~ by Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973)
Stunning jewelry, expensive shoes, evenings tête-à-tête in quiet, elegant restaurants or a stroll through a bustling, noisy, laughter-filled fairground. Romantic getaways in some out-of-the-way, secluded spot or a picnic in the breeze of a warm summer day. Snuggled up together as the lights are dimmed and the movie splashes across the screen, box of hot, buttery popcorn perched between my knees or jetting off to some exotic, exciting far away dream location. Armfuls of roses or peonies, boxes of chocolate or a hot, greasy kabob with fries. Charming, often sophisticated gifts wrapped up in a dash of mystery, a jot of quirkiness bordering on the corny, smothered in some enchanted evening and definitely the way to capture a girl’s heart. With each token of love that he places in my hands, each sign of affection that he graciously and generously offers me, with each excited schoolboy grin that melts my heart as he impatiently, nervously watches for my reaction, I understand and appreciate how much he does love me.
Yet. Yet. I would be a fool to refuse these lovely gifts, I mean, what woman would? Yet I really don’t need those expensive toys and luxurious gewgaws to make me truly happy. There is something that means ever so much more to me; something that captures my heart and makes me realize just how lucky I am to have him. Yes, anyone who reads my blog and who knows me as a friend understands that the one thing that I find the sexiest, the most alluring and heart melting, is a man who cooks.
And mine does indeed love to cook. He adores going to the market, basket in hand, and perusing stall after stall in his quest for the freshest, most seasonal and local products from the land, the sea and dug up from the dirt. And like a magician finding pleasure and satisfaction in delighting his audience, JP finds such joy in performing that magic, concocting something amazing with his finds and enchanting his audience of one. I have already told the tale of how he became such a great cook, teaching himself while still a child. And his talent and passion have only grown over the years. Needless to say, on holidays, weekends and summer vacations, when free from the stranglehold of work and a time-consuming job, my man takes over the kitchen. And as one who would prefer to spend any and all kitchen time baking pastries, cakes, pies and breads and who knocks her head against the wall in any effort to decide on an actual meal, I would certainly never stand in between him and the stove!
Now that he is home fulltime, our days intertwine gently, serenely and happily. We still, after all these years, enjoy being together all the time. And in between the writing, the long walks, the genealogy, housework, bills and whatever daily tasks keep us busy and apart, we still get together to shop and cook. And while I have somehow grown lazy and complacent, his energy is abuzz and that has been taking him into the kitchen much more often. He channels his creativity and lets his imagination fly.
And how he adores the process: pots and pans clatter, flour poofs all around him in a haze of white, tomato sauce and olive oil splatter across the stovetop, dishes, utensils, pots and pans pile up willy-nilly in the sink and in tumultuous confusion on every available work surface. He chops and slices, blends and stirs, tastes and tastes again. A twist of the peppermill here, a dash or two (or three) of fleur de sel there, a squeeze of this tube, a blob or a glug or a plop of this flavoring or that condiment, a largish pinch of one or the other spice and, like a great inventor, he slowly creates a dish worthy of every minute, every movement, every frustrated curse word and each moan of pleasure as he tastes. Yes, sometimes these preparations are fraught with displeasure – a failed dish, missing ingredients, cooking disasters - or even danger - sliced fingers, trips to the emergency room – but all in all, he loves cooking as much as I love having him cook.
Now how to put down on paper what he creates by feel and sense? Au pif the French call it: cooking by intuition (pif being slang for nose). His recipes are never the same twice, he rarely measures; his method involves non-stop changing, adapting and adding as he goes. As this is in direct contrast to the way I cook or bake, I am more often than not banned from the kitchen whenever he takes over (to avoid my meddling, my interfering, my moans of frustration, the groans and eye rolls and unwanted suggestions) so even writing down the step-by-step becomes problematic if not downright impossible. When he cooks, my role is simply to make sure that the table is set for when he is ready to serve the meal, to make ooooohing, ahhhhhing and mmmmmming sounds while I savor and enjoy his masterpiece and to wash up when the meal is done – a Herculean task if ever there was one.
So, I take a deep breath and will attempt to organize my thoughts and his every gesture, although I give very rough guestimates. You must learn to cook as he does, au pif, and create your own…
JP’S FABULOUS LASAGNA
Whether made with sautéed, aromatic veal or luxurious smoke salmon, his lasagna is fabulous! Add more or less of each vegetable or use your favorites. Layer some mozzarella or fontina or a mixture of ricotta and Parmesan in with the layers of béchamel for a cheesier lasagna. Use more tomato sauce with a meat lasagna than in a delicate smoked salmon lasagna. Don’t forget that everything added to this is precooked so the time in the oven is simply to heat through, melt the cheese and meld the flavors.
For a glass or Pyrex baking dish approximately 12 x 8 x 2 inches (30 x 20 x 5 cm), greased with either butter or margarine
10 or 12 sheets (each sheet approximately 7 x 3 ½ inches (17 x 9 cm) egg lasagna
3 Tbs (50 g) unsalted butter
3 Tbs (50 g) flour
2 – 2 ½ cups (500 to 650 ml) milk, preferably warm or room temperature
Freshly ground black pepper
Large pinch nutmeg
Optional: 1 small onion, minced
(see recipes here or here)
3 medium to large peppers, yellow, red and green, rinsed
1 – 2 medium-sized zucchini, trimmed and rinsed
2 pounds (1 kg) fresh spinach, trimmed and rinsed
1 cup or so freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 pound (500 g) ground veal
1 onion, diced
salt and freshly ground black pepper
seasonings of choice
About 8 slices smoked salmon, more or less to your taste
Prepare the Béchamel:
Melt the butter over a medium-low flame. Add the flour all at once and whisk to form a thick, smooth paste. (If adding the onion, simply add the onion to the melted butter and sautée until lightly golden and tender, about 3 or 4 minutes, then add the flour) Cook, whisking, over medium-low heat, for just a minute or two. Pour in the milk just a little at a time, whisking constantly, adding more milk as the sauce thickens. Once all the milk has been added, salt and pepper the béchamel, add a dash of nutmeg and continue to stir or whisk until the sauce is thick and very smooth, about 10 minutes or so. Set aside.
Prepare the vegetables:
Place the cleaned spinach leaves in a large casserole with just the water clinging to the leaves once washed. Cover and steam over medium heat until wilted. Drain well then, once cool enough to handle easily, squeeze out all the excess water. Separate between your fingers or chop.
Roast the peppers either over a flame on your stovetop or under the oven grill until very soft and the skin is charred and bubbles up. If doing this in the oven, do it over a baking sheet or piece of aluminum foil to catch any dripped juice. Place the peppers in a plastic sandwich bag for a minute or two: the condensation will lift the skin up away from the flesh and removing it will be easier. Being careful not to burn yourself on the hot peppers, slide a sharp, pointed knife blade between the skin and the flesh and lift away. Once all the skin has been removed and discarded, cut out the stem and scrape away and discard all seeds. Slice or chop the flesh of the roasted peppers as you like.
Rinse and pat dry 2 medium zucchinis, trim and discard the two ends of each. Cut each zucchini in half widthwise. Slice each half lengthwise into thin slices and line up on parchment paper-lined baking sheets. Lightly brush each slice with olive oil then grill until tender and beginning to color.
If using ground veal, simply brown in olive oil in a large skillet as you would for any dish: sautée an onion or two until golden or even caramelized, sautée the veal until browned: salt, pepper and spice as you please (chopped fresh or dried parsley, basil, oregano). Add some chopped, roasted cherry tomatoes or chopped olives if you like.
Prepare the Lasagna:
Start with a light layer of béchamel in the bottom of the baking dish;
Place one layer of lasagna noodles.
Simply add layers of vegetables, veal or smoke salmon, tomato sauce, béchamel and lasagna noodles. You should have about 3 layers of each, ending with a layer of noodles, then béchamel topped generously with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Bake in a preheated 350°F (180°C) oven for about 20 minutes until bubbly and very hot all the way through. The top should be browned. You can also just place it under the grill for a minute or two to brown the top if you like.
Serve hot with a glass of wine.