Sunday, January 17, 2010

Cookers and eaters

The following is my December 16, 2009 article for the Durham Herald-Sun.

Dinner is not a foe to be faced

It seems that humans can be divided into "cookers" and "eaters."  Or at least that's the way it is at my house.  One cooker and three eaters.  My eaters have no desire, at this point, to become cookers.  Even the one who is in college and lives in an on-campus apartment doesn't feel the need to become a cooker yet because his two of his roommates do indeed know how to cook, at least enough to survive.  So my college-age eater still has a university meal plan and enough leftovers in the refrigerator to see him through until vacation.
My high school-age eater has a great sense of taste and loves good food but doesn't see the necessity in learning to make anything more than microwave noodles for himself.  When he was much younger, he told me that he was sorry that I did not get to eat popcorn, one of his favorites, when I was his age.  Puzzled, I asked him what he meant by that.  His reply was that microwaves hadn't been invented then.  I promptly bought Jiffy Pop and showed him how we did it back in the olden days.
Since I came home from spending six months working with a chef in France, food has become intensely more interesting for me.  I found such pleasure there in shopping at the outdoor markets, trying new foods, and sharing meals with friends and clients.  Preparing dinner was no longer the foe to be faced and conquered at the end of the workday.
I now read cookbooks and books about chefs and kitchens.  I visit the local farmers' markets and gaze longingly at the cheeses and fish at Whole Foods and Weaver Street Market.  But, at the end of the day, I am still a cooker and it just isn't always easy.  My eaters are quick to ask, "Where's the meat?" when I serve up an onion quiche or tomato tart.  At the risk of sounding a bit sexist, I will confess here that all of my eaters are men.
I decided to ask my 17-year-old eater for some help with this column.  He, like most of his friends, loves Bojangles' egg biscuits and he has had his share of Chick-Fil-A on Mondays when the vendor comes to his school at lunch.  He and his buddies like to eat at Bali Hai, a Mongolian grill on Ninth Street in Durham.  He says he likes it because it is "different."  He recently took his girlfriend to dinner at Piazza Italia at Brightleaf Square.  His favorite dish is lasagna.  He reported back that their lasagna is made with sausage and is quite good.  He even came home smelling like garlic.
Not long ago, I decided to stage a taste-test of three lasagnas to see which one he likes best.  I bought a Stouffer's frozen one from the supermarket, made another using a recipe I learned from Chef Vedel in France and then used my old stand-by, which had undergone a renovation of sorts since my return.  I didn't tell him which was which and even carefully removed the Stouffer's from its pan and put it in one of my own.  It came in last and I must admit that I was quite relieved.  Chef Vedel's came in second and my own recipe won.  He didn't hesitate when I asked him which recipe I should include in this column, voting lasagna as No. 1.
His second favorite dish is shrimp and grits.  It has long been one of my favorites, but I hadn't attempted to make it myself in many years.  Dorette Snover and I made it for our French friends in Arles.  We couldn't find grits, but we were able to find polenta and made the substitution.  It was quite a hit (along with the eggnog laced with bourbon in mid-August).  Of course, finding Madagascar shrimp at the market, straight off the boat was helpful.  After eating Bill Smith's version at Crook's Corner this past summer, I decided to try it all on my own for my eaters.  It went over very well and now they ask for it regularly.
I do indeed ask my eaters to critique each new recipe I try.  I continue to be hopeful that one day they might ask for lamb or that they will try my caramelized onion and goat cheese tart.  The look of shock on my college-age eater's face when I offered him a piece at Thanksgiving made me realize that he is not quite there yet, however.  "Tarts should be sweet, mom!  And goat cheese?  Are you serious?"  My eaters are a work in progress.
At least my father-in-law loved Elodie Farms' honey and goat cheese spread and has promised to buy a leg of lamb if I will cook it for him the next time he visits.
There is hope.

Serves 8-10

8-9 oz. lasagna noodles (I like to use Barilla's no-boil flat noodles- I get them at Target)
1 lb. Italian sausage or ground beef
1/2 c. diced onions (optional)
15 oz. ricotta cheese
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2-4 c. mozzarella cheese
1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese
52 oz. spaghetti or marinara sauce
OR-- I make my own:
Cook the following in a large saucepan for 20-30 minutes before assembling the lasagna:
32 oz. can crushed tomatoes
15 oz. can petit-diced tomatoes
Small can of tomato paste (then fill it with wwater to add as needed to the sauce)
1 1/2 tsp. oregano
2 cloves crushed garlic (optional)
Sprinkle of red pepper flakes (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Taste after 10-15 minutes and adjust seasonings, if necessary.

Preheat oven to 350F.
Crumble the sausage or ground beef into hot pan, add onions and brown.  Drain.
In medium bowl, mix beaten eggs, ricotta, half of mozzarella, and the Parmesan.
(The number of layers will depend upon the depth of your pan.  I usually make three layers, but if your pan is deeper, you can make four.)
Spread one cup of tomato sauce in bottom of 13 x 9 baking pan.  Layer noodles on top of sauce, spread 1/3 cup of ricotta mixture on noodles, layer 1/3 of browned meat and 1/3 remaining mozzarella.  Repeat twice, ending with mozzarella.
Cover with foil and bake until bubbly, 50-60 minutes.  Uncover and continue cooking until cheese is melted, about 5 minutes.  Let stand 15 minutes before cutting.

Bon appétit, eaters of the world!  Bon courage to all the cookers!

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