Tuesday, November 9, 2010

COOKING TOGETHER, COOKING APART: Lasagna and Pumpkin Bread

This weekend, I wanted lasagna, which meant my husband, Jeff, was in charge of cooking. As always, he dug out his “secret” recipe, scribbled down in illegible handwriting on the back of a shabby envelope. Neither Pentagon nor CIA could crack Jeff’s hand-written code for old-school Italian fare.

Indecipherable as it may be, Jeff's recipe is one of my favorite reads because it embodies him. What appears as haphazard scrawl is actually an elegant formula for a great meal –one that incorporates carefully tested techniques and somehow exudes his generous spirit. He may be rolling his eyes as he reads this, but it’s all true.

While Jeff went to run some errands, I chopped up onions and garlic for the sauce and boiled the noodles. In between football games, he slowly cooked his tomato sauce, mixed fresh parsley into ricotta, and carefully constructed the lasagna. In the end, he put together mushroom lasagna so delicious that our Thumbelina-sized daughter ate three helpings.

Cooking with my husband brings out the best components of our relationship. We both enjoy being home, and have worked out a solid tag-team system for completing domestic tasks. Jeff has a calm soothing presence, which usually offsets my frenetic nature –even in the kitchen.

My parents also enjoyed creating meals together, particularly Thanksgiving. My Dad loves to experiment with new recipes and possesses impeccable taste in china and silver. He stayed up until 2 or 3 AM polishing silver, and sometimes (when he could afford it) ordered tiny candied pineapple from Nice to top the center decoration. A favorite touch was when they stuck sausages on the turkey with toothpick. My Dad remembers: “It was a good and fun time, and Jeanne's turkey was really good. She was very good at bustling and Thanksgiving was super-bustle time for both of us.”

After they separated, Thanksgiving must have felt pretty raw. My Dad sought refuge in Manhattan at our cousins’ where they serve magnificent Ethiopian/American fare. As for us kids, we went with my Mom to our Aunt Mickey and Uncle Paul’s house in Boston.

In Boston, we were warmly welcomed with a host of new traditions and rituals. For instance, I learned about “eating pants,” customary Thanksgiving attire comprised of an elastic waistband that amply stretches as you pack away large quantities of food. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, you downgrade to wearing your PJs all day. The pajama ensemble is de rigeur in Boston for watching football and eating turkey sandwiches at any given hour.

Mom spent the bulk of Thanksgiving in Boston saving the turkey from Aunt Mickey. On Thursday morning, she would speed up the Mass Turnpike her foot firmly pressing the gas pedal, muttering “Mickey’s gonna steam the turkey! Mickey’s gonna steam the turkey!” Mickey likes to cover her turkey in tin foil to ensure the bird reaches the proper temperature. Mom felt that the foil prevented it from crisping up, hence, “steaming.” Mom’s anxiety wasn’t completely unfounded; Mickey actually did steam the turkey once. (Anyone who has ever read The Diary of Bridget Jones will think I lifted this story from the turkey curry episode. But, no, it’s all too real.)

My aunt introduced me to another lovely tradition. A few days before Thanksgiving, she would bake several loaves of pumpkin bread so that, come Thursday morning, house guests arose to the smell of warm pumpkin bread and coffee. It was Mickey’s way of announcing that Thanksgiving had arrived.

So while my husband was busy creating our family’s customary Sunday dinner, I greeted November with two loaves of pumpkin bread. One served as dessert, and the other was packed away in the freezer for Thanksgiving morn. Maybe I’ll serve it on my parents beautiful china and call it a new tradition.

Sunday Dinner Lasagna

As translated by Jeff

Ingredients:

1 lb ground beef

½ cup onions

4 cloves of garlic

1 Tbsp sugar

1-2 basil leaves

½ tsp fennel seed

¼ tsp pepper

¼ cup parsley

2 lb. 3 oz can of crushed tomatoes

2 6oz cans of tomato paste

12 lasagna noodles

15 oz ricotta cheese

1 egg

½ tsp salt

1 lb. mozzarella

3 oz. grated parmesan

Directions:

Preheat oven 375 degrees

In a large pot, brown ground beef with onions and garlic over medium heat

Add sugar, spices, ½ of the parsley, crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, and ½ cup of water

Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer

Cook lasagna noodles in a pot of boiling water for 10 minutes.

Mix ricotta with the egg, rest of parsley and salt.

In a 13x9x2 dish, layer 1/3 of sauce, 6 noodles, ½ of ricotta, ½ mozzarella, and then repeat all layers. Top with remaining sauce and parmesan .

Cover with aluminum foil and cook 30 minutes. Uncover and cook for additional 10-15 minutes.

Aunt Mickey’s Thanksgiving Pumpkin Bread

Ingredients:

3 cups of sugar

3 1/2 cups of flour

2 tsp of baking soda

2/3 cup of water

1 cup of oil

1 tsp of nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and ginger I wasn’t sure if Mom meant one tsp of each or a blended tsp. I went with one of each, definitely the right call.

4 eggs

2 cups of canned pumpkin puree

Nuts and raisins (optional)

Directions:

Mix above ingredients in mixer

Pour into 3 greased loaf pans

Bake at 350 degrees about 1 hour

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