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Spinach Lasagna
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Spinach Lasagna

There’s something intrinsic about lasagna that makes it such a wonderful winter meal.  It’s more than likely that oodles of cheesiness has something to do with how a great lasagna can warm the soul on cold winter nights, very much like how soup has the same effect, but I think that the right recipe can do so much more.  The right recipe creates memories.  It evokes memories of crowded Sunday dinners at the grandparents’, of a hearty meal after a day of sledding or ice skating, of a full buffet table at a christening or anniversary party.  This spinach lasagna recipe is that type of recipe.

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Made with a creamy béchamel sauce, three types of cheese, fresh spinach, and no-boil noodles that you’ll soften with hot water before using, this lasagna is a big hit around here.  It’s a fun recipe to make with a helper since there are a few steps, but the effort is well-worth the end result.  Layer after layer goes in the baking dish and after 20 minutes of baking and a few minutes under the broiler to brown-up the cheesy top layer, you’ve got truly the best spinach lasagna ever.  We’ve made this recipe a handful of times in the past year and always get the same reaction from whomever we serve it to: more please!  This is definitely a recipe we keep in our book of favorites and don’t hesitate to serve time and time again.

Fried Pimiento Mac and Cheese for a Virtual Baby Shower
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As I sit here in my little kitchen staring at a pile of dirty dishes, with the lingering scent of vegetable oil swirling in the air from the fan overhead, I’m wondering if I did the right thing.  Should I have just made a classic mac and cheese recipe instead of a pimiento mac and cheese?  Should I have even attempted to make pimiento cheese, a food I’ve only eaten once in my lifetime?  Should I have taken a perfectly good batch of mac and cheese and fried it?

And as my doubt swirls as much as the smell in the air, I’m going to share my resolute response with you:  Yes, to everything above.  It was the right choice to make fried pimiento mac and cheese.  After all, how could a virtual baby shower for one of my greatest blogging friends, Josie of Pink Parsley, the self-proclaimed lover of pimiento cheese, be complete without some of this standard Southern fare?  How could I not try my hand at Southern food, even if I am a Yankee?   At our get-together dinner the night before BlogHer Food ’11, I experienced not only pimiento cheese for the first time ever, but also fried okra, both at the not-so-subtle urging of Josie, Branny, and Courtney.  I was totally hooked on pimiento cheese and after an arduous struggle over what to make for Josie’s baby shower, I decided to incorporate two of Josie’s favorite foods together into pimiento mac and cheese…and then to fry it.

Fried Pimiento Mac and Cheese

I scoured 4 or 5 different recipes that included pimiento cheese, including a few of Josie’s own recipes as well as a pimiento mac and cheese recipe.  Then I jotted down a few notes about ingredients, how I wanted to go about making the recipe (i.e., adding homemade pimiento cheese to a bechamel sauce vs. making a bechamel sauce and adding separate ingredients), tweaked the recipe a little here and a little there, and came up with a pimiento mac and cheese recipe that I’m proud to share with you.  I’ve tested this recipe a couple times (and actually have made it both ways as mentioned above) and will suggest that in order to fry the mac and cheese, you’ll want to make sure the final mixture is a little on the creamy side in order to form balls out of the chilled mac and cheese without them crumbling apart.  The recipe below will yield enough mac and cheese for about 18 fried mac and cheese balls or 4 servings for a main course – adjust the measurements to your needs.  Kyle and I both loved this mac and cheese (both in the indulgent fried form and in a baked form for dinner one night) and in spite of adapting a few recipes to make this dish worthy of a true Southerner, I am confident that I have succeeded.

Josie has been a very dear friend and after spending a few days with her in Atlanta in May, I can honestly say that you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more sincere and generous person or blogger or a more loving and dedicated mom to Caroline.  I’m hoping that after baby Pink Parsley is born next month that we’ll be able to get together again soon!  Josie – I hope my Yankee fried pimiento mac and cheese puts a smile on your Southern face today and I can’t wait to meet your new little boy!  Party planner extraordinaire, Annie of Annie’s Eats, has put together a fantastic line-up of bloggers to celebrate the upcoming birth of Josie’s little boy so be sure you check out both Annie’s and Josie’s blogs for the links to all of the recipes included in this virtual baby party.

Luxury Dinner Party: French-Inspired Maple is The Staple
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~~~ My most sincere thanks to everyone who voted for my Irish Bangers and Colcannon thus helping me move into Project Food Blog’s Challenge 3: Luxury Dinner Party.  Your comments and level of enthusiasm have been extraordinary.  I was so happy to be able to share my classic dish with you but I think I’m even more excited to share my Luxury Dinner Party with you today. It’s hard to believe that I now have a 1 in 2o0 chance of winning $10,000!!  Don’t forget that voting opens tomorrow for this challenge and if you haven’t signed up for Foodbuzz yet so that you can vote, it literally only takes 30 seconds to do. ~~~

I’ll be the first to admit that while I’m confident in my cooking and baking abilities, my confidence level in my ability to entertain is considerably low.  Dare I say that I’m an entertaining newbie?  It’s probably a safe bet.  So the concept of planning and hosting a “dinner party” was both foreign and frightening to me.  Lucky for me, my mom has hosted more dinner parties than I can count so I have a good sense of what makes a good party and in the few times that Kyle and I have hosted a holiday, I’ve started to incorporate my own methods in the process.

This time around, I knew the menu was going to be the centerpiece of the evening because for Challenge 3, we were encouraged to “get creative and host a luxurious dinner party where your guests will discover new tastes and exotic flavors.”  And since voters and judges aren’t able to taste the dishes I made, I had to make sure my menu stood out.

I have to say that when I do entertain, my biggest concern is dessert; and not what it will be, but how it will fit with the rest of the meal.  I feel that dessert should be indulgent but oftentimes, my main course when we have guests is pretty indulgent too. I wanted things to be different for this meal and since I already knew what my dessert would be (thank you Josie and Project Pastry Queen!), I decided to theme my dinner around the dominant flavor of dessert: maple. I was going to get it right this time.

As I started planning my menu, I wanted to make sure that each course had at least one dish that contained maple and I knew that the main course would include a pork tenderloin. It was a good starting point. I hunkered down at my office desk [read: kitchen table], broke out a few cookbooks, pulled up both of our laptops, and started printing off sweet and savory recipes from MarthaStewart.com. (Holy maple recipes, Martha!) Incorporating maple into savory dishes was something entirely new to me but my mom had the brilliant idea for a maple sweet potato soufflé (“always elegant for a dinner party,” she said) and I knew that would pair perfectly with the pork. Not surprisingly, Martha had a recipe for that too but it was my vintage Woman’s Day cookbooks that guided me through the soufflé process. (Thanks Mom for the ideas for the soufflé and to check the cookbook!) I added French string beans at Kyle’s request to round out the main course.  My menu was coming along!

For hors-d’œuvres, I decided on maple bacon mini quiches, added a salad (watercress, endive, apples, and bleu cheese) and rolls to the main course, and took a look at what I had. It was almost midnight on Friday night by this point and although I felt like my brain was pretty fried, a light bulb came on.  The more I added, the more French the meal was shaping up to be. I decided right then to split the salad into its own course after dinner, as is served in most of Europe, and to change the rolls to gougères, moving them to a cheese course that would follow the salad course. A five-course French-inspired maple-themed dinner party sounded pretty luxurious to me!

Maple Bacon Mini Quiche

It turned out that our friends and guests, Ron and Rosy, were big fans of maple (phew!) and while they didn’t know about my food blogging side until last night, they were really excited to hear about Project Food Blog and didn’t mind being my guinea pigs since all of the dishes I was making were brand new to my repertoire. It was a risk on my part to do this for a dinner party but I trusted my recipes and abilities.

I also put a huge amount of trust in the lessons about entertaining I’ve learned from watching my mom and from watching and speaking to Ina Garten (post coming soon!).  Ina emphasizes the importance of preparing as much as possible in advance so that you’re not slaving in the kitchen when guests arrive.  This concept was partially responsible for driving how I planned my menu.  I wanted to make dishes that were fully ready in advance (mini quiches, salad prepped and in the bowl, vinaigrette, gougères, cobblers, and ice cream) so that I could let the soufflé bake while we had hors-d’œuvres, get the marinated tenderloins on the grill and then quickly blanch and sauté the [already cut and washed] string beans right before we sat down to eat. If you’re wondering about my decision to grill the tenderloins, I’ll tell you that it was a simple one. I have one oven, which was going to be used for the soufflé, and which could not be opened while the soufflé bakes.  Working with this constraint, I turned to my grill and there couldn’t have been a better solution to the unfortunate situation of only having one oven since the pork turned out absolutely perfectly!

We luxuriated our way through this five-course menu over two and half hours, just as the French would do.  We were in no rush, in spite of the anticipation we all had for each forthcoming course.  The wine flowed.  The laughter increased. Our stomachs were never full but always satisfied. A successful dinner party this was indeed…one that made me wonder why we don’t do it more often. One that made me want to do it more often in order to bring good friends together for good food and good laughs.

Note: The recipes for the dishes on my menu will be posted in separate blog posts.