Monday, February 22, 2010

A Lenten Temptation

Being a student of the French language and culture, and growing up mere hours from Mobile and New Orleans, I have always been involved in some sort of celebration of Mardi Gras, the Tuesday before the Lenten season begins.  I enjoyed a special lunch with "Le Cercle Français" (French Club) in a Purple, Gold and Green bedecked classroom in high school; more recently I have celebrated with a special Cajun dinner, home-made King Cake, and Mardi Gras decor (sans the crepe paper streamers) at home in more recent years. 

Although the majority of our decorations are in storage, I couldn't resist having a Mardi Gras celebration at our apartment this year.  I have to admit, Tuesday was also my birthday, so there was a bit of added festivity to the night.  It was interesting to see how few people in our circle of friends had ever celebrated the day (Mardi Gras, that is).  Up here there is a tradition of celebrating "Shrove Tuesday" by eating a doughnut-like pastry called fasnacht, but even so, many of my friends who grew up locally were not acquainted with the tradition of eating rich foods before the forty days of Lenten fasting leading to Easter. 

I must admit, the food was fabulous.  Leftovers were scarce, but we have managed to make them last a couple of days (at least long enough to take some post-party photos).  We enjoyed Seafood and Andouille Gumbo (I substituted a pound of our favorite local sausage which we brought back from Alabama and squirreled away in the freezer), green salad with strawberries, cranberries, blue cheese and honey glazed pecans (a wonderful Christmas gift), and la pièce de résistance, bread pudding. 

I have wanted to make this bread pudding ever since I came across the recipe on Simply Recipes.  The recipe originally came from the Bon Ton Cafe in New Orleans.  After a little research, all of the other Bon Ton Cafe recipes use considerably less bourbon in the sauce, so I went with the lesser amount of bourbon, and it was perfect.  Because we were entertaining more than a few people, I doubled the recipe (which I am so glad I did!).  As guests began to leave, a certain husband began to package up leftovers to send away, and was quickly stopped by his selfish wife who wanted to keep them all for herself!  I have been enjoying this bread pudding every night since then.  I apologize in advance if you have given up sweets for Lent. 

Bread Pudding with Bourbon Sauce

For the Bourbon Sauce:
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup bourbon (I use the leftover bourbon from the soaked raisins)

For the Bread Pudding:
6-7 cups of day old french bread, cut into 1 inch cubes
1 quart milk
3 eggs
2 cups of sugar
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
1 cup of raisins, soaked overnight in 1/4 cup bourbon
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
3 tablespoons butter

For the bourbon sauce:

Whisk together the butter, sugar, and egg in a heat-proof bowl.  Place the bowl over a pot of simmering water.  Cook for about 10-15 minutes, stirring often, until thick.  Remove from heat.  Stir occasionally as the mixture cools.  When cool, whisk in the bourbon.  Before serving, stir the sauce well.  It should be smooth and thick.  Serve warm.

For the pudding:

Preheat the oven to 350.

In a large bowl, pour the milk over the bread cubes.  Using the back of a spoon, push down the cubes so that they are soaked with the milk.  In a separate bowl, beat the eggs.  Stir in the sugar and vanilla until well combined.  Carefully stir the egg and sugar mixture into the bread mixture.  Drain the bourbon from the raisins, and carefully stir them into the bread mixture. 

Place the butter in a 9 x 13 baking dish, and put the dish in the preheated oven.  When the butter is melted, carefully tilt the dish so that the butter coats the inside.  Pour the bread mixture in the dish.  Bake for 40-50 minutes, until the pudding pulls away from the side of the baking dish. 

Cut the pudding into squares, and serve with the warm bourbon sauce. 

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

To My Valentine, and to all those I love

I always look forward to Valentine's Day.  I like the idea of celebrating love, and setting aside a day for that is fine by me.  In high school and in college, I would always wear something pink or red, and tried to enjoy the day whether I had a "special love" or not.  It is enough to share the love of my family and friends.  Now that I have my love to share the rest of my life with, it makes the day even that much more special.  I consider myself extremely blessed by both family and friends. I have so many people in my life who love me unconditionally. And although this might be as impersonal as a mass e-mail, I hope that those of you who read it will know that I do love you, too. Happy Valentines Day.

To my love, my husband, my valentine: I am so happy and thankful that you will always "Be Mine" for as long as we both shall live.  Thank you for loving me, putting up with me, pursuing me, encouraging me, holding me accountable, and so much more.  Je t'aime. 

To my parents, brother, and sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, I miss you and love you very much.  I wish that I could be there to give you a hug today.  Thank you for investing in my life.  I am truly blessed with a wonderful family. 

To my friends, old and new, far and near, I am so thankful for your friendship.  Many of you have been there through both smiles and (often unwarranted) tears.  I hope that I am some small part of as much a blessing in your life as you are in mine. 

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Not the World's Second Greatest Lasagna

We had about fifteen more inches of snow here yesterday!  Unfortunately, we had finished all of our wonderful curry, and even the second batch of curry chicken which I made this weekend (recipe coming soon).  So I spent most of our "snowed in" day in the kitchen, preparing a delicious meal which we ate by candlelight (as our power went out just after I served our plates).  It was really pretty romantic. 

I know that we are coming up on Valentine's day here, but I want to reminisce a little over our Christmas break.  Although I don't have any new family pictures to share, I want to tell you about our Christmas feast.  We actually had several feasts, including a traditional Christmas meal, so on Christmas day my sister-in-law, our hostess, decided to do something a little less traditional. 

Our planned meal was lasagna, salad, and garlic bread.  Now, my sister-in-law loves to cook just about as much as I do.  She knows her stuff.  However, when she brought out her chosen recipe, entitled "The World's Greatest Lasagna," for some reason I felt entitled (obligated?) to tell her that the recipe she had chosen was not the world's greatest lasagna.  To my credit, I had previously made that recipe (from now on, referred to the World's Second Greatest Lasagna), and my humming taste-tester told me that it was not as good as my recipe.  My sister-in-law insisted that we not be guilty of serving the World's Second Greatest Lasagna for Christmas dinner.  So, we set out to make not the World's Second Greatest Lasagna, but to make the best: my recipe (evidently I have a pretty inflated kitchen ego). 

I don't make lasagna too often, but when I do, I make this recipe.  It is not a "weeknight meal" so to speak because it does require a bit of a time investment and several cooking pots.  But nevertheless, it is so, so good, and is perfect for a special occasion (or when you are snowed in).  It is pretty traditional, but in addition to the meaty ragout, it has a creamy béchamel sauce, which I think, makes this dish the best.  My husband thinks that it is the italian sausage that puts it over the top.  But I would love to know your thoughts...Is this the World's Greatest?

The World's Greatest Lasagna (Subjectively Speaking)

1-8 oz package of pre-cooked lasagna (about nine lasagna noodles)

Ragout Sauce:
1 pound ground beef
1 pound hot Italian sausage, casings removed and crumbled
1 tablespoon oil
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon parsley flakes
1 tablespoon oregano
1 tablespoon basil
1 teaspoon salt
1 large can of tomatoes
1-6 oz tomato paste

Béchamel sauce:
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups warm milk
1 pinch salt
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

24 oz cottage cheese (or ricotta, to be more authentic)
2 beaten eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons parsley flakes
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
1 pound sliced mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup parmesan cheese

For the ragout: brown the meat.  Drain off any grease and return the meat to the pan.  Add the next eight ingredients. Simmer, uncovered, until thick, about 1 hour.

For the béchamel: while the ragout is simmeringl, combine the butter and flour in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk to make a medium caramel colored roux. Remove from the heat, let rest one minute, and then whisk in the warm milk. Return to heat, simmer 10 minutes, stirring constantly, until thickened. Season the sauce with salt and nutmeg. Remove from the heat.

For the cheese: Combine the cottage cheese with the next five ingredients.

To assemble: Spread a third of the ragout sauce in the bottom of a 9 x 13 baking dish. Pour (or dollop) a third of the béchamel sauce over the ragout. Arrange 3 noodles lengthwise over the sauce (you may have to break the noodles to make them fit). Spread with a third of the cheese mixture. Top with a third of the mozzarella cheese slices. Repeat layers two more times, and top with remaining mozzarella. Sprinkle the parmesan over the top.

Bake at 375° for about 30 minutes. Let the lasagna rest for about 10 minutes before cutting.

You can assemble this in advance; refrigerate the lasagna until ready to cook. Place the lasagna in the oven, then turn the oven to 375°. Bake for 45-50 minutes.

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Monday, February 8, 2010

A Tale of Two Curries (Chapter 1)

What a weekend! I have never seen so much snow in my life. Saturday we received a couple of feet of snow, and we don't quite know what to do with ourselves! Of course, we went out to play in it, and we needed something to warm us up when we returned to our apartment.

We enjoyed a cup of hot chocolate while our damp outer-layers tumbled in the dryer. Later on that night, we kept warm by enjoying the first round of two different kinds of curry chicken.

On our food calendar this semester, one day per week is dedicated to an international meal. So this week we had "Indian" food, a coconut curry chicken. Now, I do not know if this curry is authentically Indian, but it is definitely authentically delicious. It was good the first night we made it, and I thought that the flavors got better with time, making it a great meal for leftovers or for making ahead! We enjoyed it with a yogurt-cucumber salad, which was nothing to write home about; however I would recommend some kind of similar, cooling side, because the curry has a little kick to it!

Coconut Curry Chicken

Adapted from Allrecipes

2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts, sliced thinly
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 ½ tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons red curry powder
½ onion, thinly sliced
1 bell pepper, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 (14 ounce) can light coconut milk
1 (14.5 ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 (8 ounce) can tomato sauce
¼ cup sugar
1 cup basmati or jasmine rice

Fill a medium pot with one quart of water. Add 1 teaspoon salt, and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, cook the curry.

Season the chicken with salt and pepper.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the curry powder, and stir for 3-4 minutes (It will be pretty dry and very fragrant). Add the onions, peppers and garlic and sauté for one more minute. Add the chicken, toss to coat with curry oil, and reduce the heat to medium. Cook for 7-10 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through.

Stir in the coconut milk, tomatoes, tomato sauce and sugar. Stir to combine. Simmer uncovered for 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally.

While the curry is simmering, add the cup of rice to the pot of boiling water. Cook according to the package directions (usually around 20 minutes, covered). When the rice is done, pour into a colander to drain the cooking water. Return the drained rice to the cooking pot and cover to keep warm until the curry chicken is done. Enjoy!

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