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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Sunday, July 21

Gapers Block

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If you've noticed that my byline has been absent quite a bit lately, it's because I haven't been able to cook. The kitchen remodeling continues at a slow, slow crawl and I find myself doing a jig every time one more piece of drywall is up, but I still have a kitchen which consists of piles of electric power tools, boxes of screws, and a refrigerator stocked with soy milk, carrots, condiments, and take-out leftovers which get taken to work because I don't even have a working microwave at home.

I've been jonesing to cook. Real cooking. Dirty all the pans, makes sauces from scratch, taste everything so often that I'm full by the time dinner is served-kind of cooking.

Since that isn't going to happen at my home, imagine my surprise when a friend told me (well, his wife told me) that one of his resolutions was to learn to make some new dishes. He's a very, very sweet guy who has made the only sloppy joe I've ever liked, but get him outside of his comfort zone and his confidence in his cooking skills goes from 30 to 0 in the blink of an eye.

I decided (with some slightly selfish inspiration) to help this young man fulfill his resolution on the second day of the year. I purchased all of the necessary ingredients, including a 9 by 13 glass casserole dish which I hope will be used for many things besides lasagna, and headed over to their place to create the mise en place needed for a day of cooking. That means I dumped the bags on their counter and told him, "In less than two hours these ingredients are going to be making four adults and one toddler very, very happy."

As we stirred and tasted and sampled and talked, his confidence in himself made it back up to 30 and when he presented his daughter with a Dora the Explorer bowl full of lasagna and she mmmed and asked for more, I think his personal cookometer may have hit as high as 45, which isn't a bad result for his first class taken at Cinnacuisine's Traveling Kitchen. I know his wife and daughter are looking forward to class #2.

Homemade Lasagna
3 tablespoons of olive oil
1/2 of a large onion, or 1 medium onion, or 2 small onions, chopped
1 pound of ground turkey or meat crumbles
1 26 oz. Package Pomi tomato sauce or marinara sauce
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon of dried sweet basil
2 teaspoons dried oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
9 lasagna noodles (about 1/2 package)
1 small ball of mozzarella cheese (low-moisture from the dairy case), shredded
1 small tub of ricotta cheese *see substitute at end of recipe, stirred well

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Over medium-high heat, add the olive oil and chopped onion to a skillet and cook for 3-5 minutes, or until the onions are translucent. Now add the ground turkey and using a wooden spoon, break up the meat into small crumbles as it cooks. This will take about 7-10 minutes depending on your stovetop. While this cooks, fill a pot large enough for the whole noodles with water, cover and set on high heat to boil.

Once the meat is mostly cooked through, and the tomato sauce, minced garlic, and herbs. Stir together and cook for a few minutes. By now your water should be boiling so you can add three noodles to the pan and cook them. Taste the sauce and add salt and pepper or more basil or oregano as needed. Stir the noodles occasionally to keep them from sticking but don't let them overcook. In fact, you want them to be slightly undercooked, because they'll continue to cook as they bake in the oven. Carefully remove them from the pan with a pair of tongs and lay them on the bottom of you pan, which you've oiled slightly. If they don't match exactly, don't worry about it, you're not trying to impress Martha Stewart, you just want something that tastes good. Add three more noodles to your pan.

Now begins the layering of the items. My preferred order is meat sauce, ricotta, and then mozzarella. You're going to have three layers of each, so make sure you save enough of each item so your top layer isn't skimpy. Spread the meat sauce out with a spoon, use a spoon and add dollops of ricotta cheese, and then cover it all with a good couple of handfuls of mozzarella. Remove the second batch of noodles and add to the top of your pile, and place the next three noodles in the boiling water. You'll want to let these cook most of the way through since there is less stuff on top of them to aid them as they bake. Repeat the toppings, add the final layer of noodles and top with the last layer of ingredients. Now place the dish in your piping hot oven. If you've got a super-packed cooking dish, place it on a cookie sheet -- unless you like cleaning your oven. Let this bake for about 20-30 minutes, or until the cheese is a bit toasty in spots and you can see the liquid bubbling on the sides of the pan. This is why I prefer glass casserole dishes. The keep the sides and bottom from cooking faster than the top and you can see how done a casserole is. Stay away from aluminum pans when you're cooking acidic dishes. The acid in the tomato will react with the aluminum and the dish can take on a metallic flavor. You'll want to let the dish cool for about 10 minutes before cutting. This permits the cheese to solidify and help hold things together and it means that when you go to take your first bite you don't burn the roof of your mouth.

*Ricotta substitute: Take one carton of cottage cheese and set it in a strainer over the sink. After about ten minutes, most of the liquid should have drained from the curds. Add to a bowl, or back to the tub and thoroughly mix in 1 raw egg. Ricotta cheese just isn't available everywhere, and this is what I thought ricotta cheese was until I moved to Chicago, the land of plentiful "ethnic" groceries.

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