Saturday, February 15, 2014

February comforts

This winter is getting ridiculous. Or at least it feels that way. I remember winters like this one from when I was a kid, when it felt like it snowed every second day and on the days it didn't, it was sunny and bright and freezing. Back then it was fun - playing in the snow in the schoolyard, again after school and on weekends, drinking a lot of hot chocolate, drying out snow-stiff mittens on the heating register, skating on the canal and on backyard rinks, watching the Olympics and wishing I was Liz Manley.

As an adult it's not so much fun, especially since I'm not really much for winter sports. I keep saying I'm going to buy some snowshoes and get out there. Maybe soon. I still need to get some new skates, so I can get out on the canal before it's done for the season. It's been a great year for it and I've been hibernating inside, making warming casseroles and yes, watching the Olympics semi-obsessively. As winter pastimes go, it's not so bad. At least we always have something nice and comforting to eat for dinner.

Early this week I put together a gigantic spinach and cheese lasagna which I've been having for lunch all week while Chris was away in Toronto. I'm saving the remaining three pieces for him so I can eat something different for a few days, but honestly it's very good. I will add a sauteed onion to the spinach mixture next time, because I think it could benefit from the depth of flavour, but that's nitpicking - it's good as is. Lasagna is only as good as your marinara sauce, in my opinion, so make or buy an awesome one and you're off to a great start.

Deep-dish spinach lasagna
nine lasagna noodles
4-5 cups marinara sauce
2 packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed very dry
2 500-mL containers cottage cheese (can use half ricotta if you like)
3 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
1.5 cups grated parmesan or similar cheese
2 eggs
optional - 1 small onion, sauteed until soft in 1 tbsp olive oil

Cook noodles according to package directions, warm up your marinara sauce and preheat oven to 375F. In a large bowl combine the spinach, 2 cups mozzarella, 3/4 cup parmesan, cottage cheese, eggs, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir well and set aside.

In a 9 x 13 baking dish, lay down a good layer of marinara sauce and then place three well-drained noodles in a layer on top. Cover with half the spinach mixture, then pour a layer of sauce on top to cover completely. Repeat noodle and cheese layers, then a final layer of noodles and the remaining sauce. Top with the leftover mozzarella and parmesan. Bake for 45 minutes and then allow to stand for 15. Cut into 8 to 10 pieces and serve.

My other comfort food triumph this week was last night's shakshouka, which benefited from extra time simmering on the stove while I waited for Chris to arrive home. (He got delayed helping some poor guy dig his car out from a snowbank on a tiny road off highway 7. Good man, that one.) It's a hybrid of the pepper-focused one from the Ottolenghi cookbook and the more tomato-heavy one in Jerusalem. Bell peppers are my favourite vegetable so I prefer that to be the focus, but I don't much care for thyme and bay leaves so I used the sweet paprika mentioned in the seasoning mix in Jerusalem. A local food blogger just opened a specialty spice shop in Ottawa's Little Italy and we got some Moroccan spices from her last week, so it was fun to use them. Most foods get modified all the time to serve the tastes of the consumers, so I think Yotam would be OK with my modifications.

In any event I think it turned out perfect and I will be making it this way henceforth, so I'm putting it here for memory's sake and because it's so delicious and warm and lovely that I think you should go make it too.

Friday Night Shakshouka
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 red bell peppers, sliced into thin strips
2 yellow bell peppers, sliced into thin strips
1 large sweet onion, halved and sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 28-oz can diced tomatoes, undrained
1 tbsp dark brown sugar
 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp sweet paprika
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup chopped fresh coriander

Optional but awesome: 1 cup full-fat Greek yogurt, mixed with 1/2 tsp salt (I used nonfat and stirred in 2 tbsp heavy cream)

In a large skillet toast the cumin seeds over high heat 1-2 minutes until fragrant, tossing so they don't burn. Add the oil and onions, and saute for 2 minutes. Add the peppers and sugar, and cook untl they take on some colour and are softened (can take ten minutes if the vegetables give off a lot of liquid; wait until it evaporates and the veg get a little browned). Add the tomatoes, garlic, spices, salt and pepper, and lower heat to medium-low. Simmer 1 hour until thick and saucy, adding a little vegetable broth or water if it gets dry. Stir in fresh coriander.

To serve, make 4 depressions in the sauce and crack an egg into each. Cover the pan and cook 8 minutes until whites are set but yolks are still wobbly. Scoop out two eggs with underlying sauce into each bowl (some sauce will be left over) and serve immediately with yogurt to garnish and toasted bread to sop up juices.

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