The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

In college I worked on the weekends at a gourmet pasta shop in Portland, OR. I learned all about different flavors of pasta and sauces, their shapes, how to cook it, etc. It was a great job because I got to eat a lot of good food. But I never made my own pasta because there are so many fresh pastas available in the refrigerated sections of the supermarket. If I needed a fresh lasagne noodle, I'd just to the Italian grocery store and get it from them.

So this challenge was about making the pasta, and not about the baking. And I definitely learned from mistakes this time for improvements next time.

We were required to make spinach pasta. I opted for the frozen chopped spinach to make life a little easier.

For some reason my brain wasn't thinking properly and so I was rolling the dough too thin. The pasta machine's increments went from 1-7 and I went all the way down to 6 when I should have stopped at 4.

My next mistake was that I did not let the noodles dry out like the instructions said. The reason I didn't was because I learned at the store that fresh pasta noodles would cook when in a lasagne covered in pasta sauce. The sauce would cook them while it baked in the oven. But because I rolled too thin, I probably should have dried these noodles out.

We were told we could use any ragu sauce we wanted but we had to include a bechamel sauce. This style of lasagne required just those elements: noodles, ragu, and bechamel with parmesan cheese thrown in too. I used my Godfather sauce.

Overall my lasagne tasted great, but my noodles were so thin that they pretty much dissolved into the sauce as if there was no pasta at all. Also, I happen to like lasagne with a ricotta layer in the middle. Guess I like that extra cheese.

Anyway, I'll give pasta making another try - only with plain and not spinach. And the next time I'll make thicker noodles.

I have a new favorite cookie. Back in December one of the gals brought this cookie and recipe to our cookie exchange. What I love about it is that it stays chewy for a few days. I hate cookies that are great warm, but then turn into bricks the next day. Besides that, it has the best combination of oats, chocolate chips, and peanut butter.

I've also had to play with this recipe and it still works. You'll see that it calls for 4.5 cups of oatmeal. Twice now I have started the recipe only to get to the end and realize that I don't have enough oatmeal. So I've had to add flour to finish it off properly.

An important note is that it says "do not overbake". In fact, you want to pull them out just a tad underdone than you normally would. Then, let them cool completely before transferring them to a rack or lifting them. They are too soft when hot and will fall apart otherwise.

Monster Cookies

3 eggs
1 1/4 cups packed light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 12-ounce jar creamy peanut butter
1 stick butter, softened
1/2 cup multi-colored chocolate candies
1/2 cup chocolate chips
1/4 cup raisins, optional
2 teaspoons baking soda
4 1/2 cups quick-cooking oatmeal (not instant)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper or nonstick baking mats.
In a very large mixing bowl, combine the eggs and sugars. Mix well. Add the salt, vanilla, peanut butter, and butter. Mix well. Stir in the chocolate candies, chocolate chips, raisins, if using, baking soda, and oatmeal. Drop by tablespoons 2 inches apart onto the prepared cookie sheets.
Bake for 8 to 10 minutes. Do not overbake. Let stand for about 3 minutes before transferring to wire racks to cool. When cool, store in large resealable plastic bags.

Peanut Butter

Last weekend I got to participate in a vegan dinner. The Epicureans were hosting a second dinner with The Touring Vegan Chef, Joshua Ploeg.

I had not gone to the first one last fall, but heard such rave reviews of how great the food was that I decided to give it a try. Luckily we got to glance at the menu first. I had to check because I don't like eggplant, olives, and mushrooms in particular. This menu was done with an Indian flair and I figured I could handle it.

Joshua is kinda of an unkept punk rocker turned chef. He's played for years in bands, but also as a chef known for his vegetarian and vegan fare. He does a good amount of business doing special orders, catering, and teaching. I'd definitely suggest him if you are a vegan/vegetarian determined to have your wedding catered that way. Some more information about him is provided in links below.

Here was our appetizer course with Golden Samosa with potatoes, string beans, peppers, red onions and spices and Tofu, Date and Pistachio Rolls served with Orange Chutney, Spicy Coriander Sauce and Tamarind Soy Sauce. Samosas are always a safe vegan bet (unless you get the Pakistani meat version). But what really was a nice, tasty surprise were the tofu, pistachio, date rolls. And I don't care for dates or tofu. But that's the point, isn't it? To see how these foods can be prepared deliciously. They had a good blend of textures and flavors and, of course, the chutneys added extra zip.

Next was the Tomato and Roasted Chickpea Salad with Popped Mustard Seed Dressing, Parsley and Mint on a bed of Spring Greens. Honestly, I only ate the greens. Don't like raw tomatoes and chickpeas.

Then came a Black and Red Lentil, Yellow and Green Split Pea Soup with Roasted Eggplant and Cauliflower, and Herb Relish. This was another safe bet because there are loads of Indian lentil soups which are pretty much the same. They get differentiated by which types of lentils or vegetables you use and, of course, the spices.

Here was our 'entree' plate of assorted items. First was the Mushrooms and Peas with sautéed garlic in Red Curry-Coconut Milk Sauce, from which I picked out all the mushrooms, which it mostly was. (Sorry, mushroom lovers.)

The Okra with a variety of carrots and onions in Sweet and Spicy Tomato Sauce were actually pretty good with not too much of that okra slime factor. I believe that's because he chose baby okra and so they hadn't gotten to that slimy seedy stage. He even left them with just a little bit of crunch to them.

The Cinnamon-Saffron Rice with Currants, Spices, Roasted Cashews and Squash Seeds was everyone's favorite and the safest item on the entree plate. I liked the sweetness from the cinnamon and the currants to balance the spices from the other items.

The most interesting item was the Green Flat Bread with Cilantro, Parsley, Green Onions, and Green chutney in the dough. He mentioned a way that he soaked it for hours in a way to ferment it so that it would rise and be yeasty, yet used no yeast at all. It was, indeed, very bready and good, although a bit on the bland side so that we all dipped it in the cool cucumber yogurt like stuff in the bowl.

Our dessert was a Vegan "Yogurt" with chunks of avocado, mango, and cucumber. We all conversed about using avocado and cucumber in a dessert. But it was a delightfully cool and refreshing end with the spiced 'yogurt' made with ? I recall mentioning of macadamia nut cream and the roasted macadamias on top.

All in all, a very good meal for a vegan newbie. And, there was a lot of food! I was trying to hold back to make it through all the courses, but I still got full barely into the entree.

I highly recommend you give Joshua a try. His food is sold at Pangaea on Franklin Blvd. and he caters and does special orders.

He has a cook book published. He also has a blog and newsletter.

Last night I went to Irish themed potluck in honor of the upcoming St. Paddy's Day. It was a group of Meetup people that have a love of food and like to do a themed potluck each month. It was great meal! Sure there was corned beef and cabbage, but not the way you're used to.

PJ made a soup made with cheddar, beer, potatoes, and onions. It was nice because it was not too thick and she didn't puree it completely - it still had some chunks.

Anika was in charge of the corned beef and we were all glad she was. Forget the traditional treatment! After boiling the beef, she took it out and glazed it with a sweet, homemade barbecue and then baked it in the oven for a couple hours. Barbecue sauce on corned beef? Let me tell you, I think she converted the entire group. After all, you've got all the side dishes as well.

Melodee made two dishes. The first was colcannon, an Irish take on mashed potatoes that mixes in chopped kale.

• 1 lb potatoes
• 1 lb kale (cabbage may be substituted)
• Onion, or leek or scallion (green onion)
• 1/4 cup milk
• Butter, salt and pepper
Peel and boil the potatoes. Chop the kale or cabbage fairly small, discarding the large stems. Steam until tender, about 8 minutes. Gently saute the onion (if desired) until golden but not too brown. Mash the potatoes well, and mix with the kale and onion. Add the milk (not too much, until moistened but not wet), and the butter, salt and pepper to taste. Bake in a medium oven for about 15 minutes.

She also made the cabbage, but created a version that was another hit. She took shredded cabbage (the kind you buy for cole slaw), added julienned carrots, and then added seasoning. I'll have to ask her what that was. You can see her two dishes on the right side of the plate.

I made a potato torte with bacon, cabbage, and cheddar. I got it from which had a LONG list of Irish recipes. (This compared to many other sites that only had a handful of the common stuff like colcannon, Irish stew, and soda bread.) The torte was made in layers, like a lasagna - potatoes, cabbage, cheese, potatoes, cabbage, cheese, potatoes. It was a very nice side and I will definitely make it again as a regular St. Paddy's dish. It doesn't hurt that it uses the bacon drippings to coat the potatoes.

• 1/2 head Savoy cabbage, shredded
• 3 tablespoons Kerrygold Irish butter
• 1/2 pound Irish traditional bacon, diced
• 4 baking potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick
• 8 ounces Kerrygold Cheddar Cheese
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 9-inch quiche pan or pie plate.

In a pot of boiling water, blanch the cabbage for 2 minutes. Drain and refresh in cold water. Pat dry. In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the bacon and cook until browned, about 5 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove the bacon and toss with the cabbage. Add the potato slices to the skillet and toss to coat in the bacon drippings. Place one-third of the potatoes in the bottom of the prepared pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and half the cheese. Top with half the bacon and cabbage mixture, salt and pepper, then repeat with one-third of the potatoes, remaining cheese, bacon and cabbage, salt and pepper, and end with a layer of potatoes. Cover with a sheet of parchment paper and bake for 45 minutes. Remove parchment for last 5 minutes to let potatoes brown. Slice into wedges. Serves 8. inutes. Gently saute the onion (if desired) until golden but not too brown. Mash the potatoes well, and mix with the kale and onion. Add the milk (not too much, until moistened but not wet), and the butter, salt and pepper to taste.
Bake in a medium oven for about 15 minutes.

The host, Theresa, made chicken and dumplings. That was wonderful as well. The sauce was thick and creamy and filled with delicious dumplings. It reminded everyone what a great comfort food chicken and dumplings are. She also made an applesauce/beer cake with a lemon glaze. It was a dense cake with raisins and nuts. People commented that it would be a great cake during the holidays, like a better, edible type of fruitcake.

The cake at the top was made by Anika. Impressive for someone who hasn't taken a cake decorating class. It is four layers of cake which she carved and iced. She then used spray food coloring to get the black. Great job!

This was my first potluck with this group and I was impressed. I'll have to join them more often.

I thought that the best and appropriate way to end my Guatemala blogs would be with pictures of the sunset. The Pacific coast has miles of black sand beach that just stretch on and on. Beautiful.

We had a wonderful time in Guatemala and will definitely go back some day. There is still the other side of the country to go and see.

If you go, please frequent the few establishments that I mentioned.

Well, I am finally winding down on my Guatemala posts. Tomorrow will be the last. For today I am throwing in the last miscellaneous photos and thoughts.

This is a photo of the water heater you will most commonly find in lower end establishments. When you see a hotel that says 'agua caliente' and is in the $5 a night range, this is what you are gonna get. Surprisingly, it works fairly well. It helps if you don't put the water pressure up too high (it can only handle so much flow) and that the weather there is warm anyway.

This plant is called a prayer plant. They open up during the day and close up during the night. It is one of Anna's many business ventures. She grows them at her coffee finca and then ships them to Florida for sale here in the U.S.

The following pictures are from a hike we did to El Brujo, the river and bridge near Acatenango. There are very steep parts to this hike as you go down one mountainside to the river and then up the other mountainside to the village over there. We only went down and back up to Acatenango. That was enough for me. The thing is, the locals often walk back and forth this trail as a daily commute! And often carrying huge loads on their backs or heads!

At the bottom is an Indiana Jones style bridge. A little nerve racking.

There are some beautiful views in this valley.

We were in the wrong part of the country to go to the really big Mayan sites. The most famous in Guatemala is Tikal and that was 12 hours away. The closest we could visit was Iximche, Tecpan. Once again we ran into the extra charge for gringos and that there was NOTHING in English! What could have been a really interesting visit was kinda ho-hum because we couldn't read anything. And there were plenty of signs of information, just all in Spanish and the local Mayan dialect.

So tomorrow we will say 'adios' to Guatemala.

You may have wondered how come my foodie blog didn't have much on the Guatemalan cuisine. It really boils down to being not all that impressed with my meals and because I was so much more interested in other aspects of my trip.

I am happy, though, that our food costs were kept to a minimum. Most of the time we ate at comedors. These locals kitchens usually looked similar to the one above. Very simple. So simple, in fact, that comedors don't really have menus. They just focus on one thing a day. You go in and ask what they have and they will say, "today is chicken" or "today is beef". Then there are the staples that you get with all meals, corn tortillas, rice, and black beans. You might get lucky and get a veggie that day or a side of guacamole. Ronnie always ordered eggs, because he is a vegetarian. These simple meals are simply cheap. Breakfast would be $1 and the meat meal (lunch/dinner) would be $2. So we easily were eating for less than $5 a day.

Here you see two typical comedor meals. The one above was ordered by Dean for breakfast. You see the beef, beans, and cheese. The one below was a dinner beef meal at another comedor: beef, rice, guacamole. Both with the ever present tortillas.

On our last week, while at the timeshare, we ventured forth in search of seafood. In this case we went to a restaurant in town along the beach. Mari ordered the fried fish while we both ordered lobster dishes. We ordered mediums and got three halves of lobster each. Guess a large means you get four halves = two wholes. Lobsters from the warmer waters don't have claws like their cold water cousins. Both are dishes were topped with shrimp as well. The only noticeable difference between the two was that one had onions and the other did not.

The only other noteworthy meal was the fajitas that we had while watching the sun set over Lake Atitlan. My chicken fajita mixture came sizzling hot.

Other items worth mentioning but without pictures...

I loved the chocolate con leche (hot chocolate) here. They heat the milk on the stove and melt in their Guatemalan chocolate. It's similar to Mexican chocolate in that there is a bit of cinnamon and other spices. But it is really rich because they are not using a powder but are melting in pieces of chocolate.

Licuados can be found everywhere. Basically a licuado is a smoothie. You can get your blended fruit done with water, milk, or with yogurt. Tropical fruits can be blended by themselves or as mixto (mixed). Banana, papaya, mango, pineapple, watermelon and occassionally strawberry. If you are in a mercado or need it 'to go' then they pour it into a baggie and hand you a straw and you walk down the street drinking from a baggie.

If all else fails to satisfy you or if you just have a craving, there is no problem with finding hamburgers, hot dogs, and pasta.

We made some new friends on our trip. This is Mari. She helps Ronnie with his Spanish, cleaning the cultural center, his laundry, etc. While there she celebrated a birthday. We gave her an American birthday with candles on her cake and singing English and Spanish 'Happy Birthday'. Candles on the cake are not something they do down there.

I mentioned Hector before. He worked for over 20 years in the Los Angeles area doing construction. He's helping Ronnie build his house in Acatenango. Here he is holding up a plant called florifundia. Apparently this plant is perfect for an episode of CSI. He says that if you drug someone with it they will apparently die. Then four days later they'll wake up. Imagine being buried alive and then waking up later! Yikes!

I mentioned that a panaderia opened in the center. Sergio is the bread baker. Because the most people don't have ovens in there homes, they have to buy their baked goods. Every village will have at least one panaderia. The bread is baked and sold out of the cultural center. It is delivered to outlying villages by a deliveryman on a motorcycle. The bakery had only just started when we first arrived and by the time we left two weeks later they had gotten more clients, opened the bakery and were making about 100 quetzales a day. Very promising.

This is Mari's mother. One day she made tamales for us. Her version used potato instead of corn, which suited me just fine. I've never cared for tamales or many corn products like polenta or corn tortillas. She also was nice and did our laundry for us.

Here is Mari with her little daughter, Gemma. When we did the pinata party she was too shy to participate.

As I said in my Feb. 16th post, Lake Atitlan is beautiful. Guatemala is pretty cool with 20 volcanoes. The Philippines has a load of volcanoes too, but not all close together like they are here. Lake Atitlan has three to look at with the gorgeous lake in front.

The main town at the lake is Panajachel, or Pana for short. It is the second most touristy town after Antigua. There are plenty of hotels, restaurants, and vendors. Below is a picture of their main church.

When we had dinner at the Sunset Cafe, we met a couple of Mayan women. Dean bought nuts from this woman, who weighed it out with an old fashioned scale.

I bought this embroidery work from this woman. It was quite the negotiation. I think she started out asking $60 and I got it down to $15. Then Dean asked her how long it took her to make it and she said a couple of months. Then I felt bad.

The next day we took a water taxi to Santa Cruz where Ronnie's friend has a hotel.

Water taxis are used by all the locals. Note the Mayan women's hair and outfits.

Santa Cruz is a steep hike up the hillside. We hiked it one day and the village itself is very steep. All the streets just keep going up, up, up.

This is Ronnie's friend, Rosa, owner of Casa Rosa. The hotel sits right on the lake. It ranges about $30 a night. If you decide to take your meals there, Rosa cooks them for you and you can eat family style with the other guests.

Her property is so lush with vegetation, you can't see the hotel.

There are often yoga retreats there. Rosa also has a small rental house for rent for longer durations. It is very nice and Western. Santa Cruz has a diving shop so that you can scuba dive the volcanic lake and a spa owned by some Americans. So you can get a nice massage from a certified CMT.