Sunday, September 26, 2010

Wrapped in memories...with mustard

Food memories can be so deceptive - especially when they are from childhood. School lunches, for instance. When your family is poor, and I mean poor back when that didn't entitle you to a free hot lunch, cafeteria lunches were like dining at a 4 star restaurant. The snooty waiter was represented by an old lady (I realize now that "old" was probably 30 something) in a hair net, uniform and white shoes, the fine china by an indestructible tray most likely made of bakelite, and a cozy table with candles and flowers by a cafeteria table with attached benches that folded out from the wall. The atmosphere was further enhanced by a giant gray garbage can at the end of each table, where you were instructed to scrape the remains of your meal before bussing your own tray - classy.

I doubt I had more than a handful of hot lunches in my elementary career, but they were memorable....there is nothing that haunts me quite as much as the memory of a wiener wrap, still hot and with a stripe of mustard on the INSIDE of that big square wrapper of bread - it was my FAVORITE. Pizza was good, anytime they had mashed potatoes and gravy, and the chicken days....apparently back in my day, the school lunch program was, shall we say, creative in the kind of food they could serve to small children.

Chicken day was my lucky day - I was and still am a huge fan of chicken skin. I know it's gross, but I love it - I think the day is gone that I could find a niche for deep fried chips made with it, but I can still dream, can't I? The most memorable part of it was that they served probably every other child a chicken back...yes, the back. The piece of chicken that has virtually no meat on it, included the big fatty tail, and a generous helping of skin. The kids who ate a hot lunch every day shunned it, would never DREAM of eating something with a tail attached, so I usually got a couple extra - occasionally including a "GRRROOOOOSSSSS...she's EATING it!!!" - to each her own, I say.

I've never tried to duplicate the wiener wrap of my childhood, I know I would fail miserably. So I keep it tucked away as a yummy memory of a big puffy roll with what was probably a good old fashioned "snouts and tail" hot dog nestled within, and most likely the high point of the day it was eaten. Food can be like that - things you eat when you were a kid are attached to other memories, and they just aren't the same when you're an adult. Case in point? Scooter pies. Nirvana as a kid.....nothing but a soggy cookie, nasty marshmallow and waxy fake chocolate on the outside as an adult. You can't go back....I've tried.

But you can move forward, and I have coveted a white veggie lasagna that a caterer makes at my work from time to time, but I have asked her for recipes before and she will not share (and which is why she doesn't get any of my cookies), so I made my own. It's uber cheesy, was faster and easier than traditional lasagna to make, and there's no meat in could put chicken in it if you want, but it doesn't need it a bit - had it for dinner with a beautiful salad and a sourdough baguette hot from the oven - it was perfect! And don't be afraid, lasagna is not hard to make - it just takes a little longer than ripping the top off a frozen box of Stouffers and tossing it in the microwave. Trust me, your tummy will thank you!

White Cheesy Veggie Lasagna

1 lb. lasagna noodles
1 lb. shredded mozzarella
1-1/4 C. shredded Parmesan

Cheese filling:
1 C. Ricotta
1 C. Cottage cheese
(use any combo of these 2, I prefer this because it's not too sloppy, not too grainy)
2 eggs
Pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper

2 celery ribs, cut in half lengthwise and sliced thinly
1 large carrot, cut in quarters and sliced 1/4"
1 small onion, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
6 mushrooms, cut in half and sliced 1/4" thick
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup flour
2 C. chicken broth (use veg broth if you are vegetarian)
3/4 C. whipping cream
3/4 C. milk
1/2 C. shredded Parmesan
1 large head of broccoli, cut in small florets and small chunks of stem
TIP: Use whatever kinds of veggies you want - just keep em small and cook them "al dente" as they will continue to cook in the oven

Start a pot of water to boil with a couple generous spoonfuls of salt. While that is heating, melt butter in LARGE skillet, put in celery, carrot, onion, garlic, and cook over medium heat for a few minutes; add mushrooms and continue to saute until onion and celery are tender. Add flour and stir in until all is absorbed, brown just a little for depth of flavor. Add chicken broth and whisk until flour is broken down and it starts to thicken, then add the cream and milk and continue whisking until mixture thickens and boils. Let boil for one minute, then add Parmesan and stir to melt/combine and remove from heat - you should have a nice thick sauce.

When your water comes to a boil, put the lasagna noodles in, two at a time and stir until they soften and are completely submerged - do this until it's all in the pot, then set the timer for 9 minutes (or whatever the box says for "al dente"). Keep will try to stick to each other and the pot if it sits, and will tear if you try to peel it off. When it's time, pour off about a quart of water into a medium saucepan, then dump the rest w/pasta into a strainer and immediately rinse with cold water. I put the pan in the sink and fill it with cold water and dump the pasta back in...let it sit while you finish the sauce.

Put the saucepan with the hot water on the burner, then dump the broccoli in it and boil for 2 minutes. Strain and immediately dump into the sauce, stirring until incorporated. Get a cookie sheet and take the pasta out of the cold water, laying out all the pieces and stacking in the opposite direction so they don't stick together as bad as they dry. Keep all the pieces if any have broken or torn - they can be used if need be.

Mix the ricotta, cottage cheese, eggs, Parmesan and seasonings with a will be kinda soupy, but no worries...the magical eggs will firm it up when it bakes.

Preheat oven to 375, spray a 9x13 pan and put about 3/4 C. of the sauce in the bottom. I picked out all the big chunks of veggies...wanted them on the inside of the layers, but whatever. Put one layer of 3 or 4 noodles in the bottom, cutting the ends off as needed so they are flush with the sides of the pan and overlapping if needed. I did 4 layers of noodles....just do the math to make sure you have enough. TIP: Use the best noodles on the top and bottom - gives you a good base and a pretty top - you can patch the in-between layers if you end up with partial pieces. On the first layer, put 1/3 of the cheese/egg mixture, just drizzle it over and use a fork if you need to spread it out a little. To that add 1/4 of the sauce w/veggies, then 1/4 mozzarella and 1/4 Parmesan. Do it 2 more times: noodles, cheese/egg, sauce, mozzarella, Parmesan, then put the last layer of noodles on top. TIP: when you put a new layer of noodles down, press gently all over to distribute the filling evenly and eliminate air pockets and so it will not end up being above the rim of the pan) Put the rest of the sauce, remaining mozzarella and last of the cheese on top and you're READY tooooo RUUUUUMMMMble!

Tear off a piece of foil and spray the non-shiny side, cover lasagna and put in the center of the oven and bake about 30 minutes. Remove foil and continue to cook another want the cheese melted and a little browning on top. Remove from oven and let stand on a cooling rack for at least 20 minutes before cutting - it needs time to cool and set-up or it will be too sloppy to get out of the pan without falling apart. TIP: You can make it ahead and put in the fridge - it just takes a little longer to bake through. I made it, then the next day covered it with foil and reheated on 375 for about an hour right out of the was FABulous!

OK, I admit....I am pretty sure this was better than the wiener wrap, but back then if you'd put this AND that in front of me, I would've gone for the wiener HANDS DOWN. It's just who I am.

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