Kiss kiss, darling, let me take your coat. It is dreadful outside, isn’t it? Did you have trouble finding the place? Did Carl give you trouble downstairs? Really, good help is so hard to find these days.
Welcome to my black-and-white dream world, a world of drink and jazz and good old-fashioned New York glamour. In this black-and-white dream world, I am a Count–Count Backwardsfromten–and each and every Sunday night I throw a fabulous dinner party, a party for which everyone fights for an invitation. “Were you invited to the Count’s? Oh you weren’t? How terrible, darling.”
That is my dream world. And this is my reality:
So much for the jazz age. But who needs glamour when you have lasagna? And who needs fancy friends when you have friends in funny t-shirts, friends who bravely knock on neighbors doors to ask for an extra chair as there are only six chairs for seven guests? And who needs masterfully sewn tablecloths when you have multi-colored water glasses, like the ones I bought at MOMA? I may not be a Count, but you can count on me to throw a fun dinner party. Well…fun except for the few glitches…
Glitch #1: I didn’t make dessert. The Barefoot Contessa says, “No one remembers what you served for dinner at a dinner party, but they’ll always remember dessert.” But I didn’t have time! This is all because of…
Glitch #2: I started too late. I went food shopping at 3 with guests arriving at 7. I thought I could make an appetizer, an entree and dessert in this time. [Cue the cuckoo clock.]
Glitch #3: I was way too ambitious. I decided to cook lasagna from the French Laundry cookbook (I made it once before) but this time, instead of cheating with jarred tomato sauce, I decided to follow the recipe’s instructions for making sauce from scratch. From REAL tomatoes. In March. [Cue the cuckoo clock again.]
For this to happen, I had to buy 12 tomatoes. The 12 tomatoes I bought looked innocent enough sitting on the shelf at Whole Foods. “Ah, tomatoes,” I said. “This won’t be a problem. I’ll just buy 12.”
Then at the register, when the man rang them up I saw how much they cost. There’s a reason people say tomatoes are best in summer: they grow in summer. They don’t grow in winter and usually not in spring and when they do, they cost lots of money. I shamefully paid the man who said–“Boy, you must like tomatoes”–and made my way home.
At home, I immediately set to work. First task: peel the 12 tomatoes. I began by washing the tomatoes, a few at a time:
Then I cut off the stems, peeled off the stickers, and slit an “X” at the bottom of each tomato. Then I plunged the tomatoes into boiling water:
They boiled for appx. 30 seconds–until the skin began to blister–and then I submerged them in ice water.
After five minutes in the ice water, they’re ready to be peeled. And I must say, they’re really easy to peel after you do all this: the skin comes right off.
Then you chop them into little squares (about an inch wide):
And it’s time to begin your sauce.
This is actually the first time I’ve made tomato sauce with fresh tomatoes. I wasn’t sure it would be worth it after all that blanching and peeling, and I was grateful–finally–to get to the tasks I could do quickly: sauteing onion and garlic in olive oil for a few minutes until translucent.
After about five minutes, I added half a cup of tomato paste.
This you stir in and cook for about 8 minutes, until the oil and tomato separates and the oil is a bright orange color. It looks like this:
At this point, you add your tomatoes. I was worried they all wouldn’t fit into my Le Crueset, but they did:
You stir it all together and then, supposedly, let it cook at a simmer for an hour and a half and it’ll be done. But after an hour, it was all soupy and wet and I was terrified because it was 6:30 and my guests were coming in 30 minutes and I hadn’t even assembled the lasagna. So I cranked up the heat to a boil and let it reduce quicker (screw Thomas Keller!) Surprisingly, this tactic worked well: the sauce was chunky and ready 30 minutes later.
As you can see flecked in there, at this point I added fresh chopped basil. And then I gave it a taste. Would this be better than tomato sauce made from a can?
Whoah-ho! It certainly was! I was instantly transported to a beach in Sardinia, the waves lapping over my toes, my Italian wife starting the car behind me. “Apollonia!” I yell. “Don’t!” But it’s too late. The car explodes.
And just then, the doorbell rang. There was Lisa. And soon after, Stella. They set to helping me in the kitchen. We began by boiling the lasagna noodles, mixing the ricotta with the parsley (this should all be in the old lasagna post) and then assembling. First a layer of sauce, then noodles:
Then ricotta, more noodles, more sauce and so on. The very top layer of sauce is topped with grated mozzarella–grated by Lisa–and seasoned with salt and pepper.
Into a 350 oven it goes for 45 minutes (“or until browned on top”) and I set to work on my fried zucchini appetizer.
This zucchini appetizer comes to us from Sarah Moulton who I adored in my first years as a Food TV watcher. She was like the soothing mother figure who came along and held my hand and led me bravely into my kitchen. This recipe, one of the earliest I ever cooked, certainly got me on my way.
It’s a little scary, but it’s so easy. Here’s what you do:
Take flour. Take beer. That’s 1 1/2 cups beer and 1 cup flour (or is it the other way around? It doesn’t really matter) and mix that together. Put through a strainer so it comes out looking like pancake batter. Let it sit for an hour.
Meanwhile, cut up zucchini into sticks: about 2 inches long and 1/4 inch wide. Toss the sticks in a flour, salt, pepper mixture:
Heat vegetable oil to 375. Now line everything up:
That’s zucchini, batter and the heated oil. Take the zucchini dredged in flour, shake it out in a colander, dip in the batter, shake off and carefully place in the oil. It will look like this:
Let it get golden brown (about three minutes) and then drain on paper towels.
Don’t those look delicious? [Make sure to salt them immediately when they come out.]
The best part is the dipping sauce. It’s the easiest and most rewarding dipping sauce you will ever make in your life. Here’s what you do:
Get mayonaisse. Get kalamata olives. Chop up the olives. Add to the mayonaisse (with some olive juices) and that’s your sauce. You can squeeze lemon into it to, but you don’t have to. Here’s the finished product:
People love this. People go crazy for this. My guests, now arrived (and eagerly awaiting lasagna) gobbled these up with flair. One such guest, “Josh,” agreed to be videoed as he sampled the final bite of fried zucchini:
And just then a bell rang–brrrrring!–the lasagna was ready.
Who doesn’t want a slice of that? Nobody doesn’t want a slice of that. Look at this slice and tell me you don’t want it:
And so maybe I didn’t serve dessert. (If I had, it would have been a chocolate hazelnut torte–I had the ingredients, just didn’t have the time.) But what I did serve was highly edible and much appreciated by the guests. “Mmmm,” they said. “This is much appreciated.”
Should this become a ritual Sunday night endeavor–which would be very expensive and very tiresome–I will make sure to plan better. But at least there’s leftover lasagna in the fridge and no leftover dessert to make me fat. Lasagna doesn’t make you fat, right?