Monday, December 29, 2008


One of my all-time favorite dishes is lasagna. Unfortunately, I don't get to make it very often. It's an easy dish, but to make it right can be time-consuming. It's the type of dish that really benefits from letting the flavors spend some time together. Sure, you can rush this along. Skip over a few steps, cut some corners. But once you've had the taste of a real lasagna done right, you won't go back.

Before you start, make sure you have all of your ingredients together:

1 lb ground beef (80% lean)
Worcestershire sauce, to taste
Italian seasoning, to taste
14 oz mirepoix
1 red bell pepper, diced
30 oz tomato sauce
15 oz canned diced tomatoes
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 lb mozzarella
15 oz ricotta
1 large chicken egg
16 oz dry lasagna noodles
Kosher salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Some of you are already scoffing at me using things like (presumably store-bought) Italian seasoning and garlic powder. There is no shame in having these things handy. The Italian seasoning I used is pretty dang tasty, and already formulated. I also liked that it, and the garlic powder, were dried. That means you can add them early and have the flavors permeate the dish longer and more easily.

Before you start on any of this, you'll probably want to preheat the oven to 350F, and grease up a 13x9 baking dish with cooking spray. Go ahead and set it aside for later. Our next step is to brown up about a pound of ground beef.

Season to taste with Kosher salt, pepper, Italian seasoning and Worcestershire sauce. I probably used about a Tablespoon of the Italian seasoning and maybe twice that of Worcestershire sauce. Don't cook it too long, just long enough to brown it. And make sure the seasoning is where you want it right now. Trying to compensate later for poor seasoning now isn't going to be easy.

When it's all nice and browned up, spoon it onto a paper towel-lined plate and set it aside. Try to leave as much of the fat in the pan as possible, you'll need it in a moment.

Okay, who here got confused when they saw mirepoix on the ingredient list? Wow, look at all those hands. Don't worry, it's not so bad as you think. Mirepoix is a 2:1:1 ratio of onions to carrots to celery. It's a French thing that works pretty well with Italian dishes. And as it turns out, Kroger has started selling it in the freezer section in little 14 oz bags. Add that, along with the red bell pepper, to the fat and crank the heat to medium-high. We want to get some nice color on these veggies.

Did I mention to make sure these are well-seasoned? Kosher salt, pepper, Italian seasoning, Worcestershire sauce. Make sure you season each layer of this dish before moving onto the next one. Speaking of the next layer, once you have some color on your veggies, go ahead and cool down the pan a little by adding the tomato sauce and the diced tomatoes.

Time for another layer of flavor. Notice a pattern here? Same drill as before, but go ahead and add in the garlic powder and smoked paprika with the other seasonings (Kosher salt, pepper, Italian seasoning, Worcestershire sauce). Let it simmer for a bit; how long is really up to you. I went for maybe five or ten minutes. I also stole some of it at this point to spread out on the bottom of the baking dish.

This is important. There are going to be a few layers of pasta in this dish, and you want to make sure you have a tomato sauce layer directly above and below every single layer of pasta. We're not going to use the pasta yet, just keep it in mind.

While the sauce is simmering, you'd better get the cheese ready. You're going to put together a container of ricotta, about 3/4 lbs of shredded mozz, a single chicken egg, and maybe a Tablespoon of Italian seasoning. I didn't say this in the ingredient list because I forgot it (oops!), but you can add 1/4 cup of grated Parmesan too. Go ahead and mix it all together in a bowl and set it aside. You'll need it in a moment.

When you think you're ready, and you have a layer of sauce in the baking dish, go ahead and add the meat into the sauce. You want to do this after you've sauced the baking dish, because you really don't want the meat stuck to the bottom. You will want a layer of dried noodles, however.

I love this part. Didja notice something about the pasta? Like the fact that we didn't blanch it first? So awesome. See, this is the beauty of lasagna: the moisture from the rest of the dish cooks the noodles for you. Okay, yeah, it'll add another 20 minutes of cooking time or so. But that's okay; the longer it cooks, the better the flavors marry. Your chances of soggy noodles will also decrease. Next up, add a layer of sauce.

This part is actually trickier than it seems. You see, you're going to have four layers of noodles, with sauce layers on both sides. That means eight layers of sauce, and this is number two. The sauce is important: it's responsible for cooking the noodles. But as tricky as that step was, it doesn't compare to this one: add about a third of the cheese mixture. It's easiest if you dollop it in small increments and then spread it with a spatula.

Oh man. You're going to hate me right about now, because it's time to add another tomato sauce layer. And then pasta, tomato sauce, cheese, tomato sauce, etc, until you have your top layer of pasta, and it's covered with sauce. Cover that layer with the last 1/4 lb of shredded mozzarella. Don't worry if it looks a little sparse. It'll be plenty.

Go ahead and sprinkle, really lightly, some Italian seasoning on top. Remember how I forgot the Parm in the cheese mixture? It may not be a bad idea to sprinkle a couple of Tablespoons on top as well. I'll let you add that to your own ingredient list. Now, go ahead and cover it with some aluminum foil. Try not to let the foil touch any of the cheese.

Slide that guy into your 350F oven and give it about 40 minutes. If you think about it, we're really only doing a couple of things here. We're not actually cooking the dish (except for the noodles) because the ingredients are already cooked. That's important to remember with casseroles. You're not cooking them, you're reheating them. Also, we're melting the cheese. But that part really happens at the end. At about 40 minutes, remove the foil and give the lasagna another 10 minutes to melt and maybe even brown the cheese a little.

Oh man, doesn't that look good? Well, bad news. You can't touch it yet. I know it's going to be torture, but you need to recover it with foil and let it sit for another half hour. It's gotta have time to cool, and to finish cooking those noodles. If you were to serve it at this point, it would burn your tongue, and the noodles would be a little too al dente.

A few more points before I let you loose on this dish on your own. First of all, I cheated more on the cheese than I let on. For some reason, Monterrey Jack sounded really good that day, so I used that instead of mozz. In the past, I've also mixed Jack and Cheddar. And one of my all-time favorite lasagnas was dubbed "pain lasagna". Instead of tomato sauce, I used hot enchilada sauce. Instead of meat, I used black beans, pinto beans and corn. I didn't mix them into the sauce, I added them as their own layer underneath the cheese layer. Speaking of cheese, I went with hot pepper Jack and habanero Cheddar that time around. It was so good, it brought tears to my eyes. Actually, the tears were mostly from the pain, but the flavor was good too.

Lasagna has a lot of room for interpretation. At its most basic, it's little more than alternating layers of sauce, cheese and noodles. Beyond that, you're on your own.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Screen for Beginners

Perhaps I got spoiled at the last couple of companies I was at, but I was shocked when I discovered that my new coworkers had never heard of screen, much less used it. In the past couple of years, I have found screen to be such a valuable program that I can't imagine life without it. I use it on a regular basis both at work and at home, partly because it's so handy and partly because I'm a nerd.

There are plenty of ways to use screen, but there are three things that I like to use it for:

* Maintaining a perisistent shell on one computer that I can access from multiple computers.
* Maintaining a perisistent development environment.
* Logging into somebody else's shell to monitor them, or demonstrate techniques to them.

Screen doesn't ship installed on every distribution, but it's easy to get installed:

RHEL/Fedora: yum install screen
Ubuntu: apt-get install screen

Once it's installed, it's easy to get running. Just type "screen" from the command prompt. The display will blank, and you'll be left at a prompt that looks just like the one you were just at. If you're doing thing in gnome-terminal, you might see something like [screen 0: bash] in your title bar.

At this point, you can use the command line exactly as you did before; you're really just running another shell. Go ahead and run top, to see what I mean. But now you have a series of commands available, each of which starts with CTRL-a. The first one you'll want to be familiar with is CTRL-a d (that's a CTRL-a followed by a d, not CTRL-a CTRL-d). This will detach from your screen session. When you do this, you'll find yourself at the command prompt that you were at before, with "[detached]" displayed above the prompt.

At this point, screen is running, but it's in the background. If you didn't exit out of top, then it is still actively running, you just can't see it. Go ahead and open a second terminal window and type in screen -r. This will reattach to the screen session, and you will see top still running.

That's enough to get you going for a basic persistent shell. I know a lot of people that do this on a server with a public IP address, to keep programs like Irssi open so that they can log into it from work or from home, without having to actually log out of their chat accounts. But let's take this a little further.

You should still have top running. Keep it open and type in CTRL-a c. This will create a second screen, with its own command prompt. Go ahead and type in free.

Now that you have two screens going, type CTRL-a p. This will switch to the previous screen, where top is running. Type CTRL-a n to go to the next screen, where free is running. You could also use CTRL-a 0 and CTRL-a 1 to go to a specific screen number. If you hit CTRL-a c again, you'll get yet another screen.

I've found this to be useful in maintaining a persistent development environment, so that I don't have to leave my notebook at work or close several instances of vim and bash at the end of the day. But let's look at one more feature of screen.

If your terminal is maximized, go ahead and resize it so that it only takes up half the screen. Hit CTRL-a 0 to make sure we're at the screen with top. No go ahead and open up another instance of gnome-terminal and maximize it. Type in screen -x at the prompt. You will see the top screen running, but it won't be taking up the whole window. That's because you've attached to a screen session that was already running somewhere else, and screen is using the display variables from that other screen.

Those of you who have ever tried to walk another user through something on the phone know what a pain it can be to not know exactly what the user is looking at. This can be especially troublesome when a command prompt in Linux is involved. Isn't it much easier to log into their machine, connect to their terminal, and then watch them work?

Now for some cleanup. Hit CTRL-a d to detach from this screen. Go back to the other terminal window where top is still running and hit q to quit. Type exit at the prompt to close that shell. Continue exiting out of screens, using the exit command. When you've exited out of the last command shell, you will be dropped back at your original shell, with the message "[screen is terminating]" above the prompt.

That should be plenty to get you running for now. When you're ready to get into some of the more advanced features of screen, go ahead and run man screen to take a look at the other options available.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


Well, I pulled it off: turducken. This is the sort of dish that you learn a lot from while making it. Of course, I learned a few things the hard way. The first lesson that I learned the hard way was to read the instructions from all of my turducken recipes a little more carefully. It's not like baking where you can say, "this is a muffin recipe, that means I can use the muffin method." There's more to the technique.

The idea with a turducken is to remove all of the bones from a chicken and a duck, and most of the bones from a turkey, and stuff the chicken inside the duck, and the duck inside the turkey. Traditionally, there would be stuffing between each bird as well. As it turns out, removing most of the bones from the turkey isn't difficult, so long as you leave the skin on. Doing the same for a chicken and a duck was far more difficult, especially since we decided to remove the skin.

What we ultimately ended up with were a boneless, skinless chicken and duck, quartered. Because we tried to keep it from being quartered, it took much longer than it would have if we had just quartered it properly in the first place. Now, I'm not saying that this is the correct way to make turducken. It's just the way that we ended up with.

Bearing that in mind, let's go through the steps after we deboned all of the birds. With the turkey, you don't have to remove the bones from the wings or the drumsticks; you just have to remove the bones from the body. This isn't bad, and it leaves you with what is essentially a butterflied turkey.

Before you even started the process of deboning these birds, I hope you made some stuffing to stick inside of them. The stuffing should be cooling to room temperature while you debone the birds. We ended up using about 6 cups total. Try to make it a little drier than usual; part of its job is to soak up juices. Go ahead and put down a layer of fully coolled stuffing.

Next up comes the duck. Lay down the duck breast in the middle, and the rest of the meat on the side.

Give it another layer of stuffing.

And then follow up with the chicken, breast in the middle, rest of the meat on the outside.

This is where you use up the last of the stuffing. Don't feel like you have to use it all. The birds are going to be plenty hard to close up anyway, and more stuffing will just make it more difficult.

This part will be interesting. You need to close up the bird, and then keep it closed. At first, this doesn't seem so difficult.

But you'll find that keeping it all together is going to be rough. It'll help to have a second person helping out here, because they'll need to hold the turkey closed while you thread a couple of skewers through the skin.

Next up, roll the turkey over on top of the seam, and move it to a baking pan. You probably can't see it with my baking pan, but I have a rack in the bottom. Also, I would liked to have tied the legs back together, but I couldn't find my butchers twine.

Believe it or not, I think this next part was actually more difficult than building the bird. We had to cook it. We didn't cook it right away, actually. We covered it and put it in the fridge, to cook the next day. We pulled it from the fridge at the same time we started pre-heating the oven, with the hopes that it would come somewhat closer to room temp by the time we stuck it in the oven.

I prepared for this event by watching Alton Brown cook several turkeys, both on Good Eats and on Food Network "All-Star" holiday specials. Stuffing or no, there was always one constant: he did the majority of cooking at 350F. He stated at least once that lower, slower cooking times would contribute to drying out the bird. He also would tend to start the bird at a higher temp, to get some browning going, and then liked to put a foil shield over the breast to keep it from overcooking.

I started by giving the bird a spritz of cooking spray. I knew the oil would aid in proper browning, and that's important. I also fashioned a triangle-shaped shield of foil to cover the breast, before I put it in the oven. The shield would be added later.

I started the cooking process at 400F, to get some decent browning on the bird. Once it looked presentable, I covered the breast with the foil shield and put it back in the oven, at 350F. Since I have also misplaced by probe thermometer, I had to check the internal temp with an instant-read thermometer. My goal was the high 150s, since I knew that carry-over cooking would take it to 165F on the way to my dad's house.

Total cooking time was about 3 hours. Somewhere around the 2 1/2 hour mark, I started to chicken out (no pun intended) and drop the oven temp. It eventually came down to maybe 310F or so. I'm still not convinced this was the right action. When the bird was just shy of 160F, I pulled out and covered it completely with foil. Before I covered it, it looked like this:

When we got it to my dad's house, we let everyone see it before carving it. Then we set about carving it, which should have been a simple task. Since all of the bones are removed from the inside, we should have just been able to cut cross-sections. But since some of the outer bones remained, they initially got in our way. Eventually, I was able to come up with a good cross-section.

Yes, the meat looks a little dry, doesn't it? This probably has to do with my lowering the oven temp, and/or having to open the oven repeatedly to check the temp, since I didn't have a probe thermometer. Fortunately, it wasn't too dry. Just a tad.

I carved up the whole thing, and moved it all to a platter. I kept the drumsticks intact, but laid out the rest in easy-to-serve pieces, nicely garnished with all of the stuffing.

I noticed that the duck was not a gamey as it usually is. I don't know whether this is because it had chicken and turkey juices mixed in with it, or because it was fully-cooked, instead of medium-rare as duck is normally served. I imaging it's a combination of both, but mostly the second. The chicken was decently cooked. Nobody got sick from undercooked stuffing. All in all, I think it turned out better than expected, but it certainly wasn't a professional job. I think next time we do a turducken, I might just order one premade from The South (tm) and see how they did theirs. Still, not a bad first try.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Tutorial: Baklava

I made some baklava a couple of weeks ago, as a bribe to get my boss to send me to San Francisco. The deal was, if they send me to SF, then the business day immediately following my return, I would bring homemade baklava to work with me.

A few days after presenting my offer, I was presented with my itinerary. Upon my return I picked up some ingredients, got the camera ready, and put together the first baklava that I had made since starting this blog.

I'll admit, baklava looks like a scary thing to make. And unfortunately, few people that make it do it right. Almost every baklava I've ever had has been either too dry or too soggy, and they've also generally been sickeningly sweet. My baklava, as I promised to my boss, is different. It's not too sweet, dry or soggy. It's also not incredibly traditional. Well, screw tradition, I say! This is a dang good baklava!

You may recall a couple of years ago when I make some phyllo cups. If you can handle those, this shouldn't be a problem. You may also want to brush up on making clarified butter. First, the cast of ingredients (a la The Pioneer Woman):


Sugar/Spice Mixture:
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp allspice

Simple Syrup:
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup water
juice of half a lemon
juice of half an orange
zest of a lemon
zest of an orange
2 cinnamon sticks, broken in half
6 whole cloves

The Rest of the Baklava:
1 cup pistachios
1 cup pecans
3/4 cup sliced almonds
1/4 to 1/2 lb clarified butter
20 sheets (1/2 lb or 1/2 a box) phyllo dough

To start off, you'll need a few spices, mixed in with some sugar. This is kind of a high-end cinnamon sugar that you can sprinkle later on your toast. In fact, you'll have some left over for that, so make good use of it.

This is also not a bad time to get together the ingredients for a simple syrup. The hardest part is getting some lemon and orange zest ready. Don't bother with a microplane grater on this one; just use a vegetable peeler.

Go ahead and toss the zest in a sauce pan, along with some sugar, honey, water, orange and lemon juice, and whole spices. You can set those aside for now.

Next up, you'll need some nuts. I went with pistachios, pecans and almonds. You can either pulse them in a food processor, or do what I always do and toss them into a zip-top bag and roll them with a rolling pin. The texture is inconsistent, which I actually kind of like.

Now that you have those things out of the way, it's time to move onto the fun stuff: the phyllo dough. You'll want 20 sheets (half a box) of phyllo dough, a stick or two of clarified butter, a 13 x 9 baking dish brushed with clarified butter, and a kitchen towel that is just barely damp.

The towel is to keep the phyllo from drying out while you're working with it. Just between you and me, I don't really use it. I've been working with phyllo for so long that I'm fast enough to go through half a package (that's one whole baklava) without needing it. You'll get there, don't worry. Now go ahead and lay out a sheet of phyllo and brush it with clarified butter.

Repeat until you have 6 sheets laid down. Then go ahead and divide up the nuts into thirds, and sprinkle one third onto the phyllo.

Follow up with a sprinkling of the spice/sugar mixture. I moved mine into a leftover spice jar, to make it easier to sprinkle evenly, and to keep it later for toast. Don't feel like you have to use it all. You just want a thin layer, barely capable of even being called a layer.

Go ahead and lay down another sheet of phyllo and brush with clarified butter. Go easy on this one, since there's a layer of nuts underneath waiting to tear holes in your phyllo. Just between you and me, if you think this part is going to be too hard, feel free to lay out another cutting board and do your layers of phyllo on that, and then move the layers of phyllo on top of the nuts. You'll want four sheets of phyllo on this layer.

Keep going until you have three layers of nuts and four layers of phyllo. The top and bottom layers should be 6 sheets each, and the inner layers should be 4 sheets each. When it's all finished, go ahead and cut it into squares, and then cut the squares into triangles.

Toss it in a 350F oven for about half an hour. While it's baking, you need to cook up the simple syrup. Bring it to a boil, then drop it to a simmer until the baklava comes out of the oven.

Pull the baklava when it reaches a golden-brown color. Mine actually was a little darker than it shows in the photos. Just be careful not to burn it.

Go ahead and pull the large bits (zest and cinnamon) out of the simple syrup with a pair of tongs. Don't worry about the smaller bits, we're going to strain them out. In fact, you might as well just strain them out onto the baklava. The syrup is hot and the pan is hot, so there will be some sizzling. The sizzling will continue for at least a couple of minutes.

Make sure you wait until the baklava cools down before you try serving it. In fact, if you can manage to wait a couple of days, it will actually get even better. At the very least, you should wait overnight. Me, I waited until the sugar was cooled enough not to burn me.

The reviews on this were excellent. I had a couple of coworkers that had previously told me that they hated baklava, tell me that they were now convinced that I was the only person in the world that could actually make good baklava. Several people told me that it definitely wasn't traditional, and everyone liked that it wasn't too sweet. It was a hit with everyone who tried it.