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Posts Tagged ‘lasagna’

When the Menu Family realized that a very noteworthy birthday was fast-approaching for our matriarch, we got together to determine the best way to celebrate in style.

Now, my mom threw birthday parties too numerous to count for the three of us Menu kids when we were growing up. And more recently, she’s hosted just bunches of family dinner parties to celebrate our respective births. This is a woman only too deserving of a throw-down good time at her very own birthday bash.

The Logistics
Surprise was the way to go – she’d have put up too many objections, otherwise. We wanted an event that would be fun, casual and filled with good friends and good food. We’d need a space large enough to accommodate a big group of family friends, so we decided to rent a banquet room at our local neighborhood pool. This would be a huge group effort, made possible with the help of the whole family and several amazing friends who served as on-site helpers!

Theme & Decor
Sunflowers set the color scheme and, subsequently, the general feel and theme of the party. Since the space already had a casual vibe going, we decided to play it up by wrapping the nine 6-foot banquet tables in rolls of brown paper. Center pieces were mason jars wrapped in raffia and filled with miniature sunflowers. Flatware was wrapped in bright orange napkins and tied with a miniature flower pom pom fashioned from brightly colored tissue paper and secured with floral wire (à la Martha Stewart). We topped the dessert and appetizer tables with graphic yellow, brown and blue tablecloths, with more sunflower arrangements and a huge hurricane lamp filled with sunny lemons. More tissue paper pom poms, plus pictures of mom and the family, and loads of bright yellow balloons, finished off the space.

Handmade tissue paper pom poms stood in for napkin rings while raffia-wrapped mason jars served as vases on the paper-wrapped tables.

We decorated the mantle with oversized tissue paper pom poms - plus plenty of photos of the guest of honor, secured to strings of twine with clothespins.

Most Importantly, The Menu
For me, cheerful sunflowers and tables wrapped up in brown paper with raffia-wrapped mason jars screams one thing, and one thing only: rustic Italian. Which is oh-so-fortunate for a certain menu-maker who just happens to love preparing Italian for a crowd! In search of a menu that would be appealing to varied palates, unfussy and, well, just tasty, I settled (after much hemming and hawing) on the following mix. With a guest list of 50, I had to do a good amount of guesstimating on quantities. I must admit that I ran a bit short on a couple of side dishes – see the notes below for some thoughts on quantities for a crowd.

Appetizers

  • Manchego, Peppadew & Prosciutto Bites (was spot-on with 100 bites)
    I’m a fool for the tang of a peppadew, and absolutely crazy about bite-sized appetizers on sticks (witness the Monster Bite). This particular combination was a natural marriage of those two particular obsessions. And it turns out that the pairing of peppadew peppers with nutty manchego and irresistibly salty prosciutto – thinly sliced – is a huge crowd-pleaser. We skewered each bite on a bamboo toothpick, situating a small chunk of cheesy goodness inside the pepper and wrapping the whole shebang in a shred of prosciutto. Since the prosciutto is used so sparingly, you really don’t need to purchase much – 1/4 pound, thinly sliced, would have been plenty for the 100 bites I made (as opposed to the full pound that I foolishly purchased!), combined with about a pound of cubed manchego and several jars worth of peppers. Now, if you’re at home preparing these for a smaller crowd, I can’t help but think that they’d benefit from a quick turn on the grill to lend some crispiness to the prosciutto – but they do pretty well on their own at room temperature, too!
  • Basil Dip with Fresh Veggies (I doubled this recipe, but should have left it alone to adequately feed 50. Several bell peppers, one bunch of celery, about a pound of baby carrots and a few pints of cherry tomatoes are good for dipping.)
    My idea of the perfect summer app, I first conceived of this particular dip for a friend’s birthday shindig last August. It pulls together in a snap, has loads of flavor and is eminently adaptable to whatever herbs you might have on hand. Plus, leftovers make for a terrific sandwich spread.
  • Roasted Grape Tomato Bruschetta (I prepared 80 toasts, and that seemed to be a pretty good quantity.)
    With my main courses already a bit heavy on the meat-factor, I wanted to keep my appetizers fairly vegetarian-friendly. I love this particular dish because the preparation is so painless – just roast grape tomatoes, with plenty of oil, salt and pepper, at a super-high temperature until they absolutely burst. I like to add a bit of sugar to the mix for a touch of sweetness, too. The tomato mixture can be heaped on toasty slices of baguette and served at room temperature – another requirement for all three of my appetizer choices.

Peppadew-Prosciutto-Manchego Bites, Basil Dip & Roasted Grape Tomato Bruschetta.

The Mains

  • Miss Menu’s Lasagna Bolognese for a Crowd (Three 9×12 casseroles was plenty.)
    Someday,  I’m going to have to branch out beyond this traditional favorite. But today was not the day. I can’t tell you enough just how much I love this recipe for an utterly traditional lasagna. I must admit to being something of a recipe-hopper: why repeat the same dish time after time when you can experiment with something new? But the results of this particular combination and preparation of ingredients are just so darn pleasing that I couldn’t pass it up.
  • Eggplant Parmigiana (I only prepared two 9×12 casseroles, but three would have been more appropriate.)
    My eggplant obsession is already all too well chronicled, but this particular version was a new venture for me. As a confessed eggplant parmigiana addict, I wanted this dish to be spot-on. So I conducted a trial run, creating one version with eggplant that was breaded then baked and layered with fresh mozarella, and one version in which I breaded then fried the eggplant before layering it with regular shredded mozzarella. The results were mixed to say the least. I liked the flavor of the fried eggplant, and the crunch of the baked. I liked the heft of the fresh mozzarella, and the meltability-factor of the shredded. So, I decided to combine the best of both worlds. It’s admittedly a labor-intensive dish – but one that’s well worth the effort. See the full recipe below.
  • Orecchiette Pasta with Sausage, Broccoletti & Ricotta (I mixed four pounds of pasta with three pounds of sausage, but could have downgraded to 2-3 pounds of pasta and 2-3 pounds of sausage.)
    Sister Menu, I must admit, saved the day on this particular dish. Being a budget-minded girl, I had purchased a mixture of sweet and spicy sausage from the grocery store for this classic pasta mixture. But when my sister arrived to help with cooking, she insisted on replacing the sub-par sausage with some high-end product from Belmont Butchery. It’s a good thing, too. The sausage was the star of this particular dish, which combined toothsome orecchiette with roasted broccoletti, the aforementioned sweet-and-spicy sausage, a binder of ricotta and plenty of crushed red pepper for kick.
  • Caprese Salad (We used four pounds of mozzarella with seven or eight tomatoes, but five pounds of cheese and nine or 10 tomatoes would have been more appropriate.)
    I know, I know, caprese salad in June is not the best use of tomatoes ever envisioned. But I couldn’t resist offering a huge platter of fresh mozzarella, thick-sliced tomatoes and shredded basil for our guests. Tom Leonard’s, a local Richmond grocery store, makes some of the best frezh mozz I’ve ever tasted. It’s super salty and rich and worth the special 20-minute drive west for a special purchase. We arranged alternating slices on a pretty platter before sprinkling with roughly chopped basil, a drizzle of oil and a healthy pinch or two of salt.
  • Roasted Veggies (I’d recommend at least seven or eight quartered onions, four bunches of asparagus, four or five bell peppers chopped into large chunks and six or seven summer squash.)
    Instead of a traditional salad, we decided to roast up loads of veggies: onions, peppers, zucchini and asparagus all went into the mix. I definitely did not take into consideration ahead of a time how intensive a project it would be to roast enough vegetables to feed 50 people in my little oven.

Setting the stage for the buffet-style Italian feast. Mangia!

The Sweets

  • Hazelnut Tiramisu – Ohmygoshohmygoshohmygosh. This is getting its own special post. Suffice it to say, you’ll want to make a stop by your local American Boys’ Club (perhaps more familiarly known as the ABC store) for a bottle of Frangelico to have on hand so you can run to your kitchen and throw together this dreamy dessert as soon as you read this to-be-written post!
  • Strawberry Trifle – A coffee-and-liqueur-free alternative for the world’s cutest niece and nephew, and all those (crazy people) who are not inclined to try (my new favorite) tiramisu.

Here’s the sure-fire recipe for some delicioso eggplant parmigiana. Other recipes are either linked or described above!

One of the most beautiful sites these eyes have seen: eggplants frying in preparation for the Eggplant Parmigiana.

Eggplant Parmigiana
Makes 1 9×12 casserole, enough to serve 12-15.

2 small- to mid-sized eggplants
2 28-ounce cans San Marzano whole tomatoes in sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion
3 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1-2 tablespoons sugar
1 large handful basil, about 1 cup chopped and loosely packed
1 cup flour
3 ounces shredded parmesan
4 eggs
4 ounces shredded mozzarella
4 ounces fresh mozzarella
8 slices white bread
Vegetable oil
Salt & pepper

  • Slice eggplants thinly and evenly, about ¼ inch thick, leaving the skin on. Place slices in a colander or on a baking rack placed over the sink, and salt liberally. Let sit for 30 minutes, then press between layers of paper towel.
  • Meanwhile, prepare sauce. Purée San Marzano tomatoes in food processor until slightly chunky. Heat olive oil in a large sauce pan over medium-high heat. Dice onion and garlic, and sauté until the onion is translucent. Season with salt, pepper, crushed red pepper and dried oregano. Mix in tomato mixture and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Stir in basil and sugar, plus salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
  • Now for the eggplant layers: one baked, one fried. Mix flour with 1 teaspoon salt in a large, sealable plastic bag. Beat eggs in a pie plate or large shallow dish. Pulse bread in food processor to a fine crumb; mix with 1 ounce shredded parmesan and plenty of salt and pepper in another pie plate.
  • For the baked layer: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil and spray with non-stick cooking spray. Toss half of the dried eggplant slices, 5-6 at a time, in the bag of flour. Shake to rid of excess flour. Dip them in egg, then dredge thoroughly in crumb mixture; set on cookie sheet. Bake for 30 minutes, flipping the slices after 15 minutes.
  • For the fried layer: Repeat the process above with the remaining half of the eggplant slices, tossing 5-6 slices at a time in the bag of flour, followed by a dip in the egg bath and the crumb mixture. Set aside on another platter or cookie sheet. Heat vegetable oil in a large frying pan, about ¼ inch deep – you’ll know it’s hot enough when you flick a drop of water on it and it pops and sizzles. Fry the eggplant in batches, being sure not to overcrowd the pan and refreshing the oil as needed between batches. It will take one or two minutes per side – you’re looking for a golden brown crust. Place fried eggplant on racks lined with paper towels.
  • Once all the eggplant is baked or fried and the sauce prepared, start assembling. Keep the oven heated at 400 degrees. Spray a 9×13 pan with non-stick cooking spray, and pour 1 heaping cup of sauce into the pan and spread to cover. Cover sauce with the layer of fried eggplant, fitting the slices tightly together and overlapping as needed. Sprinkle with the fresh mozzarella. Cover liberally with a heaping cup of tomato sauce. Layer slices of baked eggplant in the same manner as above. Dot with some sauce, about half a cup, and sprinkle with the shredded mozzarella and remaining Parmesan. You’ll have some leftover sauce for serving with the casserole.
  • Tent the casserole dish with foil and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to bake for 5-8 minutes, until browned and crispy. Eat hot or allow to cool completely before wrapping in plastic wrap and foil and freezing for up to three months.
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I knew from the start that it would be a risky venture: serving homemade gnocchi to a crowd of 30 for a progressive party seemed more than a little ambitious. But when done well, the end result of the light-as-air, tender-as-a-cloud potato dumpling is so worth the effort that I was willing to risk my kitchen’s cleanliness, my guests’ taste buds and my own personal sanity to produce a dish of gnocchi in gorgonzola cream sauce that, in my naive imagination, would illicit shouts of praise and songs of unending compliments.  Boy, was I stupid.

The gnocchi that tried to ruin my sanity.

But let me back up and start from the beginning.  A few colleagues and I decided to join together for some winter festivities and host a three-course progressive dinner. I was eager to take on the entrée course, only to be met by a few semi-surmountable obstacles.

Obstacle 1: My 900-square-foot apartment. With my upstairs and downstairs neighbors out-of-town for the weekend, I didn’t have to worry about bothering fellow apartment-dwellers with our raucous gathering. But I did have to worry about squeezing 30 people into the space – and serving them food with far too few chairs to go around for proper seating! I settled on a banquet of pasta, salad and bread that would require only one utensil for eating. Most of the dishes could be made well in advance with minimal last-minute prep time.

Obstacle 2: Not just any pasta. I wanted this to be a meal to impress, and a bowl of plain old spaghetti just didn’t have the “wow” factor I was looking for. Plus, I wanted some variety – meat and vegetarian, light and rich. I settled on a traditional Bolognese-style lasagna; a super-rich vegetable version of lasagna; a whole-wheat penne in a pumpkin, kale & white bean sauce; and the aforementioned gnocchi in a bath of gorgonzola cream (as inspired by Richmond’s CousCous restaurant).

Obstacle 3: The gnocchi. Oh, the gnocchi. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I’ve made gnocchi twice before with mixed results (once resulting in a plastic cutting board melted to the stovetop, and once resulting in dining bliss). With this batch, I was shooting for the latter. I assembled the gnocchi the night before after hours of research – should I boil or bake the potatoes? Use a food mill or a ricer? Add one egg or two? Freeze them or refrigerate until cooking? I settled on the combination of boil-ricer-1.5 egg-freeze. And clearly, it’s not a combo that I recommend. 15 minutes prior to my guests’ arrival, as I plopped the lovingly formed gnocchi into a vat of boiling water, they quickly disintegrated into a bowl of mushy potato and flour soup. Luckily, I had an emergency box of store-bought orecchiette on-hand to save the day, but the indignity of the disintegrated gnocchi might just have scarred me for life.

The progressive dinner spread.

In any event, fun was had by all despite the drama of the gnocchi. The clear winner of the night was the Bolognese lasagna, which I cobbled together from a half-dozen different recipes. The healthy penne dish is also an original creation that is perhaps better suited to a weeknight or family meal, but certainly worth making again.

Miss Menu’s Lasagna Bolognese for a Crowd
Serves 12 (at least!)

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 pound Italian sausage
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon ground fennel
  • 1-2 teaspoons crushed red pepper, to taste
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
  • 1/4 cup cream
  • 1 28-ounce can pureed tomatoes
  • 1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
  • 1 large bunch fresh basil, chopped and divided in half
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 15 ounces ricotta (I use part-skim, but of course whole milk is totally acceptable)
  • 1 egg
  • 2 1/4 cups grated Parmesan
  • 1 pound grated mozzarella
  • 1 box no-boil lasagna noodles

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Heat oil over medium heat in a large Dutch oven. Add onion and cook for 2 minutes. Add garlic and saute until the onion is translucent. Add ground beef and sausage, crumbled, and saute until light brown in color, breaking into bits with your spoon. Add the oregano, fennel, crushed red pepper and salt & pepper. Add the cream and simmer for several minutes until most of the liquid evaporates. Add both cans of tomato and simmer for 10 minutes, keeping partially covered and stirring occasionally. Stir in half of basil and sugar. Set aside.

Mix ricotta with one egg. Season ricotta with salt and pepper to taste and mix in grated parmesan and the remaining basil.

Spread 1/4 of the tomato & meat sauce in the bottom of a 9×13 pan. Add one layer of no-boil lasagna noodles and top noodles with 1/4 of the ricotta mixture, spreading to cover noodles as well as possible. Sprinkle 1/4 of the shredded mozzarella over the ricotta. Repeat three more times (starting with the tomato sauce and ending with the mozzarella – you might not use up all the noodles), and sprinkle the extra 1/4 cup Parmesan on top. Take care to make sure the noodles are covered in cheese and sauce, particularly in the corners, to avoid overly crispy noodles.

Cover the dish with foil and bake for 40 minutes. At this point, you can remove the lasagna from the oven, allow to cool COMPLETELY, wrap well in plastic and foil and freeze. Otherwise, remove foil and continue to cook until well browned on top, 15-25 minutes.

To reheat frozen lasagna, allow to thaw to room temperature before baking at 375 uncovered for 25-30 minutes, until top is brown and crispy.

Penne with Pumpkin, Kale & White Beans
Serves 6.

  • 1 pound store-bought penne (I use the Barilla Plus version to pretend I’m healthy)
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 can white beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 large bunch kale, thoroughly cleaned and roughly chopped
  • 1 12-ounce can pumpkin
  • 2-3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts, toasted
  • Salt and pepper
  • Crushed red pepper
  • 2 ounces Parmesan Reggiano, finely grated
  • Fresh sage, for garnish

Boil pasta according to package directions.

In a large dutch oven, heat oil over medium heat. Add garlic, and as it starts to brown stir in canned pumpkin and stock. Cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring occasionally, before mixing in beans and kale. Continue to cook until kale is totally wilted, adding more stock to thin out sauce as you see fit. Season with salt, pepper and crushed red pepper.

Stir in cooked pasta a little at a time – you might not want to use the entire box, depending on how “saucy” you like your pasta to be. Top with grated Parmesan, toasted walnuts and finely chopped sage and serve immediately.

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