Dinner for One: King Crab and Avocado Tian with Antipasto

Clayton’s working tonight, so it’s all Lolita time.  Although he’s a great consumer – as in he eats what I make without (much) complaining – there are dishes I prepare for myself that I don’t seem to ever make for him.  I don’t know why; there’s no real reason or rhyme, frankly – it’s just the way it is.  Tonight’s meal began with the leftovers from some huge-ass king crab legs we enjoyed for last night’s dinner, and a couple of odds and ends I picked up today at Trader Joe’s.  The result? An elegant but simple salad of nutty avocado and tender sweet crab meat, accompanied by an easy antipasti: a light but rich supper as delicious as it is beautiful.

King Crab and Avocado Tian with Antipasto

1 ripe avocado
1/3 lb fresh picked cooked crab meat
juice from 1 lemon
1 tbs mayonnaise
1 handful maché (lamb’s lettuce)
1 boll burrata cheese
2 slices prosciutto di parma, split and rolled into 4 tiny cigars
EVOO, sea salt, cracked black pepper, balsamic vinegar

Whole Foods had a special on King crab legs this weekend – something I’ve had a hankering for for a while now.  We bought 2 pounds, not realizing just how much meat these bad boys were going to yield.  I think we’ve established that we’ve never actually had King crab legs prior to these — likely only snow crab clusters — since neither of us can remember ever seeing such huge unbroken chunks of leg and knuckle meat before.  And it was so dense and packed that the discarded shells weighed next to nothing; we easily ‘harvested’ 30 oz of succulent pink deliciousness.  After gorging ourselves on not much more than crab and butter, we had about 1/2 lb leftover.

I pull my crab meat into nice sized hunks, and mix it with a little mayo and several teaspoons of lemon juice, along with some salt and pepper.  I just want the mayo to bind the crab – not make it gooey; I also just want the lemon juice to cancel out the egginess (eggyiness? eggyness?)  of the mayo – not make it lemony; and I just want the salt and pepper to brighten the salad – not overpower it.  The idea is crab and nothing but that which is needed to ‘hold it together’ for the sake of shaping the tian.

Speaking of which — here is how I’m shaping this “tian” – my stacked, formed salad of crab meat and avocado.  I’m not sure why it’s called a tian — in fact, although I see several examples of this term being used in this context online, traditionally a tian in French cooking is something completely different – either more like a vegetable tart, or an earthenware cooking device.  But when I envisioned this dish, it was as a perfectly shaped cylindrical layered salad.  And when I order a perfectly shaped cylindrical layered dish in a restaurant, it’s usually called a tian on the menu.  Hence my usage of the term.  Anyway, using my kitchen shears, I cut the ends off of a beer can to make a perfect form.  It would have been better to use a soup can, but all the cans I have in the house are designed to stack, so my can opener won’t work on their bottom sides.  (I figured this out only after dumping the contents of several cans of soup.)  Using a beer can just meant I had to be careful not to cut my fingers on the sharp edges.

I start by pressing my avocado, which I’ve blended with a dash of lemon juice, some salt, pepper, and EVOO, into a more-or-less flat 1″ thick layer on the bottom of my can.

Then I layer in the crab meat salad.

I vary carefully slide the can up and off the filling so it maintains its shape, pressing down on the crab meat to keep the filling on the plate.  Oiling the can a bit beforehand helped.

A basic antipasto of rolled prosciutto di parma, burrata cheese, capers, EVOO, and balsamic vinegar, along with some EVOO and lemon juice dressed maché, add extra dimensions to this already sophisticated presentation.  Crab and avocado, although not meant to co-exist in nature, seem destined for each other’s company on the plate: the sweet, tender sinews of crab absorb the buttery texture of the stone fruit’s green goodness, creating a harmonious marriage on the palate unrivaled in the realm of simple pleasures.  Along with a cold glass of sparkling rosé, this delectable dinner is truly a treat – tonight, for one, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make it for your sweetie whenever the mood strikes you…

Spinach Lasagne alla Bolognese

As much as I love it, and as often as I’ve made it, I am inconsistent when I make a traditional lasagna.  It’s either too runny and wet, or the top layer of noodles is too browned, or it’s too slippery and slidey, and it falls apart when pulled out of the pan, and all the insides squish out when touched by a fork.  I was actually kind of surprised to see that I’ve only blogged this dish once before, my Luscious Lobster Lasagna (which I’d forgotten entirely about: hence – why I keep this digital diary of my digestibles), a lovely white lasagna crafted almost exclusively outdoors on Little Red, our faithful electric Meco grill.   But its success is misleading; I’ve made dozens of lasagnas and have more often than not been dissatisfied with the results. So today I determined to try again, using the sublime image of Stefan’s Lasagne alla Bolognese as my inspiration.  Although I altered the recipe somewhat, his basic principles were very practical, and the top picture — the one that caught my attention — gave me some ideas.  I’d always brought all my fillings straight out to the edge of the pan – what if I didn’t?  I’d never used bechamel – why not?  And what if I made my sauce as “dry” as possible?  The result: a rich tomato meat filling studded with both creamy and stretchy cheese, layered with tender spinach pasta, covered with a fluffy baked pillow topping.  Wow.

Spinach Lasagne alla Bolognese

1/2 lb ground beef
1/2 lb ground pork
2 thick slices of bacon, roughly chopped
1 can crushed San Marzano tomatoes
1 tbs tomato puree
1/4 cup marsala wine
1 carrot
1 celery stalk
1/2 cup minced onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 sprig rosemary
fresh sheets of spinach pasta
10 oz ricotta cheese
6oz fresh mozzarella cheese
3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 tbs butter
2 tbs flour
2 cups milk
fresh ground nutmeg, sea salt, crushed black pepper, granulated garlic, EVOO

A bolognese sauce is basically a meat sauce, traditionally made with carrot, onion, veal, pancetta, and broth, to which was later added tomato and cream.  Today’s versions are as myriad as pasta shapes, but the ragu’s basic component is still meat.  Starting with chopped bacon, fried to barely crisp on the edges, I add my mirepoix and minced garlic, along with my sprig of rosemary to scent the dish.  I sauté everything over medium-high heat until just sweated but not yet browned.

I’ve seasoned my ground meats with salt and pepper, and have very roughly pulled them apart, handling it as loosely and little as possible.  I want large bites of meat in my sauce – not a grainy, uniform sludge – and little meat-wads are just the trick.  I let the meat sear completely on one side before I turn it over to sear on the other side.  This released the least amount of liquid, allowing the meat to brown and not steam.  Thanks, Stefan – this was a simple but good trick.

I already see far less liquid in this pan than I usually do at this point, which is perfect.  When the meat is nicely browned on both sides, I add my splash of marsala (I had no other red wine in the house — THE HORROR!! — but this substitution prevented me from having to add any sugar to the sauce, so it worked very well), which I let evaporate into the meat before…

… I add my tomato puree, which I blend well with everything and let simmer for a moment.

Finally, I add my crushed tomatoes, removing my stem of rosemary (which has done its job flavoring the sauce already), and I set this over low heat to simmer for the next 30-45 minutes, or until I’m ready to assemble the lasagna.  During this time, the sauce thickens beautifully, so much so that dragging a spoon through parts its seas for several moments before it oozes back together again.  In fact, when the husbandman came by to taste, I had to admonish him to redistribute the sauce to cover the whole base of the pan, so it wouldn’t burn anyway by virtue of too thin a coating.  I’m thinking this “drier” sauce will prevent my lasagna’s innards from leaching out when pressed by a fork.

Living in Boston means shopping in the North End, our Little Italy. I’ve enjoyed DePasquale’s fresh pasta before, as we did again in this dish.  This time I had a little trouble teasing the sheets apart, but that’s because the package defrosted in a plastic bag on my way home on the train, so it got a little – er – sweaty. Still, it was worth the effort.

I line an 8×8″ pan with this special foil-on-one-side/parchment-paper-on-the-other, which I must say worked like a charm.  I assemble my cheeses, and cut my pasta sheets to shape so they’ll fit the pan just so.

To make the lasagna, I start with some sauce, a few dollops of ricotta cheese, a few pieces of fresh mozzarella, and some shredded parmesan.  Note how I’m not bringing the ingredients all the way out to the edge of the pan – which I usually do.  My thought is that the casserole will hold together more effectively if I give the ingredients some room to spread out on their own.  (Spoiler alert: I was right!)  I lay a sheet of pasta on top, then repeat the process 4 times, ending with a top layer of pasta.  This is the point to which this picture of Stefan’s was taken – which is why it looks so clean (and so damn delicious!)

The final “ingredient” is a bechamel sauce, which is essentially milk, flour and butter.  Stefan’s recipe did not call for ricotta or mozzarella, but instead for bechamel on each layer; I had the cheeses, and very little milk in the house, so I split the difference by cheesing up the inner layers and making just enough bechamel to cover the top of my dish.

Start by melting the butter, then adding the flour and whisking/cooking until it thickens and turns a golden tan color — about 3 minutes.

Finish by whisking in the milk gradually, allowing it to thicken with the roux.  I also add some salt, pepper,  garlic powder, and some of my parmesan cheese (which, technically, transforms this bechamel into a mornay sauce, just FYI).  When the sauce is uniformly thick and fluffy…

… I pour it over the top layer of pasta on my lasagna, covering it completely.  The final joy is adding the last of my grated parm over the top, before throwing the dish into a 350 degree oven for 35-45 minutes, or until bubbling at the edges and nicely browned on top…

Like so.  As hard as it is to do, I wait 15 minutes before cutting into this beauty, which allows everything to coalesce.  I kill the time by whipping up a quick garlic bread.

Sheer perfection! My lasagna cuts easily, holding its shape, showing off its perfect, tender layers of pasta sandwiching a hearty, rich meat sauce and gooey, creamy cheese.

I don’t usually take pictures with my mouth full, but I had to show off how the structure of this deliciousness held together.  Leaving a wee margin of unadorned pasta along each side of the dish,  using a very thick, non-runny sauce, and adding the adhesive properties of the bechamel were the right tricks to make this lasagna a true delight!  Each bite was meaty and cheese in equal measure; the pasta was perfectly al dente and redolent of spinach, and the snappiness of a few sprigs of green onion for garnish added just the right brightness to the meal.  Lolita has finally conquered lasanga!  Yay for me!

Weeknight Wondermeal: Super Simple Savory Chicken and Rice

The vegetables from the farm are almost ready for my table, so right now I’ve been using up a lot of the canned goods I have in the pantry until the weather decides to stop vacillating between crappy and beautiful to stick with “warm enough to eat outside all the time”.  I’ve also been super-busy, planning a few pig-roasts and cook-outs for my peeps in the next week or so – which takes a lot of bandwidth.  And I just returned from a kick-ass weekend in Chicago with my best friends and their beautiful daughters; thanks Nyssa-Lynn, Michelle, Jordan, and Delaney for giving me one of the best vacations evah!  But throughout all this, I’ve been feeling a wee bit guilty about not posting in a while, so even though tonight’s meal wasn’t particularly complex or gourmet, it was a quick & simple one-pan dinner easy enough for anyone to make.  Now that my Harvard undergrads are spending the summer here working in labs without the benefit of open dining halls to feed them, I feel it’s one of Lolita’s responsibilities to give them a few recipe options to choose from.  Come on, kids – you’re all wicked smart Harvard students.  If you can do a Western blot, you can make chicken and rice….

Super Simple Savory Chicken and Rice

2 bone-in, skin-on chicken leg/thigh quarters
2 cups short grain rice (arborio or sushi rice works great)
3 stalks celery
2 carrots
1 small white onion
4-5 cloves garlic
1 can diced tomatoes with juice
1 can diced green chiles
1 cup dry white wine
1 qt chicken broth
8-10 small ciliegine (cherry-sized) mozzarella
sea salt, cracked black pepper, dried parsley (for garnish)

After rinsing and patting dry my chicken quarters, I sprinkle them with salt and pepper and sear the skin in a few glugs of hot EVOO in a deep pan large enough to hold the whole meal.

Here’s my mise-en-place - which in this case is a basic mirepoix of chopped celery, carrots, and onion.  I also chop up my garlic cloves.

Once the chicken is nicely browned on both sides, I move it to a plate to rest for a minute while I sweat my aromatics over medium heat for about 4 minutes.

Once my veggies have slightly softened, I add my dry rice, which I stir around really well, making sure to toast each grain nicely in the pan.

Like so!

First, I add my cup o’ vino, stirring everything well until most of the liquid evaporates.

Then I add my canned tomatoes (with their juice) and my can of green chiles (for heat).  I mix this together well, introducing all the flavors to each other.

Finally, I add my quart of chicken stock – which covers the rice entirely, and lay my chicken gams on top.

This I cover.  (See my skylight in the reflection there?  It is the only natural light I get in my kitchen, which is why my pictures are sometimes wonky-colored…)

Then the whole pan, lid and all, goes into my oven (which apparently needs to be dusted) on 400 for about 20 minutes.  This will slow bake the rice, absorbing all the liquid, and finish cooking my chicken legs through.

After said 20 minutes, most of the stock has baked off, my rice is nice and fluffy, and my chicken is oozing clear savory liquid.

I remove the cover, raise the heat in the oven to broil, and dot my dish with little balls of pure white milky fresh mozzarella cheese.  Back into the oven the pan goes – for about another 8 minutes, or until the cheese has melted so much it’s practically toasted.

Like so!

After a long day on the farm for Clayton, a dinner like this is exactly the sort of thing he craves.  Succulent, savory chicken and flavorful, vegetable studded rice.  It is steaming hot, packed with goodness, and damn delicious if I do say so myself.  And there is always plenty of rice leftover.  How can you beat that?