Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Beware the mace

My parents have had long-time friends of over 50 years who have a fairly large organic garden in upstate New York.  Their friends grow a lot of heirloom vegetables, and when they came to visit recently, they brought with them some heirloom squashes.  We cooked one of those squashes on Christmas Eve Day, known as a "Long Island Cheese" because of its resemblance to a large wheel of cheese.  Deep, dusty orange on the exterior and looking rather like a perfect pie pumpkin, we roasted it and then scooped out the beautiful, dense, ochre-colored flesh.  It was sweet, creamy and I thought it needed no seasoning.

I was cooking for an appreciative group on Christmas Eve Day, however, not all of them would appreciate the absence of butter, sugar and other culinary furbelows.  So I drizzled in some maple syrup.  And I stirred in some butter.  And I seasoned with salt and pepper.  And then the impulse to use some mace gripped me.  I had had plenty of experience with mace before: in doughnuts, cakes, custards, so I believed that my experience was guiding me.  Remind me to have a discussion with you sometime in the future about my false beliefs.   

Mace has an interesting history and comes from the nutmeg tree, unusual for giving us two spices from the same fruit (the second spice being nutmeg, of course).  Mace is a very odd-looking thing before it's ground up into something you can easily incorporate to sauces and batters, although whole pieces of mace can be used to season clear broth, much like a bay leaf.  Some people have described the flavor of mace as more delicate than the nutmeg it holds, but I have always thought it was a bit more floral and citrusy, and just a bit more peppery.  Maybe that's just me.

I had seen a jar of mace in my mother's spice cabinet just the day before.  She had purchased it recently at her local grocery store, which is a fairly mundane kind of grocery store in a fairly mundane kind of small Southern town.  I know this because I mundanely shop there when I'm visiting my mother.  Things such as Roquefort, Ruinart and ramps could not be found among its inventory.  However, perfectly good things such as liver mush, lima beans and Lucky Charms can.  To each his own.

And so I thought that fresh spices could not be found there either, having searched the shelves just two days ago for coriander and fennel seed.  The first jars I picked up had been sitting there for awhile, their bleached-out contents tattling on their shelf-life.  I had reached way to the back of the shelf, hoping to find jars that were less elderly, or at least less damaged by the flourescent lighting.  Pickin's were slim.

And so I thought that the jar of mace in mother's spice cabinet would be feeble and whimpering its swan song.  And so I liberally seasoned that wonderful squash with mace.  And then I put a lot more butter on top and called it a day.  Readers who follow my blog will detect a pattern here with my cavalier use of seasonings.

And so, at our lovely, intimate little Christmas Eve dinner that night, we each tasted that beautiful Long Island Cheese squash and then tasted again.  General consensus among the appreciative souls: there was a strange, overpowering taste that made it almost impossible for us to detect that there was any squash at all.  That strange, overpowering taste turned out to be...mace.  Potent as a can of pepper spray, lethal as a medieval bludgeoning weapon, fresh mace can be unpleasantly pungent.  This was very fresh mace.

I apologized for ruining the beautiful squash and winced when my mother commented that it was the worst thing I had ever made.  She was right. 

So during the night, when I was awake and thinking, I wracked my brain for a way to transform the squash into something lovely, silky, fragrant and most of all, delicious.  I decided that I wanted to make a souffle or a custard for breakfast.

I found a Rachel Ray recipe that I adapted and added 1/2 tsp. cinnamon.  I had about a half a cup of coconut milk and added enough soy milk to equal the quantity of heavy cream called for.  The custard was lovely and completely transformed the pungent, peppery squash into a creamy, comforting breakfast. 

And while I'm sharing recipes, this roasted pork recipe that my mother found in one of her magazines was amazingly stupendous on Christmas Day.  Blanketed in crushed fennel, coriander, garlic and olive oil, and served with roasted pears and red onions, it perfumed the house and was beautiful on the platter.  Did I say it was delicious too?  The accompanying just-sweet-enough roasted sweet potato casserole was also a hit, with cranberries and a crunchy pecan topping.

So I redeemed myself.  For now.

I hope you all had a very warm, very bright, very magical Christmas.

Friday, December 16, 2011

I never said it was "health food"

Having parties means having party food.  For me, that's food that I wouldn't normally eat everyday, but would like to.  And it's inevitable that there are some leftover ingredients after a party that any Puritanical soul would be loathe to discard.

In this case, it was creme fraiche with lemon zest.  And some toasted pine nuts.  And some pork belly.  And some fresh herbs.

I also had some leftover cooked pasta, some mushrooms and some Romano cheese and some lovely salt-preserved capers.  I dreamt throughout the day of what I could do with all these things once suppertime arrived.  And so here is what resulted.  And I promise you, it is definitely not health food.  In fact, I think my triglycerides are a little high this morning.  I'm still thinking about how delicious that shatteringly crisp fried parsley, pine nut and salted caper garnish was...

After-Party Pasta

4 to 6 oz. pork belly, cut into 1/2" lardons (I actually think bacon would be a better choice next time)
2 medium shallots, minced
a little EVOO, if needed
8 large mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1 large clove garlic, peeled and minced
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 cup madeira, marsala or medium-dry sherry
1 cup creme fraiche with about 1 tsp. lemon zest stirred in (you can substitute half sour cream and half light or heavy cream if needed)
3 cups cooked pasta (I used whole wheat spaghetti)
1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves (or use about 1/2 tsp. dried)
a generous amount of freshly grated Romano cheese
1 Tbs. EVOO
2 Tbs. toasted pine nuts
2 Tbs. rough-chopped flat leaf parsley
1 Tbs. salt-preserved capers (or used brined capers that have been well-drained)

1.  Render out the pork belly or bacon until crisped and caramelized in a large skillet over medium-high heat.
2.  In same pan, in pork fat, add shallot and saute until golden around the edges, adding a little EVOO if there is not enough fat.
3.  Add mushrooms and garlic, continuing to saute until mushrooms are beginning to caramelize.
4.  Salt and pepper to taste, then add the madeira and reduce heat to medium low while liquid reduces by about one half.
5.  Add creme fraiche and stir well.  DO NOT BOIL.
6.  Add cooked pasta and thyme leaves.  Stir well to coat pasta with sauce.  Reduce heat to low and cover pan.
7.  Meanwhile, heat 1 Tbs. EVOO in small skillet over medium-high heat.
8.  Briefly fry pine nuts, parsley and capers until parsley is intensely green and crisp.
9.  Divide pasta between two plates and generously sprinkle with Romano cheese.
10.  Garnish with fried pine nuts, parsley and capes.  Serves 2.

To drink:  Vistalba Corte B 2006 (Argentina).  Asparagus/artichoke on the nose.  Deep red fruit with a long, lovely finish.  Nicely balanced.  70% Malbec; 30% Cabernet Sauvignon.  About $17.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Roots, gourds and nightshade

Recently, I hosted another Voluptuous Table dinner event.  It was a small party, only six guests, but that number of people gathered around the table tends to create an opportunity for interaction and conversation that doesn't occur in larger groups.  People lean in, form couplets and triplets and take a chance with bold opinions.  What is also amazing is that couples that attend these kinds of gatherings usually don't know the other guests at the start of the evening.  But within an hour, there is laughter, joking, and good-spirited debate over food and wine.  And that is the whole reason for The Voluptuous Table.

I want to also mention that a very talented friend provided guitar music and sang throughout the evening, much to the pleasure of my guests.  Music (and a cozy fire in the fireplace) always tends to enhance one's experience on a cool, fall evening.  And hats off to my wonderful husband, who worked so hard to make the yard look great and who is becoming quite handy at serving and clearing plates, pouring wine and just generally being a great host.

The menu was meatless (with the exception of the proscuitto garnish on the verrines) and focused on foods that were root vegetables, gourds or from the nightshade family.  I served three appetizers and a cocktail, followed by soup and salad courses with a bright, limey white wine selected to enhance them (Kung Fu Girl Riesling 2010 (Washington State).  The main course and vegetable were accompanied by rich, beautifully balanced red wine with a spicy finish (Juan Gil Rioja 2008 (Spain), and dessert was served with coffee and after-dinner drinks.  The last guest departed just past 11 p.m.  My husband collapsed, exhausted into bed while I contentedly tidied up and reminisced about the evening.

Here are the recipes from our evening together:

Miniature Goat Cheese Tarts with Roasted Beets, Herb Salad and Chive Oil

If you have the inclination to make these delicious and complex little bites, start early.  The beets can be roasted and diced up to 3 days ahead, and the chive oil can also be made in advance and kept in the fridge for up to 5 days or frozen until ready to thaw and use.  You can also make the goat cheese filling up to one day ahead.  In any event, they're really yummy and even beet-haters will enjoy them (not knowing there are beets lurking under the herb salad).

Make the chive oil:  Combine 1 large bunch chives (1 ounce), minced with 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil and a little kosher salt (to taste) in a mini blender.  Puree all until smooth.  Strain the oil through a fine sieve. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.   The chive oil can be refrigerated for up to 5 days or frozen.

Roast the beets:  Trim ends and leaves from 2 medium beets and scrub well.  Rub with olive oil, then sprinkle with dried thyme, salt and freshly ground pepper.  Roast beets, turning occasionally, on a small pan at 400 degrees for about 40 to 45 minutes, or until beets are tender when pierced with a fork.  Remove beets from oven and set aside to cool.  Remove and discard skin from beets.  Slice into 1/4" slices, then make 1/4" dice.  Dress with a little chive oil and set aside or chill until ready to use, up to 3 days.  If you are lucky enough to have access to very high-quality salad bar or deli, you may be able to skip the roasting step by purchasing about 1/4 lb. roasted beets and dicing them yourself at home.

Make the garlic and herb seasoned goat cheese:  Bring 4 oz. chevre to room temperature.  Season to taste with fresh minced garlic, finely minced fresh herbs (I used chives, thyme and parsley) and some salt and freshly ground pepper.  Add half and half or heavy cream in driblets, mashing with a fork and blending until you have a smooth but still somewhat firm consistency (like room temperature cream cheese).  Chill until ready to use, or set aside until ready to assemble.

Make the herb salad:  I used 2 Tbs. each chopped parsley, sorrel and beet greens and 1/2 Tbs. chopped chives as well as a generous pinch of sturdy, spicy sprouts, such as radish sprouts.  Use whatever combination of herbs you wish, but complement the herbs in the goat cheese and remember the earthiness of the beets.  Combine herbs in a small bowl and drizzle with a little chive oil, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.  Toss to coat herbs evenly and set aside until ready to use.  Can be made up to 15 minutes ahead, while the goat cheese is warming in the phyllo shells.

To assemble the appetizer:  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  You'll need about 20 to 24 miniature phyllo shells (such as Athens brand).  Fill each shell with the goat cheese mixture (you can pipe this in with a pastry bag, a zip bag with the corner cut off, or just use a butter knife).  Place filled shells on a baking pan and bake in oven until cheese is warmed through, about 10 to 12 minutes.  Remove from oven and put about 1 tsp. diced beets on top of each shell.  Divide herb salad among shells, using a small set of tongs, or your fingers if necessary.  Drizzle shells with additional chive oil.  Serve warm.  Make about 2 dozen appetizers.

Crusted Pumpkin Wedges with Dill and Lemon Creme Fraiche Dipping Sauce

Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi's recipe in the October 2011 issue of House BeautifulHis recipe calls for sour cream, but I used creme fraiche for its richness.  Find the procedure for this easy and elegantly essential ingredient here and use sour cream in place of the buttermilk if you like for extra richness and texture.  Of course, you can eat these without anything to dip them in and they would still be delicious.

1 1/2 lbs. pumpkin (scrubbed well and skin on)
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
3 Tbs. panko
6 Tbs. finely chopped parsley
2 1/2 tsp. finely chopped thyme
zest of 2 large lemons, divided
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
salt and white pepper to taste
1 cup creme fraiche
1 Tbs. chopped dill

1.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  
2.  Cut the pumpkin into 3/8" slices and lay them flat, cut-side down, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
3.  Mix together in a small bowl the Parmesan, panko, parsley, thyme, half the lemon zest, the garlic and a little salt and pepper to taste.
4.  Brush the pumpkin slices generously with olive oil and sprinkle with the crust mixture, covering the slices generously.  Pat the mixture gently down.
5.  Roast the pumpkin for about 30 minutes, or until the pumpkin is tender when pierced with a fork.  If crust starts to darken too much during roasting, cover pan loosely with foil.
6.  Mix together in a small serving bowl the creme fraiche and the dill, seasoning with salt and pepper.  
7.  Sprinkle a little of the remaining lemon zest over the creme fraiche and the rest over the roasted pumpkin slices.
8.  Serve warm or at room temperature with the creme fraiche on side for dipping.  Serves 4 to 8.

You can prepare as the recipe is written in Bon Appetit, or you can do as I did and fry those little beauties in duck fat.  Gotta love the purple fingerlings.  And the duck fat?  Oh, yummmm.

Cranberry Pear Cobbler

I added 3/4 cup pear nectar to the citrus-cranberry mash to steep before straining.  A very potent cocktail, nonetheless, and very pretty in the glass garnished with cranberries and mint.

Curried Orange and Carrot Soup with Orange Creme Fraiche and Crystallized Ginger

I adapted this recipe from the cookbook Citrus by Ford Rogers.  Find the procedure for making creme fraiche here.  I substituted sour cream for the buttermilk because I wanted a thicker end result.

1 Tbs. unsalted butter
1 large onion, chopped
1 lb. carrots, peeled and chopped
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
3 cups rich chicken broth
1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
3 whole cloves
1 tsp. coriander seed
12 black peppercorns
1/2 tsp. cumin seed
1 dried red pepper
1/2 tsp. fennel seed
1 3-inch piece cinnamon stick, broken in half
6 allspice berries
2 cardamom pods, split
4 slices fresh ginger, about 1/4" thick (no need to peel)
2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice (you can substitute reconstituted o.j.)
1 cup half and half or heavy cream
3/4 cup creme fraiche
1 tsp. orange zest
4 tsp. crystallized ginger, jullienned

1.  Melt the butter in a 3-quart soup pot over medium heat.
2.  Add onion and saute until edges are golden, about 10 minutes.
3.  Add carrots, garlic, broth and turmeric.
4.  Combine remaining dry spices and ginger in a large teaball or spice bag, or tie them up in a double thickness of cheesecloth.
5.  Add spices to pot and bring to a boil.
6.  Lower the heat and simmer uncovered for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
7.  Remove the spices and puree the soup in 2 batches in a food processor or blender, or use an immersion blender (which I think is safer and easier).  At this point you can store the soup for up to one day ahead in the refrigerator.
8.  Rinse out soup pot and return pureed soup to it.
9.  Add orange juice and heat gently.
10.  Add half and half or heavy cream.  Blend well.  DO NOT BOIL.
11.  Combine creme fraiche and orange zest in a squeeze bottle or a small plastic zip bag with a very small corner cut off.
12.  Divide soup among 6 to 8 soup bowls and squeeze a zigzag of creme fraiche on the surface of each bowl.
13.  Use a toothpick to draw lines through the zigzag in the opposite direction.
14.  Garnish with crystalized ginger and serve hot.  Serves 6 to 8.

These rich, elegant salads are labor intensive, but such a treat to make and serve.  Your guests will adore you.  They can be made ahead and garnished at the last minute.

Roasted Eggplant with Studded Pilaf and Manchego Bechamel

You can make the various components of this satisfying main course ahead of time or in stages: roast the eggplant and chill it up to 2 days ahead, roast the butternut squash for the pilaf up to two days ahead, make the pilaf up to 1 day ahead and/or make the bechamel up to 1 day ahead.  Then bring everything to room temperature and assemble, reheating the bechamel in a double boiler or in the microwave.

Prepare the eggplant:  Cut 2 medium-size eggplants in half from stem to blossom ends.  Place cut side down in a sided baking dish.  Add a little dry sherry and about a cup of water.  Cover with foil and bake at 375 degrees for about 40 minutes or until very soft when pierced with a fork.  Remove from over and set aside until ready to use, or store in refrigerator up to 2 days.

Prepare the pilaf:  Cook 2 cups brown rice with 4 cups liquid (water, broth or watered-down tomato juice) according to package directions.  Meanwhile, peel and dice a small butternut squash (you should have about a cup and a half of diced squash) or purchase prepared diced butternut at the grocery store if you wish to save time.  Toss butternut pieces in a bowl with enough EVOO to coat each piece and salt and pepper to taste.  Turn out butternut pieces onto a baking sheet and roast uncovered for about 25 minutes at 375 degrees, or until tender and caramelized.  If you plan things right, you can roast the butternut and the eggplant both 2 days ahead of time and store them in your fridge until ready to assemble.  

Toast about 1 cup of pine nuts gently in a skillet on medium-low heat or in the oven, watching carefully so they don't burn.  Cool and set aside.  Measure out about 1/2 cup golden raisins and set aside.

Next, chop an onion into small dice and brown gently in a large skillet with plenty of olive oil.  Add 2 to 3 cloves minced garlic, saute briefly, then add the roasted butternut squash, the raisins and the pine nuts.  Stir gently to blend and remove from heat.  Stir in 1/2 tsp. each cinnamon and thyme.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Gently stir in brown rice, blending all ingredients together.  Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.  Sometimes I add chopped parsley for a little green, sometimes not.  Add a little extra olive oil if the rice looks too dry or pasty.  Your finished pilaf should glisten and not be starchy or glutinous-looking.

Stuff the eggplant:  Carefully turn the eggplant halves over in the roasting pan with a spatula so that the skin side is down.  Gently mash the pulp down with a fork.  Mound a generous amount of pilaf onto each eggplant half, dividing pilaf evenly among 4 servings.  Pour a little sherry (2 to 4 Tbs.) in the bottom of the roasting pan and add about 1/4 cup water.  Cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees until heated through, about 25 minutes.

Make the bechamel:  Melt 4 Tbs. butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat.  Add 3 Tbs. flour and whisk rapidly to blend well and break up any lumps.  Slowly pour 2 cups warm milk into the pan while whisking, being careful to whisk out any lumps.  Reduce heat to medium and stir and cook until sauce is creamy, rich and smooth.  Season to taste with salt, pepper and about 1/4 tsp. nutmeg.  Remove from heat and add 1 1/2 cups shredded Manchego cheese (or substitute Emmentaler, Gruyere, Fontina, Monterrey Jack or another nutty white cheese) and stir well until cheese is melted.  Store for later use (reheat gently in a double boiler or in the microwave) or keep warm until ready to use.

To assemble the dish:  Carefully place stuffed eggplant half on a plate with a long spatula, mounding up pilaf again if necessary.  Ladle a generous amount of bechamel over each serving and garnish with finely chopped parsley.  Serves 4. 

Roasted Red Peppers and Fennel

These peppers are lovely to look at and will bring moans and praise from your guests.  I decided to grind the peppercorns, coriander and fennel in a spice grinder for a more pleasant mouthfeel, otherwise, the crushed spices are rather crunchy and unpleasant.

Pumpkin Roll Cake with Toffee Cream Filling and Caramel Sauce

You can use purchased caramel sauce as suggested in the recipe, or you can make your own, as I did.  I always like to "push" the sugar past the point that most recipes recommend to a deep, dark caramel--like black roux.  This sauce adds so much more flavor to the finished dessert.  Top it with whipped cream and more toffee pieces.  It's gorgeous and delicious.

May your tastebuds dance nonstop!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Jump-in-the-mouth pork chops

Oh dear lord, these pork chops were over the top.  I don't normally fry food, but I had been dreaming of these for several days.  I had a good supply of fresh sage on hand, courtesy of my wonderful friend and cooking companion, TXMama.  I intended to do a riff on saltimbocca, so I skipped white wine and proscuitto because I wasn't rolling these thin, bone-in pork chops like the classic presentation, but I used plenty of fresh sage in the egg batter, panko and then finished the little brown beauties with melted Romano and mozzarella cheeses and fried capers.  No pan sauce necessary.

Oh my.

Accompanied by baked garnet sweet potatoes (the best--no, I mean it--the best sweet potatoes), so rich and flavorful they need no seasoning, and roasted garlic brussels sprouts (yes, he ate them.  With gusto.), this meal, as my father would have said, hit the spot.  I chose an Argentinian red, Bodega Benegas Don Tiburcio 2007 to accompany the food.  Complex and rich, this blend of Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet, Merlot and Cabernet Franc is full of dark fruit and is firm and delicious next to bolder flavors like the sage, capers and brussels sprouts.  Argentinian wines, like Spanish wines, are still great values and deliver a high level of quality at a very reasonable price point.  You can buy this wine for under $13.

Jump-in-the-mouth Pork Chops

I used thin pork chops to avoid having to pound the meat, but you could certainly buy a thicker cut of boneless pork and pound the meat thin with a mallet.

4 thin-cut bone-in pork chops
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup cooking oil
1 egg
2 Tbs. water
2 heaping Tbs. chopped fresh sage leaves
1 cup panko
1/2 cup shredded Romano cheese
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup capers, drained (you can also use dried, salted capers if you wish)

1.  Salt and pepper the pork chops to taste and set aside to come to room temperature.  Have a sheet of waxed paper or parchment paper nearby.
2.  Meanwhile, begin gently heating the oil in a large skillet.
3.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
4.  Beat egg in a shallow dish or pie pan; add water.
5.  Add chopped sage and stir well to distribute.
6.  Put panko in another shallow dish.
7.  Bring cooking oil up to temperature.  It should ripple a bit when it's at the right temperature.
8.  Dip pork chops one by one into egg mixture, then cover completely with panko.  Set aside on waxed paper until all chops are coated and ready to fry.
9.  Fry the pork chops, regulating the temperature as necessary and turning only once.  They should be a lovely golden brown on both sides.
10.  Place pork chops on a baking sheet or oven-proof platter and divide Romano cheese among them, sprinkling on top of each chop.  Repeat with mozzarella cheese.
11.  Place baking sheet in oven and turn off oven.  Leave door closed.
12.  Meanwhile fry the capers briefly in the oil.  Remove from oil and drain on paper towels.
13.  Remove pork chops from oven.  The cheese should be all melty and gorgeous.
14.  Plate pork chops and divide capers among them, sprinkling capers over cheese.  Serve while chops are still warm.  Serves 4.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

As easy as it gets

Recently, a friend passed a recipe on to me that she had gotten from her sister.  She told me that it was easy, and that although she didn't particularly feel competent about cooking some things, even finding cooking overwhelming sometimes, this recipe had really boosted her self esteem and that it was absolutely devoured by her husband.  The recipe?  Slow Cooker Lasagna.

I tested this recipe on a recent evening, and apart from the texture of the pasta, which you need to expect will be different from the traditional preparation, it was a smash.  The flavors are outstanding and it couldn't have been much easier.  Of course, I tweaked the original recipe a little (you'll see my additions and changes below).

We enjoyed this on a cold, rainy night with a salad.  And I poured a lovely little Barbera d'Asti 2009 from Villa Jolanda, a wine full of bright acidity and red fruit with a spicy nose and a soft, silky finish.  It will set you back about $10 or so and it's a charming wine to drink with this dish.

Slow Cooker Lasagna

1 lb. lean ground beef (I also added 3 links of hot Italian sausage, removed from their casings)
1 small onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
28 oz. canned crushed tomatoes
15. oz. canned tomato sauce (I added 1/2 cup dry red wine for rinsing the cans)
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. dried basil (I also added 1/2 tsp. dried thyme leaves)
1/4 tsp. dried red pepper flakes (more or less to taste)

1 1/2 cups ricotta cheese
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese, divided (I added 1 cup chopped fresh spinach leaves and 1 egg, well beaten and salt and pepper to taste)
6 to 7 uncooked lasagna noodels
1/2 cup (or more) shredded Parmesan cheese

1.  Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat.  
2.  Add ground beef and sausage if using.  Fry for about 5 minutes, breaking up clumps with a wooden spoon, until meat begins to brown a little.
3.  Add onion and garlic, continuing to fry and stirring frequently for another 5 minutes.  Reduce heat if garlic begins to brown.
4.  Stir in crushed tomatoes and tomato sauce, rinsing cans with red wine if desired.
5.  Stir in salt, oregano, basil, thyme (if using) and crushed red pepper.
6.  Simmer for 5 to 7 minutes to allow flavors to blend.
7.  Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, mix together ricotta cheese, 1 1/2 cups mozzarella, chopped spinach, egg, salt and pepper (if using).  Blend well and set aside.
8.  Spoon 1/3 of the meat mixture into a slow cooker, covering the bottom completely.
9.  Cover with lasagna noodles, breaking to fit as necessary.
10.  Top noodles with half of cheese mixture, spreading to the edges of the slow cooker.
11.  Repeat with another layer of lasagna noodles, 1/3 of beef mixture, the rest of the cheese mixture and ending with the remaining 1/3 of beef mixture.
12.  Cover slow cooker and cook on low setting for 4 to 6 hours.  
13.  Combine remaining mozzarella and the parmesan cheese; set aside.
14.  Remove cover and turn off heat, then sprinkle lasagna with mozzarella and parmesan mixture.
15.  Cover slow cooker again and let sit until cheese melts and lasagna firms up, about 10 to 15 minutes.  Serves 6 to 8.