Beware the Foods of January

I know January is really here because I'm craving rich, comforting foods.  And by that I mean various forms of baked pasta and tapioca pudding. 

While these foods do nothing to advance my 2010 fitness goals, they are a joy to eat.  My plan: kick up the exercise a notch and hope everything will work out.

Last weekend, I made homemade mac and cheese or actually, penne with Gruyere, sharp cheddar, and blue cheese from Willapa Hills that I discovered at the farmers market.  I highly recommend both -- the blue cheese and the preparation.

Then yesterday I made lasagne with homemade ricotta and tomato sauce that I preserved last summer.  I love lasagne, but it took me 20 years to figure out how to make a lasagne with good flavor, that's not too watery or dry, that has a few crispy edges, is salty enough, and well, doesn't have rubbery cheese.  What can I say, I'm a slow learner . . . and well, I only make it a couple times a year.  Anyhow, I think I've finally figured it out.

Outstanding Cheese Lasagne
1 pound (about 2 cups) whole milk ricotta
1 large egg
a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
black pepper
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1 pound fresh mozzarella cheese (regular whole milk mozarella is also fine)
2 cups finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Lasagne noodles (enough for four layers of noodles, which is about 12)
3 - 31/2 cups basic tomato sauce (recipe below)

If you are using dried pasta, boil the noodles in salted water until al dente.  While the noodles boil, combine the ricotta, egg, nutmeg, salt and pepper and half the mozzarella (grated).  When I make my own ricotta, sometimes I add some of my leftover whey to this mixture just to make it a little creamier and easier to spread.  Tear up the remaining mozzarella into strips and small pieces and set aside.

Assemble the lasagne in a deep 9x13 pan:  Start with about a cup of tomato sauce in the bottom, then a layer of noodles, then spread 1/3 of the ricotta mixture over the noodles, and sprinkle 1/3 of the Parmesan on that.  Put a layer of noodles over the cheese, then a cup of sauce, then another layer of noodles, then another third of the ricotta mixture and Parmesan, noodles again, then the rest of the ricotta and Parmesan and another cup or so of tomato sauce.  Finally, top it with the remaining mozzarella.

Bake in a preheated 375˚ oven for about 35-40 minutes.  Cool 15 minutes before cutting.  It's even better if you bake it ahead and reheat.

This picture doesn't do it justice -- it's been in the fridge overnight.  I promise, it looks amazing right after it comes out of the oven.

Basic Tomato Sauce
adapted from Mario Batali's recipe
1/4 c. fruity olive oil
4-5 cloves fresh garlic, roughly chopped
1 large Spanish onion, chopped
3 Tbs. fresh thyme leaves
1/2 medium carrot, finely shredded
8-10 cups roughly chopped, ripe fresh tomatoes

In a wide soup pot, heat the oil over medium heat.  Add onion and garlic and cook until soft and light brown, about 10 minutes.  Add thyme and carrot and cook for another five minutes, until the carrot is quite soft.  Add the tomatoes and all their juices, bring to a boil stirring often.  Once it boils, lower the heat and simmer until the sauce is as thick as you like, usually 30 minutes to an hour.  Season with salt to taste.  Makes 4-6 cups.

* * *

BUT I DIGRESS . . .  it's the pot of tapioca pudding that I made this week that I really wanted to tell you about.

I had never made tapioca pudding before -- usually I settle for the stuff from Kozy Shack or splurge and pick some up at Whole Foods.  Anyway, I'm here to tell you that homemade is so much better (big surprise, right?).  Plus, you can dress it up with all kinds of extras.

I dropped some miniature chocolate chips into the dish of warm pudding that I ate right away.  The next day, I grated a little fresh nutmeg and crumbled an amaretti on top.  The next day, I tried it with chocolate shavings . . . you get the idea. 

This version has a lightness that none of the the store-bought puddings even come close to. 

Classic Tapioca Pudding
1/3 cup small pearl tapioca
3/4 cup water
2 1/3 cups 2% milk (or a combination of 1% and whole)
1/4 tsp. salt
2 large eggs, separated
1/2 cup cane sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

In a two-quart sauce pan, soak the tapioca in water for about 30 minutes.  Add milk, salt, and lightly beaten egg yolks and stir over medium heat until boiling.  Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered on very low heat for about 12 -15 minutes.  Stir it often so nothing sticks or burns.  While the pudding simmers, whisk the egg whites in an electric mixer until just beginning to foam, then slowly add the sugar.  Beat until the mixture holds soft peaks.

Take the pudding off the heat, and fold about one cup of the pudding into the egg whites, then gently fold the egg white mixture back into the pudding.  Place it over low heat again and stir/fold for about 3-4 minutes.

Cool about 15 minutes, then add the vanilla and stir in thoroughly.  Serve warm or chilled.  Makes about 3 1/2 cups.


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