Billy Doesn’t Like Cheese: Customized Mexican Lasagna

Mexican Lasagna

Mexican Lasagna with a ‘no-cheese’ zone

My friend, Billy, is, in his own words, ‘freaked out’ by cheese. He’s not allergic, it just ‘freaks’ him out. I find this particularly odd because of my intense love for cheese. All cheese. Even stinky cheese, soft cheese, hard cheese, moldy cheese. I love cheese. I even have a place in my heart for Kraft American Cheese Slices – that would be atop a greasy beach burger. You know, the ones made on the flat top griddle at the beachside or poolside snack stand by the guy you had a crush on in high school?

So, when this past weekend we decided to make Mexican Lasagna and Billy told me we could make the lasagna, but that he didn’t eat cheese, I was a bit taken aback. Uhm, first of all, he dissed my bff, cheese. Secondly, lasagna is like layers of meat and cheese.

And, what about the rest of us cheese-eating people who would be at the dinner? Why should we suffer and sacrifice just because one extremely fit, hot, gay guy says ‘no’ to cheese?

Luckily, I’ve come face to face with a picky eater or two in the past. One of my friends is an occasional vegetarian. Another eats no corn – you don’t want to know. My mother avoids all garlic. So, we formulated a plan that would satisfy everyone and made:

Customized Mexican Lasagna serves 6 (with a cheese-free Billy-Zone)

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees

1. In a large skillet or saute pan, heat 2 TBSP of Olive Oil and saute one whole yellow onion, diced.

2. Once the onion is fragrant and slightly translucent, add 1 – 1 1/2lbs each of Ground Dark Meat Turkey and Ground Breast Meat Turkey (Billy doesn’t eat red meat either) and brown the meat. Once browned add salt and pepper to taste and 2 TBSP of chopped, fresh parsley and stir in.

Turkey Browning with Onions – Onions should be more translucent

3. While the turkey is browning, heat 1 small can of Enchilada Sauce in a small skillet over medium heat. You can make your own, but the nice people at Old El Paso will do it for you:

Old El Paso Enchilada Sauce

Heating Enchilada Sauce for Mexican Lasagna

Enchilada Sauce heating

4. Once the enchilada sauce is gently simmering but not boiling, add a tortilla one at a time and let soak in the warm sauce for about 1 minute. (We used corn tortillas…Billy doesn’t eat flour)

Old El Paso Enchilada Sauce Softening and Flavoring the Tortillas

5. Layer the bottom of a lasagna pan with the soaked tortillas. You will need 6 per layer for a total of 18 needed. This will depend upon the size of the tortillas and the size of your lasagna pan.

Messy Base Layer of Soaked Tortillas

6. Add a layer of 1/2 of the cooked ground turkey, onion, parsley

The Ground Turkey Layer

7. On top of the turkey, add 1/2 – 3/4 cup of  a combo of shredded Cheddar and Jack Cheese. BUT, Keep an area free of cheese for Billy – see Cheese-Free Zone on the Left of the Pan.

Mexican Lasagna with Cheese-Free Billy-Zone

8. Repeat …On top of the second layer of turkey and cheese, add a final layer of Enchilada Sauce Soaked Tortillas and top with the remaining shredded cheese

9. Cover with tin foil and bake for :30 mins. Remove tin foil and bake for an additional :10 mins.

10. Remove from the oven and allow to sit for :10 mins before serving

Mexican Lasagna with Cheese-Free Billy-Zone. On the table.

We served the Mexican Lasagna with sides of homemade spicy queso and homemade guacamole. Everyone seemed happy – especially, Billy, who ate his entire cheese-free zone.

I don’t really understand how people can live without cheese, but I cherish the differences like these that make life, and cooking more interesting. No cheese? No meat? No garlic? No corn…No problem.

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Pantry Raid: Baked Fried Fish

Fish Breading Prep

Fish Breading Prep

One of the greatest benefits to living in my apartment is the trash process. When the garbage is full, I take the bag to the tiny room down the hall, open the hatch and throw the bag down the chute. And it’s gone. Just like that. I can do this any day of the week, any time of the day. Sometimes, I do it in my pajamas – that’s right. In my pajamas.

Recently I was upstate at a friend’s country home. It’s an amazing 1830’s Federal Style home on a big piece of property with nature all around – it’s for sale, I can send you the details. The home is so inviting, in fact, that a giant skunk found its way into one of the window wells and decided to take a nap there…Once we discovered the snoozing skunk, we did what any good Manhattanites would do…we called the police. The officer who arrived kindly confirmed that it was, indeed, a skunk. And that there was nothing he could do to move it. Fortunately for us, country skunk made its own way out of the window well without spraying and well before morning.

Since my friend’s home is for sale, I thought we might want to do an emergency Pantry Raid: go through the kitchen and toss any food items that were expired.

Large Kitchen = Many Cabinets = A Lot of Foodstuff…

The moment I got started, I knew this would be no easy task. There were no fewer than 6 boxes of Chicken Stock (exp 11/11/2010), 2 boxes of Tomato Soup (exp 09/11/2011), 1 box Bisquick (exp 10/15/2010), Nuts, Chocolate, Expensive Cake and Cookie Mixes, crackers, breakfast bars, cereal, grated parmesan cheese from the last decade etc…All well past the expiration dates…

Then, we had to strategerize how to throw all the expired food away. See, trash pick up is once a week up there…and, on Thursdays. We were leaving on Sunday. It’s still pretty hot right now..even upstate. I think you understand the challenge. We couldn’t leave two large garbage bags of post-expiry perishables in a hot bag, in a hot trash bin, in a skunk infested land for a week…uhm gross. Much brainstorming and 3 phone calls later, we found a neighbor willing to come by and take everything out Wednesday night.

Another reminder that living in tiny spaces in NYC, has its benefits.

Regardless of how it happens, I hate throwing away food. As Melissa D’Arabian constantly reminds us: the most expensive ingredients are the ones you throw away.

In my house growing up, expiration dates were just directional information. If cheese or bread had mold, we cut the mold off – ‘It’s penicillin’ my mother would say. Or, ‘stale bread is halfway to toast’. And I turned out OK. I mean, right?

But, I’m not partial to eating penicillin and I’m a little nuts about going through my ‘pantry’.  And determining what is in danger of expiring and creating from there.

Kitchen Pantry

More of a pity than a pantry…but it’s NYC.

This past weekend, when doing my pantry raid I found some well-aged but not yet expired Panko Bread Crumbs and during the freezer-evaluation, some vacu-sealed frozen tilapia…Since there was like totally no mold on either I decided to make…

Baked Fried Fish (serves 2)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and prepare a rimmed baking tray with rack insert lightly sprayed with nonstick spray

1. In a bowl combine 1 cup Panko bread crumbs, 1 tbsp Lemon Zest, 1 tsp Lemon Thyme, 1tsp Krazy Mixed Up Salt and 2 tbsp of melted butter.

Panko Lemon Thyme Breading Mix

Panko, Lovely Lemon Thyme, Butter KMUS Breading

2. In a second bowl, whisk one egg white until well frothed – do this by hand to build your arm strength.

NOTE: You can, apparently, freeze the unused yolk.., but I think that’s sort of gross and would opt to keep the yolk in the fridge overnight and jack up an omelet with an extra yolk in the morning.

3. One at a time – Coat 2 medium sized fish filets in the egg white froth (I used tilapia, but you can use any white, flaky fish…cod would work or haddock. Don’t spend a ton of money here.)

4. Put the egg white-d filet into the Panko mix and coat well. If the panko isn’t adhering well, there’s no shame in gently pressing more of the breading onto the top of the fish.

5. Transfer the breaded fish to the prepared rimmed baking tray. Using the rack helps the fish to cook evenly…or so it’s said. I lined the baking dish with aluminum foil for easier clean up.

Breaded fish pre oven

Lovely Tilapia Breaded and Ready for the Oven

6. Bake 15-20 minutes until the breading is golden brown and the fish is flaky and delicious

Baked Fried Fish

Baked Fried Fish post Oven

Eat.

That’s it. I served it with roasted asparagus and parmesan cous-cous.

While penicillin is derived from mold that develops on grains – I’m not really sure if the particular mold that developed on our bread or cheese from childhood really had penicillin benefits of any kind. And, I’m not sure eating just the ‘good parts’ is really a good idea.

And…even though trash disposal from my apartment is simple…throwing out unused, past expiration date food is expensive.

Best to avoid the penicillin predicament and do frequent Pantry Raids: check expiration dates on your food stock and cook from there.

Guerillas in the Midst of Shrimp Tacos

I’m a little bit of a homophone-ophobe. This is a real condition. Seriously. It describes a person who fears words that sound similar but have two entirely different meanings. Like it was so sweet of the hotel to give us this suite. And I loved the kind maid who made the bed. Just typing it makes me shutter.

In the ’70’s there were constant news reports about the Sandinista Guerillas in Nicaragua. In our house, once my father was home, we watched the news. Well, at least the news was on. I can’t say I really was watching it. It was more like background noise I had to endure until prime time programming (Dallas, Taxi, Different Strokes etc) was available. We had one TVone. So, everyone watched the same thing and the bigger people generally got to dictate what that one thing would be.

Anyway, the fighting in Nicaragua had been going on for years, but really heated up in 1979 after the formal unification of the Sandinista guerillas.

This was also around the time that you could find Planet of the Apes television series starring Roddy McDowall reruns on TV.

And, I was pretty young.

So, when the din of the news reported on the guerillas in Nicaragua, I was certain that they meant gorillas.

Yes, to answer the obvious question, the news rolled footage of the guerillas – but it was 1979 and the footage was grainy, not all high def like now. Even when I would watch the reports, I thought the soldiers could totally be gorillas – like the ones on Planet of the Apes.

It wasn’t until years later that I learned about guerillas and then even more time passed before I was able to admit to my mistake. I’ve had homophone-ophobia ever since.

Recently, I was taking my first stab at using tomatillos – which I was a little afraid of. See ‘Tomatillo’ sounds a lot like ‘Tomato’ (though not an exact homophone). But, just as guerillas are completely different than gorillas, – tomatillos not like tomatoes at all. If you’ve never used them and want to google ‘tomatillos’, you’ll be told that tomatillos are more like gooseberries. This information didn’t help to ease my fear as I’ve never used those either.

This is the recipe from FoodNetwork Kitchens that I used for reference and then tweaked. It’s for two pretty decent sized servings.

Shrimp Tacos with an Avocado/Tomatillo Salsa

Marinate 1/2 lb of large, cleaned and deveined raw shrimp in a mix of lemon and lime juice, olive oil, salt and pepper for about an hour. I do use frozen ones and it’s fine. Just fine.

Put 1/2 of a small chopped onion, 1/2 a chopped and seeded jalapeno and 1/2 clove of garlic mashed in a food processor. I often sub shallot for garlic – but since the garlic is going to be processed, it won’t dominate the sauce. Finely chop.

Add in 2 peeled and rinsed chopped tomatillos, 1/2 an avocado chopped, 1/2 tsp of salt, the juice of 1/2 a lime and pulse the mixture until chopped but still chunky.

You can stir in a little bit of sour cream at this point. The sour cream is a nice juxtaposition to the spiciness of the jalapeno and garlic.

Transfer to a bowl and top with some fresh chopped cilantro. Set aside.

Pre-heat a grill pan to med/high. Spray with cooking spray.

Take the marinated shrimp and, if you want some spice,  toss with 1/2 tsp of chili powder and immediately place on the grill pan. The shrimp will cook quickly – about 2 minutes per side. I like a little char on my shrimp. Why? Because as per Anne Burrell: ‘brown food is good food’.

In a second pan, warm up 4 flour tortillas. Put a pan on medium and drop the tortillas in there for a minute or so per side. You just want them warmed, not toasted. You can use wheat or corn, but I really prefer flour.

Topped each warmed tortilla with a heathy schmear of the avocado/tomatillo salsa and 2-3, depending on size, shrimp. Garnish with some more cilantro (remembering that cilantro seems to be polarizing – you either love it or hate it) and a lime wedge.

The salsa makes this meal. And, helped me to overcome my fear of those tomato-sounding tomatillos.

You don’t hear a lot about the guerillas in Nicaragua anymore…or much about the original Planet of the Apes for that matter. Still, when I think back on my homophonic mistake, I know I can’t be the sole soul who made such an error. I mean, didn’t anyone think that Jane Goodall as played by Sigourney Weaver was In the Midst of Guerillas?

Have some Banana Bread, Robert Pattinson

A friend asked me recently why emotional stress has such a strong effect on one’s physical well-being. Break ups tend to bring on intense stomach pains and dramatic weight loss. Many therapists would argue that any emotional distress has a profound impact on one’s personal well-being. How well you sleep, perform at work, socialize, exercise etc are all intimately tied to your emotional health.

Thus, comfort foods; the only things we can eat when we can’t eat anything.

When I was little, my mother used to threaten us kids with jail time. Seriously – jail time. This was before the invention of the ‘time out’. We were told that we would be sent to jail where they only served bread and water. I thought; ‘Whatever Mom! I WANT to go to jail because bread is my favorite food!” It still is. Whenever I’m sick or sad, I crave bread – generally toasted and then slathered in butter. (When on the distress diet, I’m not worried about caloric intake). From the moment I can smell it heating – It starts to make me feel better.

This morning, Robert Pattinson fresh off his break up with Kristen Stewart, was on GMA. It was just his second public appearance since the split. And he seemed OK. Like Edward, in Twilight, he was relatively serious, put together and poised. Though he did joke with George Stephanopoulos about his Cosmopolis costar, Paul Giamatti’s, huge fan following in Brooklyn Heights. If you had been living under a rock lately and you were watching Robert this morning, you really wouldn’t suspect that anything had happened. You’d have no idea that he, the world’s sexiest vampire, had been cuckolded. And, making it worse, it had all played out in the tabloids. You wouldn’t know anything…

Anything except that…he looked a little thin.

So, I got to thinking  how I could help and thought I might send him some Banana Bread.

Here’s a simple recipe I found online and tweaked just a bit:

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a 9×5 in loaf pan. You should really have a pretty colored one – I think bright colors can also help in treating a broken heart.

2. In a large bowl, combine 2 cups of flour, 1 tsp baking soda an 1/4 tsp of salt.

3. In a second bowl, combine 1/2 cup of softened butter with 3/4 cup of brown sugar. I like to use the darker, but either is fine.

4. Gently beat two eggs and stir into the butter/sugar mixture. Add 1 tsp of vanilla. Add 2 – 2 1/2 cups of mashed over ripe bananas. Whenever I have an aging banana, I peel it and put it in the freezer and defrost when I’m ready to make banana bread.

5. Combine the wet mixture with the dry ingredients and stir just until the mixture is moist. (You can add walnuts at this point…but you also may be too sad to chew hard nuts and can leave them out)

6. Pour the mixture into your pretty colored loaf pan and bake for 60-65 minutes.

7. After about 10 minutes, you should be able to easily flip the loaf pan and release the banana bread. Serve it warm and slather it with butter. Go ahead – you’re thin and sad…

I don’t know Robert Pattinson personally but we’ve all been through a break up or two and I felt for him over the past weeks. And, I’m not a Twi-hard, but thought (besides the weight) he looked pretty good. I do hope he’s OK and getting through it. I’d like to see him eat more. Now, if I just knew where he was staying so that I could deliver the bread….and reassure him that this too shall pass and there will, no doubt, be a New Moon.

Dramatic Improvisations in Soft Drinks and Grilling

So, I’m flying recently on a small commuter jet out of Newark. It’s a beautiful day and I’m not anticipating any issues. I’m a pretty good flier and while I do clutch the arm rests during turbulence, I really never panic. We frequent fliers tend to take for granted the safety instructions – I do note that the no-smoking sign is on but I never follow along on the safety pamphlet located in the seat pocket in front of me. The sing-song rhythm of the safety instructions and other inflight announcements give me a sense of security when flying. So, when the flight attendant veered off script, I perked up and paid attention….

Here’s what she said:

“Ladies and Gentlemen…” [dramatic pause with sigh] “I have some really bad news….”

We’re in the air at this point so I’m now starting to breathe heavily as my pulse rate shoots up. When you’re flying, ‘bad news‘ might be along the lines of “we’ve lost cabin pressure and in just a few seconds your heads will literally explode” or if it’s the 1970’s “we’ve been hi-jacked and are headed to Cuba”….

The flight attendant after her dramatic pause announced: “We have no juice on board…”

Another pause as I wonder if ‘no juice’ means we’re out of fuel and will be plunging 25,000 feet to the ground. Farewell life!

She finished with: “We do have Coca-Cola products; Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite and Coffee brewed on board. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

Really? Really? No juice! – tragedy. Now, that was a dramatic presentation!

I, myself, may have been accused from time to time of being a little dramatic. And, today I’m feeling dramatically and tragically sad about the rapidly approaching end of summer. With this inevitable end comes the return back to the City. No more weekends on Nantucket. No more trips to Ohio. A fading tan and thus fading beauty. No more summer Fridays. No more road trips. No more trips upstate and antiquing.  No more beachiness. I don’t hike, but think I may miss hiking as September nears. I am spiraling in despair…And, then I realize most sadly with a gasp a sigh and a tear, no more use of friends’ and family’s outdoor grills.

So, just as we passengers on that Delta Connection Flight to Cincinnati had to make do and drink Coca-Cola products or coffee in lieu of juice, I will bravely improvise and return to my indoor grilling solutions.

First things first, you need a grill pan. I have this one. It’s my only piece of Calphalon and while I’m not really into Calphalon products, I must admit, this pan works perfectly and is large enough to grill 3-4 pieces of meat/fish/chicken but small enough to stack on a 12 inch frying pan in my limited kitchen cabinet space.

Here’s an easy affordable indoor grilling recipe:

Grilled Cod Filets

Basic marinade so as not to overpower the fish…

In a small bowl, combine the juice of one lemon with a tbsp of dijon mustard using a whisk. When totally combined slowly drizzle in 1/3 cup of olive oil and continue whisking until all bubbles are gone and mixture is wholly emulsified.

Add a tsp of crushed thyme to the mixture. Fresh Thyme is good too – just know that the ratio of usage is 2 to 1 fresh herbs to dried. Add salt and pepper and pour the mixture over 2-3 filets of cod. If you’re so inclined, you can chiffonade some basil leaves and put on the fish. Cod (not black cod) is a very affordable fish.

Cover and put in the fridge for 1-1 1/2 hours.

Heat a grill pan over medium/high heat and even though the pan is non-stick, spray sparingly with cooking spray.

Add fish and grill 4-6 minutes per side depending on thickness.

A few hints for perfect preparation without neighbor aggravation:

1. Open your windows to create a cross draft. If you only have windows on one side (like in my apartment) open your door. The fish will smoke up and this will keep you from setting off the smoke detector in your apartment/house.

2. Use cod or tilapia or sea bass or any white flaky fish when indoor grilling. These are not stinky fishes. DO NOT grill salmon indoors as the scent will stay in your home for days afterwards.

3. If you’re in an apartment, you might want to close the doors to any adjoining rooms while indoor grilling – while cod is not a fishy-fish, the ‘grill scent’ will permeate towels or bedding.

For one Delta Flight Attendant, no juice in the service cart evoked the inner thespian. For me the inevitable end of summer has be spiraling to despair. It’s all about how you recover and react to these tragedies. I will buck up and bravely face life without an outdoor grill.  You can be dramatic about it but sometimes you just have to improvise.