So I was all worked up about getting some closure on this Diner mess…but it would seem that closure is not for me to have, yet…
Instead, I made a lasagna. There were several boxes of expired and damaged lasagna noodles pulled from the shelves at New Moon, so I took a few home. The next day, it was dented cans of tomato sauce (still top notch and organic, tho) & the day after that, an eggplant with a squishy top, but a perfectly serviceable bottom half. Eggplant is not in the traditional Diner recipe, but it went along quite well with the veggie mix of zucchini, mushroom and garlic, tho I do wish I had mebe baked the diced pieces, like we do for the ratatouille, to improve their texture a bit…
So as much as the universe seems intent on keeping any financial freedoms far off my plate, it similarly seemed to request I place some lasagna there en lou. So I purchased the remaining veggies and tofu (we carry the same tofu as The Diner uses, at the Moon – that was my final hint to make it in the vegan style, according to the copy of the recipe I have on file, rather than get any more creative than the 1/2 eggplant addition) and also a round of bread and a stick of butter. & cheese, the traditional Romano, and also a slice of Carmody, which is like a very rich and soft mild cheddar, but it isn’t cheddar, it’s just delicious, and had nothing more to do with the recipe, aside from it being eaten, in whole, upon the same day.
I used one large pot to boil the noodles (The Diner uses the kind that simply cook themselves in the pan, which is infinitely easier, but they are hard to find) and I used one very large saucepan for the rest of the stove-top cooking. There is a bonus to using a commercial recipe, they are often quite streamlined for efficacy, but then the drawback is the assumption that your home kitchen will have all of the tools and ingredients on hand. Aside from cutting down the yields on the recipes, it is also my goal to redefine the actual process of the cooking to fit a home kitchen as well.
One big pot, one big pan, and one baking pan/casserole dish, but then I used a good half dozen mixing bowls. I just pulled out the whole stack of them, with gratitude that there were so many on hand, and picked them by size, as needed. I am a very big fan of Mise En Place, which is French for “put in place”, but more directly refers to a system of prepping and measuring, or at least locating, all ingredients before hand. Everything is then assembled in appropriate sized bowls, and set out in an orderly fashion. That all might sound a bit OCD, but it is actually the most helpful things I have ever learned to do in regard to cooking. Once the ingredient is used, you may simply stack or rinse the bowl, and move on without any further mess or fuss.
So I used small bowls to get “En Mise” and then bigger bowls were used for combined ingredients, or for mixes that were cooked already, and then needed some time and space in which to rest. Example: step one to starting a Pneumatic lasagna, (aside from getting everyone en mise) is caramelizing sliced carrots and yellow onion together. I don’t know whether this is still done at the Diner proper, and I’ll admit, I may have lost the tiniest bit of sleep over the matter (hence my desire for some closure already…) but it really does make a big difference! These carrots and onions are the staple ingredient in the topping layer of the lasagna, where one would normally simply slather cheese and sauce. But because this topping is so delightful, sweet and savory, the whole ensemble is easily made vegan without too much fuss or loss of flavor. Of course you can still melt cheese all over the top, and that is delicious as well, but it just isn’t necessary, see?
I was specifically not hired for a job in Portland (my one clear shot at a good job in that town, denied!) because the manager looked me over, in my skinny-ness and youthfulness, and said “I need someone who can caramelize” well guess what, corn-hole, skinny girls can caramelize too! It’s actually quite simple, I don’t even get what the big deal is. The science of the matter is that most root vegetables, generally, are very high in natural sugars. Onions, tho they have a foul reputation for being stinky, acrid, and otherwise offensive, actually become most sweet and docile, one you cook em’ down a bit.
So the trick to caramelizing, is to actually just let the stuff alone, over a good strong flame, for a bit longer than someone like myself is generally comfortable with.
I busied myself with stemming and chopping the mushrooms while the roots in olive oil sizzled away, so as not to fuss with them too much. When you do get around to stirring the slices, you will want to see a golden brown residue left by the roots, this being the sugars cooking out of them. So you let them brown, as much as you can bear, but do not let them burn completely black! Furthermore, this cannot be done in a non-stick pan, as once the process really gets going, you want to be scraping the caramelized sugars, and the oil, off of the bottom of the pan, and continually mixing them and re-coating them over the slices of root. So 1: patience, and 2: scrape. (I never pushed them so far that any deglazing was necessary…so la-di-da)
Once they are all coated with a toasty golden brown goo, kill the flame, and toss everything into a bowl to rest, (and try a piece of onion – how good is that!?) they will just hang out there for the rest of the recipe, until the very end, so find a comfortable space for them, please.
Back to the pan, we now heat more olive oil and toss in a goodly pile of minced garlic, letting them just brown. Garlic is so often overcooked when it is set to saute first. The browning of the edges is quite crucial to release the full aromatics and flavor, but once that point is achieved, you must add more ingredients to protect the little garlic bits! In this case we add mushrooms, which I like to give a moment or two to brown (as Julia sez, “don’t crowd the mushrooms”!) and then zucchini, and just a moment or two of cooking for them as well, it is important not to overcook the squash, or it will just go all mooshy in the end product. I also added the eggplant here, though in retrospect I would have salted it (to leach out the bitter juices) and then baked it with olive oil for a half hour or more, turning the pieces once or twice, but oh well.
Now this saute is set aside in another bowl, and mixed with a splash of marinara. The pan is used one last time, now on low heat, to steam the spinach, & in yet another bowl the faux ricotta is mixed. This is simply firm tofu, finely cut scallion, lemon juice, salt and pepper, but when we changed the recipe from vegetarian to vegan, by switching from real ricotta to this mix, not a single customer, many of them lasagna eating regulars, noticed at all, or at least none of them said so, and they are the type to say so, without hesitation…
The spinach is steamed, added to the “ricotta” and now all the layers are in their separate bowls, and the noodles are cooked and cooling in another bowl again, with a little olive oil to keep them from sticking (I cooked them, four at a time, while everything else was going on, which really was not as difficult as it might sound, since they took several minutes and more or less tended to them selves – also, they don’t need to be perfectly al-dente, since they will cook more in the oven, as always, just don’t over cook them, and you will be fine). I haven’t mentioned the sauce much…at The Diner we would make a big complicated affair called “Cosmic Sauce” but I just had the canned shiz, and yes, you could tell, but that’s ok…this time!
Now we layer. First, you coat the bottom of the pan with sauce, to keep it all from sticking and burning. Then a layer of noodles, now half the veggie and sauce mix, then more noodles. Now all of the “ricotta” mix, more noodles, the second half of the veggies and sauce, and the top layer of noodles. & now we finish with the trademark topping, by blending up the caramelized roots with a final splash of sauce, creating a fabulous bright orangey-red paste that is spread over the top like frosting. Cover this with foil and bake at 350* for an hour and 15, keeping the top of the creation covered with foil for the first 45 minutes or so.
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It turned out pretty good, but not as good as I’d have liked. The eggplant was not what I had hoped for, and I came up short on veggies, leaving my overall ratio much too far on the noodly side, but that is because I didn’t actually use the quantities in the recipe, (and I didn’t want to take all of the zucchinis off the shelf before our produce order came in, so I only took one!) I just guessed, or whatever…
A fine illumination of all the work still to be done on the book though, and why it is important! The “ricotta” was also too lemony, and not enough salty, and of course I missed the Cosmic. But whatever, I did it, my own, small act of personal redemption. I brought a bunch in to the Moonie kids, so we’ll see what they say.