Monday, June 15, 2009

Is that Pork in my Lasagna?

After getting back from Shanghai with a couple boxes of no-boil lasagna noodles in my suitcase, I decided to try making lasagna with the homemade ricotta recipe I tried a couple weeks ago. But of course in Xiamen, ground beef is nowhere to be found, except allegedly at Metro which is an hour away. So I went in quest of ground pork. After a slight argument with the butcher over the price (there was a heavy bag of meat leaning against the meat scale, which somehow made my one pound of pork weigh about 4 pounds), I returned home to assemble the lasagna in time for a couple of dinner guests.

The ricotta recipe is REALLY simple (see the post below). I had fresh ricotta in about 20 minutes, while chopping up the other ingredients. You basically need about 1/4 cup of lemon juice per litre of whole milk.

While the cheese was draining I tried to figure out what to do with the pork to give it more flavour, as I find it is usually a bit bland when I use it in spaghetti sauce. So, improvising, I mixed the ground pork with a handful of fresh herbs, some pepper and salt, dried oregano, and a bit of oil. I let it sit for a bit while I prepped the other stuff. The rest was typical lasagna - mixed the pork with tomato sauce, layered it with the ricotta in a pan, topped it with cheese, and baked the whole thing for about 25 min.

Our Chinese friends had never had lasagna before. In fact, when we mentioned that we would be having Western food, they looked blankly at each other as if that was an entirely foreign concept (well, I suppose it was, literally). So I was highly gratified when at the first bite both of them said, "Mmm!" They weren't such great fans of the Caesar salad or the broccoli with balsamic dressing, but they liked the lasagna =).

Lasagna in a land where beef is scarce

My casserole dish is small because I have to use a toaster oven to bake things, so you will want to double the recipe for use in a standard size casserole dish.

1 jin (aka 500g) of ground pork
1/2 cup of chopped fresh parsley and basil
1 tsp dried oregano
3/4 cup fresh ricotta cheese
1 can tomato sauce (or about 2.5 to 3 cups of homemade sauce)
1/2 cup shredded cheese (Mozzarella or whatever is available)
1 medium onion
1 green bell pepper
1/2 package no-boil lasagna noodles
olive oil
salt and pepper

Mix pork with fresh herbs, oregano, and a tbsp olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and mix thoroughly.
Dice onion and bell pepper up small. Saute onion till transparent, then add bell pepper and cook till bell pepper is slighly softened. Remove to a plate.
Fry pork until browned, breaking up any lumps. Add onion and bell pepper and mix in pan, then add tomato sauce and cook till hot.
Start with tomato sauce mixture and layer noodles, ricotta, and tomato sauce in casserole dish, ending with tomato sauce. Sprinkle shredded cheese over top.
Bake in 350 degree oven for about 25 min, or until noodles are tender when a fork is inserted into lasagna.

I'm not sure whether the fresh herbs are best mixed into the pork or stirred into the sauce later. I liked that the pork seemed to be more flavourful with them added, but I wonder if their flavour would be stronger if they weren't cooked so long. For a future experiment, I guess.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Summer Tomatoes and Fresh Ricotta

I went on a cooking rampage when I came back from Canada. I didn't cook at all during my visit, and I felt like experimenting. The first thing I made was Bayberry jam... More on Chinese bayberries later...but suffice to say that they were disastrous in jam. I knew they probably would be, but I wanted to try it anyway on the off chance that they would be surprisingly good. But that's for a future post...more later!

Anyway, my second experiment was homemade ricotta. You know, cheese is somewhat difficult to find in China. I mean, just normal supermarket cheeses like mozzarella and cheddar are hard to find, let alone fresh cheeses like ricotta. Somehow, though, when I was browsing through my favorite food blogs, I came across the idea of making my own homemade ricotta. After all, the only fresh milk they sell here is full cream, so I've got the only really crucial ingredient at my disposal.

It turned out surprisingly easy. Almost too easy, in fact. I found myself thinking...why did I ever buy this at the supermarket? All it took was:

2L fresh whole milk
1/2 cup lemon juice

I heated the milk in a pot until it was just about to boil, then I removed it from the heat, and dumped in the lemon juice. The milk curdled immediately (it was pretty amazing actually). I stirred it a bit and then poured the curds and whey into a cheesecloth-lined colander set over a large bowl. I let it drain for 1/2 hour, salted it, et voila! Fresh ricotta.

Using the lemon juice did give it a slightly lemony fragrance, but it was not unpleasant. Other recipes called for using buttermilk, but I don't have any here, so using lemon was a simpler option.

We had it the other day for dinner spread on toasted, garlic-rubbed, crusty bread (from Carrefour) and topped with summer-fresh tomatoes and the first leaves of basil from our windowsill herb garden. was so refreshing - the tomatoes were sweet, the basil fresh and aromatic - an early taste of summer.

Now, if I can only get to Metro at the same time that the lasagna sheets are in stock, there's lasagna in our future...