By Erin Swaney / For the Herald
As day 365 of the year approaches, the resolutions start flying. I’m not wonderful at keeping these, but this past year I managed to fulfill a few. The key? Choose resolutions you have little choice but to keep.
Cooking and eating are a perfect example. You need to eat, if not three meals a day, at least one decent one plus a bag of popcorn, glass of wine and peanut butter and jelly sandwich crusts. (I’m not encouraging this, but I see you moms of three toddlers.)
If this is the year of “cook more homemade meals,” then “365: A Year of Everyday Cooking & Baking” from James Beard Award winning author Meike Peters may be just the ticket. Save your popcorn meals for that one extra day this leap year.
Peters’ recipes at first had me asking: “How is this woman able to cook like this every day?” There may be an elite few of us that have it together enough — or simply the luxury — to be in the kitchen cooking or baking daily. Myself? Please don’t be disillusioned by my cookbook-loving zeal, I rely very much on leftovers, and leftovers of leftovers. And Costco.
And yet, “365” had me soon asking, “What if?” I mean, this past week alone had me cooking enchiladas for a dozen of my husband’s co-workers — hi guys! — helping host a Middle Eastern-themed tapas meal, prepping recipes for a cookbook review, and getting set to make all of our Christmas Eve meal and parts of Christmas dinner. If I can do things this extravagantly, couldn’t it be possible to sustain a much pared-down version of this?
With Peters’ variety and simplicity, I’m almost convinced the answer is “yes.”
It may sound odd, as a leftover-loving household, but I rarely make lasagna. It just fell off my radar when I had to drop gluten 10 years ago and gluten-free flour was an anomaly — let alone gluten-free lasagna noodles. And I never really got the dish back into the weekly repertoire.
Now, I will definitely have to readjust.
Given the proximity of the New Year, and armed with my favorite gluten-free pasta, I decided to make the recipe from Day 8, as in Jan. 8: fennel and tomato lasagna with crunchy bacon.
This version of lasagna calls for a roux-based bechamel sauce — so a little more work than the typical “open jar, add noodles, cheese and ground meat” variety. But really not too much more work. The bechamel took all of 10 minutes. Then you saute the fennel and sear off the thick-cut bacon, fennel seed, garlic, chiles and tomatoes. Finally, you assemble and bake. Even with the addition of grating cheese, it was a rather painless effort.
The success of the dish was met with a few questions: Could I back off the heat next time? Why did I have to dice the whole tomatoes, why not just purchase diced? What’s with the whole fennel seed? After the night of Middle Eastern dishes, my husband was concerned that fennel seed was becoming the new “it” food (I assured him it was not). Next time, I’ll get my tomatoes pre-diced, grind the roasted fennel seeds before adding to the mix and pull back on the chile flakes.
Next up was Peters’ Day 46 with a blood orange and arugula salad with black olives and red onion. By “black olives,” she means a dark olive like kalamata. This was a cinch. Divide arugula between the plates, dress with oranges, red onion and olives. Drizzle olive oil and season. Another day down, and delicious.
Day 347, which was a week or so ago — so, fitting — brought us roasted red cabbage wedges with kumquats. I love kumquats and am always looking for an excuse to use these cute little things, so this was a win-win. Knock off day 347 of a resolution and use a favorite ingredient.
Like with the salad, the cabbage was simple to put together, and I awarded myself accolades with each cabbage wedge I managed to successfully flip without having it come to pieces. Even after fancy extras like a bechamel sauce (despite its fancy name, it really isn’t), I’m considering “365: A Year of Everyday Cooking & Baking” as the antidote to a no-contest resolution like “cook more homemade meals.”
Step aside, Costco rotisserie chicken, there’s a new game in town.
Fennel and tomato lasagna with crunchy bacon
You could used already diced or crushed tomatoes to save a step. I plan on grinding my fennel seed after it’s toasted. If you need to make this gluten free, just swap out the noodles and use your favorite gluten-free flour for the roux. Generously serves 4 to 6.
For the bechamel sauce
3 cups whole milk
1 large bay leaf
Nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
Fine sea salt
Finely ground pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup all-purpose flour
For the lasagna
1¾-pound fennel bulb, cut in half lengthwise, cored, and thinly sliced lengthwise
Fine sea salt
Finely ground pepper
7 ounces thick-cut bacon, cut into very small cubes
3 large cloves garlic, crushed
2 small dried chiles
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
2⅔ pounds canned whole peeled tomatoes, chopped
About 9 ounces no-boil lasagna noodles
4 ounces Parmesan, coarsely grated
For the bechamel sauce, combine the milk, bay leaf, ¼ teaspoon of ground or freshly grated nutmeg, ¼ teaspoon of salt, and a pinch of pepper in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Immediately take the pan off the heat, remove and discard the bay leaf, and set aside. To make the roux for the béchamel, melt the butter in a separate medium saucepan over medium-high heat and as soon as it’s sizzling hot, whisk in the flour. Slowly pour the hot milk mixture into the roux and whisk until smooth. Simmer on low, whisking occasionally, for 2 to 3 minutes or until the sauce starts to thicken. Season to taste with nutmeg, salt, and pepper and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350. Butter a 10-by-8-inch baking dish (or a dish of roughly this size).
For the lasagna, in a large, heavy pan, heat a generous splash of olive oil over medium-high heat. Working in batches, arrange the fennel slices, side by side, in the pan and saute for 1 to 2 minutes per side or until golden brown and al dente. Season to taste with salt and pepper and transfer to a plate, but leave the pan on the heat.
Add a little olive oil and the bacon to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium-high heat for about 7 minutes or until golden brown and crispy. Scrape the bacon to the sides of the pan. If the pan is too dry, add a little olive oil. Add the garlic, chile peppers, and fennel seeds and cook for 15 seconds then add the tomatoes, season to taste with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes or until the sauce starts to thicken. Taste and season again with salt and pepper and take the pan off the heat. Reserve 3 tablespoons of the sauce.
Arrange a layer of lasagna noodles on the bottom of the prepared baking dish, spread with ⅓ of the tomato-bacon sauce, followed by ¼ of the bechamel. Top with ⅓ of the sauteed fennel and ¼ of the Parmesan. Repeat to make 2 more layers and top the last layer with lasagna noodles. Top the noodles with the reserved 3 tablespoons of tomato-bacon sauce, followed by the remaining béchamel and Parmesan. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, depending on the lasagna package instructions, or until the pasta is al dente. To brown the cheese a little, you can switch on the broiler for the last 1 to 2 minutes. Let the lasagna sit for 5 to 10 minutes then divide among plates, sprinkle with pepper, and serve.
Blood orange and arugula salad with black olives and onion
Use the juiciest of oranges for this salad, which isn’t good with dried-out fruit. Swap the blood oranges for Cara Cara or the olives for large green Castelvetrano olives. If raw onion is too punchy for your taste, soak them in a bit of water or vinegar first. This salad would also be delicious with a drizzle of white balsamic vinegar. Use the best extra virgin olive oil you have. Serves 2 to 4.
2 handfuls arugula leaves
4 small blood oranges, peeled (skin and white pith removed) and thinly sliced
2 small red onions, thinly sliced 12 to 16 black olives, preferably Kalamata
Flaky sea salt
Coarsely ground pepper
Divide the arugula among plates. Arrange the blood oranges, onions, and olives on top. Drizzle with olive oil, season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve immediately.
Roasted red cabbage wedges with kumquats
If you can’t find kumquats, don’t stress, Peters suggests using a couple small oranges as substitute. If like me you prefer a bit more char on your roasted cabbage, leave it in a few minutes longer after you’ve flipped the wedges. Serves 4 generously.
1⅓ pounds cored
red cabbage, cut into thin wedges
⅓ pound kumquats, cut into very thin rounds and seeds removed — or 2 small oranges, cut into thin wedges
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup freshly squeezed orange juice
2 tablespoons maple syrup
Flaky sea salt
Coarsely ground pepper
1 small bunch fresh thyme
Preheat the oven to 400. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Spread the cabbage and kumquats on the lined baking sheet. Whisk together the olive oil, orange juice and maple syrup, pour over the cabbage and kumquats, and gently toss to combine — take care that the cabbage wedges don’t fall apart. Season to taste with salt and pepper and sprinkle with the thyme. Roast for 15 minutes then use two forks to gently turn the cabbage wedges and roast for another 15 minutes or until the cabbage is just tender. Serve immediately or prepare a few hours ahead and warm in the oven just before serving.
Recipes reprinted from “365: A Year of Everyday Cooking & Baking” by Meike Peters with permission from Prestel Publishing. Photography by Meike Peters.