Saturday, January 23, 2010

Ham Casserole

This is the extra large ham that my father-in-law gave to us as we left his home in Minnesota this past holiday. He wants to give us a ham every year. One year, I am ashamed to admit, the ham only made it as far as a rest stop garbage can in Pennsylvania. This year, since the ham was recently purchased and the air was so cold the ham remained frozen for the whole trip in the car's trunk, I decided to keep it.

When I was searching for a white wine at a local liquor distributor, many of the tags on the shelves read "Good With Ham." I do not know why ham is the meat of choice around the holidays in Minnesota, but it is (maybe all the time?). No matter, I decided to cook its 11 pound ass last night.

I am a fan of ham and eat many varieties. My main complaint about this kind of ham is that it is way too salty. I washed it off and cooked it for 2.5 hours at 300 degrees even though it was 'pre-cooked.' So now the question remains, what to do with all that ham? Any ideas?

Below was my first idea. A casserole, which I am learning to appreciate. It's the meal of choice in my wife's Minnesota homeland, and I feel that the best way for me to get accustomed to casseroles is to start making my own. I even convinced myself that baked ziti is a casserole.

 Portuguese Peas, Parmigiano, and potatoes.

Olive oil underneath, sliced potatoes 1/8-inch thick, grated parmigiano.

Small chunks of ham, minced shallots.

More potatoes, then peas, cheese, and shallots. Repeat until dish is full.

On top, one last set of potato slices, cheese, black pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil.

The result was tasty, but I forgot one ingredient: funghi! Well, I think a casserole is defined by what you have on hand, and mushrooms were not. I still have 9 pounds of ham left. Now what?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Grandfather's Lasagna (adultered!)

I was about to make the meat lasagna, well known in my family as the one that was 8 inches tall and served for lunch(!!) on Thanksgiving day when my grandfather was still cooking. At the last minute I discovered that a guest I assumed was a carnivore was actually just a ichthyovore/crustaceaovore! Never take shrimp eating for meat eating. So, I jumped into college mode and adapted the meaty lasagna to a portobello mushroom and spinach one. I think the last, but first, time I made this was in grad school, to host all my artistic peers at my little place near the Rio. The only difference then: I grew my own spinach -and that spinach was fantastic.

The Vegetables

First I heat up a cast iron skillet, add a drop of olive oil and add the sliced mushrooms.

Mainly, I am looking to pull some moisture out.

I love how these look, like handlebar mustachios.

The same for the fresh spinach, but in a saucepan with a teaspoon of olive oil for each batch.

The Cheeses

Off to the fresh mozzarella: I used salted, but I think it's a matter of preference.  I used one pound and this lasagna was HUGE. Cube it, roughly at 1/2 inch.

Then there's the ricotta cheese, which you all know we say like "ri gaw ta." One pound will probably due for normal people making normal lasagna. I added maybe two pounds to my cheese mixture.  Add to this grated pecorino romano, the salty kick the ricotta needs. We go by taste on this, but I could say add a 1/4 to 1/2 pound to the mixture, depending on the quantity of ricotta. Then add the cubed mozzarella to the mixture and stir it up real good. Put the mixture in the fridge until your ready to layer.

Now I bought way too much ricotta. I had some frozen because I planned to make this lasagna a month ago, but I wasn't sure the freezer didn't kill it. So I bought Caputo's store-made at 6.99 a container -a good price considering the container is 3 pounds! I froze the remaining unused ricotta, and with the remaining unused mixture, spread it on some semolina and sunk into fatty heaven.

Incidentally, this is the cheese grater I use for grating the Pecorino or Parmigiano. I never liked the kind that makes the cheese into a powder. Also, I've been trained by family to insist on this simple knuckle scraper.

Pasta Interlude

There are only so many choices of dried lasagna pasta. I used Ronzoni -it was on sale. I've never used the no boil kind -I don't know why. For my embarrassingly large lasagna, I needed three pounds. I use a large stock pot, 2/3 full of water, salted, with a drop of olive oil. Get that water boiling real good. Cook the pasta till near done, but not al dente like you expect of your pasta dish -a little harder, because it will cook in the oven some.

I remove the lasagna strips from the water with a spoon and a slotted spaghetti spoon, putting them in another nearby pot. I leave the cooking water in the pot, get it up to boiling again, and put in the next batch. Repeat until all three pounds are done. Of course, normal folks who use a pound or pound and a half, will not need to repeat.

After the pasta is removed, let it cool a bit (some will water rinse cool, but I don't). I lay the strips on a plate or cutting board flat just to keep them handy for the layering.

The Layering

I start will a little olive oil rubbed on the pan (in this instance a fairly hardy aluminum pan, doubled, from the corner store). A drop of sauce, made previously, is added to the pan too. Then I lay the first layer of pasta, twice. All pasta layers are double, covering the seams from the layer immediately below. Lengthwise, crosswise, no one cares -go crazy.

On top of the first layer I lay the spinach and globs of the 3 cheese mixture. I add grated Parmigiano  because, well, why stop with three cheeses? Incidentally, I cannot show you the whole pan, it is so large, if I had panned back, detail would be lost!

After adding another two layers of pasta, I add the mushrooms and some sauce. I don't want a sloppy lasagna, so I emphasize keeping the water out of it. For this reason I don't add too much sauce because it's mostly water and because sauce can be added later at the plate. I also do not mix my sauce with the cheeses because I believe (maybe wrongly) that the sauce will turn the cheese quicker when stored in the fridge. Lasagna doesn't have a long fridge life, for me two to three days at best. Freeze for long term storage.

Add another two layers of pasta, gently pressing down with a wooden spoon, and repeat until the layers have overflowed their banks. On top, I slice some more mozzarella, thinly, and lay it across the final layer. I add some sauce. I cover the pan with some aluminum foil and place in the oven at around 275 degrees and cook for about an hour. If you like crispy edges, take the foil off in the last 15 minutes. Cut and serve.

If this were a meat lasagna, it would be filled with something we call fennel meat -which is basically a beef meat loaf filled with fennel seeds, and pork, which can be loin or even country ribs. Both are cooked prior, in tomato sauce (I cook it in the oven, but mom does in a pot), cooled and cubed and layered much like the spinach and mushroom. You can use this sauce for your lasagna, since clearly you're cooking for carnivores.

Grandfather's Lasagna (adultered!)
  • 3 lbs lasagna pasta
  • 1.5 lbs fresh mozzarella -cubed, some slices
  • 2 lbs fresh ricotta (pollyo in a pinch)
  • 1/2 lb pecorino romano -grated
  • 1 lb portobello mushrooms -sliced
  • A lot of fresh spinach -maybe 2 big bags
  • tomato sauce
  • some parmigiano -grated 
  • some xv olive oil
  • baking pan big enough for all this!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Cheek By Jowl

On this snowy Saturday, as I had planned, I shopped different neighborhoods by subway and foot to buy the various foods I will bring to my mothers tomorrow, for our Christmas dinner with my family. In a couple of days, my wife and I head out for Minnesota, to be with her family and get a well-earned respite from all the busy-ness.

I have taken it upon myself to be a kind of ambassador from Brooklyn at family gatherings, despite the fact that everyone in my family has immigrant roots in the borough. I'm the kind of ambassador who brings food from my country, and this year it's several kinds dry sausage. I was hoping for the wild-boar cacciatorini at Stinky, but they were out. Disappointed, I bought a dry chorizo instead. Over at Caputo's I picked up a soppressata, and was intent on getting an herbed saucisson, but again -out. So I picked up a regular cacciatorini and a smoked scormozza, which is an aged mozzarella. I went to the other Caputo's, the bakery, to get some bread -essentially for my brother, who sees Brooklyn bread as gifts in and of themselves. He will receive ciabatta and seeded semolina.

I took the G train up to Greenpoint to stop in a little Polish bakery (Jaslowiczanka, 163 Nassau) that sells small babka. I bought four (ridiculous!), two blueberry and two with chocolate glaze. On the way, and because my sister heard Polish, I was admonished to find some kielbasa, smoked, which I could find in my neighborhood, but since I was traveling for babka...I stopped in this very busy place, generically called Meat Market (Podlasie, 121 Nassau), and was overwhelmed by smoked meats, and particularly bacon, which I have only my lack of knowledge of the Polish language to keep me from buying huge quantities! I selected two dry kielbasi by pointing, the cute Polish girl assisting with giggles as she asked the girl at the register how to say my number (for*teen) in English. Maybe on a less busy day I'll go back and risk looking foolish to find out what to call all those lovely looking smoked meats.

All this I will bring to my mom's place, via MTA railroad, in a snowstorm, along with gifts, this Sunday. Next post from the Big Woods of Minnesota.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010