Spicy Sausage Lasagna

When I was considerably younger – gosh, like half of my current age. (Gee, that was a while ago!) I worked at Nike International, Ltd. Not too terribly long into my employ there I met the nicest, funniest, most gracious lady by the name of Ardy. She was not only nice, funny, and gracious, but she – oh, so importantly – shared my faith, and an appreciation and love of good food.

Early on into our relationship Ardy learned I knew how to crochet. She proposed a swap… she had a lovely antique dining table that she’d like to have covered with a crocheted table cloth, and I had a Bible that was in tatters… she thought I could perhaps crochet her a table cloth, and that perhaps she could have my very favorite Bible rebound in leather.

I quickly agreed to her proposed course of action and glibly told her it’d take me a few weeks to make her tablecloth.

HA!

Over the course of the :ahem: year-long making of said (even if I do say so myself) lovely tablecloth I would stop by her lovely home to have the table try the tablecloth on for size.

We, of course, would have to make dinner.

Ardy was one of those people who just encouraged my heart by being. She had this amazing fullness of all of the good things that get stuffed into who you are when you’re a child of God and just kinda ooze out of every pore because you’ve started to become more and more like Jesus. Having the very precious honor and privilege to share a meal with she and her husband in their lovely home was nothing less than a balm to my soul.

We talked food a lot, Ardy and I. One day she said, “Oh – I make the world’s best lasagna!” To which I said, “I don’t know how, because I make the world’s best lasagna!” We laughed, and then she proposed that one our next table-fitting, we combine forces to take over the lasagna-making world. I, of course, agreed!

When I learned to make lasagna years and years ago by a mostly only Italian-speaking older lady who did a lot of pointing and gesturing and speaking rapid Italian at me in the hopes that I might somehow learn a thing or two, it was always made with a mixture of lean ground beef and sweet Italian sausage for the meat portion. Honestly – it was fabulous – and you can find the recipe for it here. But Ardy made a lasagna with a sliced spicy Italian sausage – and honestly, that was the really only significant difference, the meat sauce factor – and it was fabulous.

I thought it only fair to share the fabulousness with you.

Here goes…

First, you start with cooking a pound of lasagna noodles:

I use my deepest stock pot – I think it’s a 7 quart size, and put about 3 Tablespoons of sea salt in there, get it going to a boil, and then drop in the noodles one at a time. Once they’re all in, let it cook for 10 minutes.

While the noodles are cooking, slice up the sausage. I found these at Costco – they’re an organic hot link, beef and pork, and honestly, not burn your lips off spicy, but they’ve got a lovely little level of heat in there.

I slice them fairly thinly.

Once they’re all sliced up, transfer them to a large sauce pan, and sauté them. The goal here – in all honesty – is to just brown them up a bit, and sweat off some of the fat.

Once the sausage is warmed through and browned up a bit, drain the fat off and return it to the pan.

Now you’re going to add in 2 29-ounce cans of tomato sauce, and 1 6-ounce can of tomato paste. I also add a couple of Tablespoons of dried parsley, about 1 Tablespoon of garlic powder, 1 teaspoon of coarse ground black pepper, a couple of Tablespoons of dried basil, and about a teaspoon and a half of dried oregano.

Remember that the sausage is pretty flavorful, so you don’t need a ton of doctoring here.

Go ahead and stir it up completely, slap a lid on, and keep it at a simmer while you move on to the other components.

About now the lasagna noodles are cooked. Go ahead and dump out most of the hot water, and then run cold water over the pot of noodles:

Once it’s all cooled, lay the noodles out on a sheet pan or a sheet of aluminum foil so that they’ll dry out a bit. Just set them aside.

Now, time to shred the mozzarella. Yes, you could pull out the food processor and do this in moments. BUT – one, the food processor weighs a ton and is a lot to clean up, and the truth of the matter is that it’s only going to take a few minutes longer to do so with a box grater. This is two pounds of mozzarella.

Now, time to put together the cheese sauce.

This is two pounds of Ricotta cheese, one pound of cottage cheese, six lovely fresh eggs laid just today, about a cup of shredded parmesan cheese, a couple of Tablespoons of Garlic Salt, a couple of Tablespoons of dried parsley, and about one Tablespoon of dried basil. Pull out your hand mixer and mix this baby up until it’s all nicely incorporated. Here’s what it’ll look like:

A quick word about cottage cheese. It seems like it’s a love it or hate it kind of ingredient. If you say – I hate cottage cheese so I’d leave the cottage cheese out – that’s fine – live it up. The truth of the matter is that I absolutely DETEST cottage cheese. A good portion of the fact for that being that I’m allergic to a lot of dairy stuff and cottage cheese is one of those things that once consumed makes me wish someone would shoot me and put me out of my misery. The beauty with this is that once it’s cooked, there’s really no discernable cottage cheese – and somehow the cooking of it kills off the bad enzyme that kills my gut, and makes it a very happy thing to consume! So…. if you’re convinced cottage cheese is evil, you just might find that in this application it’s not quite so bad.

Okay – so time to assemble! Using half of each ingredient, start layering.

First, a layer of noodles. I make sure that they overlap a bit:

Next, cheese sauce:

Now, meat sauce:

And now a layer of mozzarella:

Now repeat:

I should mention that on the second layer of lasagna noodles I change the primary direction of the noodles. First layer they went width-wise. This layer they’re length-wise. I use left over noodles to patchwork any gaps.

Also – I should also mention that this is a saucier lasagna than some others. You just need to know that going in. It’s sloppy and messy – but well, oh so very worth dealing with!

Here’s what it looks like ready to go into the oven:

Probably important to point out that this is a HUGE batch of lasagna. I typically make a big batch like this once every month or so. We’ll eat on it for lunches and snacks over the course of a week – and believe me, there are never any leftovers that don’t get consumed in that period of time.

If I’m feeling extra thrifty, I’ll purchase several disposable aluminum pans and portion this out to make two or three smaller lasagnas – one to eat for now, the balance to put in the freezer for later.

So – it goes in a 375 F oven for about an hour. I want it to temp out between 150 and 160 F.

Once it’s done, remove it from the oven and let it sit.

Like for at least half an hour.

Seriously – it needs the rest – and you’ll be a happier camper for the wait.

And that’s pretty much all it takes. We love this dish – it’s so yummy. And yes, it’s not a 30 minute meal – but it’s worth every minute invested in creating it!

See?

What did I tell you? Messy! BUT – totally yummy!

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Slow Cooker Sloppy Joes

When I was planning out the dinner menus a couple of weeks ago I was searching for things that seemed – you know – different, but not all that scary. Keeping in mind that I have two of the pickiest kids on the planet eating here – I must be very, very careful when testing the waters!

I found a couple of Crock Pot Sloppy Joe recipes and I thought, “Hmmm, those could be okay.” It got scheduled for Thursday evening of this week.

I should interject here that I don’t think we’ve EVER done Sloppy Joes as an actual meal. John likes them, buys the canned sauce, and when the urge hits (about once a quarter?!) he’ll make some up. I always think they smell good – but that’s about where it’s ended. My last experience with them is likely way back when – when I worked/lived at Sambica – and we had them fairly regularly. They weren’t awful, the kids always loved them. I figured – kid friendly food, right? We’re gonna give this a go!

So, I did a little web search, and came up with two contenders for the recipe we’d use. They were:

This one from www.myrecipes.com – a web site that I’ve recently rediscovered and find that I like quite a bit.

And…

This one from www.southernfood.about.com – which seemed a little simpler – and John thought we would like better than the other offering.

So, Thursday morning – before I got ready for my interview – I threw together the second recipe – only I modified it a bit for us – cause, well, I know us!

Ingredients:

2 pounds lean ground beef
1 large onion, chopped, about 1 cup
1 cup chopped celery
1 (12-ounce) bottle prepared chili sauce
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
2 to 3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 to 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
Toasted hamburger buns

The original recipe calls for diced green peppers – I’m allergic to them, so they got omitted. The original recipe called for THREE pounds of ground beef. Good grief! That’s WAY too much. I wondered about the 2 pound quantity, but figured if the boys liked it – we’d be glad we had that much.

I actually had to run to the store to purchase a couple of groceries before starting this – and hit upon a bit of a moral dilemma. Here’s the thing – I’m completely unfamiliar with chili sauce. Do you know anything about it? Use it regularly? I mean I’ve never – in my life – purchased or tasted the stuff. Here I stand in the aisle at WinCo debating the choice between Heinz and the “Homemade Chili Sauce” – the latter, as you can see from the photo below – I ended up choosing. I ended up spending a little more – BUT – the real shoe in for this one is the fact that there was no HFCS in it. Gold star for the makers!

So pretty easy ingredients, right?

Oops – forgot to include the Worcestershire sauce in the picture! Here it is. And I choose this one – once again – because there is no evil HFCS in it.

I just used my handy chopper for the onions and celery:


I love this thing!

Then I browned the ground beef – which had virtually NO fat on it – so I skipped the draining step; and then I threw the beef and veggies into the Crock Pot.

And then I dumped in the chili sauce, tomato paste, brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, and black pepper. Seriously – took maybe five minutes to do all of that. Just gave it a good stir – and voila!

At that point all that there was left to do was set the heat on the Crock Pot on low, throw on the lid, and move on with my schedule for a very, very busy day!

Went about my business – and later that afternoon after a lovely second interview with the very nice place I’d interviewed with previously – I walked into the house and smelled a wonderful smell – the Sloppy Joes!

“Hooray!” thought I. “They smell great – I’ll bet we love them!”

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I will say – for ease of preparation – total gold star. These are a cinch to throw together, and then to put them in the Crock Pot and not have to worry about it until time to serve – lovely. We served them on hamburger buns; William, of course, added cheese to his. Jonathan actually had to leave for basketball practice before dinner time – I offered him one before he left and he looked at me with this horrified look on his face and said, “I DO NOT eat Sloppy Joes. It looks like dog food!”

Have I ever mentioned that my boys are picky eaters?

I will point out – however, that they look NOTHING like the food our dog gets fed. I don’t know what the kid is thinking of!

ANYWAY, when John and I, Jessica and William sat down to eat – we had the following thoughts about this recipe:

John: It’s too sweet. WAY too sweet. If we were to make it again – totally eliminate the sugar. In fact, next time we make it – we ought to just use the canned sauce.

Me: It’s too sweet. It’s okay. But, well…. Not sure I’d want to serve this for a meal again in the future.

Jessica: Well, they’re okay – but, well, they’re camp food! (Remembering she worked at camp all summer long and didn’t especially love the food.)

William: I HATE Sloppy Joes. Cheese doesn’t even make them any better. YUCK!

So – consensus: we’re never making these again!

It was a good idea in theory – in practical reality, not so much!

Back to the drawing board!

My take on Swedish Meatballs

Believe it or not – I’ve never made Swedish Meatballs. In fact, I’ve never eaten them, either.

They look so good, though!

And they seem like something all of the kids would eat. So, I started keeping my eyes open for Swedish Meatball recipes – actually a couple of months ago.

I kept coming across recipes that were sort of appealing but might have a component that I knew would take them out of the running for my family. So I kept looking. But I put Swedish Meatballs on the menu – for today. No pressure, right?!

So, I printed out a couple of different recipes, and what I ended up doing was building a new one from a conglomeration of others. Here goes.

Dina’s Swedish Meatballs

You should know up front that I wanted a recipe that would give me some free time in the middle, so I opted to use a crock pot for a portion of the recipe. I pulled my favorite crock pot (All Clad – it’s fabulous) out and set it on high for 4 hours, and put 2 cups of beef stock in to begin to warm up.

I started by making a panade – a thick paste made by mixing bread crumbs, flour, rice, etc. with water, milk, stock, butter or sometimes egg yolks. It is often used as a binder. This panade is made with 4 slices of white sandwich bread. I threw them in my trusty Cuisinart and pulsed them until they were pretty finely chopped.

I then transferred the bread to my stand mixer’s bowl. Of course, we still need liquid for our panade, so I used 3/4ths a cup whole milk to add to the bread. I mixed it thoroughly, using the paddle attachment on my mixer. Let it sit for a few minutes to allow the bread to absorb all of the liquid.

I then rough chopped a medium sized sweet onion (we have Mayans around abouts here this time of year), and then threw it in the food processor and chopped the bajeebers out of it. It was pretty juicy, so I used a small sieve, and drained the liquid off of the onion, and then added it to the panade.

Next, I added the ground beef, eggs, parsley, salt, dry mustard, garlic, ginger, and pepper. Mix together until completely incorporated. It’ll look something like this:

Now you’ll need a good sized frying pan. Go ahead and set it on medium high heat on the stove top, and melt 1/2 a cup of butter in it. When the butter is melted, start scooping out about 2 tablespoon sized balls. Brown meatballs on all sides, removing them once they are browned to the crock pot.

Here’s what they looked like when I had them transferred to the crock pot:

True confessions here. I do have beef stock on hand – but it was frozen solid and I was running out of time – I had a kid to pick up and take to allergy shots. So I used my last packet of Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix – you know – the one full of all sorts of crap that I don’t want to feed my family. I added it and 4 cups of water to the crock pot, and tried not to fret over all of those little bits of dehydrated onion. If they got through – the boys would NEVER touch this stuff with a 10 foot pole!

As it turned out, after cooking for 4 hours – and making the house smell absolutely AMAZING – and removing the meatballs to a stone wear dish and covering with tin foil, I set them in a warm oven to hold until I was ready for them; I then took the sieve and drained the liquid from the crock pot. This effectively removed all of the little onion bits that were visible to the naked eye. Hooray! (Well, I would have gladly eaten the little onion bits – but we all know that’s just not going to happen right now!)

I then made a roux in a nice sized sauce pan. First, you melt 1/2 cup of butter over medium high heat, then, whisk in 1/2 cup of flour, whisking until a smooth paste has formed. Then I added in the soup broth, continuing to whisk until smooth. Then I added in 2 cups of heavy cream, 1/2 cup of sour cream, and 2 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce, whisking to that all of the ingredients were completely incorporated. I then reduced the heat down to a pretty low setting, making sure to avoid scorching the sauce.

Another revelation about the eaters in our house? There’s one component that will about 99% of the time choose rice. There’s another component that will 99% of the time choose noodles. Then there’s the last component who will ask why we’re not having mashed potatoes with this meal – always.

I chose to prepare both rice and egg noodles.

I think in most households you might get away with transferring the meatballs into the sauce – but I knew at our house we’d have a greater success ratio if I served everything separately. So I did:

Interestingly enough, my normal rice and noodle scenarios did not play out as usual tonight!

My rice person had noodles. My noodle person had rice. My potato person had noodles. And my last person had a little of both. Go figure. I might have done a little bit of both, myself. It sure looked yummy.

Verdict: John really liked it. Although he thought it was very reminiscent of stroganoff. The sauce was, quite similar, in fact. He says we should do this one again.

Jessica: She liked it, too. No flowing editorial on it – just that it was good, and she liked it.

Jonathan: He liked it, as well. Thinks we should have it again some time.

William: He liked it, but was a little flipped out about the fact that the meatballs were soooo tender. I will confess to having a little slip of the hand when measuring the milk for the panade, and it was a little looser than it should have been. He found me out! He would enjoy these again in the future, as well.

I can tell you – these smelled AMAZING and it was all I could do to keep from grabbing one of those little meatballs and snacking away! I’m so glad we had enough left over to freeze. I will definitely be getting into these in the future!

Will I make these again? You betcha. I might try adjusting the sauce a bit, so that it’s less stroganoff-y.

So – all in all – not a bad recipe!

We’re having what?!

Something that even people who know me well in my day to day life are somehow unaware of – not because we’ve kept it a secret at all or anything – but I think they maybe just don’t believe us when we say it…

John, typically, has done at least half – and oftentimes WAY MORE – of the cooking when it comes to the dinner hour.

There – it’s out there. My husband, who rises before the crack of dawn to slave away at his job, oftentimes comes home and prepares our evening meal.

He’s a good cook.

Some things he does WAY better than I do.

During this season of illness I’ve been through – and particularly through the first weeks during my NPO (nothing by mouth) and TPN (IV nutrition) it was not at all out of the ordinary for me to be far, far away from the kitchen.

Have I mentioned lately how amazing my husband is?

How blessed I am to be his wife?

How thankful I am that he is the kind of guy who loves his family well?

Just in case I haven’t – let me just say the words: I ADORE MY HUSBAND! I AM SO THANKFUL FOR HIS TENDER AND KIND CARE OF ME! I SIMPLY DON’T DESERVE HIM!    

I am so glad God saw fit to bring us together – John McBride and me. J

Anyway… yes, I’m still NPO. Yes, it’s been eight weeks since I’ve had anything to eat or drink. The strangest thing has happened, though, a few weeks ago all of a sudden I had this overwhelming desire to get in the kitchen and do some cooking and baking.

Not only that – I started going through some of my collection of cookbooks – looking for recipes to try out on my family. I figured if I couldn’t eat – they should!

Thursday night I tried out a new recipe on the fam – and today as I was reflecting on the outcomes I thought, “I should blog about this!” And not only that, I thought further, “I should blog about this sort of thing regularly!” And so I shall.

This category will be called “What’s for Dinner?” and if, per chance, I am trying out a new recipe for dinner, I’ll likely post my thoughts about the recipe I tried, and what the outcomes were.

So here goes…

Thursday night we had Tilapia on the menu. I heard from the boys – individually – that one of the reasons they’re not so thrilled about having Tilapia on the menu is because – well, it’s bland. So I started doing some looking, and came across this recipe: Crunchy Oven Fried Fish. You can find the recipe at Cooks Illustrated – which is a subscription web site for some of the content, and unfortunately, this particular recipe is in that category – so I can’t post the recipe. I will say – that it’s not a subscription I mind paying – it really is worth every penny! Anyway… suffice it to say that this recipe includes…

4 pieces of some thick white fish fillet – of course, I used the Tilapia

The process of making bread crumbs tossed with minced shallot and fresh parsley

A batter

And some seasoned flour.

It calls for things like prepared horseradish, paprika, and cayenne pepper. Not a wimpy or bland recipe at all!

Okay – there are some things you should know about the kids who eat food in this house. The boys pretty much just avoid vegetables at all cost. Jessica, on the other hand – much like her parents – loves vegetables.

If a dish has any particular flare that inches outside the “resembles pizza” or “resembles tacos” genres – well, then, you can pretty much guarantee that the boys won’t happily eat it.

Yes, this can make meal preparation quite frustrating!

So… back to the recipe. I thought – “Perfect! Uses a white fish, has some kick – I’m going to make this for dinner on Thursday!”

I ended up running to the store to pick up a shallot and fresh parsley. I looked for prepared horseradish, but couldn’t find any without soy or canola or HFCS in it – so I skipped that. I figured I’d substitute Dijon mustard for it – it has horseradish in it, right? By the way, I found out later that John actually had kosher prepared horseradish in the fridge – no icky stuff in it! Sheesh! I should have looked!

I started with the bread crumbs – much like the instructions on the recipe. Only, I thought…. “Hmmmm… shallots, huh? Gosh, the boys are going to balk at that!” I pondered the thought of finely minced shallot and knew I’d never get it fine enough to sneak it past the boys if I chopped it with a knife! So I pulled out the Cuisinart – well, I needed it anyway for the breadcrumbs, so no wasted effort there!

Being me… I thought, “I should chop the bajeebers out of the shallot and the fresh parsley FIRST, and then add the bread for the crumbs.

WRONG.

It made for pretty soggy and distinctly GREEN breadcrumbs. Uh oh. I quickly scraped them onto the baking sheet and shoved them in the 350° oven – hoping the “browning” would, indeed, bring some brown! (And yes, I did wonder what the green and brown together would end up looking like! EGAD!) Okay – so those were in the oven doing their thing, I moved on.

Lesson learned: I should have done the bread first, transferred it to a bowl, then minced the onion and parsley, then transferred it to the same bowl, then tossed them together before transferring them to the baking sheet and oven. I will do this next time!

Next, I moved on to the batter part of the recipe. The recipe says to mix the batter in the pie tin you’re going to use, but that kinda bugged me, so I pulled out a small bowl that I like whisking stuff together in and used it instead. In went the two eggs, Dijon mustard, homemade mayonnaise, paprika, cayenne pepper (I used only 1/8th of a teaspoon, rather than the 1/4th that they recommended – I know my wimpy kids!), and black pepper. I whisked that all together – and I gotta tell you – I was surprised at how lovely this turned out. I guess I shouldn’t have been – but wow! Not only pretty – but smelled amazingly wonderful! At the end you add 5 tablespoons of flour and whisk until they’re smooth. I was surprised by that step – but it did have a nice result – a velvety, smooth batter.

Lesson learned: I would probably have either eliminated or cut the 1/8th teaspoon cayenne at least in half. It was still too spicy for my crew. And I would definitely have used the horseradish, had I known we had it. Or would I have? Would the kids have freaked out? John and I would have liked it – but I’m not eating, and well… I bow to the pressure of trying to get my kids to actually eat and LIKE stuff, I admit it!

I should note that I used the frozen Tilapia filets that we buy at Costco. I pulled them out at the beginning of all of this to thaw – but they didn’t seem to thaw very quickly, so I ended up putting them in the microwave on defrost to get them to do so. They were still a tad frozen in the center – but I didn’t want them to actually cook in the microwave, you know?

Essentially – the whole idea with this recipe is to get the fish filets floured, battered, and then bread crumbed. It’s a little messy, but honestly, totally doable.

I liked that they recommended cooking the fish on a rack over a baking sheet – no soggy sides of the fish! All sides nice and browned and crispy. It really was lovely. And just to clarify – my green breadcrumbs browned up very nicely. But once again – I would totally do it the other way next time!

Verdict: William thought it was too spicy. Plus, he prefers his fish without breading. In fact, he’s known to order sweet and sour shrimp when we go out to Chinese, and painstakingly remove the breading from each steaming hot little shrimp. Go figure. My kid! (I *love* the breading!)

Jonathan didn’t really like it either. I never could get a straight answer out of him exactly why.

Jessica likes Tilapia because it is a bland dish – and she likes those. She thought this dish was way too spicy for her.

John thought it was “Okay.” But recommended halving – or eliminating – the cayenne pepper. He, too, would have preferred much lighter breading – or no breading at all.

Will I make it again? Hmmm…. Maybe. But I’d wait quite a while before trying to slip it past these guys again! LOL!

Just so you know – I feel pretty certain I would have liked it! But remember that’s coming from a woman who hasn’t had anything to eat or drink for eight weeks!