Chicken & spinach lasagna: a recipe in four acts

Chicken & spinach lasagna

There's something deeply satisfying about making a lasagna. Totally unprepared it can be an afternoon's work, but it's relaxing, stress-free work. There's no bread dough to not rise and no large cut of meat to be perfectly cooked long before the vegetables are finished, rather you can work happily in your kitchen on each part of the lasagna and bring it all together when you're ready. Best of all, fifty minutes later your industrious self is rewarded with the similarly satisfying experience of eating lasagna, to enjoy while wondering why you don't bother making it more often.

You simply can't beat the traditional bolognese & béchamel lasagna, but my chicken & spinach lasagna is formidable competition. The recipe itself is made up of a number of smaller steps. The pasta, the sauce, the ricotta, and the chicken can all be prepared ahead so take your time. Now if you would kindly take your seats, the recipe will begin shortly.

Canned tomatoes and a basic tomato sauce

Spaghetti with a basic tomato sauce

I have both everything and nothing to say about my basic tomato sauce. I could write for pages and still have more to say about how it epitomizes everything I love about rustic Italian cooking. It is warm, comforting, and transcends the sum of its most basic parts. At the same time it is beyond simple, the kind of sauce that can be made while the pasta cooks and is so straightforward that a recipe is hardly necessary.

There is really only one thing to remember: Use the best quality canned tomatoes. This doesn't necessarily mean the most expensive, by the way. On the contrary, the brand I buy ("D'oro") are the cheapest I've seen, and even cheaper when I buy them a slab at a time. If you don't already have a brand you're happy with, buy a can each of a few different brands and taste the difference. Tomatoes from Italy are a good place to start but this isn't a guarantee of quality. Mediocre canned tomatoes can be semi-disguised with heat and salt, but the best tomatoes will taste good straight from the can. Not quite 'eat by the spoonful' good (to my taste at least), but slightly sweet and free from any metallic or bitter tastes.

This recipe makes enough sauce for one serving of pasta (90g uncooked weight), but scales up very easily to make as much as you need.

Basic tomato sauce

Ingredients (serves 1):

  • 1 tbsp of finely diced onion (about 1/8 of a medium-sized onion)
  • 1 garlic clove, finely sliced
  • 1 tbsp of olive oil
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1/3 cup of good quality canned tomatoes
  • 1 tbsp of fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
  • 1 tbsp of fresh basil, chopped
  • Cracked pepper

1. Gently sauté the onion and garlic in the olive oil with a pinch of salt for 10 minutes over a low heat. They should begin to go translucent, and not colour.
2. Add the tomatoes, and turn the heat up to medium-high. Cook for 2 minutes or until the tomatoes begin to break down and thicken.
3. Add the fresh herbs, cracked pepper to taste, and cook for 1 minute. Although best eaten fresh, at this point the sauce can be refrigerated or frozen. To serve, add the almost al dente pasta and about 1/4 cup of pasta water and toss over heat until the sauce coats the pasta (about 1 minute). Top with grated parmesan and serve.

Basictomatosauce

The pasta water gospel, book 1

Gnocchi with tuna & lemon

Pasta water, amazing stuff. Used correctly it can boost the flavour and texture of your dish and improve the marriage of pasta and sauce. By now most people know that pasta water is a good thing, but I still wonder how many use it unless a recipe specifically tells them to. (For those unacquainted, pasta water is the water left in the pot after pasta is cooked, that is usually poured down the drain)

Getting the most out of pasta water:

  1. Salt your water well when it comes to the boil. It's a myth that salt stops pasta sticking and its effect on boiling point is negligible; rather the salt is, as always, for flavour. Some say "as salty as the sea", others have specific ratios. For me one medium-sized handful is enough — the water won't be unbearably salty to taste but you can tell it's salted. Remember this when you're making the sauce — your dish will get a boost of seasoning at the end from the evaporated pasta water.
  2. Catch excess water rather than reserving it. It's a hassle and more washing up to reserve a cup of pasta water. The easiest thing to do is to tip your pasta into a colander and immediately place the colander back on top of the pot. This method should catch enough water as the pasta drips.
  3. Finish the pasta in the sauce. I cook my pasta until almost al dente, then dump it with some pasta water into the sauté pan with the sauce (or a new pan with a portion of sauce if you cooked a lot of sauce). Cooking this over heat until the water has nearly all evaporated will finish the pasta and help bring pasta and sauce together. The italian word for this is pastasaucefinishtogethero.
  4. Shake your pan to emulsify the last bit of pasta water with the oil of the sauce. This will ensure that your pasta is neither too oily or watery.
  5. Don't obsess over amounts; if it tastes good do it. This isn't baking, taste as you cook and add as much as you think you need. Pasta water does have salt so err on the side of adding too little at first. You can always add more later.

In this dish an emulsion of pasta water, olive oil, and lemon juice coats the pasta and makes the recipe a great one to practice with (it also tastes really good).

Gnocchi with tuna & lemon

Ingredients (makes 1 main course serving):

  • 90 g of gnocchi1
  • 2 tbsp of olive oil plus more for drizzling
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 60 g of can of good quality tuna (about 1/3 a 185 g can)
  • 1/4 cup of loosely-packed flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 tbsp of lemon zest
  • 2 tsp of lemon juice
  • Cracked black pepper
  • Parmesan cheese

1. Cook the pasta until almost al dente in well-salted water.
2. Meanwhile, slowly sauté the garlic for 5 minutes until it softens. Turn up the heat, add the tuna and parsley and cook for 2 minutes. Add the lemon zest and juice and turn off the heat.
3. Once the pasta is ready, drain it reserving 1/2 a cup of the cooking water. Add the pasta to the pan with 1/4 cup of the saved water and a generous helping of pepper. Toss over high heat until the pasta water has almost evaporated, tasting for seasoning.
4. If the pasta is tasting too acidic, drizzle some more olive oil and toss to emulsify the oil. Serve with grated parmesan cheese.

(1) This isn't gnocchi as in potato dumplings, it's a type of dried wheat pasta. It's a larger version of the more common gnocchetti. Use whatever shape you have on hand.

Workday lunches: Foccacia

Foccacia

It's hard to find a good workday lunch that doesn't cost me $7 and taste like crap (yes that was directed at you, every hospital cafeteria ever). I've taken to experimenting with my own, with a few requirements:

  1. It should be quick to prepare the night before, or able to be made in bulk
  2. It should be relatively inexpensive — I would love to eat a chicken, avocado, and sundried tomato sandwich every day, but for now I have to be sensible
  3. The ingredients or bulk item should keep well for 5 days
  4. It should travel well — no fondue
  5. It has to taste good — I might be cheap and lazy when it comes to lunches, but I'm not about to eat canned ravioli

This focaccia recipe is based on Jamie Oliver's recipe from Jamie's Kitchen. I've added olive oil to the dough to improve its shelf life, and decreased the sugar and salt in his recipe — not for health reasons, just because the recipe needs it. These will take any topping you like, just be mindful that if you put things like cheese on too early they'll burn before the bread is cooked. My topping was simply canned tomatoes pureed with olive oil, salt, pepper, and thyme, then toped with grated mozarella and basil leaves.

The basic focaccia recipe is after the jump. To help you I've made a video of me making the dough:

Chickpea & olive bruschetta

Olive & chickpea bruschetta

It's hard to beat dried chickpeas on economy or taste (there's a nice series of posts about chickpeas at A Life (Time) of Cooking), but the canned variety are great for quick, tasty, nutritious meals that don't need to be planned 24 hours ahead. Like most bruschetta, this is recipe is really simple. You'll need olive tapenade, which can be bought freshly made at continental delis or made easily at home (recipe here soon [Addendum: Recipe here now]).

Chickpea & olive bruschetta

Ingredients:

  • 2 thick slices of fresh Italian bread
  • 1 clove of garlic, halved
  • 2/3 cup cooked, drained chickpeas (canned okay)
  • 1/4 cup olive tapenade
  • Extra virgin olive oil (about 2 tbsp)

1. Heat the oven grill (aka broiler). Brush your bread on both sides with olive oil and grill close to the heat until toasted on the outside but still soft in the middle. Turn over and toast the other side. When toasted, rub one side with a cut garlic half then discard the garlic.
2. Meanwhile, heat 1 tbsp of the olive oil in a hot pan, then add the chickpeas and sauté until the begin to brown.
3. Remove from the heat, and toss with the olive tapenade. Pile the dressed chickpeas onto the toast and drizzle with the remaining olive oil. Serve warm.

How to make potato gnocchi

Gnocchi bolognese

Last week I posted about a failure, sweet potato gnocchi. It was ill-conceived from the beginning — sweet potatoes are different to regular potatoes in all but name, and I was a fool to think they could be made into tender dumplings using the same method as for potatoes. A gosh darn fool.

For regular potatoes however, this method works perfectly. Gnocchi is one of those things that is best done by feel rather than strictly adhering to a recipe but there are some things to keep in mind.

Sweet potato gnocchi

Sweet potato gnocchi, simmering

It's easy to get attached to a dish before you've even tasted it. An idea strikes you and you think about it for days. You write the idea down instead of working, to see how it looks on paper. Perhaps some mustard vinaigrette to round off the sweetness of the beetroot? Damn that's good, if I finish these summaries in the next 20 minutes I can still get to the shops to pick up some dill. You tidy up the kitchen bench — you require a clean workspace to create magic. You work meticulously, even bothering to make the horizontal cuts in the shallot for a perfect dice. The cooking smells are amazing. You plate up like you're sending it to Gordon Ramsay's pass. If you're a food blogger, you take a photo framing the food slightly off center. You can zoom in more than that, so you do.

By this stage it almost doesn't matter what the food tastes like, you've already had your fun. But you've got to eat. The food has the advantage of two days of convincing yourself it will taste like mana from heaven, but the disadvantage of high expectations. You taste it and it's great. Well done, you.

Unfortunately it doesn't always work out that way, and my sweet potato gnocchi was one such example. Damn sweet potato. Too sweet for savoury dishes, and not sweet enough for desserts. Mushy and sticky rather than creamy. Slightly fibrous. I don't get it, why does everyone like sweet potatoes? Why did I make sweet potato gnocchi? What did I think it would taste like? Well, no man is an island, and this man's favourite taster happens to love sweet potato and specially requested it. This is the same taster to who was kind enough to eat the whole bowl when I made my first (undercooked) risotto. I had to give something back. I even had myself convinced I would love it.