Saturday, August 18, 2007

Just a simple dinner

Minted English Pea Soup with Herbed Crab Salad
Butternut Lasagna with Ceasar Salad
Homemade Cinnamon-Sugar Doughnuts and Frozen Hot Chocolate

It was just a simple dinner tonight.

The English Peas for the soup came from a great little farm nearby called Bluff Gardens. Everything in Bluff Gardens is miniature – the potatoes are sorted by size and color; the smallest are the size of your pinky nail and the largest the size of a golf ball. Haricot verts are the slightly wider than a toothpick and about as long, paddy pans are the size of your thumb nail along with miniature zucchini’s, carrots, beets, onions and cucumbers. Only two small tables make up the produce selection, but I suppose you don’t need so much space when everything is so tiny! In keeping with everything in Bluff Gardens being dainty and petite, so are the two cutest little old ladies that work behind the counter. With sweaters on over their aprons and warmth emanating from their eyes, they always greet the shoppers with a warm hello and are especially careful when weighing, measuring or packing up the goods.

I bought several pounds of English Peas and spent my free time over the passed two days shelling them. They were as sweet as sugar. I blanched them quickly so that they would keep their color and then sweated out onions and garlic, added white wine and chicken stock and the peas, only letting the peas cook for another minute or two so that they would keep their almost fluorescent green hue. Then, I pureed them, seasoned the soup and added finely chopped mint and chives.

I made the dough for the lasagna from scratch as I’ve been obsessed with pasta making ever since my friend, Diana, gave me a pasta machine last summer. I love kneading the dough and feeling it as it goes from a lumpy, sticky mass to soft and supple just from the work of my hands. I love rolling it out into long, smooth and fragile sheets. But mostly, I love eating the finished product because even if it isn’t perfect, it’s still 100 times better than the boxed stuff from the grocery store.

The butternut squash and ridicchio for the lasagna (and the baby romaine for the salad) all came from Bill’s Farm Stand in Petoskey. Another amazing farmers market. I’m so spoiled by ingredients – I don’t know what I’m going to do when I have to get back on the yacht and deal with provisioners and produce that has been sitting in a shipping container for two weeks, looks beautiful but tastes like crap. I had better appreciate this while it lasts!

The ricotta for the lasagna was also homemade. The milk, of course, is locally produced from the Shetler Family Dairy – and it just makes the most beautiful ricotta. Ricotta is the easiest thing in the world to make in fact and I've made it quite a few times since discovering how great the local milk tastes! I combined a 1/2 gallon of full-fat milk with 2 cups of buttermilk. Brought it to 180 degrees (farenheit), at which point it began to curdle. Turned off the heat, let it sit for about 20 minutes and strained it through cheese cloth. About an hours worth of work from start to finish and it yielded 13 oz. of fresh ricotta. But I have to warn you, the ricotta is so good, you may just want to drizzle it with some honey, maybe a few toasted almonds and some dried apricots and eat it as is… My friend, Greg, and I got talking and he said that he makes ricotta using lemon juice instead of buttermilk. So, I tried both methods and I definitely prefer using buttermilk. The lemon juice gave the ricotta a distinctly lemony flavor which is fine if you want that, but the buttermilk made for softer curds and the ricotta just tasted like the great milk that it was made from.

The tomato sauce came from our own gardens as I’m now getting about 5 lbs. a day of fresh tomatoes from the yard! I blanched and peeled them all and made a fresh sauce with just white onions, garlic, a touch of balsamic vinegar (how can I resist) and fresh basil.

The recipe for the lasagna actually came from Mrs. X! One of the biggest challenges of being a private chef is coming up with new menus and recipes on a daily basis, but one of the (many) benefits to having a boss that knows and loves food is she comes up with great ideas as well – and I’m more than happy to oblige…

Frozen hot chocolate – inspiration compliments of Serendipity in New York City and I found Mirabelle’s frozen hot chocolate at Symon’s in Petosky – a labyrinth of shelves paying homage to gourmet ingredients and a wine cellar to boot. Mirabelle’s is a chocolatier on Broome St. in NYC where I have blown many a hard-earned pay check indulging in my chocolate fantasies.

Like I said, just a simple dinner.

Butternut Squash Lasagna

1 butternut squash, about 3 lbs. peeled and sliced about 1/4 inch thick
1 lb. Ridicchio, shredded
1 large onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 lbs. tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup fresh basil, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. Balsamic vinegar
1 tsp. Sugar (or to taste)
1 cup ricotta cheese
2 eggs
2 cups crème fraiche
2 cups Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
1 lb. Fresh Lasagna noodles (uncooked)
Olive oil
Salt and Pepper to taste

Lay squash slices on baking sheets lined with a Silpat or parchment paper. Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and bake in 375 F. oven until soft.

Heat olive oil in large sauté pan and sauté onions and garlic until soft, being cautious not to get any color on them. Add tomatoes and simmer until slightly thickened. Add basil, balsamic, sugar (if necessary) and season with salt and pepper.

In a mixing bowl, combine ricotta, crème fraiche, eggs and half of ground parmesan. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Cover bottom of large pyrex or stoneware baking dish with half of the tomato sauce. Add a layer of noodles, a layer of butternuts squash (using half the squash) and half of the ridicchio and all of the cheese mixture. Then, add another layer of lasagna noodles, the remainder of the squash, remainder of the redicchio and top it with the remainder of the tomato sauce.

Cover with aluminium foil and bake at 350 for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and add the remainder of the parmesan and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, uncovered. Allow to stand for 10 minutes before serving…

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