Tuesday, January 13, 2009

It Begins: Classic Lasagna, Italian-American Style + Breaded Fried Zucchini

Let's start at the start. Not at the start of my interest in the work of Mark Bittman, but at the start of the project. "Do you think we could do one while I'm in town?" Emily asked me. I had recently decided, for various reasons, to cook every recipe in the newly revised edition of How to Cook Everything, and having just received the brand new, 80% redder version of the book from Amazon, it was time to get started. Emily was staying with me for the weekend, visiting from Boston. "Pick a recipe or three while I'm at work, make a shopping list, and I'll meet you at the store after work." I know Emily doesn't play around (we'd cooked together before), and I was not disappointed with her choice of Lasagna and Fried Zucchini.

I'd never made a lasagna before. Emily decided on the Classic American Lassagne (check title) variation, which is light on vegetables and heavy on cheese. We left out the meat because a vegetarian friend was coming (would've upped the vegetables, but it was kind of last minute; no one complained in the end).

I got things started by whipping up a batch of tomato sauce, the way I learned from my Bittman training wheels book, HTCE: Quick Cooking. I sauteed onions, carrots, some crushed garlic cloves (I take 'em out at the end) and red pepper flakes in some olive oil til they were nice and soft, then threw in some canned crushed tomatoes and tomato paste, let it simmer away, and was pretty much done. Emily cooked the lasagna noodles til they were al dente, maybe even a half step firmer than al dente. Then it was time to layer. I must say, lasagna is much easier than it looks. Oil the pan, then a noodle layer, then sauce, then cheese (mozzarella/ricotta/parmesan), pepper, more noodle, more sauce, more cheese, etc. til you're out of materials. Then enough parmesan (we used pecorino romano) on top to make it nice and crispy. If you're doing it right, this is the point where you'll start to feel like you're going to have a seriously delicious lasagna. Is there a name for this point in the cooking process? It's not the ultimate "wow" moment that occurs when you take the lasagna out of the oven, it's the moment where you know that "wow" moment is coming, and it is going to feel great. I'll try to think of something catchy for that.

Throw it in the oven til the sauce is bubbling and you're good to go. I think it was about 40 minutes. While it's not the quickest recipe, and the layering makes it seem like it takes more effort than it really does, it is super easy and seems like it'd be pretty hard to mess up.

Meanwhile, we used the recipe for Breaded Fried Any Vegetable. Emily sliced up the zucchini into kind of flat looking shapes, dredged them through flour, egg, then breadcrumbs, then right into the oil. This was easy enough, though I hate frying stuff, and the excess breadcrumbs in the pan cooked to a blackened mess and I wasn't so into it. But DAMN if they weren't totally delicious anyway (fried is fried, after all, right?) and Bittman's suggestion of squeezing some lemon juice down on top of them was perfect.

I whipped up a quick improvised balsamic vinaigrette for the bag salad I bought (sue me, I buy salad in a bag; I don't own a salad spinner). This all fed 7 people quite well, with a little bit of leftover lasagna for lunch the next day. I may only be two recipes in, but so far this culinary expedition is going quite well.
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