25 November 2011

How Giada saved my Thanksgiving lasagna

OK. So Giada de Laurentiis didn’t knock on my door and offer to help with the lasagna I was making for Thanksgiving. (I wish.) But I did pick up on a Twitter feed that indicated that she was making a butternut squash recipe on the Today Show. I watched it online and got an idea that made a big improvement in my recipe.

Here’s the back story.

This past summer, we redecorated our dining room. During a summer family event, I offered to have Thanksgiving at our house so that people could see the end result. We ended up having 27 people – 4 who came just for appetizers, 2 babies born in September, 2 toddlers in high chairs, and 19 people around the tables. That’s the biggest dinner party we’ve ever hosted at our house.

Among the guests were my son-in-law’s parents. They have a family tradition of having a lasagna on the menu for Thanksgiving. My son-in-law (kitchen manager and sous chef at Pairings) and I planned the menu, and we decided to include a lasagna. (Here’s a photo of us with the whole buffet.)IMG_5045

About two years ago, I posted a recipe for a lasagna made with roasted squash and other harvest vegetables. My comment was that the flavors were good, but it was a little dry. I had some butternut squash in my pantry (from my parents’ garden), so I decided to reprise the lasagna. But I wondered what to do about the dryness.

That’s when I picked up on the Twitter feed and checked Giada’s butternut squash lasagna recipe (also available on her web site). She included a béchamel sauce, and I realized that would add the moisture my recipe was missing. Besides that, I loved the technique of blending in some basil to give the béchamel a distinctive flavor. (I’ll be using that technique again in the future.)

Here’s the revised recipe with Giada’s béchamel included.

1 large (or 2 medium) onions, cut into 1-inch chunks
½ pound whole mushrooms, cut in half (small mushrooms) or quarters (large mushrooms)
2 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded, cut into 1-inch cubes slices (about 5½ cups)
olive oil
4 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary (or thyme), divided
4 tablespoons sliced fresh sage, divided
2 15-ounce containers whole-milk ricotta cheese
2 cups grated mozzarella cheese, divided
2 cups grated provolone cheese, divided
2 cups grated Parmesan cheese, divided
3 large eggs
2 roasted red peppers cut into strips (optional)
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
3½ cups whole milk
3/4 cup basil
½ pound dried lasagna noodles

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large bowl, toss squash cubes, onions, and mushrooms with olive oil to coat. Spread vegetables onto a rimmed cookie sheet. Sprinkle with half of the herbs and season with salt and pepper. Roast vegetables in oven for about 30 minutes, or until squash is tender and beginning to brown. Remove from oven and reduce temperature to 350 degrees.

Mix ricotta, 1 cup mozzarella cheese, 1 cup provolone, and 1½ cups Parmesan cheese, and remaining herbs in large bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper; mix in eggs.

Melt the butter in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk for 1 minute. Gradually whisk in the milk. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the sauce thickens slightly, whisking often, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the nutmeg. Cool slightly. Transfer half of the sauce to a blender. Add the basil and blend until smooth. Return the basil sauce to the sauce in the pan and stir to blend. Season the sauce with salt and pepper.

Brush 13x9x2-inch glass or ceramic lasagna pan with oil. Ladle about 3/4 c. of the béchamel over bottom of the pan. Arrange 3 noodles on top. Spread 1/3 of the ricotta mixture over noodles. Ladle another 3/4 c. béchamel over the ricotta. Arrange ½ of the roasted vegetables over. Sprinkle with ½ of remaining mozzarella and provolone. Top with 3 noodles, then 1/3 of the ricotta mixture, more béchamel, remaining roasted vegetables, and remaining mozzarella and provolone. Top with 3 noodles. Spread remaining ricotta mixture over and remaining sauce; sprinkle with remaining Parmesan. Cover with oiled foil.

Bake lasagna, covered, 35 minutes. Uncover; bake until heated through, about 25 minutes longer. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Thanksgiving menu 2011

My son-in-law and I planned our menu for Thanksgiving. We had a big crowd, and we planned an extensive menu. Quite a difference from last year when there were only six of us (plus a baby) – my Mom & Dad, my daughter and son-in-law (and their son), and me and Linda. Click here to see the post on last year’s meal and a photo.

Now look at this photo of the 23 people squeezed into our redecorated dining room for this year’s feast.IMG_5046

I did the turkey on the Weber grill, as usual.

My son-in-law made gravy, using some of the drippings that we siphoned out of the drip pan on the grill. It added a nice smoky flavor to the gravy. He also made roasted Brussels sprouts using a recipe from Epicurious. He also made a cranberry and orange relish.

My daughter made stuffing. My wife made corn.

I took the week off and used Wednesday to prepare a few things in advance. One was braised short ribs, another recipe from Epicurious. My son-in-law actually found the recipe. I know he wanted to make it. But he had to work on Wednesday, and the braised meat always is better if you make it in advance and then let it sit in the braising liquid overnight. The only variation I made to the recipe was that I used boneless short ribs. The main reason I did that was because we were preparing for a big crowd, and I didn’t think I’d have a big enough pan to make the bone-in ribs. The butcher at Jerry’s prepared six pounds of boneless ribs. There were 12 ribs, and that proved to be just the right quantity.

I also made lasagna with roasted butternut squash, mushrooms, red onions, and red peppers. See next post.

On Thanksgiving, I baked whole wheat date rolls, yet another Epicurious recipe. Then I turned the kitchen over to my son-in-law. All I did was finish roasting the turkey and reheat the ribs and the lasagna.

Other family members brought appetizers and desserts. My mom and dad brought dried beef and beef jerky from Nick’s Meats in Hayward, MN. They also brought cheese and crackers. My brother and his wife brought a vegetable tray. My daughter brought an artichoke dip.

For dessert, my other brother brought a pumpkin pie and a minced fruit pie. My daughter-in-law brought two apple pies. My son-in-law brought a huge carrot cake. (My favorite desserts are apple pie and carrot cake. Thanksgiving was the day before my 60th birthday, so they brought special desserts for me.)

This was the biggest dinner we’ve served in our house. But no one went home hungry.

22 November 2011

Friendly comfort at Solamar San Diego

I’ve written before how much we like Kimpton hotels. When we plan a vacation, we always check to see if the city we’re traveling to has a Kimpton, and if it does, we always check the rates. (They’re usually very affordable.)

So that’s what we did when we started planning our short trip to San Diego. San Diego was our destination because I would be attending a dairy conference there. But we decided to go a few days early for some relaxation. The conference was at a resort in Mission Valley. We also looked into La Jolla, but we were there a year ago for a wedding. We usually prefer staying downtown where there’s good choices of restaurants, preferably in walking distance, and options for nightlife. The fact that there was a Kimpton right in the Gaslamp Quarter, and they offered a special rate, clinched it for us. So we made a reservation for three nights at the Solamar.IMG_0352

The first pleasant surprise was when we checked in, the desk clerk wished me a happy birthday. I can’t figure out how he knew. Maybe it’s on my profile for the Kimpton In Touch (frequent stayer) program. As I noted in my next post, our room wasn’t ready when we arrived, so we wandered into the Gaslamp Quarter to have some lunch. When we returned and got checked in, while were were unpacking in our room, there was a knock at the door. The manager sent up a bottle of wine and a birthday cupcake, along with a nice note. Really cool!

One of the things we like about Kimptons is that most (maybe all) have a nightly wine reception in the lobby. We enjoy having a glass of wine before our evening activities and chatting with the other guests. It’s very cordial and relaxing.

It turns out that the special rate that we reserved also included two coupons for a free cocktail for each night of our stay. I had totally forgotten that detail. The Solamar has a really cool rooftop pool and lounge. So we enjoyed a couple of cocktails up there during our stay.

Kimpton prides itself on having staff who can help guests find fun and unusual things to do. We got a lot of good advice from the staff when we asked. We did have rain on one day during our visit. That spoiled our planned activities for the evening. However, the desk clerk gave us a recommendation for dinner (Asti Ristorante), got us a reservation, and also got us complementary admission to Jim Croce’s Jazz Bar a block away from the restaurant. It was a fun evening.

Needless to say, Kimpton hotels remain on our list of places to stay when we’re traveling.

Best burger at Searsucker in San Diego?

My wife says that the burger she had for lunch at Searsucker in San Diego was the best she’s ever had in her life! Wow. That’s quite an endorsement.

We arrived in San Diego around lunch time on a Thursday. We planned on a few days of relaxation and sightseeing before attending the National Milk Producers Federation annual meeting. For the relaxation part of our trip, we stayed at the Solamar, a Kimpton hotel located in the Gaslamp Quarter. We knew we probably couldn’t get into our room right away, so we had planned on getting lunch. The desk clerk gave us a few suggestions. We checked our bags and strolled onto the street to check out a few places.

Searsucker wasn’t one of the choices he suggested. When we walked by, the menu looked appealing. We checked a few more places, but then returned to Searsucker.

At lunch, you place your order at the reception desk. Lunch items are listed on a large chalkboard hanging overhead. Linda’s burger was made from chopped steak. She thought that was why it was particularly good. Also, it was cooked to medium rare, which is her preference.

I ordered a Triple C sandwich. I guess that’s supposed to stand for ‘crab cake club’ sandwich. I suggested they change the name to ‘ABC’ – avocado, bacon, and crab. It was delicious. I wouldn’t really describe it as a ‘crab cake’ sandwich. The crab mean was loosely bound together, but it was mostly crab and not very much filler.

We did order a side of their ‘brown butter fries’ on our server’s recommendation. They were good, but not outstanding. Considering everything else we ate over the next several days, we probably should have saved the calories.

Searsucker appears to be a hopping night place. We walked by often during our stay, and in the evening, it looked jam-packed. For dinner, it’s regular table service from a menu. It looks like a pretty creative menu at that.

We considered a return visit for lunch. But with only four days before the meeting started, we wanted to try other restaurants. Anyway, starting your vacation with the best burger you’ve had in your life is a pretty good beginning.

07 November 2011

Weary dinner at Lucca in Des Moines

In October, I traveled to Des Moines to attend the World Food Prize activities. My company, Land O’Lakes, helped sponsor a panel discussion on women in agriculture in the developing world. (Click here to read about the panel. Click here to view a video of an African woman who formed a dairy cooperative to help her family and her village succeed as dairy farmers.)

My trip to Des Moines was one problem after the other. It’s only a four hour drive from the office. But when I checked airfares, there actually was a pretty favorable fare available, so I decided to fly. However, when I went to the gate at the time to board the plane, all the passengers and I learned that our plane had a mechanical problem. They didn’t have a spare part in Minneapolis. So they had to fly in a different plane from Detroit. So the four-hour drive that I was avoiding turned into a five-hour delay at the airport.

When it became evident that I was not going to arrive in Des Moines in time for our group dinner, I started thinking about where I would have dinner when I finally did arrive. First I pulled up the address for my hotel (Embassy Suites) on Google maps. Then I searched for restaurants in walking distance. After I’d identified a couple interesting ones, I checked the reviews on Yelp. And that’s how I ended up at Lucca.

Des Moines is an interesting city. They have this nice, clean downtown on the west side of the river and this absolutely beautiful state capitol on the east side of the river. But in between is about 12 blocks of gritty industrial buildings. They’re trying to give the area some cache by rebranding it Historic East Village. As I walked to Lucca at 9 p.m. on a Wednesday evening, with hundreds, if not thousands of visitors in town for the World Food Prize, East Village was a virtual ghost town. I saw several interesting shops. But there were no other pedestrians on the sidewalk and very few cars.

My research showed that Lucca serves dinner until 10 p.m. When I walked in, there were only two other tables of diners in the place. I decided to be charitable and asked the person who greeted me if they were still serving dinner. He looked uncertain and asked the hostess. She assured me that they would serve dinner.

I’m glad they did. I had a great meal. Lucca has a very interesting menu concept. Everything is prix fixe. The menu lists several ‘primi’ courses and several secondi courses. It’s $30 for a starter and entrée, $7.50 more for dessert. The other thing about the menu – most of the items are designated by a one or two word listing. You have to ask the server to describe the preparation. It reminded me of Bar La Grassa in Minneapolis. In a way, it’s kind of annoying. But I guess it serves the purpose of stimulating a discussion with the server before you decide what to order. For me alone at 9 p.m. in Des Moines, that was all right. But it could also be distracting if you wanted to focus your attention on a discussion with dining partners or a date.

I started with the gnocci. Several Yelp reviewers raved about them, and I agree. They were light and flavorful, dressed in burnt butter with sage. For my entrée, I ordered scallops. These were four beautiful, large scallops, seared and served with mélange of crisp sautéed vegetables. I realized that both courses consisted of pillowy food. I guess after my distressing travel delays, I needed something comforting on my plate.

After I finished, I asked the woman who appeared to be the hostess about the menu concept. “What if a diner doesn’t want to order both a primi and a secondi course?” She said it hasn’t been a problem. Sometimes people will share, and she assured me that they could accommodate a diner who really didn’t want to order both courses. I also asked about the particularly enjoyable music mix that was playing through dinner. She told me it was a jazz ‘station’ on the internet radio service Pandora. Cool.

I hope East Village thrives and Lucca survives until the next time I’m at loose ends in Des Moines for dinner.

06 November 2011

Lunch at Lincoln in DC

I suppose you have to wonder why there isn’t already a restaurant in DC named ‘Lincoln.’ I sure don’t know why. But there is now, and I had a lunch meeting there with my DC staff person on my most recent trip.

The décor is certainly appealing. The main dining room is open and airy. There are attractive, stylish pictures on the wall. Probably the main attention-getter is the floor. It’s ‘paved’ with Lincoln pennies.

The theme of the menu is small plates. I guess they actually prefer to say ‘seasonal’ small plates. By that, I assume they mean that the menu changes seasonally.

I thought the lunch menu was interesting. They have a bunch of sides or appetizers that you could share or have as part of your meal. They have a limited number of entrées. They look interesting, but neither of us chose one.

Our server described a soup of the day. It was a corn chowder with shrimp. We both ordered it. Jen thought it was bland. I agree that it didn’t have a lot of intense flavor, but I thought the flavors were well blended and subtle. A difference in perspective, I guess. LincolnDC

The lunch menu offers a nice selection of creative sandwiches and salads. Jen ordered the peach grilled cheese. It featured peach jam, fried green tomatoes and camembert cheese. It looked very appealing, and she liked it.

I was tempted by a couple of the salads. The chopped salad sounded intriguing, with avocado, peas, corn, feta cheese, and diced tomatoes. I also thought the Nicoise sounded good, with tuna, lima beans, capers, purple potatoes, tomatoes, and quail eggs.

But in the end, I also opted for a sandwich. I had a barbecued short rib sandwich. The meat was very tender. I also liked the barbecue sauce, though I guess it was fairly salty. The only thing I would say is that it was a little messy for a business lunch. I also opted for fries instead of chips ($3 upcharge). The fries were very good and were dressed with a drizzle of truffle oil. Like the sandwich, however, also very salty.

That was it. We didn’t have any dessert. I guess the big question is – would I go back? Well, I wouldn’t make a special trip downtown to eat there. But if I were staying downtown, or if I had a lunch meeting downtown, I’d definitely go again.