Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Bison Lasagna

Yes, we're on a bison kick over here. Trying not to eat the mass-produced, CAFO-grown beef is really tough, especially if you're on a budget. Every Saturday (ok, it's been twice), we've been going to the community market here in Lynchburg to get eggs and bread and bison since that's the only beef-ish thing they've been selling of late. If you haven't tried it, I highly recommend it! We're starting to prefer it as a substitute in recipes that call for ground beef.

Making lasagna has been a wonderful stress reliever (if the baby is cooperating and the dog has been fed). I feel the same way about layer cakes. When you're done you have a sense that you built something; you gave it a sound structure and put yourself into the design of it.

The day that led up to making the lasagna was full of little anxieties--a baby with diaper rash, a dog suffering from lack of attention, trips into town and back, upcoming first birthday plans, general mood swings from all living beings in the house--enough to throw a person off kilter.

There is a corner between the stove top and counter top that I inhabit. This is where I live. This is where I throw the day's frustrations into soup bowls and pots and pans and beat them out with rolling pins. Where I stir and whip and even daydream; where I coax egg whites into fluff and butter into sauce.

This is where, on Saturday, I lifted soaked lasagna noodles from their water and patted them dry and layered them with cheese and meat sauce in a red casserole dish. Where I experimented with bison meat and herbs and ricotta. This is where the day came back together.

I like Martha's recipe for lasagna, and I use it as a guide. Already having sauce on hand, I didn't make the sauce called for (though I have in the past and it's great). I also don't like ricotta cheese as a general rule, but I add a little bit to the layers of pasta, smearing it on before I add the sauce so that there are no big dollops. It makes the strata less dense. Because I browned the bison instead of sausage, I added some dried Italian herbs. I also needed an extra noodle per layer (maybe I had short noodles?)

The whole thing turned out pretty well and somehow healed us all of the day's turmoil.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Economical Eating -- Marinara Sauce . . . with Bison

My grandmother has been fine-tuning this recipe for what seems to me like all of her life. She has ladled this sauce onto our plates of pasta on Christmas day and Easter and Valentine's and birthdays and many, many special and not-so-special occasions in between. I used to stand with her in the kitchen as she stirred the pot and my Poppop cut hard bread on a wooden board. I remember gabbing about horses for what seemed like blissful eternity to me at the age of ten and must've been an act of love for her. Everyone in my family has their tomato sauce memory or memories. The stuff is next to water. Life revolves around it.

A part of me wishes that it was never written down with such finality in the book. To get to it, I pull the thing off of the shelf, turn the pages, and there it is -- like an old bit of my history recorded with care. On that page, I find something that feels like it was almost lost, a part of my childhood and the people that made it what it was.

So on Saturday afternoon I attempted to make the grand pot of Nanny's marinara sauce, which is always somewhat of a ceremony. First, I cleared the counter of clutter and the sink of dishes, fetched fresh dishtowels and pulled out my sharpest knives, washed the parsley and set it to dry. I pulled out garlic and onions and wine and dried herbs. Then, I slowly commenced with the Slicing of the Onions, which are meant to be "sliced, not too thick, in crescents."  I love this description. She doesn't just say "sliced in thin crescents" or "sliced thin," but rather she halts you just before you let down the knife to check the thickness of the cut. I always hold my breath a little with each slice and think "not too thick!"

Here's where things went a little crazy. I ended up having one major interruption (albeit a fun one, visiting a friend), during which I stopped cooking the sauce after the first simmering stage (1 hour) and put it in the fridge until the next morning. I had a very uneasy feeling about deviating from the recipe like this--messing with perfection and all that. The next morning I added the cans of sauce and paste, finishing the long simmer (1.5 hours) before church on Sunday. The sauce was none the worse, in the end.

The economical thing about sauce is, it makes a ton. I put two containers in the freezer and a big container in the fridge -- good for at least two meals, maybe three this week. I like to make the marinara rather than the meat sauce (recipe is almost the same) because it has so many options. I'll use it for chicken parmesan, or sauce-simmered pork chops (recipe for another day), or eggplant parm . . .

Last night I simmered some of the sauce with ground bison meat, which I had browned first, for 30 minutes. Wow, that was different! The sauce became a dark red-brown, and we heaped it on top of spaghetti. The bison was a little sweeter than ground beef and there was a richness to it that reminded me of venison.

In fact, the whole dish tasted rich and good -- a hard-won reward after a heavy weekend of cooking.

Nanny's Italian Tomato Sauce (Marinara)


4 cans tomato sauce (Hunts brand, 29 oz.)
1 can crushed tomatoes (Hunts brand, 28 oz.)
1/2 can tomato paste (Hunts brand, 6 oz.)
1/2 cup olive oil
1 medium onion sliced, not too thick, in crescents
4 to 5 medium garlic cloves, diced or pressed
1.5 - 2 cups fresh parsley, chopped (at least one bunch)
2 leaves fresh basil, chopped
1/2 cup burgundy or chianti wine (optional, but good)
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
pepper to taste
oregano to taste


Put olive oil in a large pot (6 - 10 qt.) and heat. Add onion (sliced in crescents) and cook until light golden brown. Add garlic and saute until light golden brown, do not brown. Add parsley and saute for five minutes to release the flavor. Add salt and pepper and red wine. Simmer for 2 - 3 minutes.

Add the crushed tomatoes to the pot with an additional 1/2 cup of water. Add the basil and sprinkle the oregano over the top of the mixture. Simmer for one hour.

Add tomato sauce and with each can of sauce add about 1/4 cup of water. (I swish the water around inside each can to get all the sauce out.) Add a little more than 1/2 can tomato paste (you can freeze the rest) and the sugar. Simmer 1.5 hours.

Nanny writes: The marinara sauce can be frozen. You'll always have it on hand when someone stops in.

(ALSO, be sure to stir the sauce AT LEAST every five minutes.)

Friday, January 15, 2010

Economical Eating -- Lentil Soup

I rediscovered lentil soup a year or two ago. As a young child I saw my mom doling it out to my dad -- heaping bowls of brown-green mush -- and thinking it looked like a number of unmentionable substances. Nay, nay, I would have none.

Somewhere down the line I ended up trying it and found it to be surprisingly delicious! This recipe by Martha is my favorite so far. Lentils are up there on the economical eating scale, so we Murrays will be having our fair share this winter. When it's cold, this soup will warm you to your core.  It's rustic and hearty. I add about six strips of cooked, crumbled bacon to this recipe, along with about 1 tablespoon of the bacon grease (add it when sauteeing the onions.) I also use an immersion blender, pulsing the soup just a few seconds to thicken it up.

So, on gray winter evenings around our dinner table we sit, hunched over our hot bowls of lentil soup pretending to be like the peasants of old, huddled around a fire and a big iron pot, braving the weather and hardship of winter.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Economical Eating--Red Beans and Rice

So, it's after Christmas, we're broke and feeling a little pudgy from too many of Nanny's pirogies (coated with brown butter, no less!) and Brandon's mother's pecan pies. Paying off our Christmas debt is now priority 1, thus I am faced with the challenge of (more) economical cooking--goodbye figs and arugula, goodbye balsamic-glazed pears, goodbye beloved parmesan-reggiano. Hello beans and rice! Often, the simplest recipes are the most satisfying, so perhaps this economical food thing won't be so bad, plus saving money tastes pretty good right now.

I haven't made red beans and rice before, but it must be popular for a reason. I checked out Cook's Illustrated to see what a top-notch chef's recipe would look like. To my not-so-unexpected dismay, I found it's pushing twenty ingredients, two of which are fresh thyme and andouille sausage. I had neither, nor did I have bacon or green peppers, a shame, but I refused to go to the store.

Also, I had no time to cook the beans on the stove according to the recipe. The night before I threw into the crockpot everything I did have (all of the herbs and spices--dried thyme instead of fresh--onions and garlic), minus the chicken stock, water, and vinegar, and stuck it in the fridge. I soaked the beans in their own pot. I did have the suggested red beans rather than the "authentic camellia," which Cook's says are difficult to find and not necessary to have, so that lent a small confidence boost.

In the morning I drained the beans, poured them into the crockpot with the other stuff and mixed. Then added the liquids. When I came home for lunch the house smelled divine. It was all I could do not to dive into the pot right then. In fact, I sort of did. The first bean I tasted was frighteningly hard. Oh no. Up went the heat and the cooking time.

When I came home in the evening the house still smelled as if someone had been there cooking delicious foods all day long. I boiled some rice, mashed a few of the beans to thicken up the liquid and ladled them over the rice. Anything smelling that good couldn't possibly be bad, and it's true. The whole dish was very edible and in fact almost as good as it smelled! My only regret is that I didn't have bacon...

I would encourage any of you to try some good ole red beans and rice if you're penny pinching!

Soak the beans for more than 8 hours (I'd suggest soaking to the limit of 24). Mine were still a little tougher than I'd hoped after 10 hours of soaking and 9 hours of cooking.

I would cut down on the water in the crock pot. I used four cups (+ 3 cups broth) and I would suggest using only 2 or 3.

Use what you have and be creative. The beans can handle it.

Serves 6 to 8. Published January 1, 2010. From Cook's Illustrated.

Table salt
1 pound small red beans (about 2 cups), rinsed and picked over
4 slices bacon (about 4 ounces), chopped fine (see note)
1 medium onion , chopped fine (about 1 cup)
1 small green bell pepper , seeded and chopped fine (about 1/2 cup)
1 celery rib , chopped fine (about 1/2 cup)
3 medium garlic cloves , minced or pressed through garlic press (about 1 tablespoon)
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon sweet paprika (see note)
2 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Ground black pepper
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
6 cups water
8 ounces andouille sausage , halved lengthwise and cut into 1/4-inch slices (see note)
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar , plus extra for seasoning
Basic White Rice (see related recipe)
3 scallions , white and green parts, sliced thin
Hot sauce (optional)

1. Dissolve 3 tablespoons salt in 4 quarts cold water in large bowl or container. Add beans and soak at room temperature for at least 8 hours and up to 24 hours. Drain and rinse well.

2. Heat bacon in large Dutch oven over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until browned and almost fully rendered, 5 to 8 minutes. Add onion, green pepper, and celery; cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables are softened, 6 to 7 minutes. Stir in garlic, thyme, paprika, bay leaves, cayenne pepper, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper; cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in beans, broth, and water; bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat and vigorously simmer, stirring occasionally, until beans are just soft and liquid begins to thicken, 45 to 60 minutes.

3. Stir in sausage and 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar and cook until liquid is thick and beans are fully tender and creamy, about 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt, black pepper, and additional red wine vinegar. Serve over rice, sprinkling with scallions and passing hot sauce separately, if desired.