Thursday, February 28, 2008

Mac it Work

Cooking for guys is always rewarding - they're invariably appreciative, and usually start reminiscing about mom's classic meals and the comforts of home.

But cooking for guys who like Project Runway? It's nothing less than a dream come true.

Anyone who knows me knows of my obsession with Tim Gunn. Behold:

The purpose of this dinner at the outset was to celebrate the birthdays of Justin and Blake (Happy 25th, again), and the creation of Zac's blog, Vibe Out (welcome to the blogosphere, again). It turned into just a regular old eat-and-chat, which is completely fine with me. Then Project Runway came on, and we were sucked into the reality-design-show vortex.

Since I was cooking for a group of guys (their gender and age group on the whole subsisting on Bagel Bites and cold pizza), I decided to do a comfort food theme: Herb-roasted chicken, insane mac 'n' cheese, and roasted tomatoes over bitter greens (I'm on a bitter greens kick).


6 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts
2 T. chopped sage
2 T. chopped parsley
2 T. thyme leaves
2 T. olive oil
salt and pepper

10 ripe plum tomatoes
1 T. chopped garlic
1 more T. chopped parsley
1 more T. chopped sage
1 more T. olive oil

4-5 c. bitter greens (baby arugula/lettuce mix is what I used)
1/4 c. olive oil
juice of two lemons
2 T. red wine vinegar
1 tsp. sugar
salt and pepper
6-8 oz. pancetta

1 wedge fontina (about 1/3 lb.), finely grated
1 wedge cheddar (about 1/3 lb.), finely grated
1 1/4 lb. cavatappi pasta
2/3 stick butter
5-6 T. flour
4 c. milk
salt and pepper to taste
bread crumbs (I used Challah bread put in the food processor)

FEARLESS FACTOR: About a 7. Cooking for guys is usually a less stressful endeavor, but these guys (Zac in particular) know good food, and do a pretty good job of cooking themselves. They have also known about my blog for months, so their expectations were high. I didn't want to disappoint them!

Read on to see how it all turned out...


Chop the herbs. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.


Place the raw chicken in a baking dish. Separate the skin from the meat enough to put some herbs under there, but leave it attached at the edges so it locks in all the juices. Salt and pepper the meat (under the skin), and pour on about 1 tsp. of olive oil. Slide about 1 T. of the chopped herb mixture under the skin. Repeat for each chicken breast. They should end up looking like this:

After it's baked, it will look like this:


Boil salted water and cook the pasta until it's al dente. In a large skillet, melt the butter, and whisk in the flour, making a roux. I'm not great at taking pictures of making the roux because it's such a hands-on part of the meal, so I downloaded some pics from the internet and have it pictured step-by-step below.

Step 3A:
Melt the butter.

Step 3B:
Add the flour to the melted butter, whisking it in (no need to don a chef's uniform for this, but if it floats your boat, go ahead).

Here's a closer view of adding the flour:

Step 3C:
Add the milk, whisking it in to remove lumps.

Step 3D:
It should thicken and look something like this:

Once the roux is thick (but not as thick as the above photo), stir in the cheeses (I did this process in two batches, which is helpful especiallf if you don't have a giant pan), and whisk them until they melt and the mixture is smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.


Drain the pasta, and pour the hot noodles into a 9 X 13" glass baking dish. Pour the roux-and-cheese mixture over the top, smoothing it out so all the noodles are coated and covered. Top the entire thing with the bread crumbs. (I toasted the bread crumbs in a pan with about 1 T. butter beforehand, but that's optional.) Bake it at 350 for about 35 minutes, until it's bubbly at the edges and the bread crumbs are browned.

This is what it should look like after it's baked:


Slice the tomatoes down the middle and place them in a roasting dish. In a saute pan, heat about 1 T. olive oil and saute the garlic until it's fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the rest of the chopped herbs, cooking for about 1 more minute, then pour the mixture over the tomatoes. Bake for about 35 minutes.

They should look like this after they've been cooked:


In a skillet, cook the pancetta until it's crisp, and drain the fat. In a bowl, whisk all the dressing ingredients together, pour over the greens, and toss to coat.

Plate it all up! Place a chicken breast on each plate, scoop out some mac 'n' cheese, and place the roasted tomatoes on top of a pile of greens, topping with a little of the pancetta. Mmmm!

Here's Jess':


ZAC: That's the best macaroni and cheese I've had in a long time. I really like the tomatoes with the chicken: together, in one singluar bite.
BLAKE: I love the salad dressing with the pancetta. And I like how the mac 'n' cheese is salty AND sweet.
[ME:] That's because I used Challah bread for the bread crumbs, and it's really sweet.
ZAC: I'm glad I know that. Really.
JUSTIN: I wasn't sure about the sin on the chicken, but I think it made it really tender and juicy. I was scared, but it was actually good.
BLAKE: My mom always says that's why she leaves the skin on, but I think is the first time I've see that method actually work.
JESS: You made similar chicken the other night, and it's better this time. What did you do differently?
[ME:] I cooked it on a lower temperature. Last time I cooked it on 375, this time I cooked it at 350.
JESS: It's really good, but I'd like some bread crumbs mixed in with the mac 'n' cheese, not just on top. I think it would add a nice crunchy element.
ZAC: Yeah, more bread crumbs would've been good.
JESS: Your weakness may be salads, but in the category of "cooked salads," which you may have invented, I think you could do some really great stuff.

MY VOTE ON MY DISH: I give myself an 8.5. I'm a bit of a mac 'n' cheese aficionado (it's my favorite food, bar none), and this is by far the best mac 'n' cheese I've ever made. The chicken was really good, too. I agree that it was better than last time. The one thing I regret is roasting the tomatoes: I should've broiled them. I wanted a little caramelization; I wanted them to shrink down, and they more or less just got hot. The pancetta was nice, but next time I'd mix it in with the dressing and toss it with the salad. An element of bright freshness in the salad would've helped too: crunchy fresh carrots, peppers, or cucumber.

And as for Project Runway (SPOILER ALERT IF YOU TIVO'D IT!!!), the finalists are:

Sadly, Chris was Auf'ed. Chris, if you're reading, come on over and let mama cook you some mac 'n' cheese. It'll cheer you right up.

Sigh. But that means I only have to wait 6 days for the Fashion Week finale!

Thanks so much to my wonderful judges!

And thanks for not being as hard on me as THOSE judges!

Thanks for reading! Till next time's fearless adventure...

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Dinner and Taxes

I think it was Benjamin Franklin who said, "There are only two things in life which we can take as inevitable: death and taxes."

Far be it from me to rewrite history, but last night wasn't about mortality at all - although it did involve filling out some forms starting with "W" and "I".

For the past few weeks, I have been experiencing what I'm told is a common phenomenon during tax season: 3 AM panic attacks consisting of creepy swirling financial documents and a barrage of ghostly numbers circling above my pillow. I confessed this to my friend Jocelyn, who chirped, "Filling out your tax forms? I'll help you!" Of course I had to offer her dinner in return, so that's exactly what we did last night: my taxes, over dinner.

I decided for some reason to do a brunch-for-dinner thing (a morning theme inspired, perhaps, by the dawning of a new age: the age of me actually accepting adulthood and all its financial burdens). I made a quiche-like prosciutto and aspragus casserole with roasted new potatoes over bitter greens.

FEARLESS FACTOR: As for the dinner, I'd say a 6. As for the taxes, an 11. I've made many a casserole, but none quite like this: bread and egg based, with some cheese and other stuff thrown in. I figured I could handle it, but I had no idea if Jocelyn had any interest in eating breakfast at 8:30 at night.


12 eggs (cholesterol-watchers, don't worry: this made a large casserole - about 8 servings, so that evens out to about 1.25 eggs per person)
1/2 c. shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 c. shredded Swiss cheese
1 c. milk
5-6 1/2" slices Challah bread
1 bunch asparagus, cut into bite-size pieces
1 pack prosciutto (I used about 6 slices)
1 c. grape tomatoes, halved
salt and pepper

3 c. baby arugula or other greens
About 10-12 new (small, thin-skinned) potatoes tossed in about 1 T. olive oil
1 T. chopped garlic
1 T. fresh thyme leaves
3 T. olive oil
juice of one lemon
1 tsp. sugar
1-2 T. red wine or other vinegar
salt and pepper


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Halve the potatoes. In a large skillet, heat about 1 T. olive oil and the garlic. Throw in the potatoes and the thyme and toss around until they're evenly coated, adding some salt and pepper. When the garlic and thyme are fragrant, transfer to a shallow baking dish and bake at 350 for about 45-60 minutes, until they're tender and beginning to brown at the edges.


Slice the Challah bread and place it into a 9 X 13" glass baking dish (spray it with nonstick spray first, or butter it to prevent sticking). Grate the cheeses.


In a large bowl, beat the eggs and milk, and combine them with the grated cheese. Add a little salt and pepper.


In a dry skillet, cook the prosciutto until it's crisp. Remove it and chop it into small pieces. When it's cool, add it to the egg mixture.


Place the asparagus pieces and the tomato halves on top of the Challah bread layer and pour the egg mixture over the top, spreading it so it covers everything evenly. Bake at 350 for about 45 minutes, until the eggs are set and the top is getting lightly golden.


In a small bowl, whisk together the 3 T. olive oil, red wine vinegar, lemon juice, sugar, and salt and pepper. Pour over the greens in a large bowl and toss to coat lightly.


Cut the casserole into 8 pieces. Plate each serving with the greens on the side, piling a few potato halves on top of the greens. Bon appetit!


JOCELYN: This has great flavor. It was really fluffly, not too dense or too mushy. I like how the bread just sort of soaked up everything. Awesome. Let me illustrate with a photograph:

JESS: loved it, eggs were majorly fluffy. I didn't think the asparagus would go, but because it was really soft, it blended in really well. Definitely not something you can have thirds of, very filling. But it was really good.

MY VOTE ON MY DISH: I give it 6.5 stars. I agree with Jess that it was very filling, but not in a "heavy way" if that makes sense. I'm glad I didn't skimp on the amount of asparagus I used - I, too, worried that it wouldn't blend nicely, but it was good. My favorite part was the tomatoes. Next time I'd add more. This would be great to host as an actual brunch dish, with mimosas and maybe a little something sweet, like yogurt and fruit.

As for the taxes, Jocelyn had a lot of faith in me - she was positive that I could've done it on my own, but let me assure you, even the simplest math is my kryptonite (which is why I hate to bake - measuring is just math thinly disguised as dessert). Without her, the IRS would have me in handcuffs, I'm sure of it.

Jocelyn did an AMAZING job helping me - and I'll get my glorious refund in 10 days! Yay, Jocelyn!

Thanks to my wonderful guests, and thanks for reading! Till next time...

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Lasagnski Fest

"What do you do for recreation?"
"Oh, the usual. I bowl. Drive around. The occasional acid flashback."

Oh, and I also hold screenings of late-nineties cult flicks over steamy, delicious, homemade lasagna.

My friends, welcome to my best blog to date: The Lasagnski Fest.

It all started with my beloved roommate attending The Lebowski Fest in Louisville, KY, a few months ago. Her costume was "New Shit Has Come To Light." (Lebowski fans will know what I'm talking about.) Well, this March, the Lebowski Fest is coming to Chicago (keep an eye out for The Guys Down at the Crime Lab). We were discussing this one night at Michael's, and the conversation somehow led to favorite foods, and my pal Kent (a repeat blog guest) mentioned that his favorite food was lasagna. I told him it was my specialty.

Well, a few beers and one hell of a swerge later, The Lasagnski Fest was on all our to-do lists. The beautiful Sarah M. (one of The Guys Down at the Crime Lab and also a lasagna enthusiast), Kent, and of course Jess, were on board for a Fearless lasagna dinner, White Russians galore, and a screening of the Holy Grail of stoner cult classics itself.

Now's the time to mention that, before tonight, I had never seen The Big Lebowski. Or rather, I had TRIED to watch it several times, but just never made it through (I have the attention span of a sparrow and absolutely no ability to stay awake past 9:30 PM). I had my work cut out for me.

This is me and Kent in my kitchen. He not only made fabulous White Russians, he made them in an actual Kahlua shaker!
Check me out in my new Fearless Cook personalized apron:

FEARLESS FACTOR: I'm gonna have to say 8, although I didn't realize just how fearless I was being until I only gave myself an hour and a half to accomplish two (time-intensive) lasagnas, including grocery shopping and travel time. It was like Iron Chef! I even made Jess take all the pictures, because I knew I'd get stressed and forget to do it. I've made many a lasagna that resemble my meat-and-veggie version, but the bechamel-based mushroom lasagna was pretty new to me, so that upped the ante, too.


2 16-oz. containers ricotta cheese
18 lasagna noodles (about 1 pack)
fresh basil, oregano, and parsley
shredded mozzarella
1 jar tomato pasta sauce (any kind)
1/3 lb. hot Italian sausage
1/2 lb. ground beef (very lean)
1 zucchini
1 c. thawed frozen spinach, cut and drained
2 lbs. mixed wild mushrooms (I used oyster, baby bella, and shitake)
1/2 stick butter
4 T. flour
3 c. milk
1 c. grated parmesan cheese, fresh

STEP ONE (starting with the meat and veggie lasagna):

Halve the zucchini lengthwise, then halve the halves lenthwise again, and slice it into small pieces. Defrost/microwave the spinach, and drain it (just squeeze handfuls of it over the sink).


Using both containers of ricotta, empty them into a large mixing bowl. Chop the herbs (equal amounts of each, about 1/2 c. total after chopping), and add them to the ricotta. Sprinkle some salt and pepper to taste into the mix, and stir until combined.

Brown the sausage and the beef in the same pan (this flavors the beef while cutting the spiciness of the sausage). Drain on a paper towel (this cuts out a lot of the fat from the meat).


Boil the noodles. After they're done, pour out 3/4 of the hot water, and add several cupfuls of ice to the pot, stopping the cooking process and making the water cool enough to touch. In a glass 9 X 12 baking dish, begin to layer the lasagna. When you reach into the pot to get each noodle, be careful so you don't tear them. To drain the excess water off, hold each one by the top edge, and slide your index and middle fingers down the noodle (one finger on each side) to "squeeze" the water off.


Lay three noodles carefully across the bottom of the dish. Using a spoon, spread the ricotta mixture onto the noodles (this takes some finesse, so be patient, and don't tear the noodles). You can really just put it on there in clumps and then spread it out with your fingers. When you're finished, pour 1/3 of the sauce evenly on top.

Top that with the zucchini slices.

Repeat the layer of noodles, ricotte, and sauce, then add the meat.

Repeat the layer of noodles, ricotta, and sauce, then add the spinach.

Top with about 1 c. mozzarella cheese, and bake at 375 for about 40 minutes.

STEP SIX (beginning the mushroom lasagna):

In a skillet over high heat, heat about 1 T. olive oil and cook the mushrooms (half the batch at a time) until they're caramelized, about 5-7 minutes.


To make the bechamel sauce (which is a creamy white sauce that's used in very traditional lasagna), melt a half stick of butter over medium heat in a large skillet. When it's mostly melted, add in the flour slowly and stir to combine, until it forms a roux (a yellow paste). Whisk in the milk and continue to whisk as the milk gets hotter, eliminating any lumps. Cook until it begins to thicken (about 5 minutes). Don't let it get too thick.


Layer the noodles in the bottom a dish exactly the way you did for the meat-veggie version. Ladle the bechamel over the top of the noodles, spreading around so it covers it all. Spread 1/3 of the mushrooms over the top. Sprinkle liberally with the grated parmesan.

Repeat for two more layers, then cover the top with about 1 c. mozzarella cheese. Bake at 375 for 40 minutes.


Allow the lasagnas to cool for 10-15 minutes, so they sort of "congeal." If they're too melty, they're impossible to serve.

This is the meat and veggie one:

And this is the mushroom. Ain't it a beaut?

From left to right: Kent, Sarah M., Jess. Cheers!


JESS: They were great. But in general, you're an under-saucer. I could take more sauce. The mushroom one got a little...cream of mushroomy. It would be nice to have another flavor besides the mushroom. But they were both so good. The meat one, to me, was perfect.

SARAH: This is absolutely fabulous and the flavors are phenomenal, but I think you should add more tomato chunks, or tomato sauce. I love tomatoes!

KENT: You guys are bitches. Just kidding. I have to say I'm not the biggest mushroom fan, but the mushroom one was really good. And I don't like spinach that much either, but I didn't notice the things I don't like about it when it's in there with the meat. It's a good way to hide it. They were both awesome.

[ME: How would you compare it your lasagna standby, Stouffer's frozen version?
KENT: Well...Stouffer's is really good. And they did just come out with an Italiano version. They're stepping it up. How about you come over and I'll make you Stouffer's and we'll watch YOUR favorite movie.
ME: My favorite movie is Clueless.
KENT: Nevermind.]

MY VOTE ON MY DISH: I give it 9 stars! Both of them! 9 stars each! OK, OK, I can make a mean lasagna, at least the traditional way. Although I do agree with Sarah that the meat one could've used some more sauce (some of it always sort of evaporates/soaks into the noodles in the oven). I was afraid that the zucchini wasn't going to be tender, but it turned out great. As for the mushroom one, next time I would use more mushrooms (they were a little sparse - I felt that the bechamel-to-mushroom ratio was off a bit), and maybe use a tad less flour in the bechamel. It sort of bakes up in the oven and gets a little too "solid" for my taste. But the flavors all blended well in both versions - no one ingredient overpowered any other.

Kent's White Russians were absolutely perfect, and went surprisingly well with the meal. (Or maybe that was just because I was already on my third one by the time the lasagna was baked.)

MY VOTE ON THE BIG LEBOWSKI: I give it 7.5 stars. I admit that I'm biased because so many of my friends are such ardent fans, but I truly enjoyed it this time around. It's one of those movies that really does get better with subsequent viewings. I specifically enjoyed the smart dialogue and unique lexicon of The Dude. I can't say that I followed the plot 100%, but plots never were my strong suit anyway.

Thanks so much to my guests for coming over and for bearing with me as I became an Achiever over the course of the evening. The lasgna abides.

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