For those of you who know me, you know that baking is my thing...but I LOVE cooking, too! Baking is fun because it's all about chemistry - it's a challenge to get all the proportions of everything right -- and when you do, it's so satisfying! But cooking is different - it's all about improvisation: no balsamic vinegar? Use red wine vinegar instead. And because of all this improvisation, you can tailor your recipes to fit your taste and add your own style and flair. A madeline will generally always taste like a madeline, but two pasta sauces can be completely different!
This year has been a whirlwind so far, testing me and my family for reasons that we cannot, for the life of us, figure out. Being in the kitchen is my solace.
My mum and sister celebrated their birthdays in April and so instead of the usual "let's go out for dinner" thing, I decided to make them an Italian feast. There's just something about a home-cooked meal that beats any restaurant.
On the menu: Lasagna with red sauce and layers of creamy bechamel sauce, garlic bread and a fresh, green salad with my famous warm balsamic vinaigrette.
First up, you see the lasagna. The sauce was quite a complicated thing. I find that when I make pasta sauce, it's different everytime. Sometimes, I feel like throwing in some olives, sometimes not. Sometimes it's a bit sweeter, and sometimes a bit richer. In any case, I usually start it off with an onion, which I caramelize in the pot. I then add everything else all at once: ground beef that I pre-cook with salt, pepper, garlic, ginger (yes, ginger - you don't taste the ginger...but you definitely notice if it's not there!), basil and oregano, a dollop of tomato paste and a huge can of crushed tomatoes, brown sugar and vinegar and a schwack of fresh basil if you have it. This time, I also added a handful of chopped up olives.
For the bechamel sauce, it's as simple as a quarter cup of each flour and butter, which I cook on the stove until light golden and then a splash of milk to get your desired consistency. Traditionally a bechamel has nutmeg and a few other spices, but the red sauce was so strong in flavour, I left it unseasoned, and it did exactly what I wanted it to do: added a creamy layer to the lasagna, which melded perfectly with the red sauce.
And then, all it was was layering the lasagna starting off with red sauce, followed by pasta, more red sauce, bechamel and cheese and then pasta again. I did three layers, finishing off with just red sauce and cheese!
For the salad, use any vegetables and greens you like. I just went with lettuce, tomatoes and olives: go simple, because it's all about the warm, balsamic vinaigrette.
For the dressing, dice up half an onion as small as you can manage and slice a garlic clove and sautee them in olive oil until caramelized. When you reach this stage, pull the pan off the heat, and add a generous splash of balsamic vinegar. I usually put it back on the stove on low at this point, just to bring everything together and add salt and and a generous amount of black pepper to taste. Let the dressing cool a bit and then toss with the salad before serving. Make sure that when you add the balsamic vinegar, though, not to inhale the fumes! The vinegar is really pungent. You'll thank me later!
The onions and garlic absorb all the vinegar and melt into the dressing - it's divine. If you try anything from this blog post, please try the dressing!
Finally, the easiest garlic bread you'll ever make: and the tastiest. Just toast slices of baguette in the oven (or even the toaster) and while still warm, rub a raw garlic clove over them. The crusty bread breaks down the garlic and the bread gets a hint of garlic aroma and taste, without being overpowered. If you toast them in the oven, I like to spread some butter on one side. If you do them in the toaster, just rub the garlic on them when they come out, and then you can spread some butter on top.
And that's all she wrote, folks! I hope you'll try at least some of these recipes! And I hope the change of pace from baking was welcome!