The highlight of any homemade lasagna – aside from the homemade cheese of course – is the sauce. This sauce hides generation after generation of ingredients, methods, tweaking and most importantly tradition. Whether it is your mother, father, aunt, grandmother, etc…. most of us have at some point in our childhood, clenched someone’s apron and helped stir the family recipe on the stovetop. These recipes that have no specific list of ingredients and are handed down from generation to generation, and the only way you remember how to make them is by standing by the process and hopefully getting to taste it hot from the pot before anyone else gets to. Now that, just that, makes the recipe memorable. That is the moment that your taste buds will remember forever, until one day you put those ingredients together for your family and friends to pass on the tradition.
This is how my sauce originated. Une vraie de vraie sauce à spag! It is a meat and tomato sauce that my mother made over and over, while I stood by paying attention to every ingredient every step of the way, until one day I finally made my own. I have decided to share my version of this sauce with you, but by all means feel free to stick your own because at the end of the day, that’s the one that matters.
Kristel’s Meat Sauce
- 2 medium onions, about 2 cups chopped
- 3 stalks of celery, about 1 cup chopped
- 3 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 8 oz of crimini (brown) mushrooms, stems removed and chopped, caps cut in quarters
- 300 grams lean ground pork
- 700 grams lean ground beef
- 2 cans diced tomatoes (28 oz each can)
- 2 cans of water (28 oz each can)
- 1 can tomato paste (156 ml can)
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp chili flakes (or to taste)
- 2 tbsp herbes de provence
- 2 bay leaves
- Salt and pepper to taste
I’ve decided to break this down step by step:
Step 1 – Sweating
In a large pot drizzled with olive oil, start to sweat (cook until translucent) on medium-high heat the onions, celery, the chopped mushrooms stems and garlic, with about a tablespoon of salt, the chili flakes and pepper. The salt will help draw out the moisture from the vegetables but make sure they don’t brown.
Step 2 – Browning
Add the ground pork and beef to the pot. Break up the meat as is starts to cook through. Add the herbes de provence, the bay leaves and mushrooms caps as the meat continues to brown. Stir-in the canned diced tomatoes, the tomato paste and the water, as well as the teaspoon of sugar. The reason for adding sugar to a tomato sauce is to balance out the acidity of the tomatoes.
Step 3 – Simmering and Reducing
Bring the sauce to a boil, turn the heat down to low and simmer for about three hours. At the halfway point do a taste test to see if you sauce needs more salt, pepper or chili flakes; adjust the seasoning to your liking. When you first add the tomatoes and water the sauce will look very watered down but that is normal. Simmering the sauce for 3 hours plus will help concentrate the flavours and you will notice that the overall volume of the sauce will have reduced. I like to use my cooking spoon to measure the level when the water has been added and after the sauce has been reduced. I usually notice that the sauce content has reduced by an inch or two. At this point I can safely assume that my meat sauce is ready for serving, storing or in this case, layering in my lasagna.
Here are the additional ingredients you will need: 400g of lactose-free mozzarella (which you can now find in most grocery stores) and lasagna pasta. Choose a rectangular baking dish and estimate how many sheets of pasta you will need. I had four layers in my dish and I used three sheets per layer, making a total of 12 sheets of pasta. Cook the pasta until al dente and strain (skip this step if using fresh pasta).
Now, this is when you start layering: begin with a ladle of sauce, just enough to barely cover the bottom of your dish. Put down the first layer of pasta (1). Cover with a few ladles of sauce and top with a layer of pasta (2). Spread the homemade cheese and spinach filling, then add another layer of pasta (3). Cover with a few ladles of sauce and top with a final layer of pasta (4). Add one last ladle of sauce, just enough to cover the pasta. Top the dish with the shredded lactose-free mozzarella and c’est fini!
Finally, about an hour before you’re ready to eat (maybe longer if you’ve made it ahead of time and kept it in the fridge), preheat the oven to 350°F and cook the lasagna until brown and bubbly on top. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for about 15 before serving!
I know it’s a long process to make the cheese, simmer the sauce and layer the lasagna, but why not make a day of it, invite your friends, spend some time with family, open up a bottle of wine and maybe see if you can create your own culinary tradition!
Got any food traditions you’d like to share? I love hearing about them. Feel free to comment here or email me!
My better half is a lactard.
When we first met and he confessed to me he was lactose intolerant, I was troubled. To me, coming from a French family where cheese is not just a staple but a necessary for survival, not being able to eat cheese would be a complete nightmare for me. Troubled by how I would cook without butter (yes, butter is a dairy product), without cream, without gorgonzola and coming to terms with no more grilled cheeses, no more pasta carbonara and more… I had to figure out a way around this predicament. And, I did. I found out about Almond Milk, Belsoy, soy ice cream (eek!), coconut milk, and finally some lactose-free cheese at my run-of-the-mill grocery store out of all places, and in the refrigerator next it, some lactose-free milk. But aside from all these dairy products, do you have any idea how many food products contain some sort of dairy?!?!?! Come on people, time to wake up and read your labels.
Now, it had been years since Mr. Better Half had had lasagna and I was craving lasagna; you know, the good kind like your mom used to make. I decided I would make this lasagna, with a creamy cheesy center and all. So I pooled my resources and attempted to make my own homemade cheese, aka paneer. Paneer is that cheese that you find in Indian dishes and is incredibly easy to make. Actually, it’s kinda stupid and here’s how you do it. You do need some extra equipment that most of don’t have lying around in our kitchens: cheesecloths. They are easy to find in most grocery stores, so usually there is no need to go to a specialty store to find them.
T & T – Homemade Cheese, a.k.a. Paneer
- 1 litre lactose-free milk
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp herbs or spices
- 3 tbsp lemon juice
In a large pot bring the milk, salt, herbs or spices to a simmer on medium-high heat. Just as it boils, turn off the heat and stir in lemon juice. You will see that the milk will start to curdle. That’s normal; let it sit for about 15 minutes. Take one sheet of cheesecloth and line it into a strainer. Strain the milk mixture, gather the cheesecloth and slightly squeeze out some more liquid. Wrap the cheese in the cloth, press it between two plates and refrigerate for a couple of hours. You can also add a jar on top of the plate to press down the cheese even more. And voilà, you’ve made cheese!
You can choose all sorts of different spice blends, herbs (dried or fresh) to make a variety of cheeses for any recipe you can think of. This cheese remains creamy but doesn’t melt, so you can pan-fry it. Play around with different flavours, you’ll be amazed by what you can come up with.
For this batch I chose to include about one teaspoon of herbes de provence since I was planning on using the cheese as a ricotta replacement for my Lactard Lasagna. So here’s a sneak-peak at the creamy cheesy center of my lasagna:
Homemade Cheese and Spinach Filling
- 1 batch homemade lactose-free cheese
- 1 small onion, halved and thinly sliced
- 4 cups of fresh spinach coarsely chopped (or a 5oz package)
- ¼ cups shredded lactose-free mozzarella
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
In a pan drizzled with olive oil, sauté the onions and the spinach until wilted. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to mixing bowl and allow spinach to cool. Once cooled, crumble the homemade cheese and add the shredded mozzarella. Mix all ingredients until well combined. Set aside until ready to build your lasagna. Instead of lasagne, you can also use this mixture as a stuffing for pasta shells, cannelloni, chicken, Portobello mushrooms… Be creative and don’t be afraid to try new things!
So the tools and techniques don’t come around all too often mainly because I don’t usually think about my kitchen that way. There are many tricks that I use regularly and because they are habit I tend not to really notice them.
Recently I was hanging out with my friend Jon visiting from Toronto and – as we often do – we talked about consuming food. With consumption often comes waste. Jon went on about how much he hates wasting food and that there are some ingredients he just won’t buy in order to avoid a potential waste. I applaud his actions as I too, hate wasting food. I rather stuff myself than to leave food on my plate. I try to maximize every ingredient in my kitchen and pantry, and have come up with a couple of tricks to do just that.
Using his words “What the hell am I supposed to do with a huge bunch of cilantro when all I need is one cup?” My answer: “Why not make a batch of chimichurri? Freeze it in a jar or in ice-cube trays.”
Well, have no fear, Kristel’s Kitchen is here!
Let me share a few tips on how to maximize the use of your ingredients and minimize your waste:
Ice-cube trays! It’s convenient to have at least one ice-cube tray unused, that way you can easily portion out leftover ingredients and freeze for later use. Here are some examples:
- Tomato paste or sauce when you do not need to use the full amount; use individual cubes add depth of flavor to sauces, soups or
- Pesto, any kind. Pesto essentially just means to pound, crush to make a paste. Use basil, parsley, cilantro, arugula… basically anything that comes to mind or that may be lurking in your fridge.
- Fruit: purée and freeze, great for smoothies; or, cook down with sugar for a quick dessert topping.
Make soup! Often my soup creations spur from whatever is left in the fridge and pantry. The last creation was a Mexican influenced vegetable soup. From the fridge: the remainder of a bag of carrots and celery, an onion, a leftover ¼ cabbage from a previous dinner and shredded zucchini. From the pantry: a can of diced tomatoes, an ancho pepper (whole), a handful of coarse cornmeal and a handful of red lentils. All combined in a pot, topped off with water, seasoned with salt, pepper, cumin and coriander seeds, simmered for a about 40 minutes or until vegetables are tender.
Stale bread? Make breadcrumbs or croutons! Make sure the bread is hard and stale. Cut it up into smaller pieces then grind into crumbs using a blender or food processor. Store in the freezer. For croutons, toss with spices, garlic or parmesan (whatever you like), drizzle with olive oil and bake in the oven until brown. Store in an air-tight container.
Fresh ginger, always on hand! It is always convenient to have around for many recipes and marinades or even to spice up some tea, but like any fresh produce it doesn’t have the longest shelf life. When I bring home some ginger (and I am not talking about my better half here), the first thing I do is peel it and store it in a container in the freezer. Whenever I need some I just take it as is – frozen – and using a grater I shave off the needed amount.
Start composting! Contact your city, local borough office or Eco-quartier to find out what services are available to you. If you have the space for it, set-up compost bin in your yard. For Montrealers, get in touch with the nice folk at Compost Montréal to find out how you can get a compost pick-up service set-up for your residence, condo complex or even apartment building.
There’s a lot more where that came from. The key is to try to be a little creative, to think out of the ice-box when you’re looking at the leftovers you fear may be wasting away their shelf-life. Do you have your own tricks for minimizing waste? Please spread the word, share your comment on this post and help all of us make better use of our food consumption economy.
Onions are one of the most versatile staples of our pantry. They make for a perfect base and a perfect condiment, either cooked or raw. For now we will be dealing with the raw onion. I’m sure it happens to everyone; you eat a dish, bite into some raw onion and feel its pungency linger throughout the entire day. There are two tricks I like to use to diminish its pungency but without giving up any of the flavor.
Let’s start with a Montreal classic: bagels and lox. I personally have an affinity for St-Viateur’s all dressed bagels. At home I serve it up with cream cheese (and it has to be Liberté …or your local creamiest of the cream cheeses is a must), lox overflowing the sides of the bagel, a mount full of capers, coarsely ground pepper, a drizzle of lemon infused olive oil (take out your best-est olive oil here) and thinly sliced red onion.
To tame the pungency of the red onion as a condiment, you’ll want to start by thinly slicing it. In a bowl cover it with salt; pour cold water over the onions to cover and mix until the salt is dissolved. Add a few cubes of ice and let the mixture sit for at least 20 minutes. Strain and pat dry the onions. Drop a few over the lox to complete this all dressed classic Montreal bagel. These onions are also great for salads, sandwiches, burgers…
Another way to soften the blow of post onion bad breath is to marinade the onion in some sort of acid like lemon or vinegar. This is the base for my famous guacamole. Yes, I said it, famous! You can ask any of my friends and family. The onion taming technique is described below in the recipe and makes a great base for other dishes like gazpacho.
Kristel’s Kitchen Guacamole
- Two ripe avocados
- One small onion
- Two limes – juiced
- One garlic clove – pressed
- One tomato – seeded and chopped into a small dice
- Small bunch of cilantro – chopped
- 1/2 tablespoon Mexican spice blend – any generic grocery store mix works here, or make your own by combining equal parts of cumin, dried oregano, chili powder and paprika
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Splash of hot sauce – or as much as you or your guests can handle
Finely chop the onion. In a mixing bowl add the onion, the juice of one lime and a few pinches of salt. Mix it all together until the salt has dissolved and let sit for 20 minutes. At this point you can start mixing your guacamole. Scoop out the ripe avocado into the mixing bowl and using a fork mash it all up. Using a garlic press, crush one clove. Slice in half one tomato and using your thumb remove the seeds. Chop the tomato and add to the mixing bowl. I enjoy experimenting with different varieties of tomatoes but grape tomatoes give just the right amount of sweetness and they don’t need to be seeded. Gently mix all ingredients; careful, the tomatoes are delicate.
Mix in the Mexican spice blend and the hot sauce. I like playing around with different types of hot sauces and I usually use two kinds: a basic one to give a base of spice and one that adds a different flavor dimension, for example smokiness (think chipotle). This is the perfect opportunity to play around and wow your guests. If you have any fresh hot peppers on hand you can also add those into the mix (remember to use your latex gloves). Make sure to taste the guacamole and adjust the seasoning with pepper, salt, spice and perhaps even add more lime juice. Grab your favorite chips and dig in!
On my way from work Friday I decided to pick up some roast duck from a store in Chinatown to accompany the squash risotto I had planned on making for dinner. We had a whole roast duck for the two of us. Needless to say, we had too much. Seeing as Sunday was supposed to be a lazy Sunday, simply doing a few things around the house and running a couple of errands with my friend Jasmine, I planned on making dumplings with some of the leftover duck.
This was my second attempt at making dumplings – ever! The first time I used shrimps, mushrooms and scallions but I must have done something wrong because when I proceeded to cook them, the dumplings filled with water and just weren’t that tasty.
I was determined for this time to be different, I had a strategy:
One: make a test dumpling to check for taste, cooking time and overall holding power
Two: keep an egg yolk near just in case the filling doesn’t bind together
Three: keep some extra wrappers in case I tug too hard and the dough tears
At 11am, the sound system was turned on, the dumpling wrappers were thawed, my ingredients and tools laid out; I was ready to start making dumplings! I proceeded to mix my filling, bring my pot of water to a boil and carefully wrapped up my test dumpling. I plopped it into the boiling water and waited two minutes – as mentioned on the dumpling wrappers packaging. With a slotted spoon I took the dumpling out of the boiling water but noticed the edges of the dough still looked stiff, so I put it back in for another couple of minutes or so. I finally took it out of its bath and let it cool. The dough looked like it had perfectly sealed around the filling and there did not appear to be any water bubbles. The taste test came back positive: my filling was nicely bound together (no need for that extra yolk) and the dough was perfectly soft (a four minute cook time is ideal, as long as your filling doesn’t have any raw meat or seafood ingredients). I did add a bit of salt and pepper to the filling mixture but no other changes were made. I proceeded to wrap and boil more dumplings just as my phone rang. My friend Cammie wanted to drop off something for me before my trip, the book Julie and Julia which I haven’t read yet, nor have I seen the movie. So she stopped by with her husband, we chatted for a while over coffee and they left with a small care package. Just as they were leaving, my friend Laura calls and asked if she could stop by to pick up the extra cookie sheet she had lent me. While I wait for her to arrive, I continue with my dumpling making, sending a few more bundles into their boiling bath
Laura arrives, I put out a pot of tea and moments after, right on schedule, Jasmine knocks on the door. The three of us spend some time chatting and catching up. Mid-afternoon has rolled around and I still have a few more dumplings to finish up. Laura says goodbye and heads home with her cookie sheet and care package. I finish up the dumplings I had left to do and out the door I go, along with Jasmine to run our errands at 4pm on a Sunday afternoon.
At the end, I never managed to do all the things I had planned to do on this so-called lazy day. However, I did manage to make forty dumplings, spend a few hours catching up with friends, sending them home with their respective care packages. In any case, what’s the point of cooking if you can’t share it!
Duck and Zucchini Dumplings
- About one cup and a half of cooked duck, chopped
- About one cup of zucchini, shredded (using a cheese grater is easiest)
- About ¼ cup of scallions, chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- About 40 wonton wrappers (most grocery stores sells frozen packages, just remember to thaw them ahead of time)
- Egg wash (one egg whisked with one tbsp of water)
Combine the first three ingredients in a large bowl. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Lay out a clean dish cloth on a cookie sheet and dampen another clean one to cover the dumpling wrappers so that they do not dry out.
Take one dumpling wrapper and place it in the palm of your hand. Spoon a small amount of the duck mixture into the center, squeezing the filling to make sure there aren’t any air bubbles. Dip the tip of your finger into the egg wash and moisten the dumpling wrappers around its filling. Gently wrap the dough around the filling making sure to push out any air bubbles. Seal the dough by pressing it tightly together. Proceed with the remainder of the filling and dumpling wrappers. Bring a large pot of water to boil and gently drop in the dumplings. You do not want to cook too many at a time, or else they may stick to each other. They need enough room to swim around. After about 4 minutes of cooking (only if you’re using a precooked filling as I have here), take them out with a slotted spoon and put them on the towel covered cookie sheet to absorb the extra water. Cover the dumpling with a damp cloth to ensure they do not dry out. If they’re still hot you can serve them right away with a dipping sauce of your choice. If you’re making them ahead, you can easily store them in a plastic container until ready to eat. To heat them up you can steam them or boil them again – just long enough to heat through. Or you can, as I suggested to my friends, heat up some broth of your choice, add an assortment of veggies to the broth, and right before serving drop in the dumplings to make an Asian style dumpling soup.