Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Redeeming Best Intentions

If you're anything like me, you sometimes buy green vegetables with virtuous plans in mind. Salads, sauteed greens, stir-frys--we'll make them all! But sometimes, I forget about that bunch of chard or bag of kale. The road to sad, limp produce is paved with good intentions.

I get suckered into those family-sized packs of greens because of their relative value over the more reasonable smaller packs, and then I panic when I realize that they don't cook themselves. Last week, I threw in a couple of handfuls of spinach with some frozen peas and butter, tossed it all together with pasta, olive oil, and Parmesan. It was fast, easy, and delicious...but I forgot about the other pound of spinach still in the crisper until days later. What's the best way to use a big bunch of spinach? In addition to the strata, this slow-cooker lasagna is one of my favorites.

Besides a giant bowl of spinach, you'll need mushrooms, pesto, tomato sauce, no-boil lasagna noodles (truly a miracle of modern technology), and three kinds of cheese. (Mom, avert your eyes!) With about half an hour of prep time, three bowls, and five hours of patience, you'll dig into a cheesy, saucy bowl of noodles and all those greens that you'd promised a good time to a few days ago. Bonus: This lasagna isn't horribly bad for you! It's actually pretty virtuous itself.

Slow-Cooker Spinach, Pesto, & Mushroom Lasagna
Adapted from Cooking Light | Serves 8

4 cups baby spinach (or adult spinach, roughly chopped)
1 tablespoon water
2 cups sliced cremini mushrooms
1/2 cup pesto
3/4 cup (3 ounces) shredded mozzarella cheese
15 ounces reduced-fat ricotta cheese
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3/4 cup (3 ounces) grated Parmesan cheese, divided (1/4 cup for mixture, 1/2 cup for topping)
25 ounces of tomato-basil sauce
8 ounces of plain tomato sauce (or just extra tomato-basil sauce if you have a giant jar)
1 (8-ounce) package no-boil lasagna noodles (12 noodles)

Put the spinach in large glass bowl with 1 tablespoon of water. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and microwave for 90 seconds. Carefully remove the plastic and let the spinach cool before you drain it and squeeze it dry. Combine the spinach, mushrooms, and pesto in that same bowl; set aside. Combine mozzarella, ricotta, and beaten egg in a separate bowl. Stir in 1/4 cup Parmesan, and set aside. Combine the jarred sauce with the plain tomato sauce in another bowl.

Can you tell I love jadeite?
Coat the bottom of a 4- to 6-quart slow cooker with cooking spray. Spread about a cup of pasta sauce mixture in the bottom of the crock. Arrange 3 noodles over the pasta sauce mixture (you may have to break them up some to fit); top with 1 cup cheese (one-third of what’s in the bowl) mixture and 1 cup (half of what’s in the bowl) spinach mixture. 

Don't worry about messy noodles. It'll cook just fine like this.

Repeat the layers, ending with spinach mixture. Arrange 3 noodles over spinach mixture; top with remaining 1 cup cheese mixture and 1 cup of the sauce. Place the remaining 3 noodles over sauce; spread sauce mixture over noodles. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan.

I know that's a lot of layers to keep straight, so I made a cross-section list of what you should have:
[Top of lasagna]
1/2 cup Parmesan
cooking spray
[Bottom of lasagna]

Cover with lid; cook on low 5 hours or until done.

You'll notice I don't have any pictures of the final product. We ate it all before I remembered. It's not a pretty dish, so don't expect to wow dinner guests with its presentation, but it's a solid weekend dish you can put together and forget about. You'll have a delicious dinner when you're watching football later. I hear there's a big game coming up. Come back here soon, and I'll have an easy cookie recipe that's perfect for some sibling rivalry.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Sunshine Off a Log

It's a new year! It's mid-January! Have you already fallen off your resolutions wagon? Well, you're in good company. Do you know someone who's still on the wagon and making you look bad? Well, grab a jelly roll pan, because this is the perfect transition to the slippery slope where we're all on even ground, indulging in some salty, gooey, chocolate treats. Life is better with a little decadence, isn't it?

This stuff is addictive. "Oh-just-one-more-piece" addictive. It's like lickin' sunshine off a log--I never fill up, no matter how much I eat. I usually stand over a batch, eating the edges I've trimmed off, insisting that "It looks prettier this way." Of course it really does, but the preview the edges give are more thrilling than the aesthetics of a plate of candy pieces.

It's dangerously easy to make. See that flaky crust on the bottom?

SALTINE CRACKERS, my friends. (You don't have to tell anyone that though. You should let it slip only if people think you're too highfalutin with your homemade.) That caramel in the middle is just butter, brown sugar, and the miracle of sweetened condensed milk. Melt some chocolate chips on top, and then toss on some chopped nuts.

Happy 2013! May your year be as blissful as tasting the decadent edges.

Salty Toffee
Adapted from Holiday Baking
2.5 sticks of unsalted butter (1.75 cups)
35 saltine crackers (almost a sleeve)
1 cup (230 grams) dark brown sugar
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
12 ounces (about 2 cups) bittersweet chocolate chips
1 cup hazelnuts, chopped (cashews, peanuts, and probably almonds, pecans, and walnuts are all lovely too)

Preheat the oven to 400. Line a 10 by 15 jelly roll pan with parchment paper so that the paper hangs over the pan a bit. Put half a stick of butter in the pan and place the pan in the oven to melt the butter while the oven is heating up. When it's melted, take the pan out of the oven and smear the butter around to grease the parchment paper. Arrange the crackers on the pan on top of the melted butter--it doesn't have to be perfect.
In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the remaining two sticks of butter with the brown sugar, stirring very frequently. Have your sweetened condensed milk and a whisk nearby. (Open the can and have a small spatula handy too.)
Bring the mixture to a boil, and boil for about two minutes--the mixture needs to become a thick syrup. 248 degrees is perfect.
Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the milk, mixing until the caramel is completely blended. Pour the caramel evenly over the crackers. Well, you don't have to use ALL of it. It turns out that this caramel is good on cake, ice cream, cookies, spoons...so I usually save about half a cup to stash in the fridge for a sugar emergency.

 Bake for 5-8 minutes, until the caramel is bubbly all over.
Sprinkle the chocolate chips evenly over the caramel, and let it sit for five minutes to allow the chocolate to melt. 
After the chips are mostly melted, spread the chocolate with a spatula to cover the caramel. 

Sprinkle the nuts evenly over the chocolate. I usually use a metal measuring cup to gently press the nuts into the chocolate so that they set up more sturdily. 
Put the entire pan into the freezer for at least 30 minutes. The waiting is difficult, but worth it. After half an hour, remove the pan from the freezer and lift the toffee out of the pan using the parchment paper. Place the toffee on a cutting board and use a large knife to cut into pieces. The larger the pieces, the less debris (nut pieces, cracker crumbs, and chocolate shavings) you'll have--but this debris is very tasty on ice cream, so consider that when cutting. Store in an airtight container in the fridge, with wax paper between the layers.