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In Defense Of Sandra Lee’s Lasagna

June 22, 2010 2 comments

Poor Sandra Lee – not so long ago, she was the darling of the Food Network, and queen of her own little corner of the culinary universe in which she was free to conceive of whatever crazy “semi-homemade” concoctions she could think of.   At worst, some negative reviews would appear on her recipe pages at Foodtv.com, but they would usually be outweighed by the positive ones.

*Note: lest there be confusion, the dish pictured on the right is not her lasagna – it is non-traditional but it is not THAT non-traditional….

But now, by virtue of her relationship with Andrew Cuomo, she finds herself and her cooking suddenly thrust into the harsh glare of the national media.  Suddenly, the press are crawling all over her books and recipes, questioning her media savvy, and to add insult to injury, her boyfriend’s Italian mamma disses her lasagna recipe in the presence of TV reporters (for the recipe itself, go here).

So it has come to this, the New York Times itself has decided to jump on the pile and has devoted a snarky edition of its Diner’s Journal to “Putting Sandra Lee’s Lasagna To The Test.” Ultimately, the journal reports that the resulting dish is “cafeteria-style” and “ketchuppy” but concludes “we’ve had worse.”  Fair enough.  It should be noted that her recipe calls for cottage cheese and also for canned tomato soup as the sauce, hardly traditional ingredients.

Sandra’s recipe has evidently stirred the passions of Times readers, who state their opinions on the matter in no uncertain terms in the comments:

For example, commentor “ORL” is not afraid to wear his emotions on his sleeve:

I’ll never forget the day I went to a friend’s house in grade school and her mom served us spaghetti – Chef Boyardee from a can. I started crying! It was unrecognizable.

Next, “Smitty” lowers the boom:

I grew up in the Midwest, and even there this wouldn’t have passed as lasagne.

In contrast, “Jack” cuts to the chase very efficiently:

Sandra Lee was being PAID by Campbell’s to promote their product, in this case tomato soup. Get it?

As an aside, did anyone ever think that maybe, just maybe, Andrew Cuomo wasn’t dating Sandra Lee for her cooking ability?

And then we have commentor “Stephen:”

I must say that to me, lasagna is a two day process (and no, I’m not Italian). The first day, you make your Bolognese sauce and let it simmer all day (rich with white wine, milk, pork, veal, beef, mirepoix). Then, you make your bechamel and you assemble the lasagna. It rests overnight before being baked the next day, when all of the flavors have had a chance to harmonize. Time consuming? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely.

Now, I’m sure “Stephen” makes a MARVELOUS lasagna, but we are really comparing apples to oranges at this point.  To his credit, he is actually constructive and avoids the condescension and half-assed culinary “moralizing” that is found throughout these comments.  But Sandra Lee’s recipe is not for those home cooks that will lovingly craft a “two-day” lasagna in the style that “Stephen” suggests.  To the contrary, it is meant to be quick and easy in all aspects of its preparation.

Now, honestly, her recipe sounds kind of gross to me, and I am in no hurry to rush out and replicate it, even for the sake of journalism.  However, my intention is to defend the spirit of the recipe, which is (as I understand it), a quick and easy lasagna made out of simple and readily available ingredients.  But what I disagree with is the notion that somehow lasagna MUST be lengthy, laborious, made with only the freshest, homemade ingredients, and so on.  It may be best that way, but frankly, it is not always feasible to make it that way.

So, taking a page from “Stephen’s” book, I will attempt to provide a constructive alternative by providing my own “quick and easy” lasagna recipe, rather than just going through more comments and raking certain commentors across the coals in true anonymous blogger style, as I was originally planning on doing.  So, if Sandra’s recipe does not appeal, try this – it has even fewer ingredients than hers. 

1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
2 pkgs. frozen spinach
1 pkg. “no boil” lasagna noodles
3-4 fresh sweet Italian sausages, best quality you can find
1 lb. shredded mozzarella cheese (or chopped into very small cubes)
1 cup grated parmesan

1.  remove sausage from casing, form into bite-size pieces and brown in a pan
2.  strain crushed tomatoes thoroughly.  If using “no boil” noodles, add a 1/2 cup of water back to the tomato mixture.
3.  microwave the spinach packages to defrost, then drain any excess liquid.
4.  Construct the lasagna in an appropriately sized pan, you don’t really need instructions for this part, do you? Just make sure the layers of spinach/sausage/sauce/cheese come out even
5.  Cover the pan tightly with tin foil
6.  Bake at 350 for 30 minutes.

*some notes:
 –   Don’t be afraid of the “no-boil” noodles, they are just dry noodles that cook in sauce instead of boiling water.  So don’t be anxious if the sauce seems watery, it will end up being absorbed.
 – fresh mozarella is fine to use, but it will produce more water so be aware. 
 – the sauce can obviously be enhanced by adding some garlic, olive oil, fresh basil, etc.  – if you have time.
 – you could also add some ricotta as well, but I would not substitute it entirely for mozzarella as it basically just turns to liquid
 – if for some reason the noodles do not cook entirely, you can always just add some water, re-seal and cook for a while longer. But this is unlikely to happen.

This is not a highbrow recipe, but it gets the job done.  It is easy to shop for, quick to prepare (certainly it should take no longer than Sandra’s recipe), and tastes good.  There is no shame in cooking recipes like this – while you might not want to serve the dish at a fancy dinner party, it makes a hearty and satisfying dinner that will serve several people, and probably provide some leftovers.

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Sandra Lee: Deconstructionist. Revolutionary.

April 29, 2010 6 comments

One of Food Network’s most brash and audacious talents is Sandra Lee, who works almost exclusively in the medium of processed foods, and who has single-handedly turned traditional notions of food preparation on their head.  On her Food Network show “Semi-Homemade Cooking With Sandra Lee,” she regularly shatters the conventions of ingredient selection, radically re-alters traditional notions of cooking technique and develops groundbreaking approaches to building flavor, refinement of texture and presentation of her dishes.

Consider, if you will, her “Halibut Tacos With Peach Salsa”:

Ingredients
* 1 pound halibut
* 1 packet (1-ounce) hot taco seasoning mix
* 2 cups mild chunky salsa
* 1 cup frozen peach slices, thawed and chopped
* 1 teaspoon ground allspice
* 8 supersized yellow corn tortillas, warmed
* 1 package (8-ounce) coleslaw mix

Directions
1) Set up the grill for direct cooking over medium heat and oil the grates.
2) Place halibut on a plate and rub with taco seasoning. Cover with plastic wrap and cure in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
3) Place the halibut on the grill and cover. Cook for 4 minutes per side, or until the fish flakes easily with a fork. Remove from the grill and let stand 10 minutes.
4) Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine salsa, peaches, and allspice.
5) Cut the halibut into bite-size pieces. Place halibut pieces in warmed tortillas and top with salsa and coleslaw mix. Serve warm.

Diners encountering this dish for the first time must have been shocked and disoriented, in the same manner as the Parisian audience who attended the premier of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in 1913.  While “Rite Of Spring” introduced intense polyrhythms and dissonance to contemporary music, here Sandra shatters convention by curing Halibut in taco seasoning mix, teasing our palate with the traditional flavor of the Americanized taco, and then pulling the rug out from under us with aggressively sweet peaches, a devastating shot of allspice and the sudden crunch of raw coleslaw.  But it is her choice of halibut that adds an air of playfulness and mystery to her work.  Why halibut? Why not turbot, or haddock, or tilapia, or mahi-mahi?   There is no way to know why Sandra chose to work in halibut specifically, and exclusively – however, some have theorized that because halibut has been a staple food of native americans going back for centuries, Sandra is slyly referencing the taco’s origins in the corn-based diet of native and meso-americans.

But it was not until Sandra’s “Provence Style Chicken Breasts” that the culinary world – and particularly French culinary tradition, were entirely turned on their head.  Such a bold statement reverberated through the cooking world, announcing the arrival of a new era where traditional flavors were simply no longer sufficient modes of expression for the culinary artist.

Ingredients
* 4 boneless skinless chicken breast fillets
* 3 tablespoons light olive oil
* 2 tablespoons lemonade concentrate
* 1 tablespoon Champagne vinegar
* 2 tablespoons herbs de Provence
* 1 tablespoon citrus herb seasoning

Directions

1) INDOOR: Prepare chicken as directed. Preheat broiler. Place chicken breast fillets on foil lined baking sheet or broiler pan. Broil 6 to 8 inches from heat source for 2 to 4 minutes per side. Do not over cook.

2) Rinse and pat dry breast fillets. Pound to 1/2-inch thick; set aside.

3) In a small bowl mix together remaining ingredients. Pour marinade mixture into large zip-top bag and add chicken.                                                                                                                                                                                            4) Squeeze out air and place in refrigerator 1 to 2 hours.
5) Set up grill for direct grilling over medium heat. Oil grate when ready to start cooking. Remove chicken from refrigerator and let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.
6) Place chicken on hot oiled grill and cook 2 to 3 minutes per side or until done.

Here, Sandra’s call for infusion of flavor into the chicken by marinating it in lemonade concentrate completely shattered all preconceptions of the nature of “provencal” flavor.  You might ask “why not just lemon juice?,” but that would be entirely missing the point.

Sandra continues to challenge and confound the world of traditional cooking.  We will occasionally be checking in with her as she boldly charts a new path in the development of American cuisine.