Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Cheese Puffs and Potato Gratin

I wrote about good winter cheeses a couple months ago, and I was going to post this article immediately after that, but unfortunately I forgot. Well, the weather is still cold, so today I would like to introduce a couple very simple and tasty warm dishes using those delicious cheeses.
Cheese Puff - Gougères are small, bite-sized puffs (just like the shape of cream puffs, but using cheeses instead of pastry cream). They are easy to make and you can create your own Gougères with a single kind of cheese or two or three (e.g., mozzarella, Cheddar, etc.) and add minced chives, parsley, even chopped ham, to create your own. Serve with a "casual" sparkling wine (French Crémante, Italian Prosecco, or Spanish Cava), or a light-bodied still white wine (Pinot Gris/Grigio, Gewürztraminer if using chili powder, or Chenin Blanc).

Gratin Dauphinois is a popular potato gratin served at almost every bistro and home in France (see the origin of the name Dauphin here). The basic ingredients are just potato, cream and cheese. You may substitute milk instead of cream, or omit cream/milk all together and use some butter if you prefer. They may also be spiced up with something you like. Whatever you do, it's tough to flub this, and the irresistible smell will fill up the entire room before you even taste it.

Cheese Puffs - Gougères
Makes about 20 Gourères

1/2 cup (125ml) water
4 tablespoons (55g) butter, salted or unsalted, cut into cubes
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (75g) flour
2 large eggs   
1 cup (about 3 ounces or 85g) grated Comté or Gruyere cheese
2-3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese for topping (optional)
1/4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1 pinch of freshly-grated nutmeg or chili powder (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 375 F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a medium saucepan, combine the water, butter and salt until the butter is melted. Add the flour all at once and stir it vigorously with a wooden spoon until the mixture pulls away from the sides into a smooth ball. Remove from heat and let rest a couple minutes.
2. Add the eggs, one at a time, stirring quickly and mixing thoroughly between each one. The batter will first look lumpy, but after a couple minutes it will smooth out.
3. Add about 3/4 of the grated cheeses, and stir until well-mixed. Mix in the pepper and nutmeg if using them.
4. Transfer the dough into a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch round tip, and pipe the dough into mounds (you may use a small ice cream scoop instead), evenly-spaced apart about 2-inches, making each about the size of a cherry tomato.
5. Top each puff with a bit of the remaining cheeses and Parmesan cheese.
7. Bake for 20-22 minutes or until puffed and golden brown. Serve warm, or let cool and reheat in 350 F oven until warm  -- about a few minutes.

Gratin Dauphinois (French Potato Gratin)
One shallow, 6-cup (1.5 qt) gratin dish

1 clove of garlic
2 pounds baking potatoes, such as russet, peeled and very thinly sliced
1 cup (about 3 oz) freshly grated Comté or Gruyère cheese
1 cup heavy cream
freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 375°F.

2. Thoroughly rub a gratin dish with the garlic. Layer half of potatoes in the dish. Sprinkle with half of cheese and then half of cream. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add another layer, using the rest of the cheese and cream. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

3. Bake, uncovered, until the gratin is crisp and golden on the top, about 40-45 minutes.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Green Lasagna Bolognese

A long time ago when I first tasted Green Lasagna in Bologna, Italy, I really enjoyed it and have been a big fan ever since. Using spinach pasta and white bechamel sauce ("Balasmella," instead of using tomato sauce) makes for a nice spring-like look and a fresh and light taste. Creamy Balasmella and Italian cheeses together are truly the “Holy trinity.” I was told green lasagna is classic and very popular in Bologna. 

For this recipe I make the Meat Sauce first, and then the Balasmella (cream sauce), and set both aside in a warm place. Then I work on the pasta sheets. If you can find fresh green pasta sheets, it saves time, but it's nice to make your own pasta. Using a standing mixer, such as Kitchen Aid, can make it easier.  Serve the Lasagna with a garden salad and rustic bread such as Ciabatta or Focaccia. For wine I recommend Chianti (aka Sangiovese) from Tuscany, Valpolicella from Veneto, or Barbera from Piedmonte (all reds); or a white such as Soave, Pinot Bianco or Sauvignon Blanc.

Green Lasagna alla Bolognese
8-10 Servings (using a 9-by-13 inch baking dish)

Meat Sauce (makes about 4 cups):
1 ounce dried porcini mushroom, soaked in water and chopped (optional)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 large carrot, finely chopped
1 large celery rib, finely chopped
1 medium garlic clove, minced
¼ cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
¼ pound skinless chicken or Italian pork sausage, chopped
½ pound lean ground beef
¼ pound lean ground pork
½ cup dry white wine
1 cup beef broth or chicken broth
2 tablespoon tomato paste
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Freshly grated nutmeg

6 tablespoons (80g) unsalted butter
½ cup (80g) unbleached all-purpose flour
4 cups (1 quart) whole or 2% fat milk
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
Freshly grated nutmeg

Spinach Pasta:
¾ pound fresh spinach, stemmed, cooked, squeezed dry and chopped
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (about 600g)
4 extra-large eggs
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil
pinch of salt

1 ¾ cups shredded mozzarella (about ½ pound)
1 ½ cups freshly grated parmesan cheese (about 5 ounces)
Combine the cheeses in a bowl.


Meat Sauce
1.      In a small bowl, soak the porcini in 1 ½ cup of lukewarm water until softened, about 30 minutes.
2.      Meanwhile, heat olive oil in large saucepan. Add onion, carrots, celery, garlic and parsley and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until soft... about 6 minutes.
3.      Add the chicken sausage, ground beef and pork to the vegetables in the pan. Cook over moderate heat, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon, until cooked through, about 6 minutes. Squeeze the porcini and chop, then add to the pan of meat and vegetables.
4.      Add the wine and simmer until almost evaporated, about a few minutes. Stir in 1 cup of the broth and tomato paste. Lower the heat and simmer gently for 10-12 minutes. Set aside in a warm place.

Balsamella (cream sauce)
1.      Heat the milk until hot in a medium sauce pan and set aside, but keep it hot.
2.      Melt the butter in a heavy medium saucepan until frothy. Add the flour and stir over moderate-low heat (don't let it brown) for a few minutes.
3.      Quickly add the hot milk to the butter and flour mixture, stirring constantly in the same direction with a wooden spoon to prevent lumps from forming.
4.      Bring to a boil over moderate heat while stirring, and simmer for few minutes. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Set aside keeping it warm, whisking occasionally.

Making the Spinach Pasta
1.      Bring a large pot of water with salt to a boil. Add the spinach and cook until very tender, about a few minutes. Drain, rinse in cold water and squeeze dry. Finely chop the spinach; you should have ½ (packed) cup.
2.      Mound the flour on work surface and make a well in the center. Add the eggs, spinach, 2 tablespoons olive oil and ½ teaspoon salt to the well and mix with a fork. 
3.      Gradually draw in the flour from the inner rim of the well until almost half has been incorporated. Begin kneading in the remaining flour, using the palms of your hands. Continue kneading until the dough is smooth.
4.      Cut the pasta dough into 4 equal pieces; work with 1 piece at a time and keep the remaining pieces of dough covered with a clean kitchen towel.
5.      Flatten the dough and dust it lightly with flour. Roll it through a pasta machine set on the widest setting. Fold the dough in thirds, press down, flour lightly and continue rolling the dough through the machine until the dough is very smooth.
6.      Lower the setting one or two notch and repeat the process, rolling the dough once through successively narrower settings until you reach the thinnest one.
7.      Drape the pasta sheet flat on clean kitchen towels. Roll out the remaining pieces of dough in the same manor.
8.      Bring a large pot of water (5-6 quarts) to a boil and add salt. Fill a large mixing bowl with cold water and 2 tablespoons olive oil.
9.      Meanwhile, using a large knife cut the sheet of pasta crosswise into 7-8 inch lengths.
10.   Drop 5 to 6 of the pasta pieces into the boiling water for 10 seconds. Transfer to the bowl of cold water to cool. Drain the cooked pasta pieces side by side on a damp kitchen towel. Repeat the process with remaining pasta, arranging the pieces on towels in a single layer.

Assembling the Lasagna
Preheat oven to 375°F.
1.      Generously butter a 9-by 12-inch glass or ceramic baking dish. Spread 2 heaping tablespoons of meat sauce in the bottom of the dish. Cover the bottom and sides of the dish with slightly overlapping pasta pieces, allowing about 2-inches to hang over the edge of the dish.
2.      Spread one-third of the cream sauce and sprinkle some of the cheese mixture on top. Cover with another layer of pasta and spread half of meat sauce. Cover with another layer of the pasta, then cream sauce and sprinkle with cheese. Continue layering the pasta and the remaining meat sauce, then cover with pasta again, ending with a layer of cream sauce and cheese, covered with pasta. Fold the overhanging pasta over top of the lasagna.
3.      Cover the lasagna loosely with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake for another 15-20 minutes until the lasagna is heated through and the top is lightly browned.
4.      Let cool for 15 minutes at room temperature before serving.