- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Sometimes people ask me what is the biggest change I’ve seen in American cooking habits during the 30-plus years I’ve lived in this country. Of course, I have lots of answers to that question.

I’ll usually mention how wonderful farmers’ markets have become, bringing the freshest seasonal produce to smart shoppers all around the country. Then, there’s the growing availability of wonderful ethnic ingredients, including everything most people could possibly need to prepare all kinds of Asian and Latin American cuisines, not to mention more familiar European ones.

But if I really want to raise eyebrows, which is something I like to do, I’ll give a simple two-word answer: rotisserie chickens.

Yes, rotisserie chickens in supermarkets amaze me. Walk into just about any store today and you’ll see them rotating on spits or already packaged: well-seasoned freshly cooked chickens with crispy brown skins and succulent meat. Recognizing the ever-growing, often contradictory desires among shoppers for convenience and for eat-at-home family meals, smart supermarkets are providing these ready-to-serve birds that make it easy for anyone to put a home-style dinner on the table in a matter of minutes.

One great thing about these chickens is they’re almost as delicious as something a good cook might make from scratch. And they have the extra convenience of, depending on the size of your family, providing more than one meal, with leftovers for at least sandwiches or a salad the next day.

In fact, I’ll often tell people when they ask me what I think of these precooked birds that most shoppers make one mistake when buying them: They only pick up one. It’s smart, I think, to grab two of them while you’re at the market, so you have plenty of leftovers for another meal or two the next day.

I love to use leftover chicken, for example, in an easy lasagna. (Leftover turkey, pork roast, beef, veal or lamb also works well.) I’ve made the recipe that follows extra-simple by leaving out the bechamel, a creamy, flour-thickened sauce that is usually included in lasagnas. Instead, I substitute mascarpone - thick Italian cultured cream, one of those ever-more-widely available ethnic ingredients I mentioned - to provide richness. Spinach and a tomato sauce add both fresh flavor and bright color to the lasagna. If you like, substitute another vegetable for the spinach, such as sliced mushrooms or shredded zucchini, both sauteed (skip the boiling necessary for the spinach) in olive oil with garlic until their excess moisture has evaporated completely.

From start to finish, you’ll have a wonderful home-cooked dinner on the table in about an hour. And you don’t even have to tell anyone you made it with the help of the supermarket’s rotisserie!

CHICKEN LASAGNA

Serve 6

TOMATO SAUCE

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 medium onion, diced

5 garlic cloves, minced

2 pounds (1 kg) tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and diced

1 teaspoon diced jalapeno pepper (optional)

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil leaves

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

LASAGNA NOODLES

3/4 pound dried lasagna noodles

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

FILLING

1 pound (500 g) fresh spinach leaves, stemmed and washed

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, minced

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 cups (500 ml) bite-sized pieces cooked chicken

3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

6 ounces (185 g) mascarpone, at room temperature

6 ounces (185 g) shredded mozzarella cheese

SERVING

1/2 cup (125 ml) good quality canned chicken broth

First, make the Tomato Sauce: In a large saute pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic and saute until translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, jalapeno, thyme and basil, reduce the heat and cook until the sauce is thick, about 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

While the sauce is simmering, prepare the lasagna noodles. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the noodles and cook until al dente, tender but still chewy, following the manufacturer’s suggested cooking time. Drain well, rinse with cold running water, and drain again. In a bowl, gently toss with the olive oil to prevent sticking. Set aside.

Prepare the filling: Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Fill a mixing bowl with ice and water. Add the spinach to the boiling water and boil for about 30 seconds, drain, and immediately transfer to the ice water. Drain again. With your hands, gather together the cooled spinach and squeeze out excess water. Chop coarsely.

In a small skillet, heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic. Saute the spinach, stirring just until evenly coated. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

In a small bowl, combine the chicken with 3 tablespoons tomato sauce and 1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese. Season with black pepper and salt. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees (200 C).

Spray an 8-inch (20-cm) square baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. Arrange a layer of noodles in the bottom. With a spoon, spread the mascarpone over the pasta. Cover with the chopped spinach. Top with more pasta and spread the chicken mixture on top. Top with a third layer of pasta. Spread 1 cup (250 ml) of the tomato sauce on top. Cover with a final layer of pasta, then the mozzarella and remaining Parmesan.

Bake in the preheated oven until the cheese is nicely browned, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and leave at room temperature to settle for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, stir the chicken broth into the remaining sauce and warm over medium heat. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

To serve, use a sharp serrated knife to cut into 6 equal rectangles. Spoon some sauce onto each serving plates. With a spatula, carefully remove each portion of lasagna and transfer to a plate.

(Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays and Wednesdays on the Food Network. Also, chef Wolfgang Puck’s latest cookbook, Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy, is now available in bookstores.)


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