Friday, May 31, 2013

Apéritif Friday - Luscious Lasagna

There's a staple in our house. And it isn't in the office, on the desk, in a contraption that binds papers together. It's in our freezer. At least, it is now. But it wasn't there four weeks ago. So we had to fix that little problem. Because when we ride for six hours in the car coming home from the cabin, sit in traffic during the last hour, are frazzled to the bone and just ready to retreat from each other, the last thing on the face of the earth that I want to hear is this:

"Mom, what's for dinner?"

I truly fear for my children when they ask that question. I have dreadful thoughts of their limbs being removed from their bodies.

Several years ago, I made a giant pan of lasagna but everyone got sick of eating it for three days, so I froze the leftovers in individually wrapped packages. It makes for a quick and easy hearty meal, loaded with vegetables and beef and sausage and gooey cheese. My kids love it, it's one of Mr. Musky's favorite meals, and I love the fact that I can assemble it all, put it in the oven, and sit with my feet up while I sip wine until it's done. The wine is the best part.

The recipe itself isn't difficult, but it does take about an hour to make, then an hour to bake. I like to make this on a Sunday when it's a bit dreary outside. The smells alone drive us all insane. It's a recipe that I've perfected over the years, combining elements from 3-4 different sources. So I can definitely call it my own.

We recently purchased an attachment for our Kitchen Aid stand mixer, and I've got a verifiable Italian in my midst now. Mr. Musky might just be renamed Mr. Pasta Maker. He uses the pasta recipe found in the Kitchen Aid pasta attachment booklet, but I'm sure you can find scads of recipes online if you want to make your own. Or you can use the store-bought kind (gasp). But the homemade is truly fantastic, fresh, and is now (another) new staple in our pantry.
Is there anything sexier than your man cooking for you? I think not. I love his ambition. Oh - and him.
And the noodles he's taken a fancy to.
We had to get creative with our drying method. We've advanced since this pasta making session, and have a sophisticated mechanism now. A $10 clothes drying rack from Menards. Boom!

Here's what you'll need for my Luscious Lasagna:
Carrots, Onion, Celery, Green Pepper, Garlic, 1lb Ground Beef, 1lb Italian Sausage (I like 1/2 pound mild, 1/2 pound spicy), Red Wine, 2-28oz cans Crushed Tomatoes, 8oz Tomato Paste, Oregano, Fennel, Rosemary, Basil, a Bay Leaf, 2 cups Ricotta Cheese, an Egg, 3 T Chopped Parsley, 3/4 cup grated Parmesan Cheese, Lasagna Noodles, two packages of Creamed Spinach, EVOO, Sliced Mozzarella Cheese, Salt & Pepper.

Start by chopping the celery, carrots, onion, green pepper and garlic. Proportions are up to you. I usually use the entire onion, then gauge the rest from there to be equal to or less than the amount of onion. And I use anywhere from 4-6 cloves of garlic. Love that stuff!
Saute the vegetables in a couple of tablespoons of Olive Oil, until they begin to soften. Push them all to the outer edge of the skillet,

then add the ground beef and sausage to the middle, stirring occasionally and breaking up the meat to cook. 
Once the meat is fully cooked, drain off any excess grease, then glug some red wine around the pan a few times (about 1/2 cup). Shove your face down close and inhale! Mmmmmmm. Let the wine reduce and shimmy up and into the meat mixture.
Add the crushed tomatoes, the paste, a bay leaf, and palmfuls of rosemary, oregano and basil (about 1/2-1 Tablespoon each). Crank some salt and pepper over the sauce, and if you've got one of these handy little suckers, 
grind your fennel up to emit that savory, anise-smelling aroma. Now it should really start to smell like something fantastic is happening in your kitchen!

Let the sauce simmer on medium low for about 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees, and spray your giant lasagna pan with cooking spray. If you don't have one, don't sweat it! Use an aluminum 9x13 or 11x14 pan.

While the sauce simmers, combine two cups of ricotta cheese with an egg, 3/4 cups of parmesan or romano cheese and 3T of freshly chopped parsley. Cook the two packages of creamed spinach according to the directions.

Finally - Assembly time!
It really does help to have all of the layering ingredients in front of you. I've been known to make bonehead moves in the past, completely forgetting some minor ingredient like CHEESE in the layers. Don't do that! First put a ladle of sauce on the bottom of the pan. This is going to help cook the first layer of lasagna noodles, because steam will get under there and do its magic.
And I haven't mentioned this yet, but another reason why I love this recipe? THERE'S NO BOILING OF THE NOODLES! Yep - you heard me. Doesn't matter if you made them homemade like my Italian wanna-be husband or if you bought some at the jewel. Don't boil. Join me in the revolution! I promise your lasagna noodles will cook in the steam we're gonna create.

Layer the noodles over the sauce, breaking the little suckers if necessary to get coverage in the nooks and crannies. Then spread 1/2 the ricotta over the top of the noodles.
Spread half the creamed spinach over the ricotta layer.
Top with sauce and sliced mozzarella cheese. Repeat all the layers. If you still have room in your pan and sauce left, top with another layer of noodles, sauce and mozzarella cheese. In my pan, I had two full layers of everything, then another topping of noodles, sauce and cheese. I also ended up filling in those gaps on the top layer with more mozzarella.
Before you get all excited about that glass of wine, don't forget the next step. It's CRITICAL! Spray the dull side of aluminum foil with cooking spray, then place it over the dish cooking spray side down and cover tightly.
This will seal all the moisture and steam in so the lasagna noodles can cook. And the layer of cooking spray will allow you to remove the foil without the cheese sticking to your cover, which would be monumentally tragic.

Place the covered lasagna on a cookie sheet and bake for an hour, then remove the foil and cook for another 10-15 minutes, until brown and bubbly. Depending on your oven, you may need to turn the broiler on to fully brown the casserole, but be sure to watch it closely.

Then let it rest. The resting is the hardest part. Wine helps, which is the only apéritif we need when making lasagna. A little Sinatra crooning in the background assists with the resting nonsense too. If you can tolerate it, let it sit for 30 minutes before cutting into it. 
Miller dies a slow, torturous death on Lasagna night. And prays to the doggie God to make him a human, for just one meal. His drool grows to impressive lengths thanks to the smells emanating from the counter above.
Finally - DIG IN! This is some seriously, ridiculously gooey and mouth-happy stuff. Especially with the ciabatta garlic bread that Mr. Musky made in his spare time.
The next day, cut up the refrigerated lasagna into individual portions, 
wrap each piece in plastic wrap, and place in a large freezer baggie for an awesome treat when you'd rather feed your children to lions than cook a meal. You'll be so happy you took the time on a dreary Sunday months earlier to make this dish.

Enjoy, friends. And Happy Summer!


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Problem with "GOOD JOB!"

Normally I keep things pretty light here. I lean toward the positive, and while I certainly don't wax poetic online about everything in my day-to-day life, I choose to blab about the lighter, funnier, glass-half-full types of things.

But like everyone, I have my moments. I get mad, bored, annoyed, frustrated and could occasionally drop-kick a teenager or two into next week. And I roll my eyes and sigh in exasperation when I hear the movie Miracle playing in the basement at midnight.

Mr. Musky has officially turned me against the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team. I almost hate them all. Or more accurately, the actors who portray them.

Anyway...I say all that as a precursor to my rant today. I normally don't vent. But there's something under my craw that just won't go away, and for some inexplicable reason I feel like shouting it all over the internet for the entire world small group of people who read my blog to hear about it.

It all started with a quick trip to Whole Foods.

Kahley and I needed to pick up some groceries on Saturday, and I was anxious to get home. Whole Foods seemed to be short on baggers, so I asked her to start putting the groceries in the plastic, reusable bags that I actually remembered to bring into the store vs. leaving in the trunk as I usually do. Meanwhile, I swiped my card and exchanged pleasantries with the checker as she placed the first bag into the cart. I peered down, and scowled at her.


"What, Mom?"

"You don't just chuck groceries into a bag like that! Do you have something against actually setting the tomato cans upright? And placing the crushable items on top of the canned goods?"

She laughed, sheepishly, and acknowledged. "I guess I suck at bagging."

"Yes," I concurred. "You do. We can cross this future job off your list."

Meanwhile, a frantic bagger ran over to us, apologizing profusely that Kahley was bagging, insisting that she take over. We told her it was no problem, but I pointed out that my firstborn has no business trying to place items in a plastic bag in a coherent fashion. Because she sucks at it.

"OH NO!" exclaimed the bagger. You did a "GOOD JOB! Really! You did a VERY GOOD JOB! You might just want to pack the frozen things together, but you did a GOOD, GOOD JOB!" As she gushed, she repacked every item Kahley placed into the bag.

I couldn't believe my ears. She was praising my petulant teenager like she was a toddler who just mastered writing her own name. And it bugged the ever living heck out of me. It still does.

Why do we bestow praise upon our children when they don't deserve it? I ranted all the way to the car, and Kahley agreed with me (did she have a choice? Maybe not). I gave the example of small children picking up their toys. And asked her if they would be worthy of praise for cleaning up.

"No. That doesn't make sense," she said. "That's expected."

Exactly. My fifteen-year-old gets it. Praise must be earned. It must be deserved. Because when it's given under any other circumstance, it's hollow. Empty.

It means nothing.

As I continued my bellyaching, loading the bags in the trunk, we heard a shout behind us. "Excuse me! You forgot your lemons! And we won't even charge you for them!" The Good Job Lady ran toward us, holding two lemons overhead, and breathlessly handed them over.

"Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. We were just having a good laugh though - it's very sweet that you think my daughter is a good packer, but it just isn't so." For some bizarre reason, I was determined to convince this woman that Kahley couldn't pack a grocery bag if her life depended on it. Could she learn? Of course. She's not a duck. But it simply is not an innate skill for her.

And unbelievably, the woman continued to say she did such a GOOD JOB! My efforts in flipping her were futile, and she will forever dish praise where it isn't warranted, I'm guessing.

And how ridiculous does all this sound? Very. I get that. But hearing "GOOD JOB!" when it clearly is not deserved must be one of my biggest pet peeves. Not to mention the fact that it results in plenty of bratty, self-indulgent, overconfident children who cry entitlement every way they turn because they do such a GOOD JOB at every inconsequential task in life.

Get straight As in school? Good job.
Remember to take a lunch to school? Duh.

Win at a sporting event? Good job.
Come in last place? Try harder next time.

Do household chores without being asked? Thanks, and Good Job if it means you'll keep doing it.
Clean your room? Do it now.

Take Kahley's recent horse show. Outside of summer camp, she hadn't shown since 2009, the first spring after she started riding. Her own, personal goal was to simply...ride. She announced that she didn't care what place she came in, because she didn't know what to expect and she realized that she would be competing against more experienced riders. Her friend Casey, for one.
"I just want to have fun, and set the bar. So I can get better in future shows."
Her goal made me proud of her, because it eliminated the pressure to perform, allowing her to relax and enjoy the experience. That doesn't mean that tension won't appear in the future, and that she won't be disappointed if she fails to win blue ribbons in the next show. But for May of 2013, she was just fine with fifth place. "Because pink is the second prettiest color of ribbon, next to blue."
My girl placed fifth twice, fourth thrice, and third in one of her classes. Not dead last, still leaving room for improvement.

And Casey?
She earned Champion and Reserve Champion for their division, deserving all the Good Jobs in the world.

For my beautiful, intelligent, bagging challenged daughter?
 Way to set the bar. I'm glad you get it.


Friday, May 24, 2013

Apéritif Friday - From Miller's Perspective

Yay! I'm back! These crazy humans of mine just don't get it. This is my home, but why do they keep making me get in that big black box in that tiny little space for such a long time to leave this giant swimming hole?

I want to lay here forever, studying those flying swimming things out there, that I know I can't catch, but they are fun to watch. The neighbor said there were eighteen out here two weeks ago, waiting for the ice to melt on other nearby lakes so they could continue on to their summer homes. I could have swam with a whole herd of those things!
Mmmmm. I want that meat stick. They are so mean to put that in front of me without saying "GO!" Maybe when she turns her head I'll just sneak it, super-sly like. 
I don't know what this is, but I'd like to try it. With a meat stick.
Yay! Mom is sharing the rest of her drink! Nom nom nom.
"GOT ONE!" I love it when they say that. 
I wish I could eat that thing, but it's hard and scratchy. I like to lick and sniff it though. My Granny catches the most. 
Strange, that isn't the same drink. If Mommy spilled the red drink, maybe Granny will spill the brown one. And give me that food in it. 
Gramps! You know I love you, and I like to nap with you, but this is where the action is. I'll come up for a visit when you have food.
Um, Mom? She caught another one. And she squeals a lot when that happens. It hurts my ears.
Hey little fishy. You OK? Looks like you need a surgery. Don't worry. Granny knows what she's doing.
SUCCESS! Quit shouting, Gran. We don't like that.
HEY LADY! You are only supposed to love on me! Stop that!
I guess I'll just move in for a kiss of my own. I love this lady. She is my favorite.
Mmmmm. She tastes funky. Guess she didn't go for a swim like I did today.
I'd better lick her nose. I think I taste that first apéritif.
Lemme schlurp up this side, Granny. I think you spilled some over here.
Mmmmm. Yummy. You taste like Manhattans.
Betcha that fishy didn't smooch you good like me.

I think I'll go take a nap with Gramps now. Maybe he has a hot dog for me.


Friday, May 17, 2013

Apéritif Friday - Blackhawks Party Fare

In my last post, I'm not sure if I accurately captured the madness during our Blackhawks party a few weeks ago. See, the game didn't matter much to the common fan, as the Hawks already won their way into the playoffs, and it was still a regular season game. So I suspect there wasn't much hockey watching going on, leaving the partygoers to find other modes of entertainment.

And since I wasn't really present, I missed out on a lot of fun stuff. But there were moments. Such as...

  • One of the guys earning the nickname "Mouthful" for the night. Others called him Dirk Diggler, just because he ate one of my bacon wrapped stuffed dates on camera. Yowza - rough crowd!
  • A letter written by my friend Ann, to Cindy's husband, Dave. Dave was a bit of a wallflower for the night, and Ann was bound and determined to make him the token party boy. She wrote him a note, elementary school style. It said something along the lines of, "Would you like to see Cindy tie a cherry stem into a knot with her mouth without using her hands? Check Yes, No or Maybe." And there were boxes. For the checkmark. Swear.
  • Someone commandeered the speaker and began playing country music. Line Dancing ensued. But clearly not by Mr. Musky.
  • My friend Kara tried to pawn her foster kitties off on my other friend, Tim. Tim hates cats. Loathes them. But his manners and kindness trump animosity to furry four legged felines, so he patiently tolerated kitty talk for half the night.
  • Angie gave Mike the stink-eye when it was time to leave, because he didn't want to go. We had Greek wine. Seriously, Ang.
  • I found a beautiful bracelet the next day on the patio. Rumor has it that it belongs to Sheri, who "needed some air." I've been wearing it for a couple of weeks now, and am finding it difficult to return.
  • Speaking of Sheri, she came out of the bathroom at one point, and cocked an eyebrow at me. "Seriously, Jen? Really?" And handed me this:
Mystery Lotion Planter, I know who you are, even though you got all Judas on me and feigned ignorance about this toiletry. Party guests, I do NOT keep a supply of "Ultra Slut Body Lotion, in a Convenient One Night Stand" in my basement bathroom. Lotion Planter,  you're the same person who left this one for me on the dash of my car once...
...and paybacks are so entertaining. Beware, 'cause I'm gonna getcha when you least expect it! are the recipes from our party. Next time I'll be sure to present food sooner. Thanks again for all who made it out and helped Debbie with the filming!

Spicy Pulled Pork (Serves 20)

Two 5-7 lb Pork shoulders (or butts - just ensure they have a bone)
Pork Rub - We use Famous Dave's
Olive Oil

The night before, make a paste with your favorite rib or pork rub. We like Famous Dave's the best; I've also used Emeril's Southwest. Mix it with olive oil to form a thick, wet paste and rub it liberally all over the pork and set on a roasting rack in the fridge. The next morning, take it out an hour before roasting it. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Put it in the oven at 400 for 30-45 minutes - fat side up on the rack over a pan. Turn the oven down to 250-275 degrees and continue to roast for another six hours. Pull it out of the oven, let it rest for 20-30 minutes, cut the fat cap off and shred it, putting it back into the pan drippings. We've also grilled the pork, maintaining a low temperature on the grill for several hours. Serve on corn or flour tortillas with Creamy Cilantro-Lime Coleslaw.

Creamy Cilantro-Lime Coleslaw (I doubled it for the party)

4 cups shredded Green Cabbage
2 cups shredded Red Cabbage
1 cup Jicama, sliced into matchsticks
3 Carrots, Shaved or sliced into matchsticks
1/2 Large Red Onion, sliced thinly

Gently toss ingredients together in a large bowl.

Cilantro-Lime Dressing

2/3 cup Mayonnaise
2T Sugar
2T Champagne or Distilled White Vinegar
Handful of Cilantro
Garlic Clove, microplaned
1T Kosher Salt
1/2t Celery Seed
1/2t Cracked Black Pepper
Zest of one lime
Juice of two limes

Mix all ingredients in blender. Toss with cole slaw ingredients, adding a little dressing at a time, just to coat. Serve over spicy pulled pork on corn tortillas with sliced avocado.

Bacon Wrapped Dates

48 Pitted Dates
8 slices Bacon, cut lengthwise and crosswise into thirds
4 oz container of Blue Cheese
Whole Almonds (Salted, roasted)
Chorizo, cooked and drained on paper towels

Stuff the dates with a bit of Blue Cheese, an Almond and some Chorizo. Wrap each stuffed date with a piece bacon and secure with a toothpick. Cook in a 400 degree oven for 10-12 minutes or until bacon is done and crisp.
Serve immediately or at room temperature.

Proscuitto-Wrapped Asparagus

48 Fresh Asparagus Spears, washed and trimmed
48 slices Proscuitto
Olive Oil Spray

Wrap each asparagus spear with a piece of proscuitto and place on a baking sheet sprayed with Olive Oil. Bake in a 400 degree oven for 10-12 minutes or until asparagus is tender and prosciutto is crispy.

For the Lemon Tart recipe, go here. But make it for a party, or you'll risk eating the entire blasted thing yourself, it's that good.
For the take-home goodie baggies that were intended for breakfast the next day, but in many cases never even made it home (or so I heard), I made Vanilla Bean Scones and Homemade Granola Bars, found here and here.

And our ever loving Apéritif - The Bloody Mary

Run a lime along the rim of the largest Ball Jar you can find and dip it in some celery salt. Pour the glass about 1/3 full of good Vodka - don't use Smirnoff or Jen will end up in the hospital. Spoon in a bit of Horseradish, along with a few shakes of Worcestershire. If you like it really spicy, shake a couple of drops of Hot Sauce in too. Stir. Add Zing Zang Bloody Mary Mix to about 1/2 full, stir well. Add the following:

Celery Stalk
Olives, Pickled Mushrooms, Artichoke, sautéed Shrimp, etc. on a toothpick or spear
Cheese Stick
Salami Stick
Pickled Green Bean
Pickled Asparagus
Anything else that seems like it'd taste good

Add the ice last to avoid spillage. Serve with a giant straw. A glass of water isn't a bad idea either. :)