Thursday, January 08, 2009

Comfort Ye, My People

Where was I? Oh yes...the second part of the web-isode in which I describe some of the comforting dishes which have appeared recently on my international smorgasbord. I say "smorgasbord" because it's fun to say, and because I begin with a fine recipe for Swedish meatballs from the man who should have been my husband, Alton Brown. I'm not sure what possessed me to make Swedish meatballs, except that I tried to talk the Faculty Association Party Committee into having them on the menu for our winter fete, but I was outvoted. So I made them for myself! HA! And they were very good, except for one mistake--I used sausage instead of regular ground pork, and I didn't think to reduce the added salt. So be mindful of that correction if you make these and swap out some Jimmy Dean as I did. Of course, you can serve the meatballs for a hearty supper over broad egg noodles, or keep them warm in a crock pot with a sidecar of toothpicks for your next party (Superbowl, anyone?).

Swedish Meatballs
(Source: Alton Brown via
Food Network)

2 slices fresh white bread (I used wheat bread)
1/4 cup milk
3 tablespoons clarified butter, divided (I did not clarify--leaving my butter ambiguous, ha ha)
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
a pinch plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 pound ground chuck
3/4 pound ground pork (can use sausage, but reduce or omit additional salt)
2 large egg yolks (I used two small whole eggs)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups beef broth *
1/4 cup heavy cream

Preheat oven to 200 degrees F. Tear the bread into pieces and place in a small mixing bowl along with the milk. Set aside.

In a 12-inch straight sided saute pan over medium heat, melt one tablespoon of the butter. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and sweat until the onions are soft. Remove from the heat and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the bread and milk mixture, ground chuck, pork, egg yolks, one teaspoon of kosher salt, black pepper, allspice, nutmeg, and onions. Beat on medium speed for 1 to 2 minutes (I just mixed this by hand.)

Using a scale, weigh meatballs into 1-ounce portions and place on a sheet pan. (I didn't weigh mine, but used a cookie scoop to portion them.) Using your hands, shape the meatballs into rounds.

Heat the remaining butter in the saute pan over medium-low heat, or in an electric skillet set to 250 degrees F. Add the meatballs and saute until golden brown on all sides, about 7 to 10 minutes. Remove the meatballs to an ovenproof dish using a slotted spoon and place in the warmed oven. (I did not bother to do this, but rather reheated the meatballs in the gravy for a few minutes at the end.)

Once all of the meatballs are cooked, decrease the heat to low and add the flour to the pan or skillet. Whisk until lightly browned, approximately one to two minutes. Gradually add the beef stock* and whisk until sauce begins to thicken. Add the cream and continue to cook until the gravy reaches the desired consistency. Remove the meatballs from the oven, cover with the gravy and serve. (I garnished with some dried parsley for color.)

*Though I cooked the gravy down for quite a while, it remained on the thin side. I might start with two cups of stock and wait to see if you need the third (because you are still going to be adding the cream). Alternately, you could start by adding more flour to your pan drippings (up to a half cup) and then use all three cups of stock...either way.

From Sweden, we head south to Italy for an impromptu lasagna. I know, people don't usually make accidental lasagnas, but this is how it happened. I wandered into the kitchen, thinking of making something simple, like spaghetti. Then I thought, what I really want is cavatini! But I was resistant to the idea of boiling a big pot of water to cook the pasta before assembling the casserole. Then I remembered that I had some leftover no-boil lasagna noodles, but I didn't have either ricotta or cottage cheese. What resulted was a lasagna/cavatini hybrid that was FANTASTIC! It was a little sweet and a little spicy, just like I like it. The pasta was tender, not mushy. There was plenty of sauce without so much as to cause the dreaded lasagna landslide. The ground beef and mushrooms made it hearty, and the onions, garlic, herbs, and especially the pepperoni, made it ever-so-flavorful. So maybe...and I know this may be wrong to say...but maybe lasagna doesn't always need ricotta or cottage cheese? Maybe, along with everything else, mozzarella and parmesan can be enough!

The only thing that is mildly annoying about this recipe is that you'll need about a jar and a half of spaghetti sauce*. I used one 26 oz. can of a chunky garlic and herb spaghetti sauce then a pint of my homemade seasoned tomato sauce for the top of the lasagna. However you do it, you'll need about 42 to 45 ounces of sauce altogether, as the no-boil noodles need more sauce to cook properly. On the up-side, I think the pasta ends up being more flavorful, as it cooks in the sauce and not in plain water. Overall, this is a fairly easy method made with quite a few pre-fab ingredients. It might even be do-able for a weeknight. Give it a try!

Gina's Cavatini-Style Lasagna

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 pound ground beef
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon Italian herb blend (I like Presti's spaghetti seasoning)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
pinch of salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
pinch of red pepper flakes, optional
1 26 to 30 oz. can/jar plus 1 pint spaghetti sauce*, divided
1 large can sliced mushrooms (or two small cans), drained
9 sheets no-boil egg pasta (I use Barilla)
1 package sliced pepperoni (you'll need about 64 slices)
1 pound shredded mozzarella
2 cups shredded parmesan

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large saute pan, soften the chopped onions in the olive oil for a few minutes. Add the ground beef and the minced garlic and cook until meat is browned. Drain off the excess fat. To the meat mixture, add herbs, pepper, salt, brown sugar, red pepper flakes (if using) one jar of spaghetti sauce, and mushrooms. Stir to combine.

Spread about one-third of the meat sauce in the bottom of a 9x13 casserole dish. Place three pasta sheets on top of the sauce (don't worry that there will be big gaps--the pasta sheets swell as they cook and cover the dish) then another third of the meat sauce covered with a layer of pepperoni slices and half of the mozzarella cheese. Repeat with another three sheets of pasta, the last third of the meat sauce, another layer of pepperoni slices, and the other half of the mozzarella cheese. Finally, top this with the last three sheets of pasta, another pint of (plain) spaghetti sauce or seasoned tomato sauce, and the parmesan cheese.

Cover the lasagna with aluminum foil and bake at 350 for 45-50 minutes until the pasta is cooked through and everything's melted and bubbly. Let the lasagna sit for about 20 minutes before cutting and serving.

Cyd made this, and she said she just went ahead and used both jars of sauce. She said it came out great--not too saucy. Good to know!

Ok, so that's two very comforting we need a sweet nibble. I don't know what possessed me, but every time I went to Sam's Club leading up to and during the holidays, I bought yet another bag of pecans, fearing that I would run out. And now I don't have enough room in the freezer for all of them! I did make the wonderful Pecan Puffs, but that barely made a dent in my supply. Luckily, Deb of Smitten Kitchen was experiencing the same problem, and she offered another recipe for sweet and spicy nuts that--dare I say it--are at least as good, if not a wee bit better than the meringued pecans. These are similar, as they also use egg white as a binder, but it is not whipped, so the resulting nuts are not as puffy or meringue-y. But they are marvelously crispy with the added spice elements--cinnamon, smoked paprika, and cayenne--along with the sweetness from the sugars. In a word, YUM! In another word, ADDICTING! And, it must be said, a little easier and quicker to make than the Pecan Puffs. If you are also looking for delicious ways to make use of your holiday nut supply, this is the ticket! Also makes a terrific hostess gift, IF you can bear to part with them, that is. I'm not sure I could find the will myself.

Sugar-and-Spice Candied Nuts
(adapted from Elizabeth Karmel of Hill Country via
Smitten Kitchen )

1/3 cup dark-brown sugar
2/3 cup white granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
generous pinch of cayenne pepper

1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 pound pecan halves (or walnuts or whole peeled hazelnuts or whole almonds)
1 egg white, room temperature
1 tablespoon water

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Mix sugars, salt, cayenne, paprika and cinnamon, making sure there are no lumps; set aside. Beat egg white and water until frothy but not stiff. Add nuts and stir to coat evenly. Sprinkle nuts with sugar mixture, and toss until evenly coated. Spread sugared nuts in a single layer on a cookie sheet fitted with parchment paper (or a Silpat). Bake for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from oven, and separate nuts as they cool. When completely cool, pour the nuts into a bowl, breaking up any that stick together.

Quick Aerogarden Update:
The dill has sprouted! Now I'm just waiting on the parsley, who will be the last to join the party.

Quick Movie Awards Season Update:
Burn After Reading by the Coen Brothers is very funny! (But where's the love for Brad Pitt in this film? He's HYSTERICAL!). Also, The Duchess is lush and gorgeous. But, most importantly, have you seen Wall-E? A contemporary animated masterpiece, I tell you! A delight for young and old alike, from the fellow who brought you Finding Nemo (also among the best of its kind). A must-see, friends, even if you have no children and don't usually go in for animated offerings.

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