Sunday, February 11, 2007

Staff Lasagna

I spent most of this weekend in PA with my family and some friends, and I didn't realize until I got there how nice it was to get away from the ever-ringing phone and my laptop here at home. On Saturday afternoon, I hung out with some friends, one of whom was making Paula Wolfert's pork and wild mushroom daube for dinner -- it's a three-day process and smelled amazing. It's dishes like that one that really drive home why I'm doing what I'm doing with this project. Which leads me to something I want to talk about for a minute before I start writing about tonight's recipe...

After being mentioned on Michael Ruhlman's blog last week (which, by the way, was so incredibly flattering and beyond cool), I received email from people all around the world supporting this project and asking me why I'm doing this. My reasons are many. I have always loved the French Laundry Cookbook, and it inspires me on a creative basis in so many different ways. Even though I had never made anything out of this cookbook before January of this year, I often referred to the book for ideas and inspiration when I wanted to try something new. The photography, the writing, the legacy of food that has been served in that kitchen, the experience people have when eating this food both in the restaurant and in my home... all are important to me.

In addition to wanting to challenge myself in the kitchen, I have to be honest and admit that one of my main motivations to cook every recipe in this book is because I am incredibly frustrated and annoyed with TV personalities like Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee crapping up the foodosphere with their shortcuts and stupid recipes designed to get you in and out of the kitchen AS FAST AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE, and I wondered -- when did food become the bad guy? When did it become so urgent to slap a bunch of crap together and call it dinner? I know that a common excuse is that people are pressed for time, or that they just don't think they have the skills to make something from scratch. Those aren't good enough excuses in my book. Let me say that I own my own consulting practice and I'm not a gazillionaire. I don't have a ton of free time, nor do I have unlimited funds. I'm also not a chef, nor have I ever been trained in any of the culinary arts. I'm just a normal person with a normal job who has decided that I'm going to spend time doing something I love and push myself to get better at it in the process. I hope that by cooking this food and writing this blog, people will see that it's possible to take the time to peruse a real cookbook (Julia Child, Mario Batali, Tony Bourdain, and Jacques Pepin are all a good place to start), enjoy shopping for ingredients, set aside time for prep, and cook something wonderful that's sure to not only make your house smell amazing, but provide a new way to bring friends and family around the table to enjoy something you've created.

Let's get started on the lasagna. This recipe is the lasagna that is prepared for the French Laundry staff prior to service.

Here's a photo of the mise en place for the sauce:

The first thing you do is heat the oil, then add the onions and garlic. The recipe said to mince them, but I prefer a chunkier sauce, so I did a fine chop rather than a mince. Once the onions and garlic are translucent, I added the tomato paste and let that cook through for about 10 minutes. Then, I added the fresh tomatoes. Here's what it looked like:

Then, I simmered it for about 2 hours, at which point it reduced to about a quart of sauce:

After it has reduced, you turn off the burner, add some chopped fresh oregano, and let the sauce cool to room temperature.

The next step is to put the lasagna noodles in to boil, during which time I put together the ricotta mixture:

When the noodles are done, it's assembly time (and might I mention how amazing my house smelled at this point?). A light covering of sauce on the bottom of the pan, followed by noodles, then ricotta, then sauce, and so on, with a hefty dose of freshly grated mozzarella cheese on top. You may notice that this is a meatless lasagna, which was a bit of a surprise when I first found this recipe. I must've read and re-read the page 3-4 times to make sure I wasn't missing the step during which I add the ground beef. Not there.

Here's what the lasagna looks like before it goes into the oven:

And, here's what it looks like when it's done:

I also made the staff salad dressing to serve on finely shredded romaine lettuce hearts:

The salad dressing is really similar to the dressing I make almost every week for salads I make here at home, so that was a breeze. I'm a big fan of homemade salad dressings -- I don't think I'll ever buy the bottled stuff ever again. I've been hand-whisking homemade salad dressings for the last 10 years and it's something I love doing.

The lasagna was creamy and hearty, but really light and not at all heavy or rich. It is something that fills you up, but doesn't make you want to groan in pain if you've eaten more than one piece. I undersalted it, so it need need some additional seasoning once it was served, but overall, I think it was really pretty good. Granted, I will confess that from time to time I have been known to enjoy some Stouffer's frozen lasagna throughout my adolesence (and by adolesence, I mean my 20s and 30s), but this recipe is the way to go. I think it would be easy to add some ground turkey, beef or veal to the sauce if you wanted to add some heft to it, but it's fine as-is.

I served the lasagna and salad with a sliced baguette, many bottles of wine (see below), and had some friends over for dinner. Oh my God, the laughing. I haven't laughed that hard in a really long time, and it was so much fun to get a smart, funny bunch of people together who gave up their Sunday night to be guineau pigs in my test kitchen.

Up Next: Concord Grape Jellies and Peanut Butter Truffles

Brands Used:
All-Clad CopperCore cookware and bakeware
Muir Glen tomato paste
All produce and dairy products from Wegman's
DeCecco lasagna noodles

Wine Pairing: Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, 2004

Music to Cook By: Chicago, Greatest Hits and U2, Unforgettable Fire.


Anonymous said...

If you must use Ricotta to make Lasagna (should be Besciamella), let's not Sandra Lee it up with the processed Sorrento stuff, in the name of all that is good and holy! Get some fresh, real cheese!

Anonymous said...

Read about your blog from Mr. Ruhlman's. (congrats!) Been hunting for a food blog in DC that wasn't just about dining out and giving all the review stars to citronelle (don't get me wrong, love the man!).
Will be checking in often hoping to catch some tips!

Carol Blymire said...

ccw: thanks for your comments -- glad you stopped by!

anonymous: I actually hadn't planned to use Sorrento ricotta. There are far better brands, I know. I was pressed for time during my shopping trip and it was the only brand they had on the shelf that wasn't a store brand... and because I was running late, I didn't have the extra 45 minutes to drive over to Balducci's and back to get the ricotta I really love. So, I accept your tongue-lashing because I did go against my better judgment. Thanks for letting me have it.

Anonymous said...

Wow -- I don't care if you used government cheese in that lasagna... it looked really good. Was it annoying to make your own sauce?

Anonymous said...

I love that you are doing this. I don't use a lot of cookbooks in my recipes because I'm stubborn that way at times. However, every time I get in a creative block this is one of half dozen I might go to for inspiration.

Let me know when you get to the powders, I've been playing with those of late and am curious what someone else thinks! Love this idea and I'll be back often.

Anonymous said...

Awesome. I was just looking for your blog yesterday then Meg goes and links it today. Bookmark'd!

Just wanted to say, I think this is a great project - the idea and the execution. I half-seriously considered doing the same thing after getting The Complete Keller back in December. But you're doing it much better than I probably could.

And to anonymous asking about the homemade sauce: Good holy spatula, homemade sauce is roughly ten-zillion times better than the goo you'll buy at the store. Takes next to no time to make - just a bit of experimentation with recipes to get it where you like it. The payoff is worth it. As a bonus, your house will smell delicious.

Anonymous said...

Dumb question: When you say "staff lasagna" and its "made before every service", does that mean the the servers only ever get to eat lasagna at the resturant?

Carol Blymire said...

Spoonie -- nope. The lasagna is just the one thing they decided to include in the book. Typically, a staff meal in any restaurant is made up of all the extra ingredients in the kitchen so that nothing goes to waste.

Anonymous -- yes, yes, yes it is worth making your own sauce, not only for this dish, but for most of them. It's worth setting aside a little time to do because the taste is so worth it (and, the smell... corycm is right).

Husband -- thanks for stopping by. I'm going to get started on powders in a few weeks. I've mastered at least two of the oils and I think the powders look like fun. Would love to hear from you on how yours are working out.

amber said...

for some reason, i didn't think you had made the staff lasagna yet. i'm glad i looked back to see that yes, in fact, you have tried and liked it! after a hellish last week, this weekend is being devoted to lots of "me" and kitchen time. this is going to be friday night's dinner (i figured i'd start with something simple-ish) and i can't wait! :)

Anonymous said...

I cooked this for dinner last night, it was amazing. It was the first recipe I've cooked from The French Laundry, and this blog has inspired me to use it a whole lot more. Thanks.


Sandman said...

"I am incredibly frustrated and annoyed with TV personalities like Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee crapping up the foodosphere with their shortcuts and stupid recipes designed to get you in and out of the kitchen AS FAST AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE ..."

I'm a complete newcomer to your blog, but I think I love you, just for this. I'll be working (and eating) my way through the rest.