Do you remember the silly breakfast cereal tagline, cuckoo for coco puffs? Well my husband Dan, is nuts for noodles, pleased as punch for pasta, and on and on. You get my drift. No need to go on with the metaphors. Nothing satisfies more in the dead of winter than a nice hefty lasagna, to fill the empty soul and guard against the low temperatures, gray skies, and blustery winds of the winter months. Under these conditions, lasagna in winter will do more for you than the best down coat. For me, too, in making a lasagna there is the double happiness of pleasing my husband with a noodley, saucey, cheesey casserole. Of course, because this is me, I had to try to make it a healthy dish too. So when I saw the New York Times recipe for Lasagna with Collard Greens by Martha Rose Shulman, I printed out a copy, made my shopping list, and went to the Park Slope Food Coop to purchase the ingredients to make this winter dream dish come true.
I have eaten collard greens in my life, but never cooked them myself, so this would be a another first. The collard greens I have eaten mostly come from restaurants that feature bar-b-que ribs. I occasionally get cravings for meat, and haunt various rib joints when the craving strikes. While I eat mostly vegetarian fare, I always say that I can never really claim to be a true vegetarian, let alone a vegan, because I was raised from a pup to eat meat. My mother had little interest in cooking, and we hardly ever saw a fresh vegetable, except in the summers when we were up at Sackett Lake and would go to Spinelli's farm down the road. Margareet Spinelli would tell us what was up out of the ground and ready for our purchases. She would walk the rows of her garden in a very long legged, brisk stride, talking all the way, me trailing behind. She pulled baby carrots out of the ground the way a magician can pull rabbits out of a hat, and offered them to me as a special treat. While we walked together through the rows of the vibrant vegetable garden, Margareet picked the produce for my mom and her sister, Gert, and my Grandma Clara, too. The women chatted and made small talk with Old Mrs. Spinelli, whose gray hair hung in a long pigtail down her back to her waist. I would go into the farm house kitchen and wash the dirt off of the baby carrots I received. I munched on them while sitting on the porch, rocking in one of the old wooden rockers painted in fire engine red, waiting for the grownups to conclude their business. Margareet would always invite me to come with her into the flower garden, which was fenced off to protect the colorful flowers lazing in the sun, from the deer. She would always pick me a bouquet which included such flowers as zinnias, day lilies, coneflowers, and daisies, to go home with, before we left with our shell peas, carrots, fresh spinach, and other groceries.
But back to my mom and her philosophy of cooking. My mom hated to get the kitchen dirty. Because of that, she had the best gas cooktops and grills installed in her backyard. She would buy steaks by the baker's dozen at the supermarket, always on sale, rewrap them in aluminum foil, and stack them up in the freezer. So supper was most often grilled steak and frozen vegetables that were boiled in a pot of water. The rule of the house was to always have a red and green vegetable on the table, along with a protein. There was usually a plate of sliced tomatoes, and always a salad of lettuce, with a bottle of Wishbone Italian dressing. The frozen vegetables that would be served with the grilled steak, came in a variety of combinations by themes, such as Southwestern Vegetables. When the sealed bags with veggies inside came into vogue, the ones where you would boil the whole plastic bag, that is what she bought and served us. As to the steaks, like the U.S. post office, neither rain nor hail stopped my mom from grilling those steaks outside. Her whole raison d'être, as I said, was so that she didn't get her stove covered in splattered grease. She hated having to wipe down the stove. All mom needed in order to grill outside in inclement weather, was an umbrella to ward off the rain, and a coat and maybe boots if it were snowing. As a result, eating meat is kind of ingrained in my DNA. I get a hankering and go to these rib places like Fletchers on 3rd Avenue between 7th and 8th Streets in Park Slope, or to Hometown Bar-B-Que in Red Hook which is right next to the Chelsea Garden Center, a place I often frequent in the spring once gardening season begins. I walk in thinking, boy, would I like to order some ribs, and sometimes I do, and then sometimes I don't. My family thinks I am a big food tease, often making a suggestion, but then never following through. And food tease that I am, I will walk into these rib havens, and proceed to order a side of collards, and whatever kind of baked beans they are serving. I am known to totally ignore the meat, go for the sides, and make myself happy with my order. So my only experience of collards are those served in side order containers, and they probably have a bit of ham hock in them, giving them a lot of flavor. My lasagna collards are a lot more pristine.
Dear readers, I must confess here that I took a short cut with my lasagna. Martha Rose Shulman, in listing the Ingredients for this dish recommends two cups marinara sauce, preferably homemade from fresh or canned tomatoes. Frankly, I can never understand it when a recipe says, make your marinara from "canned tomatoes," though I often do, when good tomatoes are not in season. If you are cooking from a can, then why not just open up a jar of ready made, where all of the flavoring elements have already been added? In this case, that is exactly what I did. Oh my gosh, is this my own version of my mom's frozen vegetables? Let us not tarry in consideration of that question, and move on to the lasagna recipe. In fact, I thought that the recipe was off in its measurements, and felt that two cups of marinara sauce were not enough. I used prudent amounts and really did spread only a small amount of tomato sauce over the various layers. I swear that my lasagna was not swimming in sauce when it was done. I wound up using a jar of Cecina Antica, all natural, homemade, Garlic Marinara, as well as a can and a half of Muir Glen Organic Tomato Sauce, when the jar ran out.
I followed the Preparation instructions of the recipe. First I washed the collard greens which were sandy, stemmed the large leaves, and boiled them in salted water for 2 minutes. I cooled the leaves off in a bowl of cold water, and transferred them to a towel to dry.Then I preheated the oven to 350 degrees, oiled the rectangular baking dish, and spread a small amount of tomato sauce over the bottom, and topped the sauce with a layer of lasagna noodles. Years ago, when I first started to make lasagna, the no-boil lasagna noodles had not yet been invented. I would have to pre-boil the noodles, and lay them out on baking sheets. They would often tear in the boiling water of the pot, and were sticky and hard to work with once they had been boiled. I used to be compulsive about my lasagna noodles, and feel they had to overlap, that there should be no spaces between noodles. I have come to see that I can place three lasagna noodles across the bottom of my rectangular baking dish, and there is a bit of a separation between the long sides of the noodles. This makes it so easy to serve the lasagna, once it has been made. It is like you have three separate stacks and just chop into one of the stacks for a portion to serve.
I was ready to continue assembling my lasagna. I had my mise en place, which is to say, I grated the parmesan before starting to cook, and I had all of my ingredients in place. This prep enabled me to continue to build my layers, before covering the baking dish with aluminum foil and putting it into the oven to bake. I made one cooking error in my process. I was anxious to serve the lasagna to my husband for lunch, and pulled out the oven rack and whipped off the aluminum foil, because the dish needed an extra ten minutes of baking without the foil. When I did that, the top noodle in one of my lasagna stacks which had stuck to the underside of the foil, wound up flying onto the kitchen floor. If only I had been more careful, and taken out the whole dish before more removing the foil more carefully. But as the Beatles sang:
"Ob-la-di, ob-la-da life goes on brah!
La la how the life goes on
Ob-la-di, ob-la-da life goes on brah!
La la how the life goes on"
The finished lasagna came out of the oven after ten extra minutes of baking. Despite having one stack with a missing noodle on top, the dish was delicious, and my husband enjoyed his winter lasagna.
The song that ran through my head while I made my lasagna was "That's Amore," as sung by Dean Martin. There was a period in my childhood, when this song was constantly playing on the radio. Of course, because of the words "like a big pizza pie," I always associate this song with Italian food.
"When a moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie
When the world seems to shine like you've had too much wine
Bells will ring ting-a-ling-a-ling, ting-a-ling-a-ling
And you'll sing "Vita bella"
Hearts will play tippy-tippy-tay, tippy-tippy-tay
Like a gay tarantella
When the stars make you drool just like a pasta fazool
When you dance down the street with a cloud at your feet
You're in love
When you walk in a dream but you know you're not dreaming signore
Scuzza me, but you see, back in old Napoli
HARRY WARREN, JACK BROOKS
Lyrics © Peermusic Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group"
Dear reader, I hope you will attempt this recipe yourselves, I think you will be delighted by the results. Enjoy!
Lasagna with Collard Greens
- ½ pound collard greens preferably large leaves, stemmed and washed, leaves left intact
- Salt to taste
- Extra virgin olive oil for the pan
- 2 cups marinara sauce preferably homemade from fresh or canned tomatoes
- ½ pound no-boil lasagna noodles
- ½ pound ricotta
- 4 ounces freshly grated Parmesan
Steam the collard greens for 5 minutes above an inch of boiling water, or blanch in boiling salted water for 2 minutes. Transfer to a bow of cold water, drain and pat dry with paper towels.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Oil a 2- or 3-quart rectangular baking dish with olive oil. Spread a small amount of tomato sauce over the bottom and top with a layer of lasagna noodles. Top the noodles with a thin layer of ricotta. Lay collard green leaves over the ricotta in a single layer. Top the leaves with a layer of tomato sauce, followed by a thin layer of Parmesan.
Set aside enough tomato sauce and Parmesan to top the lasagna and repeat the layers until all of the ingredients are used up. Spread the tomato sauce you set aside over the top, and sprinkle on the Parmesan. Make sure the noodles are covered, and cover the baking dish tightly with foil.
Place in the oven and bake 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and uncover. Check to be sure that the noodles are soft and mixture is bubbly. Return to the oven for another 5 to 10 minutes if desired, to brown the top. Allow to sit for 10 minutes before serving.