Winter has loosened its grip on us. Finally. It’s been a near constant assault of snow and bitterly cold temperatures for longer than any season really needs to last. Suddenly, within the space of literally a handful of days, we went from a low one morning of 22 degrees below zero to 48 this afternoon, a stunning difference of 66 degrees. My backyard, which resembled a polar ice cap, has melted and thawed so quickly that it’s become a bog. I could grow cranberries in it.
It was a relief to finally get myself and the dogs out for a good, long hike this afternoon. I love Monday holidays. It’s like getting a second Sunday, as though life hits the Pause button for a day. We went to our favorite spot down on the river. I knew it would be muddy; my boots were nearly pulled from my feet a few times. And I didn’t care one bit. It was wonderful to be outside under blue skies, and to breathe air warmed by the sun, not a furnace.
The dogs ran longer and farther and faster than I’ve seen them do in a while. They were wet, smiling, doggy-smelling messes by the time we headed back, and again, I absolutely didn’t care. They badly needed to get out and just be dogs.
With warmer weather and longer days, I feel the culinary currents beginning to flow once more. January is a bugger for me. December is such a race to the finish line that by its end I feel like the Tailor of Gloucester: “Alak, I am worn to a raveling.” The shortest day of the year has come and gone, yet still, come January, daylight hours are too few. The bottom falls out of the thermometer. My mojo goes into hibernation. Thank heaven for frozen ziplock bags of thises and thats. Many nights, I tiptoed the truck home on glassy streets, fed the animals, warmed up something for dinner – honestly, it almost didn’t matter what – after drawing curtains against the frigid dark. Before I sat down to eat, I’d set my electric blanket to Roast in anticipation of the day’s high point when I climbed into bed with a book and a pot of tea and a couple of cats right after dinner. One day was pretty much like another and they appeared endless. Today was a much-needed tonic. I am restored.
This morning I saw a photo that a friend from work had posted on her Facebook page with the caption, “Is it a Pasta?!?! Is it a soup?!?!? Or is is just AWESOME?!?!” Well, the only description that came to mind was that it looked like a bowl full of a soup-ish version of lasagna. And after a day outside in a somewhat bracing wind, it seemed the perfect way to return to cooking. I took some liberties with the dish in the photo and added some grilled baguette slices topped with melted Mozzarella, because why not gild the lily?
Thank you deeply, Shawn. I needed this.
4 to 6 servings, depending how generous you are
1 yellow onion, small dice
2 cloves garlic, smashed, peeled, minced
1 pound ground beef or ground bison (I used bison *)
8 ounces red wine (I used a cabernet sauvignon)
1 28-ounce can tomatoes **
16 ounces beef stock
8 sheets of lasagna noodles, broken up and cooked separately
Sea or kosher salt and pepper
Red pepper flakes
Slices of baguette
Slices of fresh Mozzarella
* Bison is significantly more lean and higher in protein than beef. Even better, it isn’t loaded with water when processing, so it will actually brown rather than poach. And best of all, it doesn’t give off that wet dog smell when cooking, as ground beef does. The wet dog smell in my house? From wet dogs.
** I keep cans of whole San Marzano tomatoes in the pantry. Once you’ve opened them, use scissors to cut them up right in the can.
1. Warm a stainless steel soup pot over medium heat. Film the bottom with olive oil. When it’s hot (watch it; it will shimmer or “ribbon”), add the onions and sauté them along with a pinch of salt until they begin to soften. Add the garlic and sauté it until is is fragrant. Break up the ground meat with your hands, dropping it into the pot in chunks. Stir it around, breaking the chunks up with a spoon. Cook it, stirring it now and then, until it browns nicely, about 7 minutes.
2. Stir in the wine, tomatoes, and stock, scraping up browned bits of meat from the bottom of the pot.
Bring everything to a simmer, cover the pot but leave the lid a bit ajar, and reduce heat to just maintain a gentle simmer. Simmer until flavors are well blended and concentrated, about 30 minutes.
3. Just before serving, bring a separate pot of well salted water (it should taste like the ocean) to a boil. Break the lasagna noodles into pieces of about an inch square and add them to the boiling water.
Cook them for 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. They won’t be completely done at that point. Drain them through a colander, then stir them into the stew and let them finish cooking in the stew for about 3 minutes, effectively thickening it. Taste it, and season it to taste with salt, freshly ground pepper, and pinches of red pepper flakes.
4. While the pasta is cooking, cut two slices of baguette per person, and brush each side with olive oil. Set them on a baking sheet. Preheat your broiler, and place the baking sheet beneath it. When both sides are well browned, remove the pan from the oven and set a slice of mozzarella on each piece of bread. Return the bread to the broiler, and allow the cheese to melt and brown on top.
5. To serve, ladle some stew into each bowl. Set two cheesy baguette slices on top of each.
For a dinner like this, I could almost be glad that it’s technically still winter.