Monday, August 29, 2016

Old favorites for new loves: lasagna

I recently wrote about how I am slowly developing a different relationship with cooking since Kevin died. Part of the challenge for me (and for many widowed people) has been giving myself permission to enjoy food and cooking since my spouse's death. I associate complex cooking with Kevin, so learning to relish it again is a whole new ballgame.

This past weekend I decided to make lasagna. This was never a big favorite of Kevin's, but my new sweetheart, C, loves it. I wanted to make it as a love letter for him yet the idea of cooking something complex and with passion felt a bit daunting. It felt like more than I could easily manage, that I'd get lost in the details and memories. It felt like I was cheating on Kevin. 

I know that's not true, that loving C doesn't mean I love Kevin any less. C understands this and accepts Kevin as part of the package; if he's involved with me then Kevin is part of our relationship. I often feel as though C has a better handle on it than I do and I am deeply grateful that he can accept me with all that it means.

I wanted to make him a lasagna, as something delicious to relish, something special for him, something that tells him how I feel, something sensuous that we could share, yet there was that sense of discomfort. So I talked with him about it. C is a smart man and a wise one. He suggested we make it together. So we did. I'm sure K was there, in the steam from the sauce and the spices and the first shuddering bite. It was delicious. I am glad we made it, the two of us and the three. 

Basic Italian-American lasagna, as taught to Laura by a friend's mom many years ago (alas, I forgot to take a picture. Imagine it please.)
  • Make the sauce the day before you plan to assemble and cook the lasagna. You can make the sauce from scratch if you like, but I used two bottle of Classico basic red sauce. Saute and drain about half a pound of ground beef and the meat from two spicy Italian and one mild sausage links. Add this cooked meat, broken into small bits, to the sauce. I also added a chopped onion and a lot of chopped garlic, maybe 8 cloves. Let this all simmer on very low heat for a couple of hours, until the onion is translucent and tender. Let the sauce cool and refrigerate until you plan to assemble.
  • The day of assembly:
    • Mix a large container of whole-milk ricotta with an egg or two, enough that it will be stiff but spreadable. Add a good dose of freshly ground black pepper and about a cup of good grated parmesan cheese. I also add a small bunch of finely chopped parsley. Mix well. The parsley will be noticeable in the finished product so skip if you don't like parsley: I like the herby undertones, it lightens what is a very heavy dish. 
    • Cook and drain a box of lasagna noodles in well-salted water. They should be very al dente, soft enough that they don't break when you pour them out but still not floppy. Rinse with cool water so they don't stick. I've also made it without cooking the noodles at all, but you'll need to use more sauce as you assemble. I strongly prefer pasta made from semolina.
    • Heat the sauce just enough that it's more spreadable. It will likely be very thick right out of the fridge. 
    • Shred at least a pound of mozzarella. I used closer to two pounds and used pre-shredded cheese, in all honesty. 
  • Preheat the oven to 400F.
  • Set up all of your ingredients and assemble in a lasagna pan (I use a disposable foil pan because I don't own a baking dish deep enough) placed on a baking sheet. The baking sheet is important because it may bubble over and you don't want to have to clean that mess out of the oven.
    • First put a little sauce in the bottom of the pan
    • Layer noodles, ricotta, sauce, mozzarella. 
    • Try for at least three layers (ending with mozzarella).
  • Cover with foil and bake. It will be heavy when you lift it. Check in 30 minutes. If it's all nice and bubbly uncover and let the edges brown. 
  • Allow to cool for at least 10 minutes before cutting. 
  • Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Cooking in the after life

As you know, I love cooking. A blindingly obvious statement, since this is a cooking blog, but it's worth reminding myself of this sometimes. Cooking is therapy, it's meditative, it's a chance to experiment, and it's a way I communicate my affection and esteem. I'm sure you cook for many of the same reasons.

In the 2+ years since Kevin died, I've not been cooking much. When I do cook it's usually something simple, not the elaborate meals I made before he got sick. You can analyze this in many ways; his cancer took away his joy in food; it reminds me of what I've lost; I'm just too damned tired most days to deal with it; and so on. Certainly this is a part of how I'm experiencing grief. Analysis aside, I'm aware that I miss it, but I don't yet know how cooking fits into the after life.

I've come to think of my life since Kevin's death, especially as more time passes, as living in the Twilight Zone, as the after life. I have a rich life. I love and am loved. And yet it often feels as though it's not quite my life, as though it's someone else's. I've slipped into a parallel universe where everything looks much the same but is entirely different. I think my relationship with cooking might be a part of this, though I dearly hope I regain my passion for it.

All of this is in the front of my mind this morning. I am in Minnesota, where I am performing in the local fringe festival. I'm enjoying it, making money doing work I love. I'm staying with my sweetheart, a wonderful man in his own right, who accepts me as I am, understanding that Kevin is part of the package. I am looking out of the window at a lovely late summer day, where the air is beginning to feel like autumn is coming, my favorite time of year. And I have a pot of stock simmering on the stove, so the house smells rich and fragrant.

When I was preparing the stock this morning I found myself reaching for the familiar things I might find in my own kitchen but they weren't there. I had to find a stock pot of different dimensions than the one I'm used to. The knife is a fine one, but not worn to my grip. The spice cabinet didn't have everything I would usually use. All of the tools I wanted were there, easily at hand, but they weren't the same. They worked well. I will have a lovely pot of stock in a few hours. We will enjoy it together on some coming cold day.

And yet it's not the same. I don't regret living in the after life, not at all, but sometimes it's a shock noticing how I am in a parallel world. A loving and loved partner. Work I am good at and am earning a living with. Joy in many of the same things, like trees and music and food. A pot of stock, simmering. All of these things existed before Kevin died. They exist after. But they are all different.

I imagine as more time passes I will find my footing more easily; I know I am more grounded now than I could ever have imagined in the months immediately after his death. I expect I will try more complicated dishes again and may eventually even make some of his favorites - braised short ribs with sour cherries, for example - and will enjoy them even as I feel sorrow and longing.

Cooking remains a love letter, a way I communicate my affection and esteem. It's a language I need to relearn, that's all. In the meantime, soon enough I will have stock. I will strain it in a different colander, let it cool and freeze it in a new freezer. But the love and care that went into its making are no different. It will still be delicious, it just might mean a little more now, here in the after life.

Laura's basic chicken stock, more a guideline than a recipe. Your mileage may vary.

  • A fist-sized stone
  • Leftover carcass from a chicken or two. I also use the necks that come with whole birds. Sometimes I will add chicken feet if I can find them cleaned in the market.
  • Several onions, peeled and roughly chopped
  • Peeled cloves of garlic, to taste (I usually use a whole head)
  • 2-3 good sized carrots, washed, trimmed, chopped into big chunks. I don't bother peeling.
  • 2-3 good sized stalks of celery, washed, trimmed, chopped into big chunks. 
  • 2-3 bay leaves
The stone is there because of stone soup, so make sure it's well cleaned. I usually find an ocean rock of granite or other very hard stone then boil it before it becomes a soup stone, to make sure any crap is removed. The same stone can be used forever (I give mine away occasionally, but try to use the same rock for years). It MUST be big enough that it's not a choking hazard, so at least fist-sized. 

Place everything in a big stock pot. Cover with water. Cover, bring to a boil then lower to a slow simmer. You may want to skim off the foam, this produces a clearer stock. Let simmer mostly covered for hours - at least six. Keep an eye on it and skim from time to time. 

After six hours or so taste and decide if you want to add salt, pepper or other seasonings. I often don't so the stock is a more flexible ingredient in other recipes, but it may seem to be bland without salt, remind your palate that this is about umami and chickeniness, not a finished meal. Additionally, the chicken carcasses may have had some seasoning left on them, so it frequently doesn't need much more.

I let the stock simmer until the bones are quite soft, usually about 8 hours. Strain well and cool. It will likely become rather gelatinous as it cools; this is a good thing, it means it's a nice rich stock. Freeze until you want to use it for chicken soup, stew, etc. I often freeze some in quart containers, a few cups and one ice cube tray. I use the cubes to add a little stock to stir fries and so on.

(c) 2016 Laura S. Packer

Saturday, July 2, 2016

An American food story

Yesterday my sweetheart and I decided to have an adventure. We wandered around town, exploring ethnic markets and seeing parts of the city new to us both. It was lovely. As lunchtime approached I found a listing for Cajun Deli. It had good reviews and we both like this kind of cuisine; on top of that, it gave us a chance to reminisce about a trip we took to New Orleans earlier this year.

The restaurant was in the corner of a typical city strip mall. There is a dollar store on one side and a hair salon on the other. Inside it was fairly austere, just a counter where you order and assorted seating. The menu, posted on the wall, told us we could get fried catfish or shrimp, or boiled crawfish, shrimp, mussels or crab legs. It smelled wonderful.

The place was packed. We ordered at the counter, found seating, then settled in for lunch and people watching. On one wall was a poster with an acacia tree and a giraffe, on the other a generic shot of a bridge over a rushing stream. It's one of those places where it's better to not look too closely in the corners, but to instead enjoy the moment.

Our food came out quickly and was hot, fresh, well-seasoned and delicious. That's not what this post is really about, though.

Here is the truth of the matter. It's a few days before July 4th, that moment when we have a collective cheer for the founding principles of this country, celebrating with fireworks, hot dogs and (if we're lucky) a moment to think about the good as well as the bad parts of our history and culture.

A few days before that secular holiday I found myself in a restaurant in the middle of the continent, eating food with influences from the West Indies, France and America. The restaurant was owned and run by Asian immigrants, their daughter sounding thoroughly American. My sweetheart and I, both white, me a Jew, were surrounded by African Americans, Africans and Asians, all of us sitting in a strip mall (that icon of commerce), sharing tables, laughter and condiments.  I cannot think of anything more American or more worth celebrating about this country.

Happy Fourth of July. May we all extend our hands in friendship and welcome, may we enjoy the mix of culture that you can find no where else, and may your days be delicious with friendship and flavor.

(c) 2016 Laura S. Packer

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Grief and food. Learning to eat again.

It's been a long time since I wrote here. My life crumbled this year and I'm learning how to rebuild. If you want to read about 2014, check out my other blog. The very short story is that my husband has died. It is as hard as you imagine and often moreso.

One of the challenges grief has brought me hovers around food. I loved cooking for Kevin. As his illness progressed it became more and more difficult for him to eat until finally he no longer could. So cooking lost its joy. Once he died I had no interest in cooking for myself since I associate it so strongly with Kevin. It's been hard. Most of my meals since his death have been eaten out, cooked by friends, or simple to the point of idiocy.

Over the last few weeks I have started cooking again. Not with the complexity and passion I once had, but it's something. A roasted chicken. A salad. A grilled steak. Tonight was the most complex meal I've made since mid-January when he was diagnosed: salmon with mango salsa. It was good. Salmon was one of Kevin's very favorite foods. More than anything I wished I was making it for us both.

I know that part of healing, part of learning to live in this world without him, involves self-care. I need to learn how to care for my body again, how to find pleasure in the world. It means I need to learn how to hold grief and love and nourishment all at the same time. Tonight's meal was a step in that direction.

Salmon tacos with mango salsa.
For Kevin.

1 ripe mango, peeled and chunked
1 shallot, minced
1/2-1 jalapeƱo, seeded and minced
juice of 1/2 a lime
salt and pepper to taste

While the salsa sits (it helps to mesh the flavors) pan sear one large serving (6-8 oz) of salmon in olive oil. Heat the oil enough that the outside gets a little brown and crispy while the inside remains tender. Sear it, then remove from pan and let cool for a moment or two. Divide in half.

Put half the salmon in each corn tortilla (fresh tortillas), divide the salsa between the two. Eat. Enjoy.
Remember that savoring a meal can honor those you love and have lost.

(c) 2014 Laura Packer

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Comfort in the scent

It's winter here in Kansas City. I've discovered this means weather at least as variable as in New England. Mark Twain famously said, "If you don't like the weather in New England, wait a minute." Considering the man was from Missouri, where we've had one day with a high of 12F followed by another with a high of 45F, he knew what he was talking about.

When the weather turns cold and dark I bake. (I know, wheat is considered evil by many these days. I go back and forth about it. Right now, my need for mental and emotional comfort is winning, so I bake. If that bothers you, move on to a different post.)

I love the feel of dough in my hands, the heat from the oven on my cheeks and most especially the smell. Oh, the magical chemistry of flour, water and a few other things! The kitchen light becomes as welcoming as a sunny day when my home smells like baking. Soon the house feels cozy and warm, a fortress against the grey outside.

I've most recently made banana bread, adapted from James Beard's recipe, and wheat bread, adapted from Alton Brown's Very Basic Bread recipe.

The banana bread is an old staple for me, tried and true. I love the taste of honey along with the banana and I used toasted almonds which added a bit of chew. It's quite dense, moist and lush. I always feel a bit decadent when I make this, it seems like such a luxury.

It's the wheat bread that I've really fallen in love with (the picture at the head of this blog). I've always wanted to make a rustic loaf that wasn't too overwhelmingly dense (good for banana bread, less so for toasting bread) and never managed it. This is the first bread I've made that starts with a sponge (basically a sour dough starter) and it is great. The recipe takes time, but I urge you to try it.

If the winter has you down find the things that bring you back into yourself, the simpler comforts. The scent of bread. The time required to make something good. Sharing it with those you live.

(c) 2013 Laura Packer

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Cookpot quote: Have fun

‎This is my advice to people: Learn how to cook, try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun.
-Julia Child

Friday, October 11, 2013

50 Ways to Use Marshmallows

Really. I'm not kidding.

I recently took a three-day road trip from Kansas City to Boston. When I take long drives like this I try to stop at interesting places along the way, though my desire to stop is balanced by my need to get where I'm going. In the past I have seen amazing outsider art, giant muffler men and had some wonderful (and terrible) local cuisine.

This time, I stopped at Marlene's Restaurant and Crane's Country Store in Williamsburg, MO. It's a tiny town with a closed museum and a historical road. The restaurant is housed in the same building as a sweet little museum and an antique shop. The antique shop is more of a thrift store, but there were hidden treasures, among them this:

As you know, I love cookbooks, especially old quirky ones. How could I resist?

At first glance it's a typical 1940's era cooking pamphlet, full of recipes and advice for the modern housewife. 

On a  closer perusal I found this:

It’s an attractive dish…

I've not yet made any of these recipes. I don't know that I will since, honestly, I don't really like marshmallows in spite of their high food value (I think that means calories. A sign of a different time, when we wanted more calories). Even if I am being urged to use them every day. 

(On a more reflective note, these kinds of artifacts give us a glimpse into our culinary past. This was a time when frugal wasn't trendy, it was just the way you lived. You made very ingredient go as far as it could. There were fewer preservatives, so you needed 50 ways to use those marshmallows before they turned into sugar bricks or worse, molded. 

I love these time capsules. And I wonder what our time capsules will be...)

(c) 2013 Laura S. Packer