sausage and spinach stuffed shells

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When I was a kid and cooked dinner for my family once or twice a week, stuffed shells from a freezer bag topped with jarred spaghetti sauce was one of my staples. It took 5 minutes to arrange the shells in a baking dish and dump the sauce over them, and another five minutes to make a salad from iceberg lettuce and mealy out-of-season tomatoes. My mom hated when I made this meal, but not as much as she hated the prospect of cooking dinner for a family of five every day after work. Who can blame her – for wanting a break and for not enjoying my pre-teen culinary prowess?

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These shells took longer to prepare than my standby meal as a kid, but at least by adding spinach to the filling and making my own (less-processed) tomato sauce, I figured I could skip the bland side salad. But I wasn’t just trying to add fiber to my meal, I wanted more flavor than the shells of my youth, which were stuffed with nothing but plain ricotta cheese.

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First, Italian sausage contributes more than just savory meatiness, but a range of spices. Spinach would provide earthiness (plus I had a bunch to use up). The ricotta would be richer and smoother – and, okay, fine, you can use regular store-bought ricotta too, if you haven’t become spoiled by the homemade stuff like others of us. The tomato sauce on top would be fresher and sweetened just slightly with nothing but lightly caramelized onions.

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This is a far cry from those pasta shells I made as a kid. For old time’s sake, though, I still ate them the same way I did back then, trimming off one corner of each shell for the first bite, then the next corner, then dividing the remaining square of pasta and filling into four equal bites. The biggest difference is that this filling is packed full of flavor – plus it took me almost an hour to make dinner instead of ten minutes.

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One year ago: Bourbon Bread Pudding for Tuesdays with Dorie
Two years ago: Toasted Vegetable Subs
Three years ago: Floating Islands for Tuesdays with Dorie
Four years ago: Comparison of 4 Vanilla Frosting recipes

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Sausage and Spinach Stuffed Shells

Serves 6

You probably won’t use the whole box of shells, but a lot of them might be broken or could rip after being boiled, so it’s nice to have some extra.

Feel free to use whatever your favorite tomato sauce is. I’ve provided the recipe I used  below, which is a simple sauce I like for serving over rich pastas with a lot of their own flavors, like these shells.

1 (12-ounce) box jumbo pasta shells
salt
16 ounces Italian sausage
1 onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
5 ounces spinach leaves, washed, coarsely chopped
1 (15-ounce) container ricotta (or 2 cups homemade ricotta)
8 ounces (2 cups) provolone, shredded
1 ounce (½ cup) parmesan, grated
2 eggs
Simple Tomato Sauce (recipe below, or 4 cups of your own sauce)

1. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Bring a large pot with at least 4 quarts of water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon salt and the pasta shells; cook according to the package instructions. When the pasta is tender, use a large slotted spoon to transfer the shells to a dish towel.

3. Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook the sausage, breaking up large pieces, until it is no longer pink and has rendered some fat. Add the onion and ½ teaspoon salt; continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the sausage is browned and the onion is softened. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes, stirring constantly for about 30 seconds, until fragrant. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the spinach leaves, letting the residual heat wilt the leaves. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl; stir in the ricotta, provolone, parmesan, and eggs.

4. Lightly coat the bottom of a 9 by 13-inch baking dish with tomato sauce. Fill each shell with 3 to 4 tablespoons of filling. Transfer the filled shells to the baking dish. After all of the shells are filled, evenly distribute the remaining sauce over the shells. Cover the dish with aluminum foil.

5. Bake for 20 minutes; remove the foil and bake for about 10 minutes longer, until bubbling around the edges. Let rest 5 minutes before serving.

Simple Tomato Sauce

Makes about 4 cups

Chop the tomatoes right in the can using kitchen shears. You can use diced tomatoes instead, but they won’t break down as the sauce simmers.

2 teaspoons olive oil
½ small onion or 1 large shallot, diced fine
¼ teaspoon salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup red or white wine
2 (28-ounce) cans whole tomatoes, undrained, chopped
1 tablespoon minced basil and/or parsley

In a large saucepan over medium heat, heat the oil until it flows like water when the pan is tilted. Add the onion and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion just starts to brown around the edges, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the wine, scraping up any browned residue on the bottom of the pan. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the tomatoes with their juice. Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, about 15-20 minutes, until the sauce is thickened. Stir in the basil or parsley.

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chickpea and rosemary soup

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I confess that this soup came out through a series of blunders. I had originally planned to make African coconut curry soup, with the belief that it was a new recipe and I could submit it to Branny’s SouperBowl charity fundraiser for ASPCA. It turns out though, that it’s the exact same recipe I submitted last year. Whoops.

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I started jotting down what I had in mind instead, a tomato broth with lots of garlic, red pepper flakes, and rosemary, reminiscent of this braised white bean recipe. It also included the chickpeas I’d bought for the curry soup and pasta, which I’d been craving. But then that soup starting sounding familiar too.

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Apparently I wouldn’t be striking bold new soup ground. But that’s okay. I didn’t want something new, I wanted something warm and comforting and easy, easier than my favorite pasta e fagioli recipe. This simple chickpea and pasta soup, infused with piney rosemary, hit the spot perfectly – maybe even better than the originally planned curry soup would have.  I have no regrets for all my blunders that led me to this soup.

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Participation in Branny’s fundraiser requires that the blog post be dedicated to a pet. I dedicate mine to my cat, Daisy, who is also warm and comforting and easy, at least when she isn’t puking on the carpet.

daisy

One year ago: Almond Biscotti
Two years ago: Banana Cream Pie
Three years ago: Crispy Baked Chicken Strips
Four years ago: Fish Tacos

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Rosemary Chickpea Soup

Serves 4 to 6

I used 8 ounces of pasta. It seemed like a lot, but I didn’t mind. Still, if you’d like less pasta, 4 ounces (or anywhere in between) would work well.

1 tablespoon olive oil
8 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
2 (15-ounce) cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
4 cups broth (chicken or vegetable)
½ teaspoon salt
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
Parmesan rind, if you have one
4-8 ounces small pasta, such as ditalini or macaroni

In a large saucepan over medium heat, heat the oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes. Once the oil starts to sizzle, stir for about 1 minute, then add the tomatoes with their juices, the chickpeas, broth, salt, rosemary, and parmesan rind (if using). Increase the heat to medium-high; once the liquid comes to a lively simmer, add the pasta, return the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the pasta is tender. Remove the rosemary sprigs, adjust the salt if necessary, and serve.

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pasta with tiny meatball sauce

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I haven’t been this excited about a cookbook in a while. This is the type of cookbook that makes me eager to get into the kitchen, particularly because I want to make every recipe in the book. I thought I would start with one of the most involved recipes, one of those “choose your own adventure” recipes that has you page flipping to find all the different components.

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The first is fresh pasta, which I’ve made before, but the recipe in the book differed from my usual with the inclusion of semolina, salt, nutmeg, and, most significantly, oil. Once the pasta was cooked and sauced, I didn’t notice the extra flavorings, but the oil seemed to make rolling easier. I also made a new shape that required less rolling and cooked up pleasantly toothsome.

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The second part is the sauce, which is a slow-cooked meat sauce, but with a twist. Instead of simmering the sauce with ground meat, or with beef meant to be shredded and added back to the sauce, the meat is kept in this sauce through hours of simmering, and then is removed. And not added back in. The meat is not part of the sauce, it’s just there to infuse it with flavor. It’s like you’re making tomato broth.

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The last part, then, is the tiny meatballs. It’s a simple mixture, no bread for tenderizing, just meat, seasoning, and an egg to bind it. The recipe instructs you to form the meatballs “just larger than a chickpea”, but I’m not insane and would prefer to stay that way, so my tiny meatballs were about twice that size, and still plenty tiny for me. Twelve ounces of meat turned into 72 tiny meatballs.

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I loved the tiny meatballs. I can see myself making them again sometime, even though I do not love forming tiny meatballs. I’ve also started to add a dribble of olive oil into my pasta dough, although I skip the semolina, nutmeg, and salt for simplicity’s sake.

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While I enjoyed everything about the sauce – the flavor, the plateful of tomatoey meat we ate as an appetizer, the fun of braising – I’ll make it differently in the future. The original recipe calls for three types of meat, and it’s impractical for most home cooks to buy small portions of a variety of meats. Instead, I’ll just stick to our favorite – lamb – and I’ll use a bony cut like blade chops, because I suspect the bone will add even more flavor to the sauce than the meat did.

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Obviously making a slow-braised sauce, homemade pasta, and forming 72 tiny meatballs is not an insignificant amount of effort. But it was the most fun I’ve had in the kitchen in months, with the added bonus that I learned some new tricks. I can’t wait to choose another recipe from my favorite new cookbook and do it again.

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One year ago: Curry Coconut Chickpea Soup
Two years ago: Baked Ziti
Three years ago: Fresh Ginger and Chocolate Gingerbread
Four years ago: Deviled Eggs with Tuna

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Maccheroni alla Chitarra with Ragù all’Abruzzese and Palottine, aka Pasta with Tiny Meatball Sauce (completely rewritten but hardly changed from Domenica Marchetti’s The Glorious Pasta of Italy)

Serves 8

I went ahead and bought three different types of meat for this, but I don’t think it’s necessary. Pick your favorite and buy just that one cut.

I don’t usually cook with veal, so I used 8 ounces ground beef plus 4 ounces ground pork plus ⅛ teaspoon gelatin, dissolved in the egg, in the meatballs instead.

Ragù:
2 (28-ounce) cans whole tomatoes with their juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 ounces boneless beef chuck roast, cut into four equal pieces
6 ounces boneless pork shoulder, cut into three equal pieces
6 ounces boneless lamb shoulder cut into three equal pieces
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 onion, finely diced

Pasta:
4 cups (18 ounces) all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons semolina flour
1 teaspoon table salt
Pinch ground nutmeg
6 large eggs
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Meatballs:
12 ounces ground veal
½ teaspoon salt
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Vegetable oil for cooking

1. For the ragù: If you have a food mill, press the tomatoes through the disk with the smallest holes, discarding the solids. If you don’t have a food mill, puree the tomatoes in a food processor or blender.

2. Generously season the meat with salt and black pepper. In a 5-quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat, heat the oil until it just starts to smoke. Add the meat and cook, without moving, until deeply browned on one side, about 2 minutes. Rotate the meat and brown on the second side. Transfer the meat to a plate.

3. Reduce the heat to medium, add the onion, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion softens but does not brown, about 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes, raise the heat to medium-high, and bring to a simmer. Add the meat back to the pot, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer, uncovered, for about 3 hours, until the meat is tender and the sauce is thickened. Remove the meat before using the sauce; reserve for another use (or just eat it right then, because it’s delicious).

4. For the pasta: Place the flours, salt, and nutmeg in the bowl of a food processor; pulse to combine. Add the eggs and oil; process until the mixture clumps together in large crumbs. Form a small portion of dough into a ball; if it’s too dry to stick together, add up to 2 tablespoons more oil; if it’s sticky, add up to ½ cup more flour. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and set it aside for 30 minutes to rest.

5. Divide the dough into 8 portions. Work with one at a time, keeping the others covered with plastic wrap or a damp dishtowel. Flatten the dough and pass it through a pasta roller on the widest setting. Fold the dough in thirds, like a letter, and roll it through the widest setting again. Repeat the rolling and folding 3-4 more times, until the dough is smooth. Flour the dough (with semolina flour if you have it) as much as needed to prevent sticking. Adjust the pasta roller to the next-thinnest setting and roll the dough through twice, then repeat on the third-thinnest setting. Thin the dough to the fourth-narrowest setting on your pasta roller. Repeat the rolling, folding, and thinning with the remaining balls of dough. Pass each strip of dough through the thin cutters on the pasta roller to form long noodles that are approximately square in cross section.

6. For the meatballs: Use your hands to evenly combine the veal, salt, nutmeg, and egg. Form the mixture into balls about ½-inch in diameter.

7. In a 12-inch skillet, heat 3 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat until almost smoking. Add the meatballs, and cook until well browned a couple sides, about 4 minutes, turning about once a minute with a spatula. Transfer to the pot with the ragù; keep warm.

8. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add about a tablespoon of salt and the pasta and cook until al dente, about 5 minutes. Drain, reserving about a cup of the cooking water.

9. Return the drained pasta to the pot; toss with about two-thirds of the sauce and meatballs, adding some of the reserved cooking water if the sauce is too thick. Transfer the pasta to a warmed serving bowl (or individual bowls) and spoon the remaining sauce over the top. Serve immediately, with parmesan and crushed red pepper flakes to pass.

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smoked salmon kale carbonara

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When we were in Italy, we tried to eat whatever the local specialty was. That means that in the first few days when we were on the Mediterranean coast, and then the next couple of days on the Adriatic coast, we ate a lot of spaghetti ai frutti di mare – pasta with a bunch of different types of seafood, basically. We ate it three days in a row, and on one of those days, we also had risotto ai frutti di mare.

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In Tuscany, we ate more red meat, and in Rome, every dinner included some version of pasta with fatty pork, whether carbonara, amatriciana, or gricia, the difference between them being whether the sauce includes eggs, onions and tomatoes, or nothing but meat and cheese, respectively. I remember enjoying the gricia and amatriciana, but the carbonara I got was overly sauced in a rich cream and wasn’t at all what I thought it should be.

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Of course, I had no other traditional carbonara experiences to compare it to, and I still don’t. While I can’t guarantee that the creamy carbonara I had in Rome wasn’t authentic, I know for sure that this one isn’t. Instead of smoky pork, this recipe includes smoky fish, which, if you’re going to be unauthentic, is kind of a perfect way to do it. And while we’re at it, why not throw in some bitter greens? I probably shouldn’t say this out loud, but this carbonara was better than any of the similar pastas I had in Italy.

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One year ago: Roasted Chicken Thighs with Root Vegetables
Two years ago: Lamb Stew
Three years ago: German Apple Pancake
Four years ago: Banana Cream Pie

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Smoked Salmon Kale Carbonara (adapted from Cara’s Cravings and Gilt Taste)

Serves 4

12 ounces dried pasta
salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ small red onion, minced
2 clove of garlic, minced
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 large bunches of kale (about 12 ounces), thick stems removed, leaves cut into 1-2 inch pieces
2 eggs
2 ounces (1 cup) grated parmesan cheese
freshly ground black pepper
6 ounces smoked salmon, torn into small pieces
1 tablespoon lemon juice

1. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil; add about 1 tablespoon of salt and the pasta. Cook, according to the package instructions, until just tender. Drain the pasta, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water.

2. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt; cook, stirring occasionally, until it just starts to brown around the edges, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and red pepper; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the kale; cover the pan and cook until tender, 3-5 minutes, stirring about once a minute. Set aside.

3. Beat together the eggs, cheese, ¼ teaspoon salt, and a pinch of black pepper.

4. Transfer the cooked pasta back to the cooking pot; stir in the kale mixture and salmon. Stirring vigorously, add the egg mixture, then the lemon juice. Serve immediately.

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lentil marinara

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When my coworker came back to work after spending weeks in the hospital (and in my small town, that means a hospital over two hours away from home) with his sick newborn baby, I figured they could use a home-cooked meal. I thought tomato soup, homemade bread, and some nice cheese to make grilled sandwiches would be the perfect comfort food. Unfortunately, it would require a trip to the store and a couple free hours to cook, and when I saw how exhausted my friend was, I figured getting something to him soon was more important than getting the perfect meal to him.

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So I made extras of what I was having for dinner that night. Spaghetti is warm and familiar, so fits the comfort food bill, and who doesn’t like the pasta and tomato sauce combination? The lentils, though, might seem strange to some people.

It makes perfect sense to me, because lentils are a great protein source, and while I can’t claim that they taste like beef, there is something meaty-like about them. Besides, what’s more comforting than knowing that your dinner is not only delicious, it’s healthy?

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And now I have another friend who needs comfort food after the death of her father on Thanksgiving day. Unfortunately, I can’t just bring her my leftovers, because she lives a thousand miles away. I don’t think virtual comfort food is quite the same, but at least she’ll know I’m thinking about her and her family and wishing them the best during a difficult time.

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One year ago: Pasta with Brussels Sprouts and Pine Nuts
Two years ago: Thai-Style Chicken Soup
Three years ago: Pumpkin Ginger Muffins

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Lentil Marinara (adapted from Branny Boils Over)

6-8 servings

I simmered this for 30-45 minutes, but, if you have the time, I suspect that a longer simmering time while covered would really help the lentils absorb the tomato flavor.

I like canned whole tomatoes for sauce because they break down better, but if you don’t mind larger tomato chunks in your sauce, diced tomatoes will work fine. I chop canned whole tomatoes by sticking kitchen shears into the can and snipping away.

Update 4/23/12 – I’ve made this a couple more times, and I’ve decided that it’s probably too heavy on the lentils.  Using up a whole bag at once is nice, but 8 ounces of lentils for 2 cans of tomatoes will make a tastier sauce.

2 tablespoons oil
1 onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon oregano
¼ cup white or red wine
2 (28-ounce) cans whole tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 (1-pound) bag brown lentils, rinsed and picked over
3 cups water
1 teaspoon salt

1. In a large saucepan over medium heat, heat the oil until it flows like water when the pan is tilted. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion just starts to brown around the edges, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

2. Add the wine, scraping any browned residue on the bottom of the pan. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the remaining ingredients. Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes, until the lentils are tender and the sauce is thickened.

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fresh pasta

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While I don’t think I’ll ever come home from work, do a load of laundry, get my workout in, and then roll out pasta dough, making fresh pasta is getting easier and faster every time I do it. Some of this is experience – I know where the best place to clamp the pasta roller to the counter is, and I know to err on the side of drier rather than sticky dough. But I’ve also picked up a few tricks along the way.

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One is that one egg’s worth of pasta is plenty for a pan of lasagna, starter courses for four people, or main courses for two people (which is the serving size shown here). Another is that, despite what the first recipe I followed led me to believe, thinner sheets of pasta are not always better. Ravioli made from paper thin pasta will fall apart when you try to boil it. Thicker pasta has more substance, more chew. And it requires less work.

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It also doesn’t hurt that fresh pasta is best with simple sauces that enhance rather than bury the pasta you just put all that effort into. With all of my tomato plants dead, the basil in my garden is taking over, so I used one of the many batches of pesto I’ve made lately to top this pasta. I also, in my jealousy over everyone else’s peak season tomato availability, tried roasting store-bought grape tomatoes to get some of that intense tomato flavor.

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The pesto was a success, and the tomatoes were fine – one-dimensionally sweet, but not bad. But the pasta was the star, as it was meant to be. And it actually didn’t take me hours to make it.

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One year ago: Grilled Corn Salad
Two years ago: 100% Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread
Three years ago: Lemon Pancakes with Blueberry Syrup

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Fresh Pasta

Makes 4 main-course servings or 8 first-course servings

You can mix and knead this in a stand mixer instead of by hand.

I’ve successfully substituted up to half of the all-purpose flour with whole wheat flour.

Update 4/17/15 – I’ve gotten in the habit of adding about ⅛ teaspoon of salt and ½ teaspoon of olive oil to this recipe. The oil mostly makes it easier to roll out.

1½ cups (7.2 ounces) all-purpose flour
2 eggs

1. Add the flour to a wide bowl, making a well in the center. Lightly beat the egg and add it to the well. Stir the flour and egg together until thoroughly mixed. Knead, adding flour as necessary to keep the dough from being sticky, until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Don’t be concerned if you need to add quite a bit of extra flour; the dough should be malleable but not at all sticky.

2. Divide the dough into 6 balls. Work with one ball of dough at a time and leave the others covered with a damp dishtowel. Flatten the dough slightly, then roll it through the widest setting on a pasta roller. Fold it in thirds like a piece of paper going into an envelope, then roll it through the pasta roller again, feeding it with one of the open sides first. If at any point the dough is sticky, brush it with flour. Repeat the folding into thirds and rolling a few times. Without folding, run the pasta through the widest setting once more. Adjust the pasta roller to the next-thinner setting and roll the dough through the machine. Continue to gradually thin the dough. For lasagna, thin to the third-to-last setting; for fettuccine and ravioli, thin to the second-to-last setting. Brush the dough with flour if it starts to stick at all. If the strip of dough becomes too long to handle, cut it into two shorter strips and work with each strip separately. Repeat the rolling, folding, and thinning with the remaining balls of dough, laying the sheets of pasta on dry dishtowels.

3. Bring 4 quarts water to a rolling boil in a large pot. When the water comes to a boil, add 1 tablespoon salt and the pasta to the boiling water and stir to separate the noodles. Cook until al dente, about 5 minutes. Drain and serve with your desired sauce. Instructions for ravioli can be found here; for lasagna, here.

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slow cooker spinach mushroom lasagna

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Lasagna cooked in the slow cooker is not that different from lasagna cooked in the oven. It has the same ingredients, the same layers, the same browned cheesy top – and the same amount of effort required to make it. Really the only thing that’s different is the amount of time it takes to cook.

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This was good news in a way. I was surprised that the lasagna wasn’t watery and that the top looked almost exactly the same as a baked lasagna. The problem, of course, was that it wasn’t any easier to put together.

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Another problem is apparently that béchamel sauces curdle in the slow cooker. This recipe was originally based on a cream sauce instead of tomato sauce. Since béchamel didn’t work, the recipe called for a jar of Alfredo sauce.

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I’m not usually one for dumping jars of prepared foods into my recipes, but after a scan of the jar label revealed no unrecognizable ingredients, I had just about acquiesced to buying it – until I looked at the fat content. Jarred Alfredo sauce (like homemade Alfredo sauce) is almost pure cream, and I just couldn’t stomach the idea of adding all that fat to what I intended to be a weeknight meal.

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Replacing the cream sauce with tomatoes made this recipe very similar to my favorite vegetarian lasagna, but that’s okay, because they’re flavors I like. In fact, the lasagna had a lot of qualities I love, with its meaty flavor without any meat, plenty of cheese, and plenty of vegetables to even out the cheese.  While it wasn’t any better than oven-baked lasagna, it wasn’t any worse, and it can’t hurt to have the option for a longer cooking time.

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One year ago: Basic Pancakes
Two years ago: Brioche
Three years ago: Salad with Herbed Baked Goat Cheese

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Slow Cooker Spinach Mushroom Lasagna (adapted from Cook’s Illustrated’s Slow Cooker Revolution)

Serves 6 to 8

I have a 4-quart slow cooker, but I don’t see any reason this wouldn’t work in a 5- or even 6-quart cooker.  The lasagna just won’t be as tall.

I did not line the slow cooker with foil, because it seems so wasteful. Individual slices of lasagna were still surprisingly easy to serve intact, although the first one was messy.

I used half this amount of cheese. I’m sure the full amount is great, but I was trying to lighten it up a bit.

nonstick spray
8 curly-edged lasagna noodles (7 ounces), broken in half
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, chopped fine
1½ pounds white mushrooms, trimmed and sliced thin
2 garlic cloves, minced
16 ounces fresh baby spinach
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1 (15-ounce) container ricotta cheese
1¼ cups (2½ ounces) grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup minced fresh basil
1 large egg
4 cups (1 pound) shredded mozzarella cheese

1. Line the slow cooker with an aluminum foil collar: Layer and fold sheets of heavy-duty foil until you have a six-layered rectangle that measures 16 by 4 inches. Press the collar into the back side of the slow cooker insert. Fit two more large sheets of foil into the slow cooker, perpendicular to each other, with the extra hanging over the edges of the cooker for a sling to help remove the lasagna later.

2. Bring 4 quarts water to a boil in a large pot. Add the broken lasagna noodles and 1 tablespoon salt and cook, stirring often, until the noodles are al dente. Drain the noodles, rinse them under cold water until cool, then spread them out in single layer over clean kitchen towels and let dry. (Do not use paper towels; they will stick to the noodles.)

3. Heat the oil in the same pot over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the mushrooms, garlic, and ¼ teaspoon salt, cover, and cook until the mushrooms are softened, about 5 minutes. Uncover, add the onions, and continue to cook until the mushrooms are dry and browned, 5 to 10 minutes longer. Stir in the spinach, cover, and cook until wilted, about 2 minutes. Stir in the crushed tomatoes and ½ teaspoon salt.

4. In a bowl, mix the ricotta, 1 cup (2 ounces) Parmesan, basil, egg, ½ teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper together. Spread ½ cup of the mushroom-spinach sauce into the prepared slow cooker.

5. Arrange 4 lasagna noodle pieces in the slow cooker, overlapping if necessary, then dollop 9 rounded tablespoons of ricotta mixture over noodles. Sprinkle with 1 cup mozzarella, then spoon 1 cup more mushroom-spinach sauce over top. Repeat the layering of lasagna noodles, ricotta mixture, mozzarella and mushroom-spinach sauce twice more. For the final layer, arrange the remaining 4 noodles in the slow cooker, then top with the remaining mushroom-spinach sauce and sprinkle with the remaining mozzarella and remaining Parmesan.

6. Cover and cook until the lasagna is heated through, about 4 hours on low. Let the lasagna cool for 20 minutes. Using the sling, transfer lasagna to serving platter and serve.

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creamy taco mac

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I rarely miss eating meat on weekdays. I was never big on “meat and three” types of meals, so vegetarian food suits me just fine. Besides, it’s usually easy to replace meat with a substitute, and by substitute, I don’t mean fake meat (“smeat”, as my friend calls it). I mean beans, especially black beans.

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Making this recipe vegetarian was no problem, but I was also determined to make it all in the same pot. I’ve made Cooks Illustrated’s Skillet Lasagna many times, in which the pasta is cooked right in the simmering sauce, so I adapted the same cooking method for taco mac. The different ratios of pasta to tomatoes complicated finding the right ratio of liquid to pasta, but after a few tries, I landed on the right amount.

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What really gave me fits was how to make the sauce creamy in a healthy way – and if this was going to be a weeknight dish, it needed to be healthy. First, I tried Cara’s method of stirring in pureed cottage cheese. This worked fine, but I knew I was too lazy to puree cottage cheese for such a simple meal. Both unpureed cottage cheese and ricotta cheese looked curdled and barf-like. In the end, the answer, like it so often is, was Greek yogurt. It perfectly mimics the sour cream called for in the original recipe but with dramatically less fat and more protein.

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Finally then, this fills all my qualifications as a great weeknight dish. It’s vegetarian, it’s healthy, it’s nutritionally balanced – all that and the only dishes you need to dirty are a cutting board, knife, and the cooking pot. With meals as good as this, it’s no wonder I don’t crave meat on weekdays.

creamy taco mac 4

One year ago: Pasta with Asparagus and Goat Cheese
Two years ago: Pork Tenderloin with Rhubarb Sauce
Three years ago: Pigs in a Blanket

Update: I changed the recipe to use ½ more water. Two cups might be enough, but it cuts it close. If your sauce is too liquidy at the end, it’s simple to simmer it down for a few minutes.

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Creamy Taco Mac
(adapted from Delish via Annie’s Eats and from Cook’s Illustrated’s Skillet Lasagna recipe)

6 servings

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped small
1 red pepper, chopped small
Table salt
3 medium cloves garlic, minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 1 tablespoon)
1 tablespoon ground chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground cayenne
16 ounces dry pasta
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
2½ cups water
1 (30-ounce) can black beans, drained
1 (7-ounce) container Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons cilantro
1 avocado, diced (optional)

1. Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion, pepper, and ½ teaspoon salt and cook until the onion begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and spices and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

2. Add the pasta, diced tomatoes with juices, water, and beans. Cover and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is tender, about 20 minutes.

3. In a small bowl, stir about half of the simmering pasta mixture into the yogurt. Stir this tempered yogurt into the pasta. Cover and simmer over low heat until heated, 2-3 minutes. Sprinkle with cilantro and avocado, if using. Serve.

green pea ravioli in lemon broth

My notes call this Saturday night cooking adventure “Light Italian Meal”. I was experimenting with wet scallops – scallops that have been treated with sodium triphosphate to help them retain moisture. Cooks Illustrated has a recipe designed to make wet scallops palatable, so I gave it a go. I tried to keep the rest of the meal relatively light to compliment the scallops, starting with these ravioli, then moving onto insalata di crudita before serving the seared scallops with almond cream sauce. Pinot grigio and whole wheat ciabatta accompanied every part of the meal.

This was the only recipe I made that night that I was really excited by. The only reason the ciabatta doesn’t qualify is because I didn’t follow much of a recipe, and the salad, although crisp and fresh, was a fairly typical side salad. The scallops were a disaster. Not only was the almond cream sauce too rich, but the scallops themselves didn’t brown until they had overcooked into balls of rubber. What’s worse, while I set them aside to finish the sauce, the cooked scallops released a freaky blue liquid. I choked a down few and filled up on bread.

I wish I had made enough ravioli to fill up on those, rather than teasing myself with a small starter course serving. These pasta pouches with their vibrant filling were the highlight of my meal that night. There aren’t many ingredients in the filling, but each one has something to offer: the peas are both sweet and earthy, the shallots are bright, the parmesan salty. This humble mixture might have not had much to live up to compared to the rest of the meal, but it would have been just as special on its own.

One year ago: Vodka Gimlets
Two years ago: Pasta with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce
Three years ago: Cinnamon Rolls

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Green Pea Ravioli with Lemon Broth (adapted from Gourmet via epicurious)

6 servings

I’ve doubled the amount of filling, because I only had enough filling for 9 ravioli, not the 18 the original recipe indicates.

Pasta:
1⅓ cups (6.4 ounces) all-purpose flour
2 eggs, lightly beaten

Filling:
2 cups baby peas, defrosted
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 shallots, minced
Salt
6 tablespoons freshly grated parmesan
6 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs

Broth:
4 cups chicken broth
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
Squeeze fresh lemon juice

Garnish: fresh chervil or parsley and cooked peas

1. Combine the flour and eggs until smooth (either by hand, with a food processor, or with a stand mixer). Add more flour if the dough is sticky or more water if it’s crumbly. If you stick a dry finger into the center of the dough, it should come out nearly clean. Wrap the dough in a damp towel and set aside to rest while you prepare the filling.

2. Force the peas through the fine disk of a food mill into a bowl to remove their skins. Heat the oil in a small skillet over medium heat; add the shallot and a pinch of salt; cook until shallot is softened, 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Combine the pea puree, cooked shallot, parmesan, and bread crumbs.

3. Divide the dough into 6 portions. Working with one portion at a time, flatten it and fold in thirds, like a letter. Roll it through the widest setting on a pasta roller. Repeat the folding and rolling 3-4 more times, flouring the dough as needed to prevent sticking. Adjust the pasta roller to the next thinnest setting; roll the pasta sheet through. Continue thinning the pasta until the next-to-thinnest setting. Lay the thinned pasta sheet on a dry dish towel. Repeat with the remaining portions of pasta.

4. Place one rounded teaspoon of filling every 3 inches along the length of a pasta sheet. Using a pasta brush or your fingers, wet the pasta in between the rounds of filling. If the pasta sheet is at least 4 inches wide, fold it lengthwise over the filling. If the pasta sheet is too thin to fold lengthwise, lay a second pasta sheet over the filling. Press around each ball of filling to seal the two layers of pasta together. Use a pizza roller to cut between the filling to form squares of ravioli. Store the ravioli on a dry dish towel (there’s no need to cover it). Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.

5. Combine the broth, garlic, lemon zest, and salt and pepper to taste in a saucepan; bring to a simmer. Lower the heat and cover to keep warm.

6. Bring a large pot of water to a boil; add a tablespoon of salt and lower the heat until the water is at a lively simmer. Cook the ravioli in small batches until al dente, 2 to 3 minutes, using a skimmer or large slotted spoon to remove the ravioli from the boiling water. Divide the cooked ravioli between six soup bowls.

7. Discard the garlic in the broth. Ladle the hot broth over the ravioli. Garnish with herbs and cooked peas, if desired; serve immediately.

pasta with tomatoes, swiss chard, and goat cheese

I think people have the wrong impression about meals around here, particularly on weeknights. The assumption seems to be that someone who loves cooking must be hanging out in the kitchen making elaborate meals every single night. If only.

The reality is that my weeknight evenings are so full of other necessary chores that any meal that takes longer than half an hour stresses me out. A delay in dinner puts me behind schedule for the laundry folding and showering and ultimately ends up cutting into my sleep. And the less sleep I get, the more hateful my alarm is in the morning and the slower I get ready for work and the later I get to work and the later I have to stay at work and the less time I have for cooking the next evening.

Pasta dishes that can be made in the time it takes to boil the pasta are a great option for a quick meal that breaks that cycle.  But the original version of this one wasn’t quite working for me.  I loved the idea of roasting the grape tomatoes before combining them with the other ingredients to accentuate their sweetness.  However, that extra step of heating the oven and throwing in the tomatoes apparently put me over the edge, because I felt vaguely flustered every time I made this.

I needed to simplify it somehow, but I didn’t want to lose that step of concentrating the tomatoes’ flavor.  I love roasted tomatoes, but in this case, where they’re roasted quickly instead of low and slow, it seemed like the stovetop could get the effect right in the same pan used to cook the greens.  In fact, the juice released from the tomatoes helped the chard cook.  With only two dishes, one appliance, and half an hour, this was the perfect weeknight-friendly version of the dish.

One year ago: Artichoke Ravioli
Two years ago:  Cooks Illustrated’s Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies
Three years ago: Spinach Feta Pine Nut Tart

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Pasta with Green, Tomatoes and Goat Cheese (adapted from Food and Wine via Savory Spicy Sweet)

1 pound fusilli pasta
Salt
2 teaspoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, sliced
Pinch of crushed red pepper
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
½ pound swiss chard, rinsed and coarsely chopped
½ pound soft goat cheese, thickly sliced
½ cup walnut halves, toasted
¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1. Bring 4 quarts water to rolling boil, covered, in stockpot. Add 1 tablespoon salt and pasta, stir to separate, and cook until al dente. Drain and return to stockpot.

2. In a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, heat the oil, garlic, and pepper flakes until the oil flows like water when the pan is tilted. Add the cherry tomatoes, swiss chard, and ¼ teaspoon salt; cover the pan and simmer, stirring occasionally and smashing the tomatoes, until the chard is tender and the tomatoes are soft.

3. Reserve 1 cup of pasta cooking water; drain pasta. Return the pasta to the cooking pot; stir in the goat cheese and ½ cup of the reserved cooking water. Add the chard and tomato mixture, walnuts, and cheese; stir to combine, adding more pasta water to loosen sauce if necessary.