android image for appLike anyone who regularly uses cookbooks,  I’ve often found a vast disconnect between how long I think a recipe will take and how long it will actually take.  Add in ingredients you were sure were right there in the fridge but aren’t, the typical household chaos on a weeknight at 5pm, the time it takes to get used to a new recipe, a naturally over-optimistic temperament – and you have a scheduling disaster in the making.

Over the years I’ve learned that if I’m serious about avoiding hunger-induced family meltdown, I have to give scheduling just as much thought as I give  the shopping list – that is, I have to at least try and guess what I’m going to need rather than winging it all the time.  And if the cookbook gives an estimated prep time, I usually just ignore it because it’s bound to come up short (in my experience, maybe 10% of time estimates are accurate.  The rest are too short.  Or maybe I’m just slow).  Anyway, here’s my time estimation method – maybe some of my tips will help you with yours.

1.  Read the ingredients list.  It’s the rare ingredients list that doesn’t have some prep embedded in it – anything from “garlic, finely chopped” to the dreaded “tomatoes, blanched, peeled and seeded” or “chilies (toasted, soaked, seeded, and chopped)”.  For a list of a dozen or less ingredients where half call for a knife and half for measuring, I’ll give myself some 15 minutes – that’s maybe a  little short, but you can usually get a little more chopping done once the onions are in the pan.

2.  Skim the instructions, looking for time indications.  Obviously, look for the words “about [X] minutes “. Keep a sharp lookout for “hours” – somehow “hours” and the stealthy “overnight” tend to hide  until you run into them with 15 minutes left till dinner.  Also look for the word “until“.  Sometimes an author will give you an “until”  cue (“until half the liquid has evaporated” or “until no longer pink”) without any other time indication.  Also look for stealth time-words like “chill” and “rest“.  Add this to your estimate from the ingredients list.

3.  If it’s a new recipe (something you’ve made fewer than 5 times), always always add an additional 15 minutes or more. You’ll need it for finding your place in the recipe, flipping back and forth between recipes, finding the can opener etc etc.   Sometimes I just go for broke and round the whole thing up to the nearest half hour.

4. Write down your estimate on the recipe or a sticky note, including idle time like rising times, chilling, marinating, resting etc.  “2 hrs (incl. 1 hr chilling)”; “Overnight + 45 min.”; “2 hrs. (incl. 15 min. rest)

5. Finally, one more thing: How many new recipes are you cooking?  If you’re cooking 2 or more new recipes simultaneously, add at least 1/2 hour for each additional recipe.  If you have idle time built in to one of the recipes (see above), you can cut that down a bit – but not by too much.

Using these general guidelines, I usually can hit dinner on the mark at 6pm without driving myself too crazy in the process.  I can sometimes carry on a conversation with my husband – though sometimes he has to endure a bit of lag time in the dialogue when my circuits are really oversubscribed – and maybe even enjoy a sip of wine or two.

A few more tips for streamlining

  • Mise en place.  Yeah, you know you’re supposed to do it, but you don’t.  It really makes a huge difference.  Do, do, do  get out all your ingredients first.  This really pays off with herbs and spices – can’t tell you how many years of my life I’ve spent hunting for the dried sage.  For baking recipes, I get out all the measuring cups and spoons whether or not I think I’ll need them.  But you don’t have to pull out every last prep bowl.  The goal is once you get in front of your chopping board, not to leave till everything’s prepped. (For this reason I often prep backwards, doing the meat last so I can do everything on one board without worrying about contamination.  I’m sure that would horrify many chefs.  But it’s what I do.)
  • Sharp knives.  Makes all the difference in the world.  My aim in life is to properly sharpen them once a week, but actually it turns out to be more like once every 3 or 4.  If your knives are not in great condition, at least run them over a sharpening steel each day before you start.   It takes 15 seconds and saves you an agony with the onion.
  • Use a timer.  As a true “out of sight, out of mind” cook, I’ve burned any number of things simply because they were in the oven and I forgot about them till they sent up a smoke signal.  I still do, unless I use a timer.  In general, I can only wing it if I’m prepping just one dish, with one time I have to keep track of and it’s less than 15 minutes.  Otherwise, forget it.  It’s not without its flaws, but I find this 3-line Maverick kitchen timer to be a big help.
  • Clean up as you go. Start with your ingredients on one side of your board.  As you prep, move the remainders to the other side, sorted by whether they go back in the fridge or pantry.  Once you’ve got your ingredients prepped, spend half a minute just getting stuff off your counter.  The one exception is flour.  I always leave out the flour, because you always end up needing it for something later.
  • Don’t clean up as you go. This is maybe controversial, but I never wash dishes as I cook unless I happen to find myself with idle time in the middle (marinating, chilling, rising etc.) or extra time at the end.  Assuming you don’t have a designated dish washer person, just put everything in the sink and leave your hands free for that knife, silicone spatula, or wooden spoon.
  • Don’t answer the phone.  You may think you can carry on a phone conversation and read a recipe at the same time.  You can’t.  For some reason it’s easier to talk to someone who’s in the room while you’re testing a recipe than it is to talk to someone over the phone.

Of course, accidents will happen.  I spilled my already-mixed flour, baking powder, salt and sugar for okonomiyaki all over the floor yesterday.  The week before I spilled a solid 5 pounds of rice everywhere, and I still don’t keep the vacuum in the kitchen.  Recipes are fallible, and so are people.  But in the end, I always tell people, we can always order pizza.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained!

So are we good to go?  Tie on an apron, put on some music, and – ready, set, cook!

eyb imgAs the polar vortex shuts everybody in with their seed catalogues and board games, I thought I’d play a little imaginary game of my own.  It’s my job to test and rate already-published cookbooks.  What if I started on the other end and dreamed up the cookbooks I’d like to see? – ones that I’ve not yet seen on the market but which would be killer cookbooks on my shelf.  Why not?  Let’s give it a go!

Regional Chinese cookbook: I’d like it to be as informative as the Complete Indian Regional Cookbook, but a whole lot better designed – say with the beautiful, open layout of The Food of Spain, or, if it needed to be more compact, a design aesthetic like The New Midwestern Table‘s.  I’d want it to have all 8 classic Chinese cuisines, along with contextual histories, features of the ingredients specific to each, and say 10 or 12 recipes that are really identified with that cuisine.  Maybe written by Fuchsia Dunlop, with her kind of glossaries – with good sourcing notes – and headnotes; or on the UK side, Terry Tan.

New England Kitchen Garden cookbook:  There are a million farmer’s market and seasonal and garden cookbooks out there, but none of them is exactly what I crave.  I’d want this book to focus on the top 10 or so crops we grow well in my region (including but not limited to asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries and blueberries, corn, squash, and apples).  I’d want it to have some thoughtful cultural notes (like the ones in Grow Cook Eat) and LOTS of recipes for each of the 10 crops.  Because the first week of plain asparagus is great, but by the sixth week, you really want some variation.  I’d enjoy it if the book were interspersed with vegetable quotes (like poems from Lorna Crozier’s The Sex Life of Vegetables), and I’d want a colorful design that combined graphic whimsy with practicality, like the design of the Splendid Table books.

A cookie decorating bible: Actually, I’d be really surprised if this doesn’t exist.  I guess for whatever reason I just haven’t come across it.  I’d like it to have lots of great, well-described techniques (marbling, piping, etc) like Cookie Swap and other books by Julia Usher, but with extensive troubleshooting charts, more pictures, and a whole lot more basic cookie recipes.  I’d like the step-by-step photographs to be as extensive and exhaustive as the ones in The America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook, but fewer per page.  And I’d like an accompanying website with up-to-date sourcing links for hard-to-find decorating supplies, please.

I could go on and on . . . Funny how even in a world filled with hundreds of thousands of cookbooks, there are still so many great ones yet to be published.  What’s that you say?  You’re a major cookbook publisher and you think I ought to consult / have my own imprint? (20+ years of experience either inside publishing or working with cookbooks – that’s me.)  What a great idea!  Call anytime!

(This post is adapted from the one that appeared on the Eat Your Books blog 01/24/14.)

Of all the excellent 2013 cookbooks I had the good fortune to test last year, it’s Keepers (published by Rodale – not even one of the major cookbook players) that had the most to offer the everyday, hassled-to-the-max home cook.

You wouldn’t necessarily know it from the outside.  The cover, though tasty-looking, and the title as well might be  marketing misfires.  Memoir, I thought – or maybe pastry.  What I didn’t expect (until I read the subtitle anyway) was a parade of family-friendly hits, none taking more than 45 minutes.  One of them, the skillet lasagna, even made it into my Best Recipes of 2013 list.

Click here to read today’s review of ‘Keepers’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version

On  Cookbook Finder, my cookbook-rating app, you’ll find more analysis of this book, write-ups of 250+  of the latest cookbooks, and regular cookbook news.  It’s the only up-to-the-minute cookbook app anywhere!

What, you say you’re already too much of a cookbook addict?  Ah, but you see, Cookbook Finder will help you get control of your problem.  Now you’ll only buy the good ones.

Available for  iPhone/iPad and Android devices.

In 1999, I was a culinary student at what was then called “Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School,” and so was Amy Thielen. I’d already spent ten years on one career (as a book editor) and was casting around for another. Amy was still a recent college graduate, but all her jobs had been in food and she knew that’s where she wanted to be. She already had the efficient moves of a kitchen worker, and she had an intense curiosity about the big picture. In our class of 15, it was clear that Amy had hustle.

We lost touch over the years, so when Amy’s book arrived on my porch with all the other review copies, I felt I could set aside the fact we’d known each other in the dotcom days and do a fair job on it. But even so I was surprised at what a strong first outing The New Midwestern Table turned out to be.

Click here to read today’s review of ‘The New Midwestern Table’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version

On  Cookbook Finder, my cookbook-rating app, you’ll find more analysis of this book, write-ups of 250+  of the latest cookbooks, and regular cookbook news.  It’s the only up-to-the-minute cookbook app anywhere!

What, you say you’re already too much of a cookbook addict?  Ah, but you see, Cookbook Finder will help you get control of your problem.  Now you’ll only buy the good ones.

Available for  iPhone/iPad and Android devices.

Happy New Year! everybody.

In the holiday hubbub (long road trip to see family, hosting Christmas dinner, multiple New Years’ parties –  the usual stuff) I forgot to check and see which of my reviews had published.

This one came out in the run-up to the holiday, although you may be able to tell from the recipes that I tested it way back in September.  As far as seasonal vegetable books go, it’s a charming mixed bag.

Click here to read today’s review of ‘The French Market Cookbook’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version

On  Cookbook Finder, my cookbook-rating app, you’ll find more analysis of this book, write-ups of 250+  of the latest cookbooks, and regular cookbook news.  It’s the only up-to-the-minute cookbook app anywhere!

What, you say you’re already too much of a cookbook addict?  Ah, but you see, Cookbook Finder will help you get control of your problem.  Now you’ll only buy the good ones.

Available for  iPhone/iPad and Android devices.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and with this sweet confection we arrive at the finale of the Best Recipes of 2013 series.  But stay tuned in 2014 for another year of food stories and coverage of the latest cookbooks – and in the meantime, stay warm, eat well, and enjoy delicious holidays with your loved ones!

The book:  Family Table, by Michael Romano & Karen Stabiner (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35.00)

The recipe:  Buttermilk Panna Cotta (with Strawberry-Rhubarb Compote)

Why I tried it: I can’t believe I only discovered panna cotta this year – so easy! and so good!  Violating my own rule (never count on a recipe you’ve never tried, when you’re going to a dinner party), I made it for the first time for an evening with some friends.  I even doubled the recipe and, along with it, the risk of failure.  But I felt it was high time for me to get more comfortable working with gelatin, so I pressed ahead anyway.

Why I loved it:  On the very first try, this recipe hit it out of the park.  The final product was a subtly tart and sublimely decadent custard, which slid like silk stockings over the tongue.  The compote was good, too.  But it was the panna cotta itself that had me going back, time and time again, with a surreptitious spoon.  I made it several times more afterward, and a few times experienced some difficulties – the panna cotta sometimes separated into two layers – one creamy and liquidy, one clear and rubbery.  I later learned I could avert this by leaving the custard out to cool to room temperature before putting it in the fridge (I had done exactly that by accident, out of sheer forgetfulness, the first time).  So let the custard rest and give it a last whisk before you set it in the fridge, and by the time evening falls you will have an indulgence to rival the splendor that was Rome.

Estimated preparation time:  15 minutes active time, followed by half an hour of cooling down and  several hours in the fridge.

Click here for my complete list of 2013 cookbook recommendations.   You can also find many, many more recommendations for great cookbooks on my app, Cookbook Finder (available for your  iPhone/iPad or Android device).

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Buttermilk panna cottaButtermilk Panna Cotta

Serves 6

2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups buttermilk

In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over ½ cup of the cream. Let stand until softened, about 5 minutes.

Bring the remaining ½ cup cream, the sugar, and vanilla to a simmer in a saucepan over medium-high heat, whisking to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat and let cool for 1 minute, then whisk in the cream-gelatin mixture until the gelatin dissolves. Stir in the buttermilk.

Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into a large measuring cup. Divide the mixture among six 4-ounce ramekins or pour into a small serving bowl. Let cool to room temperature and whisk once again before covering with plastic wrap.  Refrigerate for at least 5 hours, until set. (Well-wrapped, the panna cotta will keep for up to 3 days in the refrigerator.)

Run a sharp knife around the edges of the ramekins and unmold the panna cotta onto plates, or serve it right in the ramekins or scoop out of the bowl.

Click here for the rhubarb-strawberry compote recipe if you want to make that too.

Reprinted from Family Table.  Copyright © 2013 by USHG, LLC, and Karen Stabiner.  Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The book:  Balaboosta by Einat Admony (Artisan, $29.95)

The recipe:  Simple Beans

Why I tried it: Green beans are a staple in our household.  We eat them pretty much weekly, so I’m always looking for new ways to make them. I like them close to plain and pristine when we have fresh garden beans in the summer, but the rest of the time I like them robustly flavored.  The moment I saw “6 garlic cloves” and “5 anchovy fillets” – all for a mere 1/2 pound of beans – I knew we had a deal.

Why I loved it:  This is one of those times when the anchovy just melts away into the butter, and you wouldn’t remember it’s there if not for the powerful hit of umami which accompanies every bite.  Technique-wise, it’s pretty usual for green beans – blanch them real quick and then turn them around in some flavored fat.  But you’ll be hard-pressed to find a bean dish that packs more shout-it-from-the-rooftops flavor than this one.  Eat it with someone you love – not necessarily recommended for first dates.

Estimated preparation time:  Less than 1/2 hour – and half of that is waiting for water to boil.

Click here for my complete list of 2013 cookbook recommendations.  You can also find many, many more recommendations for great cookbooks on my app, Cookbook Finder (available for your  iPhone/iPad or Android device).

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Simple Beans
Serves 4

Kosher salt
1⁄2 pound green beans, trimmed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
5 anchovy fillets
1⁄4 teaspoon chile flakes
Lemon wedges

Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil and have a bowl of ice and water ready. Add the green beans and cook for 2 minutes, then dunk them into the ice bath. Allow the beans to cool completely, then drain them in a colander.

Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat, add the garlic, reduce the heat to low, and sauté until golden brown but not burned, about 3 minutes. Add the anchovies and sauté over low heat until the fillets begin to dissolve into the butter, about 3 minutes. Season with 2 teaspoons salt, add the chile flakes and green beans, and cook just until the beans are tender but still crispy, about 3 minutes. Serve with lemon wedges.

Excerpted from Balaboosta by Einat Admony (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2013. Photographs by Quentin Bacon.

Oh no!  you may be thinking.  This is Best Recipe #10! The series must be over!  Have no fear, friends. This is a 12-recipe series.  I’ll release the next two (including the easiest killer dessert you’ll ever make) tomorrow and Tuesday, before we all take off for the holiday.

The book:  Indian Cooking Unfolded by Raghavan Iyer (Workman Publishing, $19.95)

The recipe:  Grilled Baby Back Ribs

Why I tried itGiven that I’ve loved pretty much every grilled ribs recipe I’ve ever tried, I wasn’t sure I needed another.  But the idea of starting right out a massive dose of fresh ginger and dry mustard – two of my favorite aggressive ingredients – was too good not to try.  By the time I got to the words “chunky rub”, I was sold.

Why I loved it:  In a lifetime’s and several pigs’ worth of ribs, these were exceptional, eyeballs-to-the-ceiling, swoonworthy.  There’s that “chunky rub” – an express train to flavor right there.  And then there’s that sour-sweet glaze, with that alluring tamarind thing which balances the tart and the fruity in that kiss-slap!-kiss-slap! way I can’t get enough of.  It gilds the ribs front and back and reduces you to an absolute animal, if you aren’t one to begin with.

Estimated preparation time:  1 1/2 – 2 hours, but much of that is idle time.  You can also marinate the night before, which will save you a little time.

Click here for my complete list of 2013 cookbook recommendations.  Indian Cooking Unfolded is one of my top 10!  You can also find many, many more recommendations for great cookbooks on my app, Cookbook Finder (available for your  iPhone/iPad or Android device).

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Grilled Baby Back Ribs

Author’s note:  “If you don’t have a grill (or it’s freezing outside), use your oven to roast the ribs: Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F. Lightly spray a broiler pan, or a rack set in a roasting pan, with cooking spray. Arrange the ribs, meat side down, on the rack and roast them until well-browned, about 45 minutes. Turn the ribs over and roast them for 30 to 45 minutes longer. The meat should be tender and almost falling off the bone. Liberally brush the ribs with all of the glaze.  Continue to roast the ribs meat side up, until the glaze looks slightly opaque and the meat is very tender, 10 to 15 minutes longer. Let the ribs rest covered with aluminum foil for 5 to 10 minutes before slicing them between the bones.”

FOR THE RIBS
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh ginger
1 teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt
1⁄2 teaspoon ground mustard
4 pounds baby back pork ribs

FOR THE GLAZE
1⁄4 cup tomato paste
1⁄4 cup maple syrup or molasses
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime or lemon juice, or 1 teaspoon tamarind paste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne)
1⁄4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt

Nonfat cooking spray

1. Prepare the ribs: Mix the ginger, 1 teaspoon of salt, and the mustard together in a small bowl. Smear this chunky rub over the meaty side of the ribs. You can cook the ribs right away or you may also choose to cover the ribs and refrigerate them overnight to allow the flavors to permeate the meat. (I usually put the ribs on a sheet pan or baking sheet, as they are easily contained in one tray and don’t take up that much room in the refrigerator.)

2. Make the glaze: Combine the tomato paste, maple syrup or molasses, lime or lemon juice or tamarind paste, cumin, cayenne, cloves, and 1 teaspoon of salt in a small bowl and stir thoroughly.

3. When you are ready to grill the ribs, heat a gas or charcoal grill to high.

4. Lightly spray the grill grate with cooking spray. If you are using a gas grill, reduce the heat to medium. If charcoal is the name of your game, spread the hot coals to the sides for indirect heat.

5. Place the ribs on the grill grate, meat side down, and cover the grill. Cook the ribs until well-browned, 35 to 45 minutes. Check periodically to make sure the meat drippings don’t flame up and burn the ribs (if they do, I usually move the ribs to an unlit section of the grill for a few seconds until the flames die down).

6. Turn the ribs over so they are meat side up and cover the grill again. Cook until nicely browned and the meat is tender and almost falling off the bone, 20 to 25 minutes longer.

7. Liberally brush the ribs with the hot-sweet-tart glaze, using it all up. Continue to grill them, meat side up and with the grill covered, until the glaze looks slightly opaque and the meat is even more tender, 10 to 15 minutes.

8 Transfer the ribs to a cutting board, cover them with aluminum foil, and let them rest for 5 to 10 minutes.

9 Slice the ribs between the bones (it’s okay to lick your fingers when no one is watching) and transfer them to a serving platter. Serve the ribs warm (this is a good time to bring out the bibs).

Reprinted from  Indian Cooking Unfolded with the publisher’s permission.  Copyright © 2013 by Raghavan Iyer.  Published by Workman Publishing.

The book:  The New Midwestern Table, by Amy Thielen (Clarkson Potter, $35.00)

The recipe:  Grilled Mushroom Salad with Toasted Almonds

Why I tried it: This is one of those goes-with-everything sides.  When I’m planning the week’s meals, I usually decide all the protein mains first, and then wing the vegetable while the main dish is bubbling away.  If I’m testing two recipes at once, it’s a boon to find a side that mix-and-matches nicely and doesn’t take up too much of my cognitive capacity.  This one looked like a winner. Plus, I love shiitakes in everything.

Why I loved it:  Grated garlic!  what a good idea – you get good flavor dispersal through the marinade, and it kind of clings to the mushrooms instead of charring in little bits when you try to grill.  The toasted almonds ensure that every bite goes crunch, if you are the kind of person who gets bored by soft mushroom textures after a couple of minutes. And the meaty mushroom flavor, the paprika, and especially the butter fuse the three parts – vegetable, green, and nuts – into something that transcends any one of those elements.

Estimated preparation time:  35-40 minutes, including a little marinating down time so you can spare some attention for whatever else you’re cooking.

Click here for my complete list of 2013 cookbook recommendations.  The New Midwestern Table is one of my top 10!  You can also find many, many more recommendations for great cookbooks on my app, Cookbook Finder (available for your  iPhone/iPad or Android device).

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Grilled Mushroom saladGrilled Mushroom Salad with Toasted Almonds

Serves 6 to 8

Author’s note: “You can make the marinated grilled mushrooms well ahead of time. In the summer, grill the mushrooms outside. In the winter, I char them on a stovetop grill pan or, in a pinch, in a hot cast-iron pan.”

7 ounces shiitake mushrooms
1 clove garlic, finely grated
7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
½ cup slivered or sliced almonds
1 tablespoon salted butter
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Pinch of sugar
10 cups mesclun greens

Trim off and discard the mushroom stems. Wipe the caps with a damp cloth. Combine the garlic, 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, ¼ teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon of the paprika in a medium bowl. Add the mushroom caps, toss, and marinate for at least 20 minutes, and as long as a couple of hours.

To toast the almonds, combine them with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, the butter, ¹⁄8 teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper in a small pan. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring, until the almonds turn golden brown and crisp, about 5 minutes.

Preheat a grill or a cast-iron grill pan over medium-high heat. Grill the mushrooms, starting gill-side down, until cooked through and well marked on both sides, about 7 minutes in all. Drop the mushrooms back into the marinating bowl to catch any juices. Then transfer them to a cutting board, chop roughly, and return to the bowl. Add the lemon juice, sugar, remaining 1 teaspoon paprika, salt and pepper to taste, and the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil.

Just before serving, pile the greens into a serving bowl, and season them lightly with salt and pepper. Scatter the almonds over all, and toss with the mushroom and enough of the dressing to lightly coat.

Reprinted from the book The New Midwestern Table.  Copyright © 2013 by Amy Thielen.  Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House, Inc.

The book:  Keepers, by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion (Rodale, $26.99)

The recipe:  Skillet lasagna

Why I tried it: I always think “Wouldn’t be lasagna be great for dinner!” 1 hour before it is time to eat, so I never end up getting to eat it.  If you told me you could make lasagna in under an hour, I would assume that you meant you could reheat something you bought frozen, and an awkward pause would fall on our conversation.  But this version looked like real food, with real ingredients.  And having tested a bunch of complicated recipes the week before, I felt I deserved a break.

Why I loved it:  This recipe is so easy you feel like you’re only pretending to cook.  Every once in a while you mosey over to the pot and put it in a few more we’re-here-to-help type ingredients (sausage from the store, no-boil lasagna), and you give it a desultory poke with your spoon.   The best part is the silken swirl of creamy mascarpone at the end. It’s a sloppy, beautiful one-pot mess that doesn’t look a lot like the architectural pan lasagna we know and love, but it tastes every bit as good.  Too good, really – once again, I find myself altering a recipe down from “Serves 6″ to “Serves 4″.

Estimated preparation time:  45 minutes (not counting the “resting time” at the end) – but there’s hardly any prep, and everything goes in the same pot, so it feels even shorter.

Click here for my complete list of 2013 cookbook recommendations.  Keepers is one of my top 10!  You can also find many, many more recommendations for great cookbooks on my app, Cookbook Finder (available for your  iPhone/iPad or Android device).

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Skillet Lasagna-p128Skillet Lasagna
Serves 4

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound sweet or hot Italian sausages, casings removed
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
Large pinch of hot red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Two 28-ounce cans whole, peeled tomatoes
1 sprig basil, plus a handful of basil leaves
Salt and pepper
One 9-ounce package no-boil lasagna noodles
4 ounces mascarpone cheese or cream cheese (1/2 cup)
1/2 pound fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced and patted dry

In a large high-sided sauté pan with a 3-quart capacity and a lid, heat the oil over high heat until it shimmers. Add the sausages and cook, stirring often and breaking up the meat, until browned, about 4 minutes. Leaving as much oil in the pan as possible, transfer the sausage to a medium bowl and set aside.

Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the onions, garlic, and pepper flakes to the pan, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are softened, about 7 minutes. Add the oregano, the tomatoes and their juices, crushing the tomatoes with your hands or a potato masher (see note, page 118), the sprig of basil, and the cooked sausage and any juices. Season with salt and pepper, then gently simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Check the seasonings (it should be a little salty) and discard the basil sprig.

Break half of the lasagna noodles in half crosswise (it’s fine if smaller pieces break off) and as you do so, push each piece into the sauce under the sausage, distributing them evenly throughout the pan. Break the remaining half of the noodles in half and distribute them evenly over the sauce, then push down on them with the back of a spoon to submerge them. Cover the pan and gently simmer (raising the heat a little, if needed) until the noodles are tender and the sauce has thickened slightly, about 12 minutes.

Dollop the mascarpone over the lasagna and swirl it into the sauce. Top with the mozzarella and gently simmer, covered, until the cheese is melted, about 2 minutes. Off the heat, top with the basil leaves, tearing any large ones. Let the lasagna rest, uncovered, for about 10 minutes, then serve.

Reprinted from Keepers by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion.  Photography by Christopher Testani.  Copyright (c) 2013 by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion. By permission of Rodale Books.  Available wherever books are sold.

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