lower shelf of oven.) Preheat oven to 450 degrees and bake for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and continue to bake for 40 minutes. Bread is done when outside is evenly browned and loaf sounds hollow when tapped. Allow bread to cool some before slicing -- or not!