Herbfarm Lasagna

I recently had an opportunity to spend some time reading Jerry Traunfeld’s latest cookbook, The Herbal Kitchen, and was transported back to Seattle’s Herbfarm where he is the chef.

My last visit was back around 1995 when I worked as a chef aboard a gorgeous 120’ motor sailer headed for Alaska. We were spending time in Port Townsend, Washington, having work done in the yard before sailing north. In my off time, I shopped and dined, and as time lapsed, I cast a wider net and ultimately happened upon the Herbfarm. I was beside myself; I wanted to become a basil plant and live there with all the other happy herbs – forever.

Its reputation was so far flung people made trips to Seattle just for a memorable meal there. Reservations were needed weeks in advance, even months ahead for popular dates. When it came to a dining experience the Herbfarm was a tour de force; it set the bar for Pacific Northwest sensibility by presenting their lush garden setting as a backdrop and masterfully weaving a balanced interplay between their dizzying assortment of herbs, first rate local grown products and excellent wines.

Sadly, there was a fire and it took many long years before the Herbfarm was rebuilt and re-opened in 2001. The original owners have since died, but the Herbfarm legend continues, thanks to Jerry and other key staffers.

The Herbal Kitchen is a must-have cookbook for anyone serious about cooking with herbs. In this cookbook, with his trademark artful simplicity, Traunfeld focuses on home cooking and offers plenty of fast and easy ideas. Here’s one that caught my attention, it’s a new approach to preparing meatless lasagna. Jerry prepares three simple sauces and stacks them up with no-boil noodles. Nothing could be easier or fresher.

This light lasagna reminds me of cheese raviolis with plenty of big flavors. It’s nearly indestructible; it can be prepared ahead and baked later; it can be baked and reheated; it can be baked, frozen and reheated… I think you get the idea. It slices like a dream – just remember to allow it set about 15 minutes before slicing. The waiting is rough, but you won’t regret it!

Herbfarm Lasagna
28 ounce canned crushed tomatoes, and
14 1/2 ounce canned crushed tomatoes
1 whole dried hot chiles
1/4 cup marjoram or oregano
Kosher salt
5 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup flour
3 cups milk
1 pound whole ricotta, excellent quality
2 cups basil, 4 oz.
1 cup parsley, 2 oz.
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
12 noodles oven ready lasagna noodles, of 8 ounce box
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, shredded

In large saucepan or skillet boil the tomatoes over medium high for about 10 minutes, stirring occasional, or until sauces thickens. Stir in marjoram and salt. Set aside. This can be done ahead.

If grating cheese, do so in processor now.

In medium saucepan, melt butter, whisk in flour, cook the roux about 1 minute; and slowly stir in the cold milk to incorporate. Whisk for lumps, then allow to come to full boil and thicken. Season with 1 1/2 tsp salt.

In food processor, blend the ricotta and 1/3 (about 1 cup) of the white sauce until smooth. Remove to a bowl.

In processor w/o cleaning, combine the basil, parsley, garlic cloves and 1/2 tsp salt til finely chopped; add the 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese and process. Add remaining white sauce (about 2 cups), and process til well combined.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 9×13 pan with straight sides.

Directions to assemble:
1. Spread half of the tomato sauce in bottom of the sprayed pan. Arrange 3 noodles on top of tomato sauce without touching each other, or the sides of pan.
2. Dab half the basil sauce onto each of the noodles, carefully spread to completely cover each.
3. Layer each stack with another noodle and spoon the entire amount of ricotta on top, spreading to completely cover each noodle.
4. Top each of the 3 stacks with another noodle, then gently spoon on the remaining tomato sauce, completely covering each.
5. Finally top the stacks with the last 3 noodles and spread each completely with remaining pesto sauce.

Cover dish with foil, tenting it slightly to avoid touching lasagna, and bake 30 minutes. Remove foil, sprinkle top with the shredded mozzarella and bake 30-35 minute longer, or til evenly browned. Let rest 15 minutes or longer, it will be loose, but will set up.

Note: can be assembled ahead and kept refrigerated and then baked, allow 10 minutes extra under foil; or bake ahead and reheat in 350 oven. Serves 8. ~~

Batter Up!

We had one cheery week of spring weather and overnight it turned chilly and overcast again. A quick glance at the exterior temperature gauge told me that once more, we were looking at optimum conditions for a hearty pot of homemade lip-smacking-stick-to-your-ribs soup. From my pantry shelves I pulled out a recent discovery from my market’s bulk food section: an odd bean medley of peas, garbanzos, soy, lentils plus a few other unidentifiable items. Since I had no directions, I could only surmise that it would likely require a good two hours of steady simmering.

Into the pot the collection went with a couple slices of bacon, carrots, onions, celery and peppers, some coriander, dried thyme, bay, freshly ground pepper and plenty of water to cover. Once the soup was underway, it didn’t take me long to conclude that a loaf of freshly baked bread would be the ideal accompaniment.

This past winter I have enjoyed playing with old-fashioned batter breads. These yeasty jewels are delicious, versatile, and ready to eat in about two hours. Busy homemakers have relied on their convenience for decades because they are practically fool proof and require no baking expertise. They are beaten and not kneaded, require only a brief rise, plopped and spread into a pan, given another quick rise, and then baked to perfection. Still, the loaves yield a lovely crumb sturdy enough to slice thinly for toast, sandwiches or general snacking.

If you have followed my Blog, then you know I am a confirmed cornmeal fan – and that is exactly where we are headed. A slight amount of cornmeal adds a blush of color, crunch, and sweetness to our loaf, and creates an ideal companion for the sumptuous split pea mega soup. It’s best if you can resist temptation and wait for your bread to cool, but if you can’t – slice away! Enjoy it warm slathered with butter, and if your are lucky, perhaps a steamy cup of soup.

Cornmeal Batter Bread
1 envelope rapid rise yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1 cup liquid (water or milk, or any combo)
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups flour, approx.
1/2 cup cornmeal, plus additional for pan
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon olive oil
1-2 Tbsp. shredded Parmesan Cheese (opt.)

In 1/4 cup warm water dissolve yeast. Separately, heat 1 cup liquid until hot, add sugar and salt and stir to dissolve.

In mixing bowl, combine 2 cups flour, cornmeal, and baking soda. Add part of the hot liquid and begin stirring. Beat in the yeast mixture, the oil, and the remainder of the hot liquid; continue beating 3-5 minutes, adding additional flour as needed to make a fairly stiff batter. Spray a medium sized bowl and dump the dough into the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in warm place until doubled, 30-40 minutes.

Meanwhile spray and dust 9×5″ baking pan with cornmeal. When dough is doubled, scrape it into baking pan and smooth evenly. Let rise until it reaches top of pan, 30-40 minutes.

Meanwhile preheat oven to 375 degrees. Optional, sprinkle top with shredded Parmesan cheese prior to baking. Bake 45 minutes until brown and sounds hollow when thumped on bottom. Cool on rack. Yield: 1 loaf. ~~

A Song for Biscotti

My last blog on Apple Crisp Bars prompted ChyAnn to write asking if I had any more high protein, low sugar/fat cookie or bar suggestions. Thank you, ChyAnn for the perfect segues – and another opportunity to sing the praises of Biscotti.

I highly recommend biscotti as a healthful all-purpose dessert option. Their signature crunchiness makes them suitable for storage and will thus rank high among the handy dandy pantry players. They are an easy snack on the run, a great solution for drop in guests served with coffee or tea, and are beautiful as part of a dessert plate with fresh fruit, or as a stand alone with ice cream.

Biscotti’s name is derived from their biscuit-like quality as well as their unique twice baked cooking process. This second baking makes biscotti ideal for dunking in coffee, tea, milk, and most especially into the Italian’s beloved vin santo. This superb dessert wine is a classic ending to a heavy meal, and a crisp biscotti is the perfect vehicle for maximum dunking capacity.

If you purchase biscotti commercially, as with all convenience and specialty foods, it’s important to read the label carefully since they can be loaded with empty calories, high in fat, sugars and preservatives.

Here, our Breakfast Biscotti is a welcome change from packaged Granola Bars. There’s plenty of protein and fiber, fat and sugar content is minimized, dried fruit offers additional sweetness and texture, and the small amount of orange zest adds a perky dash of brightness. No surprise, cornmeal is included for crunch and color, and any nut may be substituted or omitted altogether. If counting calories based on 36 cookies these are slightly over 90 calories each.

Since there’s shaping and hand work involved, with the exception of cutting into portions, these would make a great kid project.

Breakfast BiscottiFrom Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Cafe
3 eggs
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup canola oil
1 teaspoon orange zest, grated
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
3/4 cup oats
1/2 cup wheat germ or soy protein powder
1/4 cup cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup almonds, chopped
6 dates or other dried fruit, pitted, minced (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray a cookie sheet, or for easy clean-up, line it with parchment.

Into large mixing bowl, break eggs, add sugars, thru extracts and beat until smooth.

Combine dry ingredients separately. Using spoon, add dry to wet, mixing thoroughly; it may be necessary to use hands as it thickens and becomes dough-like.

Moisten hands slightly and divide batter in half; form 2 logs @ 2″ in diameter. Place on sheet with space between them.

Bake for 20 minutes until golden and slightly brown on edges. Remove from oven and cool slightly. Reduce heat to 350 degrees.

Transfer logs one at a time to a cutting board. Using serrated knife, at a good angle, cut into 1/2″ thick slices. Return to baking sheet, laying the cookies cut side down. Bake 8 more minutes. Turn them over and bake for another 8 minutes. For extra crunchy, turn off heat and leave in oven for an additional 15 minutes.

Let cool on racks. Store room temperature airtight or freeze. Yield: 36 cookies

Blondies Bars and Bites Revisited

Back story: My fascination with bar cookies began in earnest about 7 years ago when I was looking for easy sweets to take to potlucks and outings while living in Stuart, Florida. In my sugar-logged mind, it didn’t take long before I was baking so many varieties that I needed an outlet for all my excesses. Soon, I was peddling them around the countryside at local farmers markets, country clubs, delis and restaurants; thus, Blondies Bars and Bites was born.

As need increased, so did my kitchen requirements, and the ideal setting and location was discovered just around the corner from my home. With the wave of a wooden spoon Culinary Distractions was in business complete with a charming gourmet Studio, state-of-art commercial kitchen and catering operation. Naturally, Blondies, Bars and Bites made a major contribution and they were always the Stars, as far as I was concerned.

It’s no surprise that I still lapse into the bar mode on occasion and obsess over a new variation of an old familiar treat. This time it happens to be Apple Crisp Bar. This is the perfect time of year to be fiddling with this specialty, since apples are abundant, affordable and delicious.

When sorting out apples, select those that are crisp, juicy and sweet such as Gala, Golden Delicious or Granny Smith. You will need less sugar, there will be more moisture, and the flavor will remind you of that all-American treasure, Apple Crisp – in forkless, finger form!

Since bars can have an inordinate amount of butter, my challenge was to create the flavor and outcome without unnecessary fat. Here, that is achieved with the addition of an egg, which also provides additional texture and moisture. You will use the same mixture for the bottom “platform” and well as the topping “crumble”.

Enjoy this easy all-purpose sweet at your own potluck or outing, for dessert served warm topped with ice cream, or wrapped for a quick snack on the run.

Apple Crisp Bars

1 cup flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup oatmeal
6 tablespoons butter, cut in chunks (approx 1/3 cup)
1 egg, lightly beaten

Apple filling:
3 apples, golden delicious, granny smith etc, any/or combo,

partially peel, core, cut into small chunks
1/2 lemon, juice of
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon sugar, more, if apples are not sweet
1/4 teaspoon each cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line and spray 8×8″ pan.

In food processor combine flour thru salt, add oatmeal, cut in butter until crumbly. Add the egg and combine well. Reserve about 3/4 cup of mixture for topping. Pat the balance evenly into pan.
For apples: in bowl, sprinkle apples with lemon juice. Combine the dry items and toss with apples to coat. If there is excess, add it to the topping. Spread apples into pan in even layer. With fingers, crumble the topping over the apples. Spray top lightly with oil and bake until bubbly and topping browns, about 45 minutes.

Cool a bit on rack and cut into 9-12 bars.

Winter Wait

This long winter wait finally ends
Bone weary bleakness will fade
Chilling stark truths will soften.
The Sun, with Hope and Beauty returns
Their comforting warmth confirms.

See the Daffodils, sweet messengers of Spring!
They nod their heads, reborn
In graceful gesture and refrain
Echo Life begins again
Nothing is lost, only transformed.

June J. Kibbe 1919 – 2009

Faith and Begorrah!

For this Irish lass, when it comes to holidays it doesn’t get much better than good ole St. Paddy’s Day. It’s largely connected to my childhood and my stepfather, Henry Patrick Keenan, who took his Irish heritage very seriously. I remember him whistling a lot and two of his favorites were My Wild Irish Rose and O Danny Boy, so it’s no surprise that Irish tunes still get me mushy and teary-eyed in a heartbeat.

We lived outside of Boston in those days and the annual St. Patrick’s Day festivities always included mandatory wearing of the green, parades, and neighborhood gatherings. It was a happy time, there was always a big Corned Beef and Cabbage spread with plenty of singing as the night wore on.

My ‘traditional’ Corned Beef and Cabbage Dinners have evolved over the years, depending on the cut and quality of corned beef available. First, rounds were popular, and then briskets, this year I’m not sure what I got, but it was heavily marbled with fat. In the past I wouldn’t have even considered this unlikely choice, but since it was temptingly reasonable I gave it a try. Due to a couple of reasons at least, it was excellent:

1. Begin by slowly bringing the corned beef, covered in cold water to a boil; reduce the heat and simmer gently for 15-20 minutes. Skim the residue from the top and discard it. Add fresh spices as indicated and slowly simmer the corned beef partially covered, 50 minutes per pound, until tender when prodded with a fork. Gently remove the beef from stock, drain and allow it to cool; cover and chill until the next day. Strain the stock, cool, and refrigerate as well. The next day, de-fat the stock and trim excess fat from the beef.

2. Use the stock to simmer the vegetables. Prepare the glaze ahead, brush onto top of corned beef and bake until crispy on top. Cover beef and let stand about 10 minutes before slicing. Serve accompanied with mustard and horseradish sauces.

Surely, you’ll be singing When Irish Eyes are Smiling, too!

Corned Beef and Cabbage with Currant-Sage GlazeThis shrinks down considerably
4 pounds corned beef, round is leaner
water to cover
1 bay leaf
3 chili peppers, small
1/4 teaspoon peppercorns, celery seed, mustard seed, coriander, thyme, each
1/8 teaspoon cloves
2 cloves garlic, smashed
6 red potatoes
2 onions, quartered
4 carrots, cut into large pieces
3 turnips, quartered
1 small cabbage, 6 wedges
Red Currant Glaze:1 jar jelly (about 8 oz.) currant, guava or similar
1/4 cup dijon mustard
2 tablespoons sage leaves, julienned

Place meat in pot with water to cover, bring to boil, simmer 15-20 minutes, and skim of any scum or grey matter collected on top with spoon. Add seasonings through garlic, cover, and simmer til tender about 3 hours. Adjust seasoning. Can be done ahead at this point – remove beef from pot to drain.

Add vegetables: in the simmering stock add carrots, turnips, onions and cook about 15 minutes, add potatoes and cook additional 15 minutes approx. Add the cabbage wedges just prior to serving and cook 10-15 minutes, or until tender.
For glaze: heat the jelly in microwave until it begins to melt, stir in the mustard and combine, add the sage. Set aside until needed.

To glaze the beef: Preheat oven to 350-375 degrees. Place the drained beef on baking dish, trim excess fat if any, brush with glaze. Bake until hot 20-40 minutes, depending on size; brush again with glaze. Continue until crispy. Slice meat and serve with vegetables. Ladle a bit of hot broth on meat and vegetables, or serve it on the side if desired. Provide hot mustard and/or horseradish. Serves 4 or more. ~~

Sweet Violets, Spring’s Charming Vixens

In our last winter storm I was out in the elements crazily dusting snow off my vexed violets, cooing and fussing over them as they braved their way into early spring. Frankly, I’m fascinated with these lovelies, but I’m just another smitten suitor dazzled by their delicate beauty.

Those charming vixens! Spring’s early seedlings of mystery wink and nod as if masked in shocking displays of purple isn’t enough, then they taunt us with their intoxicating scent and coyly retract it, leaving us begging for more.

It’s true. These fragile beauties have a darker side, and as stellar leads in nature’s early chorus line, why shouldn’t they? Violets have the disarming ability to give it and take it away. They possess ionone, a cunning chemical that affects our olfactory nerves. After one enchanting whiff it derails our senses and inhibits our ability to recapture their elusive perfume. A disappearing act! Those Spring Teasers!

Come to find out, Violets have a long and colorful past. Clear back to Napoleon’s day folks were enamored by them and wrestled for them. Shakespeare and other poets wrote odes on their behalf:

“The forward violet thus did I chide;
Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal
thy sweet that smells,
If not my loves breath?”
– Will Shakespeare knew.
Throughout history Violets have been valued for their culinary and medicinal uses as well as their beauty and scent. Even Pliny recounts their power to ‘lessen anger and strengthen the heart.’ Today they are still used in healing poultices, easing inflammation and relieving bruises.

Clearly, these are no vapid underachievers, Violets have real strength and character. Sweet Violets, how I salute you!

Violet Salad with Vanilla Vinaigrette
A simple and beautiful spring salad

Vanilla Vinaigrette2 tablespoons mild vinegar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg, fresh grated, preferably
Pinch sugar
Pinch salt and pepper
1/2 cup olive oil, or canola oil flavored with a bit of walnut oil if available

8 – 10 ounces field greens including radicchio
1/2 cucumber, partially peeled, sliced
Handful of violets, not sprayed, stems removed as well as bottom calyx if fuzzy

If possible prepare dressing 1 to 2 hours ahead to allow flavors to marry. For dressing, combine vinegar thru salt and pepper, whisk in oil; taste and adjust for balance.

Prepare the greens, place in bowl and top with sliced cucumber. Lightly dress the salad, toss to combine and sprinkle with violets. Serves 4~~