artichoke leek lasagna

by Stevie on April 2, 2012

Is lasagna elegant enough to serve at a dinner party? That is the question that I have been pondering for the past couple weeks. I had invited about six friends over for a Saturday meal, including two, Jocelyn and Devin that we hadn’t seen in months. So I wanted to impress but also not be stuck in the kitchen all evening in order to have time to catch up. Naturally, in these situations, I always think: casserole!

artichoke leek lasagna

artichoke leek lasagna

My favorite “casserole” from childhood has to be lasagna. I like it even more than macaroni and cheese if you can believe it. (Maybe I’m exaggerating. What do you think, Mom?) But if you’ve read this far, you’re probably already wondering, “He’s talking comfort food here. Where’s the wow-factor?”

I made an absurdly fancy multi-step lasagna from Fields of Greens, a cookbook “from the Celebrated Greens Restaurant” in San Francisco. So there! The dish requires a tomato sauce, a ricotta “custard,” an herb béchamel, fresh artichokes, provolone and of course the lasagna noodles. With all the separate steps, to get the tray ready for the oven took me almost two hours. It smelled and tasted deliciously. But somehow, sadly, the pictures look just like any old lasagna.

I served it family style at the table, so everyone could help themselves and I wouldn’t have to be running around constantly. People loved it and ate almost everything.

The following afternoon, Hegui and I went to see Jocelyn and Devin at their place downtown. We talked about the meal. She said something along the lines of “I’d never thought to serve lasagna at a dinner party. It was really good.”


So I ask you once again: is lasagna elegant enough to serve at a dinner party?

artichoke leek lasagna

for the veggie filling:

2 leeks, whites only, sliced thin and thoroughly rinsed
4 artichokes, cleaned with hearts and stems sliced (for cleaning instructions, click here)
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp olive oil
Juice from half a lemon
¼ cup dry white wine
3 tbsp chopped fresh herbs: I used lemon thyme, parsley and oregano

for the ricotta custard:

3 to 4 cups ricotta (I doubled the recipe here—naughty)
2 eggs, beaten
½ cup grated parmesan
A few pinches fresh nutmeg
½ tsp salt
Pinch black pepper

for the herb béchamel:

2½ cups whole milk
2 tbsp butter
3 tbsp flour
¼ tsp salt
Pinch black pepper
Sprigs of fresh herbs: I used parsley, lemon thyme, sage and oregano

for the tomato sauce:

1 tbsp olive oil
½ onion, chopped fine
¼ tsp dried thyme
6 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup red wine
2 large cans chopped tomatoes with juice
1 bay leaf
Salt and black pepper to taste

for the lasagna:

1 box lasagna noodles (not the no-boil kind—they get too squishy)
1 cup parmesan, grated
1½ cups provolone, grated
…and items prepared above

Start by making the tomato sauce. This is fairly straightforward. Sauté onions in olive oil until they become translucent, then add garlic, herbs, salt and pepper. Sauté a bit longer. Add red wine and cook until liquid evaporates. Add tomatoes, bay leaf, bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Cook at least 20 to 30 minutes. Adjust flavors with salt and pepper as desired.

Prepare the veggies by sautéing leeks in olive oil with salt until they become tender and translucent. Add dried herbs and pepper. Add artichoke slices and garlic. Continue cooking, covered, until artichokes are tender. Add lemon juice then white wine. Fold in fresh herbs. Adjust salt and pepper. Set aside.
Quickly make ricotta custard be mixing all ingredients together.

Prepare béchamel much like any roux. Add butter to a saucepan on high. As it begins to melt, sprinkle with flour and mix together. Once fully absorbed, slowly add milk while stirring constantly. Add sprigs of fresh herbs (tie them together to make fishing them out later easier.) Once it thickens, add salt and black pepper to taste.

the veggie layer for artichoke leek lasagna

the veggie layer for artichoke leek lasagna

Preheat oven to 350F.

Prepare lasagna noodles following package directions. In a large baking dish, scoop some tomato sauce on the bottom then a layer of three noodles side-by-side. Pour some more tomato sauce over the pasta. Then add sautéed veggies. Sprinkle half the cheeses. Add another layer of pasta. Spread ricotta custard over that then more pasta. Add another layer of tomato sauce, the remaining cheese and another layer of pasta. Spread béchamel over that final layer (after removing the herbs). Cover and bake about 20 minutes. Remove cover and bake another 10 to 15 minutes.

That’s it! Simple…


The white corn cake that Fer from the Brazilian blog chucrute com salsicha made the other day caught my eye because she uses an ingredient of which I have plenty in my pantry: harina de maiz nixtamalizada, or Mexican corn flour. It’s been sitting around since Steven prepared delicious vegetarian tamales awaiting the next tamale cook-off because we didn’t know what else to make with it.

Brazilian style corn cake with Mexican nixtamalized corn flour

Brazilian style corn cake with Mexican nixtamalized corn flour

Fer is based here in Northern California. She shares the same trouble I do when it comes to buying corn flour for Brazilian dishes. In the US it is ground too coarsely. So she resorted to the Mexican corn flour which has a similar texture to the Brazilian. I think that’s wonderfully creative in-and-of-itself and has given me loads of new ideas already.

I’ve wanted to test this flour for some time but never got around to doing it. I guess was afraid that the way the corn was processed, nixtamalization, would impart a different flavor to the cake. Well, that was completely wrong. Thanks for debunking that myth, Fernanda!

I basically followed her recipe except that I used pastry flour in the combo corn-wheat flour. This made the cake extra fluffy. It came out deliciously corny, not too sweet and super moist.

Brazilian style corn cake with Mexican nixtamalized corn flour

key ingredients for Brazilian style corn cake with Mexican nixtamalized corn flour

key ingredients for Brazilian style corn cake with Mexican nixtamalized corn flour

1½ cups harina de maiz nixtamalizada (Mexican corn flour)
2½ cups whole milk
2 cups pastry flour
1 tbsp baking powder
½ tsp kosher salt
2/3 cup sugar
2 eggs
½ cup canola oil
¾ tsp fennel seeds

Pre heat oven to 400F.

Grease a large baking pan with canola oil and set aside.

Put corn flour in a large bowl, add milk and whisk together to combine. Let this mix sit for about 5-10 minutes. Add eggs and mix it again to combine. Blend in pastry flour, salt, sugar, fennel seeds and baking powder.

Transfer mixture to prepared baking pan and bake for 35-40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.

Serve with a nice cup of black coffee.


Anna’s almost secret family recipe:  chocolate cake with cooked frosting

Anna’s almost secret family recipe: chocolate cake with cooked frosting

I’ve been a fan of Anna’s blog, Keep It Luce, since shortly after she started publishing. Her Great Aunt Sue’s recipe for chocolate cake with cooked frosting really resonated with me. I’d neither had the cake before nor heard of “cooked frosting,” both of which made this intriguing. But it was the story of her grandfather on his 92nd birthday, weakened by chronic illness, and the intimate portrait of her family life that was so beautiful and memorable. It stuck with me, perhaps because in certain ways it reminded me of my own grandfather. And one day, finally, it was time to make the cake myself.

I served this at the end of a veggie dinner party for eight. I wasn’t sure what to expect as this is my first-ever chocolate cake from scratch. I knew that the cooked frosting was the bomb, as I’d tasted it while icing this ultra moist cake. It was a giant success. One guest asked for some to take home. I gave him a big slice in a doggie bag. I brought the rest to an afternoon barbecue party the following day, much to the delight of the hostess. (I couldn’t let it stay at my house as I’d have gobbled the whole thing up myself in a day or two, then felt guilty about it.)

Basically I followed Anna’s recipe exactly though I did add some rum to the frosting. Also my cake required a bit longer to set than is suggested in the Keep It Luce recipe: about an hour to 70 minutes.

Anna’s almost secret family recipe: chocolate cake with cooked frosting

for the cake:

2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
2 tsp baking soda
¾ cups unsweetened cocoa
2 cups sugar
1 cup canola oil
1 cup hot coffee (I made the cake right after breakfast)
1 cup whole milk
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla

for the frosting:

1 cup whole milk
5 tbsp flour
½ cup butter (1 stick) at room temp
½ cup veggie shortening
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp rum

to make the cake:

Pre-heat oven to 325F. Grease and flour a 9”x13” baking dish.

Sift the dry ingredients together.

Mix coffee, oil and milk. Gradually mix dry ingredients into the liquid. Once incorporated, beat for about 2 minutes. Add eggs and 1 tsp vanilla. Beat another 2 minutes.

Pour into prepared dish and bake until a toothpick in the center comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool for about 10 minutes. Carefully invert from dish onto a cooling rack. Cool completely.

to make frosting:

In a small saucepan, heat 1 cup milk. Beat in flour and whisk vigorously. Mine reminded me of a roux.
Cover and let cool completely.

Combine flour/milk mix with remaining ingredients and beat until combined. Mmm!

Once the cake has cooled, place on serving dish and frost. Dust with more cocoa powder (optional).

This cake is unbelievably good. Thank you for the delish family recipe, Anna!


I’ve always been curious about baking with puff pastry yet this is my first time: a puff pastry virgin no more!

Last week I saw a beautiful recipe on the cool blog, gourmet food, for asparagus tart with caprino de cabra that convinced me that is was about time for me to give it a try. The recipe uses lots of dairy. Aside from the filling, the puff pastry is loaded with butter. I was saving up, having eaten mostly vegan that week, so I splurged a bit with this one.

asparagus, fava and edamame tart

asparagus, fava and edamame tart

our weekend redwood forest retreat

our weekend redwood forest retreat

This was for a picnic lunch on our recent wine-tasting weekend trip to beautiful Sonoma County. We planned it around the spring wine pick-up at Williams Selyem. People are so excited about that winery. Several of our friends wanted to go with us but most of them bagged it when they learned that the event coincided with Mother’s Day. Chris was free, which was perfect. And we were extra lucky this time: our friends Devin and Jocelyn invited us to stay in their new cabin in the woods in Guerneville. (Unfortunately they couldn’t come themselves: a wedding in Southern California.) The cabin is nestled among so many stunning and remarkably tall redwood trees. The trees surrounding the house were enormous! I always feel like I’m inside a cathedral when I am among redwoods. Awesome.

asparagus, fava and edamame tart

¾ lb asparagus
½ cup fava beans, shelled, blanched and popped out of their inner shells
½ cup milk
1/3 cup water
1 tbsp flour
1 container frozen puffy pastry (14oz or ~400grams)
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
4tbsp sweet onions, chopped fine
3 tbsp parsley
1/3 cup parmesan cheese
4-5 tbsp olive oil
Kosher salt
Crushed red pepper
Freshly ground black pepper
Chives for decoration

some key ingredients for asparagus, fava and edamame

some key ingredients for asparagus, fava and edamame

fresh asparagus and fava beans

fresh asparagus and fava beans

preparing the vegetables

preparing the vegetables

Defrost puffy pastry in the fridge for 20-24h. Bring to room temperature 3 hours before use.

Peel asparagus outer skin and discard then cut tips off and reserve for decorating the top of the pie. Using potato peeler, shave all spears thinly.

Using a saucepan, combine shaved asparagus, onion, olive oil, water and milk. Bring it close to a boil and cook for a couple minutes. Add edamame and fava. Continue cooking for another minute or so. Juices should be absorbed by the vegetables. Mine didn’t completely, so to thicken it, I dissolved a tablespoon of flour in 1 or 2 tablespoon of cold water and poured it over vegetables. Mix to incorporate. Remove from heat.

Add salt, peppers, cheese, parsley and egg yolks. Immediately mix to combine then let cool for about 15 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375F

Stretch puffy pastry in a rectangular Pyrex type glass baking dish leaving some dough along the edges. Pour vegetable mix over pastry. Attractively arrange asparagus tips on top. Sprinkle some parmesan cheese on top and bake in the oven for about 35 minutes. Edges will turn into a golden color and become a bit flaky. Remove from oven. Let cool down completely.

Now get a good bottle of wine, some country bread and enjoy the spring.


As I mentioned already, Saveur and The Economist magazine published some exciting articles about cassava last February. They say that it is a staple in Africa. I grew up eating cassava, or mandioca as it is called in Portuguese. Where I’m from it was more widely available than its traditional substitute, potato. For us it was a staple, too.

cassava purée AKA purê de mandioca

cassava purée AKA purê de mandioca

Aside from potato, cassava can replace rice or wheat in many dishes. These days, you can find it year-round in the frozen section, and often fresh as well. I usually shop for it in The Mission in San Francisco, at various Latino markets, like this one.

The frozen comes from Costa Rica in 1lb bags. They’re especially handy, as they’ve already been peeled. The fresh have a brown colored rough skin and come coated in paraffin, which is supposed to improve their shelf life. I’ve tried both types and see no difference in flavor. So if you have the choice, I’d say go for frozen and save some hassle.

This recipe is a take on mashed potatoes. It has a great flavor and makes for an excellent and exotic, yet familiar side dish.

easy to use frozen cassava from Costa Rica

easy to use frozen cassava from Costa Rica

cassava purée AKA purê de mandioca

1 lb frozen cassava
½ stick butter
1 cup milk
Kosher salt to taste
Ground white pepper to taste
1-2 tbsp Parmesan cheese

Drop frozen cassava root into pot of boiling water. Cover. Let cook for about 20 minutes or until segments start to collapse. Remove from heat, drain, and let cool.

Remove woody stringy parts from the center of the roots and discard.

Add milk to picked-over cassava in original pot. Mash using a fork or potato masher. Add butter, salt and white pepper. Blend with a stick blender until fluffy.

Cook, stirring often, until purée starts to stick to bottom of the pan. Adjust consistency with more milk. Add cheese and serve.


biscoito de polvilho azedo AKA sour manioc biscuit

Growing up in the countryside in Brazil was not fun in the sense that we didn’t have a bakery to go to every morning to get bread. On the other hand, it was great because my mother liked to bake. She had a rustic wood burning oven built outside the house near the kitchen in the same style that you might see at California pizza shops. She would fire up this oven once or twice a week, to bake for the crowd. The aromas that permeated the air are still vivid from my childhood memories.

One of the things I adored was the biscoito de polvilho azedo or sour manioc biscuit. This Brazilian biscuit has the consistency of profiterole shells; they’re soft, chewy, airy inside and crunchy on the outside. But whereas profiterole shells are almost flavorless, biscoito de polvilho has a salty and tasty sour flavor which I think goes well with dinner or with a good cup of black coffee or even café au lait.

I’ve forgotten my mother’s recipe but the other day I was looking at my blogger friend, Neide Rigo’s site and found one there that resembles my mother’s. Neide calls it Rosca de Polvilho, which is the name for the same dish in the southern part of Brazil.

I made it at home and it turned out fabulously.

some key ingredients for biscoito de polvilho azedo AKA sour manioc biscuit

biscoito de polvilho azedo AKA sour manioc biscuit

1 cup flavorless oil (e.g., canola, almond)
1 cup water
2 tsp kosher salt
5 to 6 cups of sour manioc flour/starch
1 cup whole cold milk
2 eggs
grated cheddar (optional)

Pre-heat over to 485F. Grease a couple of large baking trays and set aside.

Bring water, oil and salt to a boil. Place about 3 cups of manioc flour in a large bowl. Whisk in boiling liquid to scald the manioc flour. Mix until incorporated. Add milk and eggs then continue mixing. Add remaining flour in stages until it’s all incorporated. The dough will be ready when it stops sticking to your hands.

Shape dough into ping-pong ball size rounds and place them 2 inches apart on baking tray. Bake for about 22 minutes. The biscoitos will puff up and the bottoms will brown a bit.

mixing the dough

preparing the dough for baking

hot from the oven

Serve hot. I added grated cheddar at the top for additional savory flavor, but you can leave the cheese out.


Recently Hegui took up this book, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors. Among other things, it says that the words “polow,” “pilau,” “paella,” and “pilaf” all essentially mean the same thing: a dish made of rice mixed with other ingredients. That’s interesting.

Shirazi baked saffron polow with spinach

Today’s polow comes from my favorite, Silk Road Cooking: A Vegetarian Journey! I’ve been wanting to make this for a while, but have met with some resistance at home. Hegui wasn’t excited by the Madras mustard seed and yogurt pullao, apparently because he doesn’t like yogurt that much. But my friend, Heather, has been going on and on about how great some of these unmolded Persian rice dishes taste. Plus the tiny photo in the cookbook itself enticed me. Finally, we had a dinner party for six, and the time had come.

I didn’t have crystallized orange peel. The recipe calls for a quarter cup. Instead, I substituted orange zest. That likely made the final dish less sweet, which is another thing that bothers H about some of these Silk Road rice dishes. He doesn’t like them sweet. Too bad for me. I loved Susa polow with lentils, currants and dates.

Since it was a party, I went ahead and used butter and the whole egg (instead of the whites only). Cholesterol be damned! I used a cinnamon stick instead of powdered cinnamon and mixed sunflower and pumpkin seeds instead of pine nuts. I had the seeds already and hate to spend so much for pine nuts.

This dish looks stunning served on a buffet. I really enjoyed it at the time and for the next couple of days, the leftovers were wonderful, too. Next time, I might cut the recipe in half and prepare it in a smaller casserole. Najmieh Batmanglij says it makes six servings, but that must be if you’re not eating anything else besides. It was a lot of food!

The final dish really didn’t taste that yogurt-y or sweet. The outer layer is sort of spongy which was fun.

some key ingredients for Shirazi baked saffron polow with spinach

Shirazi Baked Saffron Polow with Spinach

2/3 cups melted butter or oil
2 onions, thinly sliced
6 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 tsp. cumin
1 cinnamon stick
¼ tsp. ground nutmeg
1 lb. baby spinach
1½ cups pitted prunes
1 cup raw sunflower seeds and/or pumpkin seeds, toasted
3 cups basmati rice
3 eggs
2 cups plain yogurt
½ cup milk
½ tsp. ground saffron in 2 tbsp. hot water
Zest of an orange
Kosher salt
1 tsp. black pepper

Heat two tbsp. butter in a large skillet and sauté onion for about fifteen minutes on medium until golden. Add garlic and cumin and fry for a minute more. Add cinnamon stick, nutmeg and spinach. Cover and cook until spinach wilts, about five minutes. Add prunes and seeds. Set aside.

Wash basmati rice thoroughly. Boil eight cups of water with two tablespoons of salt. Add rice and boil for six minutes. Drain and rinse rice with three cups of cold water. It will not be completely coked but will finish in the oven.

Preheat oven to 420F.

Combine eggs, yogurt, milk, saffron water, orange zest, two tsp. salt and black pepper in a large bowl. Beat. Fold half of cooked rice into yogurt mixture.

Pour ¼ cup melted butter into a 9×13 inch baking dish and coat bottoms and sides well. Pour rice and yogurt mixture into bottom of dish. Spread it evenly. Spread spinach filling over yogurt rice. Finally cover with remaining basmati rice. Press everything firmly into baking dish. Drizzle with remaining butter.

Butter one side of a sheet of aluminum foil and then cover casserole tightly. Bake for 1½ hours until crust becomes browned.

Remove from oven and place on a damp cloth. Let dish rest, covered, for fifteen minutes. Then, to unmold, remove foil and with a knife, gently separate edges of polow from sides of dish. Then invert a serving platter over casserole and flip it into the platter. I was worried about this step but it was a breeze!

Garnish with herbs and serve in slices.

{ 1 comment }

We´d been traveling in Brazil for a week or so when I was confronted with one of the food-related things about the country that most alarms me: sweet avocado juice. I´m not completely naive and do realize that this is not that uncommon, at least in other places far from where I live. In fact, a work colleague, H, tells me that something similar is fairly popular in the Phillipines. Be that as it may, this drink, on first hearing about it, made me anxious.

suco de abacate

To me, avocado is a fruit used primarily in Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes, which are invariably savory and never sweet. I´ve travelled to Brazil several times before and generally avoided this drink. This time however, there was no getting around it: Hegui´s sister, Tinha, with whom we were staying at the time, made it for me specifically, apparently on request (though I cannot recall making such a request at any time. Hmm.)

Tinha used an avocado that seemed tremendously large to me–perhaps the size of an American football. I´ve seen similar ones here in the Bay Area though with more diminutive statures. The recipe is really easy: just mix the avocado with milk and sugar to taste, then blend it.

Tinha served this in tall glasses. She had refrigerated the avocado and milk so it was cool and quite refreshing. The milkshake looks whitish with a slightly greenish tint. It tasted grassy and mild. Really muito gostoso. Who knew?

this is a giant sized avocado though it's hard to tell with this pic

Suco de Abacate


Blend everything together and adjust various constituent ingredients to make it the thickness and level of sweetness that you like. Drink on a hot day. Yum!

roadside avocado tree bearing fruit in downtown Ubatuba, SP, Brazil


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