Weeknight Lasagna

Ready for easier, lighter fare that’s still delicious? Yep. Me too. Read on for LASAGNA: easy to make, potluck AND leave with your sitter on NYE! Photo by Sarah Deragon.

“SCREW IT. I’VE COOKED ENOUGH,” runs through my head this time of year…. But seriously, the holidays are winding down. You (and your Kitchen) likely need a break from nonstop baking, braising, and cooking.  Am I right? But you still need to eat. And celebrate our New Year!! So if you’re going out (or staying in) this is a great, quick recipe to make everyone happy.

Enter my simple, kind of a cheater’s guide to Lasagna. Great for every night but also perfect for family style New Year’s Dinner. Little and big eaters will ALL love it. (Trust me.)

I hadn’t thought to share it before (sorry about that) but after pow-wow-ing in Napa with some EPIC foodie talent (see below) thanks to hostess Teri Turner, I’m more than delighted to share as part of our #virtualpotluck. The idea is to share what our tables’ will boast on this most auspicious of annual celebrations. Then keep ’em coming!

Truly wonderful week of food talks, ideas, and development. I popped in & out depending on the kids and winery but to say the least, it was a wonderful experience for all of us. I whole heartedly hope you follow each one us here. From L-R: that’s me in Cheetah (straight from the streets of London), No Crumbs Left (Teri), Zach Attack, The Lemon Apron (Jen), The Cooks In Their Kitchens (Naomi), Husbands That Cook (Adam & Ryan (far right), Displaced Housewife (Rebecca), Bazaar Lazarr (Christi), Rainy Day Bites (Deborah), C.R.A.V.I.N.G.S. (Christine). Read more at this lovely write up by the Husbands! Only missing Food Fashion Party (beloved Asha), The Daley Plate (Dale) And Jam Lab (Amisha)!

Now in the midst of some seriously accomplished food talent, I realized my place wasn’t in perfection at the table, so to speak.  But in my perfectly imperfect family table and our demanding vineyard life.  And I quickly thought to share my go-to Lasagna for families of all kinds and sizes. Yes, this dish is delicious! But also, SO easy to make… Easy to potluck… Easy to serve… Everyone loves it… With Zero Leftovers. (Yay!)

Pantry Tip?  Watch for grocery sales and stock up. Keep at the ready boxes of dried pasta (we use DeCecco), jars/boxes of diced or strained Italian tomatoes like Pomi or Jovial brands, tomato paste, dried Italian herbs, and a few cloves of garlic. These will be the backbone for any quick sauce. The rest of the ingredients are more flexible and easily changed.  For example:

  • Swap in verdant green pesto for this red tomato sauce (just don’t cook pesto… Ever)
  • Change out Spinach with Broccolini (or chopped Kale)
  • Throw in those wilting Tomatoes (chopped up)
  • Use Shallots instead of Yellow Onion
  • No Ricotta? No worries, just add more Mozzarella
  • Add ground Lamb, Beef, or chunks of cooked Italian Sausage (mild or hot) for your Carnivores
  • Skip the Ricotta should you feel like whisking a Béchamel sauce

TIP: For large gatherings including little mouths, please keep in mind the ages of all your guests. Do all parents a solid and don’t use lasagna sheets. Use Rotelle pasta (those little wheels) or Farfalle, Macaroni or Gnocchi shells instead. So you/they aren’t bending over every four minutes to cut your kids’ dinner into little chewable pieces. Stand tall and sip wine instead…

Think “bite size” chopped greens. No stress, easy to eat. Photo by Sarah Deragon. Email me if you’d like to try our Sauvignon Blanc? It’s the best ever.

Abi’s Quick Lasagna:

Ingredient Suggestions (make yours to taste):

  • 3-5 Cloves Garlic (peeled)
  • 1 Carrot (peeled & quartered)
  • 1/4-1/2 Yellow Onion (Peeled & quartered)
  • 1 Stalk Celery (quartered)
  • 1 small jar Tomato Paste or Concentrate
  • 1 26-28oz. Jar/Box fine Italian Tomatoes (Diced or Pureed)
  • 2-3 Handfuls Spinach (Kale or 1 bunch Broccolini)
  • 5-10 Stalks Asparagus (course parts trimmed & removed)
  • 1/2-3/4 Box of Roselle or Farfalle Pasta (or 6 sheets dried Lasagna)
  • 1 16oz bag shredded Mozzarella
  • 1-1.5 cups shaved Parmesan
  • Dried Italian Herbs
  • Kosher Salt (or Fluer de Sel) and fresh cracked Pepper
  • Handful chopped Italian Parsley and Basil, if you have it

Set large pot of water to boil.

Puree garlic, carrot, celery, onion, and drizzle of olive oil, in a food processor.  Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a wide bottom pan and sauté your mire poix mixture 3-4 minutes (careful to not burn garlic and onion). Stir in dash Italian herbs. Cook until fragrant (about 30 seconds).

If using chopped Asparagus and coarse chopped Spinach, add now and quickly stir. (Don’t overly wilt because your greens will cook fully while baking.) Next, add tomato paste and stir well 2-3 minutes. Let sauce alone now to “BROWN” (about 1 minute more). Stir in the whole jar/box of diced tomatoes with juices (and 2 leaves finely shredded fresh basil, if using).  Mix well. Remove from heat and let stand.

Step 1: Quick Sauce now cooling. Photo by Sarah Deragon.

Pot of water should be boiling. If not, wait until roiling. Then add one giant pinch salt. Add pasta and briefly pre-cook according to directions (usually about 4 minutes). Drain quickly. (Do NOT rinse with cold water!)

Here I didn’t have Rotelle pasta and used Farfalle… Marrying into an Italian American family, I’ve learned a thing or two about Pastas. That said, this quick Lasagna is more of a “cheater’s guide” and my WASP-y go-to for a quick, very yummy dinner — and wonderful potluck addition when doubled.  Photo by Sarah Deragon.

Slick casserole dish bottom with olive oil or tomato sauce. Toss in half the pasta (or three lasagna sheets). Layer half of your tomato-vegetable sauce. Dollop large spoonfuls of half your Ricotta cheese.  Hand tear and evenly distribute 1/2 hand torn mozzarella. Then lightly layer half of your shredded mozzarella over everything and dust with shaved parmesan.

Lasagna in process: In this photo shoot with Sarah, I didn’t remember to add the veggies until later so you see them separated! But I like cooking them in the sauce for easier cleanup. Note coarse chunks of Mozzarella? (Burrata works too). Italians often skip the heavier Béchamel sauces and focus on simple cheeses. Photo by Sarah Deragon.

Repeat for a second layer and top with chopped Italian parsley.

Topped with herbs and ready for the oven. Photo by Sarah Deragon.

Wrap with tin foil. Bake 35 minutes. Remove foil and bake 20-25 minutes more, until cheese browned. Remove from oven and let stand 5-10 minutes before serving.

Happy Eating & Sipping: Cheers!

Happy Eating!

Wine Follows Food

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Farmers Market bounty

In the New Year, many of us Foodies make dietary resolutions to lose weight. Some will fail. But today, thanks to non-fad programs, many succeed. Changing lives by branching out to eat cleaner, greener, and leaner. Beginning to exercise and cook at home, bodies (& lives) will change for the better. (I, too, plan to lose the last 11 pounds of baby weight before my baby turns three without giving up my greatest loves: Butter and Wine.)

Those who do succeed, and remain successful in choosing healthy living, may experience a shift in what you like to drink. I’m no dietician but here in Wine Country, I’ve been watching Wine Lists change as Menus shift to keep up with the latest diet trends. From Atkins and Paleo now to Vegan and Gluten Free. And as people (including myself) remain clean eaters — choosing leaner and greener plates — my suspicion is that our taste buds (& palates) are regenerating (every 5-7 weeks) to delight in cleaner, lighter flavors. And in turn, ordering and buying wines that better pair with the lighter foods we eat.

Wine follows Food.  As a nerdy Eater and Winemaker, I’ve found this gradual but consistent shift fascinating! Watching what wines the big and little wineries now produce to keep pace with dietary fads (for lack of a better word). Think about it–  All those buttery Chardonnays and big, giant Cabs that were so 90s went really well with the all-pervasive Cesar salads, shrimp cocktails, creamed chicken or peppercorn steak menu items. Then it was the French fusion/ salmon era of the 2000s with the explosion of Pinot and Sauvignon Blancs on the wine scene. Today, don’t you see more kale, legumes, Asian influences, duck, salads, salmon (still), and seafoods? Pairing up beautifully with nationally relative newcomers like Rosés, Pinot Grigios, Syrahs, and red blends. The leaner the fare, the lighter the body of wines (in my theory at least). Because Wine follows food.

Fish Bake of salmon, shrimp, tomatoes, garlic, pinch red pepper flakes, halved tomatoes, and asparagus. All rubbed down with EVOO and salt and roasted at high heat thanks to Jamie Oliver's Meals in Minutes.

Fish Bake of salmon, shrimp, tomatoes, garlic, pinch red pepper flakes, halved tomatoes, lemon chunks, and asparagus. All rubbed down with EVOO and salt and roasted at high heat thanks to Jamie Oliver. And a giant Cab would overwhelm such delicate flavors in the fish. Choosing a crisp (non grassy) Sauv Blanc or a Rosé would be much better.

This brings us full circle to talk about Pairings. I hear a lot of talk about “how to pair wine with food.” And it really can be a science. But being a busy mom who has dirt under her nails from the garden and vineyard much of the year? I don’t have time to focus on what’s “perfect.” To me, the “perfect pairing” is what tastes good to you. It drives me NUTS when restaurants or top-down articles creep in with that snooty tone of “I know better than you”. When confronted with poncyness repeat after me: Whores have been drinking wine far longer than Queens. (According to the archaeological record at least.)

That said, a basic rule of thumb is this: Start with Color — The deeper the colors, the heavier the flavors will be. And vice versa. Lighter colors like the gold in a white fish or squash pasta go nicely with a sun-kiss hued wine like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio. Sharper flavors like grassy wines (Australian and warmer climate Sauv Blancs go nicely with Asian flavors. For the Reds in tomato dishes or pink meats? Branch into lighter colored reds like Pinots, dry Rosés, and Merlot based blends. Red meats and deep red vegetables? Try your Cabernets, blends and Zinfandels. Eggs go fabulously with light, crisp wines. While the greens of vegetables and salads are up to you. Keep in mind, I am no professional sommelier who could explain the complexities of pairings much better but this is how I explain it in “plain speak” to guests and to newcomers to this beautiful world of wine.

This gorgeous Burrata and garden tomato plate by friend Anne Ziemienski would go beautifully with any crisp, dry White or Rosé wine. And a lighter red like Merlot or Pinot too. Wine choices are so versatile -- there is no one right answer.

This gorgeous Burrata and garden tomato plate by friend Anne Ziemienski would go beautifully with any crisp, dry White or Rosé wine. And a lighter red like Merlot or Pinot too. Wine choices are so versatile — There is no one right answer.

Happy eating! And drinking. Cheers!

my Jelly Jar Trick: Not All Wine is Created Equal.

OKAY.  I admit it.  For years back in Los Angeles, I mostly sipped sh*t wine. Thinking it was good wine. And good for me. At $5-12 per bottle, inexpensive wine fit my wallet but still made me feel like I was “healthy.” A glass or two of red wine a day is supposed to be good for you, right?

…Right?

Wrong. Not all wine is created equal. And labels can be of little help. So what works? For we non-sommelier wine-drinkers out there? My Jelly Jar Test.

We make wine how we cook: from scratch, clean, healthy, and delicious.

We make wine how we cook: from scratch, clean, healthy, and delicious. Clearing tanks here with Winemaker extraordinaire Cecilia Valdivia at Deerfield Ranch Winery where we Custom Crush.

When I moved north to Sonoma in 2007, jumping from NASA to learn winemaking as  “Cellar Rat” for a Winemaster, I learned how toxic and fattening my cheap wines were. If you’re drinking wine that is $15 or less per bottle like I was — especially a red — I don’t care how delicious it “tastes,” I’ll wager you are drinking a synthetic concoction of chemical aromas, sugars, food dye, (maybe) some grape concentrate all wrapped up in arsenic and ammonia based sludge before being doused with high levels of sulfites to protect said concoction during it’s unknown lifespan after leaving the winery.

SONOMA means "Valley of the Moon" in Pama.

SONOMA means “Valley of the Moon” in Poma and is home to many boutique winemakers like us hand crafting quality wines you may not find in your home state, but which you can buy direct through Wine Clubs.

For if you think about every bottle of wine in every household, restaurant, bar, and store in every city in every State of this great Nation, you can see that wine has largely become a “fast food” commodity. For Cheap wine is designed to be “cheap.”  From Day One. Before those grapes are picked by combine and extended with additives in tanks stories tall. Now, giant labels, engorged Wineries, and big-box teams are not staffed by bad people. Far from it. Just working for very large corporations more mindful of the bottom line. Selling you something tasty, cheap, seems like a win-win for most people. But if you want to know what’s in your glass? Try my test at home.

My Jelly Jar Trick: Truth Shall Set You Free!

My Jelly Jar Trick: Truth Shall Set You Free!

Directions: Open a bottle. Pour yourself a glass and then another into a Jelly Jar or juice glass. A Mason Jar is my choice. Nothing fancy, you want to encourage wine contact with as much surface air as possible.  Cover the Jar with a paper napkin or paper towel — something so the liquid breathes.  Go enjoy your night. And come back tomorrow –12 or 24 hours later. Or more. AND TASTE IT.

What do you taste? What do you see? or Smell? Does it taste like the lushness of grapes (or some % thereof) you enjoyed last night? If so, then you’ve been enjoying Real Wine or a somewhat decently Vitis Vinifera based beverage.  For wines made from actual grapes?  Taste like the vineyards from which they are sourced. Grapes taste like Grapes. From vine to tank, from barrel to bottle, in your Glass, cool from the wine fridge or warmed to ambient temperatures — it doesn’t matter.  Wines grown conscientiously, made by hand, in volumes meant for regional consumption, minimal destinations like bistros and wine bars or direct to consumer (via Wine Clubs) will likely pass the Jelly Jar Test.

Real Wine takes Leg-Work. And Sweat Equity. Farm Manager Chicho bringing in the Grapes this past Fall.

Real Wine takes Leg-Work. And Sweat Equity. Farm Manager Chicho bringing in the Grapes this past Fall.

But what if you taste something bitter? Smell nothing like the drink you enjoyed last night? What if you see the food coloring begin to separate below a meniscus? “LIke the bottle has been open too long?” What you’ve discovered at this chronological point is Acid. Red or white tinted acid remains from the “wine’s” prolonged exposure to oxygen.  Barring any winemaking malfunctions, bad timing on barrel lifespans, corkage (TCA contamination), residual dish soap (or toothpaste), or heat/cold spoilage… What we’ve got there in your jar is a multi-billion dollar industry product sold as “Healthy” to the millions of good people cooking, eating, and sipping sincerely across America.  A tasty, inexpensive product fabricated for domestic consumption with “food grade” chemicals simulating mouth feel, “finish,” oak dust to fake barrel aging, etc… Down to using steel drums of sub-clone concentrate of Pinot 667 or Cabernet clone 37 for example. The cheaper the bottle? The more chemicals, food dyes, arsenic and amonia based sludge you’re consuming. Nightly. (Think McDonald’s pink slime burger additives. Seriously. And don’t even get me started on wines like Yellow Tail.) Because just like when fast food meals cool and taste disgusting? The same thing is happening in your stemware. Cheap wine warms /oxygenates to reveal it’s true self.

Grown Well. Our Estate Grown Merlot. Vintage 2015.

Grown Well. Our Estate Grown Merlot. Vintage 2015.

Let’s Talk Turkey: PRICE

In my experience bottles costing more than $22-25 for a white and $28-30 for a red have higher chances of being cleaner and longer-lasting. Over the years, I’ve done this little test on wines from $5-$100 per bottle. Keeping track of which made my neck itch (oak dust added to fake “oaky” flavors), get that 2am Sinus Headache (synthetic/chemical additives), or just plain feel gross and “fat faced” (added sugars and food dyes.) But I’ve been surprised — a lovely $19 red made by a huge producer and sold in Hawaii or that $75 bottle of famous Chardonnay that gives me a migraine each time, regardless of vintage. My rule of thumb is if you figure a wine — regardless of price — can be found in at least 30 states (or even five) in large amounts in most restaurants? YEP, these wines will likely fail your Jelly Jar Test.

Price is still a decent initial indicator of quality. Simply because Real wine is more expensive because it costs that much to make.

Counting Barrels.

Counting Barrels.

When your wine is grown nicely (like ours) made by hand (like ours), aged in barrels for years (like ours), and at least 80% grapes (let alone our 100% grape based wines), the price tag goes up. Because it costs us that much more to produce real, old-school wines. For example, if Chardonnay costs $3950 to purchase one tonne (equaling two barrels and approx 50 cases of wine) — that bottle of Chardonnay needs to start at $39.50 to recover just creation costs. But you’ll have a tasty, HEALTHY Wine with all of the praised body benefits attributed. A drink that lasts for days, even a week. Will not make you fat, give you headaches, wrinkle early, or junk up your body.  In fact, I cook often from leftover bottles opened months with very delicious, non-stale results.

Girl Scouts Honor.

Hand-Made efforts extends even to Cleaning Bins. Dear Friend Ben of Idle Cellars before he was the famous Winemaker Ben Larks.

Hand-Made effort extends even to Cleaning Bins. Dear Friend Ben of Idle Cellars before he was the famous Winemaker Ben Larks.

What You Can Do To Drink Well: Join WINE CLUBS. Buy Direct. Pay less for well made wines shipped straight to your door than you would for crap wines sold in bulk to your states’ distributor. I am also more than happy to connect you with solid wine families and small wineries producing wines in very similar, clean ways to us. (With zero kick backs. Just happy to spread the love!) Besides, buying direct? Is also cheaper for you and helps sustain solidly producing wine folk here in Sonoma.

Our Annadel Estate Winery wines are hand-picked, usually-family style, each and every time!

A Family Affair: Our Annadel Estate Winery wines are hand-picked, family style, each and every time.

What’s Next: There has been some successful movement against fake wines and their producers recently. For the FDA does not require anything but the Surgeon’s General Warning on wine bottle, not the inclusion of additives, sugars, chemicals, and high levels of arsenic. Misleading the American Public to think all wine is created equal. Several Class Action lawsuits are bubbling up, working to inform the American consumer and force bulk, cheap wine labels to list what ingredients are in their crap wines.  The most successful Class Action Lawsuit from TaintedWine.com against big, popular labels such as Sutter Home, “Two Buck Chuck” Charles Shaw, Cupcake, Beringer, and Franzia for unsafe arsenic levels. Or google “arsenic wines” in the WS Journal, NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, USA Today, BBC, etc. to read more.

Be careful with what your drink, dear readers. As you are careful what you eat.  When curious, please use my Jelly Jar Test. Works every time. I promise. And cheers! Proactive, conscientious drinking is a good thing.

It Doesn’t All Have to be Thomas Keller.

“It doesn’t all have to be Thomas Keller, Abi” Wilson said.  I was arranging broccolini “just so” before snapping a quick shot.  Maybe another.  And THEN serving the hungry legion of family gathered ’round the table.  Seeing me for exactly what I was… BEING LAME. Well, in all fairness…what I still AM.  Which is an oft LAME, Food Nerd.

Here my loved ones are waiting for the vegetable side I had prepared at Mom’s house. To go with their entree that Wilson was holding aloft… “en platter” … if that is such a word.  And here I was selfishly zeroing in the focus of my iPhone camera to catch something “just so.” Mouth agape like some bullfrog.

“It doesn’t all have to be Thomas Kellar, Abi.” J*sus, he was SO right.  I hear those words in my head from time to time still.

Now, months later, today — we have just returned from camping in Bodega Bay.  Smelling like campfires and sweat. On the cool-yet-golden sandy beaches most loved here in Northern California.  Hints of dirt and S’mores still under my nails.  And I am flipping through pictures taken on our happy overnight at Chanslor Ranch… I find about 15 shots of me lining up dinner-prep “just so.” The light had to be perfect.  The steaks marinating happily.  Corn steaming in their husks on the grill.  Bumbelina in foggy sunlight.  And then? The setting Sun broke through and caught my glass of Big Pink Rose “just so!!!!!!” SNAP.  That 15th shot was “IT.” Food Nerd JOY!

Catching the shot...before laughing to myself. And sipping more of our Big Pink Rose of Cab!

Catching the shot…before laughing to myself. And sipping more of our Big Pink Rose of Cab! Jacobsen Salt, by the way? Is most perfect on steaks.

I had caught that fleeting glimpse of visceral beauty that only we Food Dorks who take pictures of food understand.  That snippet of OH MY GOD THIS WILL ALL TASTE SO DELICIOUS.  But still comes through as “hey idiot, bring me the steaks and tongs? The grill is ready!” Or as “stop ARRANGING the Broccoli! We’re starving here!” #broccolini

You have to laugh at yourself.  I mean, I do.  With that sentence running itself through my brain.  At the same time, I’m not really anybody global… It’s just me, cooking in my old Farmhouse.  Here in the darkened vineyards that blanket Sonoma Valley by night and glow verdant green by day.

Hard to believe our old Farmhouse here at Annadel Estate Winery was neglected for so long. A great place to

Hard to believe our old Farmhouse here at Annadel Estate Winery was neglected for so long. A great place to Cook.

But people who use their photos and “food styling” as a source of income or self esteem feel very strongly the opposite.  Food styling is the epitome of their gastronomical passions. How they voice their food art in color… Still, sometimes the dark recesses of my brain think these must be the same people who handmake foam on a weekly basis…. Or would that be whip?  And I (perhaps naively) differentiate them from say, the earnest bloggers (and foodie photo-takers) such as Asha (Food Fashion Party) or Dennis (Eat Delicious) or Naomi (Farm to Table Feasts) — people I think I’d could comfortably share at least a bottle of great Annadel wine and talk of family and s’mores and oh, I don’t know, growing tomatoes maybe.  People I’ve never met in person ever.  But somehow, through film—digital versions thereof — find that shared joy in our daily plates and our sincere passions for shared pursuits. They, and others like them — professional photogs or not — are the people I love to follow and read about.  Love to “cook with” by making their version of a dish.  After all, there is no new story or new food-dish — aside from say, foam, which I loathe and refuse to make ever — in this great big world of ours.

Because somehow, their photos and words written capture FLAVOR. Earnest efforts at FLAVOR.  A “Joie de Vivre” in their own meals.  Nothing haughty or pretentious.  Just happy.  And Delicious.  A pursuit well followed.

S'Mores. An old classic from my childhood tweaked only by swapping in Scharffen Berger 70% dark chocolate for Hersheys.

S’Mores. An old classic from my childhood tweaked only by swapping in Scharffen Berger 70% dark chocolate for Hersheys.

Not to be catty, but I am SO over the glossy shots of the perfect kumquat.  Aren’t you? That superbly styled white bowl on charcoal table.  It’s always a charcoal table.  Filled impeccably with gleaming cherries or kale.  I mean, really? Who’s kitchen looks like that?  Not mine. Does yours?  Maybe after I move six Leggos, a small pile of mail, and my husband’s cowboy hat, and suck in my two c-sections to seem slim-ish in my Apron. But Why?   Aren’t you tired of the overly perfect pictures that go with those yummy recipes? We don’t shop for perfect fruits and vegetables… We shop for Organic foods.  Healthy.  With dimples, and wrinkles, bits of bruising.  Prizing those divots! So why prize food photos showing only the “perfect Thomas Keller effect,” if you will, when really kitchen-cooking is about talking to your kid about homework and sharing a glass of wine with your spouse. About how dinner smells.  How it will TASTE.  On some nice Serving Ware. (Don’t judge, I went to Finishing School…Twice.)

Nothing against the French Laundry and the banner standards they set waaaayyyy up there, but “it doesn’t all have to be Thomas Keller.”  And I, for one, am glad It’s not.

It doesn't all have to be perfect. XO

It doesn’t all have to be perfect. XO

PS — thanks to my Mom for watching my kids while I write this…and start dinner.