Tuesday, February 21, 2012

the basil makes it

About 7 p.m. on Valentine's Day, my neighborhood grocery store was nowhere near empty of metallic red balloons, chocolate-dipped strawberries or cordate (thanks, V-day-themed Word Of The Day) boxes of candy. But the two rows that usually hold fresh basil were totally barren. So Miguel stopped by Whole Foods on his way home to grab the ingredient that tops and simply makes a dinner of skillet lasagna, probably our kitchen's most-repeated recipe. That store was out of basil too, so I called Farm to Market down the street, and they (again) saved the day.

The message here, if Feb. 14 grocery store shoppers are indeed onto something: ladies don't care about the stuff that'll get thrown out tomorrow. Cook us some Italian food!

A few years ago, I tore a page out of Cook's Country magazine with a recipe for skillet lasagna, and it's held with a magnet on the side of our refrigerator next to postcards from friends' travels to Puerto Rico, upstate New York and a national park in Utah. While it's not the most perfect-looking specimen (I leave that to Deb, my guru of precision and sharp corners), it's comforting and homey and takes under an hour to make — a feat when it comes to homemade lasagna. That means it tastes like something special, but you don't have to wait for a special day to make it.

For dessert, I made Food52's latest genius recipe, which takes only two ingredients and lots of science. Hervé This' water+chocolate+stirring=chocolate mousse recipe took about 10 minutes but produced a treat of the fanciest, shmanciest kind. It's as superlative as the genius title promises, but I'd add two bits of warning. 1) Wear an apron and not your favorite pale gray, easily spattered button-down shirt. 2) The line that says "This all happens fast as the mixture cools" means that the transition from a batter-like consistency to mousse is sudden, not fast in the sense that the whole process takes only a few turns of the whisk. Psyche yourself up to really use your biceps for a few minutes. It's worth it.

Skillet lasagna
from Cook's Country magazine
serves 4 to 6

one 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/8 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 pound meatloaf mix (I always use ground beef)
10 curly-edged lasagna noodles, broken into 2-inch lengths
one 8-ounce can tomato sauce
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup ricotta cheese
several basil leaves, torn

Pour tomatoes with their juices into 1-quart liquid measuring cup. Add water until mixture measures 1 quart.

Heat oil in large nonstick skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and 1/2 tsp. salt and cook until onion begins to brown, about five minutes. Stir in garlic and pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add ground meat and cook, breaking apart meat, until no longer pink, about four minutes.

Scatter pasta over meat but do not stir. Pour diced tomatoes with juices and tomato sauce over pasta. Cover and bring to simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until pasta is tender, about 20 minutes.

Remove skillet from heat and stir in 1/2 cup Parmesan. Season with salt and pepper. Dot with heaping tablespoons ricotta, cover and let stand off heat for five minutes. Sprinkle with basil and remaining 2 Tbsp. Parmesan.

Hervé This' chocolate mousse
via food52.com
Serves 4

3/4 cup (6 ounces) water
8 ounces chocolate (pick one toward the bittersweet end of the cocoa spectrum)
ice cubes

Simply pour water into a saucepan. Then, over medium-low heat, whisk in the chocolate. The result is a homogenous sauce.

Put the saucepan in a bowl partly filled with ice cubes (or pour into another bowl over the ice
it will chill faster), then whisk the chocolate sauce, either manually with a whisk or with an electric mixer (if using an electric mixer, watch closely it will thicken faster). Whisking creates large air bubbles in the sauce, which steadily thickens. After a while strands of chocolate form inside the loops of the whisk. Pour or spoon immediately into ramekins, small bowls or jars and let set.

Note: Three things can go wrong. Here's how to fix them. If your chocolate doesn't contain enough fat, melt the mixture again, add some chocolate, and then whisk it again. If the mousse is not light enough, melt the mixture again, add some water, and whisk it once more. If you whisk it too much, so that it becomes grainy, this means that the foam has turned into an emulsion. In that case simply melt the mixture and whisk it again, adding nothing.

Serve immediately, or refrigerate. Top with whipped cream if desired. 

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