pasta with brussels sprouts and pine nuts

It sounds plain, doesn’t it? What exactly is offering the flavor here? Is a bowl of carbs, green vegetables and nuts worth eating?

Because there aren’t many ingredients, it’s important to maximize each one. Browning food is key for developing flavor, so that means toasting the nuts and pan-roasting the Brussels sprouts. Plenty of garlic and a pinch of spicy red pepper flakes add another layer of interest. A generous handful of parmesan glues the sauce together, both in texture and taste.

It isn’t much, as you can see. But what it lacks in ingredients – and, therefore, ingredient prep – it makes up for in flavor. It’s a simple dish, but a healthy one that might surprise you by adding up to far more than its individual components hint at.

One year ago: Pizza, Green Tea Crème Brûlée, Herbed Lamb Chops with Pinot Noir Sauce, Soft and Sexy Grits,
Two years ago: Chocolate Truffles (with a chocolate comparison)

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Pasta with Brussels Sprouts and Pine Nuts (adapted from Gourmet via epicurious)

4 servings

Please note the very important “reserve a cup of pasta cooking water” step! I sometimes forget, but I’ve found that putting a measuring cup in the colander will remind me to scoop up some water when it’s time to drain the pasta.

If you have bacon fat (or better yet, pancetta fat, which is what I used) available, I highly recommend it. Because there aren’t a lot of ingredients here, the more flavorful each one is, the better. If that sounds too rich for your blood, using olive oil certainly won’t spoil your dish. One tablespoon will be enough if you’re being stingy, but you’ll have better browning of the sprouts with two.

Pasta dishes like this don’t have a high heat capacity. To keep dinner warm until I’m finished eating, I like to warm the serving bowls in the oven while the pasta is cooking.

12 ounces pasta (rotini or another open short shape)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 ounces (¼ cup) pine nuts
24 ounces Brussels sprouts, trimmed and quartered
1-2 tablespoons butter, olive oil, or bacon fat
4 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
¼ cup water
juice of 1 lemon
2 ounces (1 cup) freshly grated parmesan

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. When it boils, add a tablespoon of salt and the pasta. Cook according to the package directions. Drain, reserving about a cup of the pasta cooking water.

2. Meanwhile, heat a 12-inch not-nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the nuts; cook and stir until fragrant and lightly toasted, 1-2 minutes. Transfer to nuts to a small bowl; set aside.

3. Add the fat to the now-empty skillet and heat over medium heat. Add the Brussels sprouts and a big pinch of salt; cook without stirring for 2 minutes. Stir; repeat the cooking and stirring twice more, for a total of 6 minutes. Push the sprouts to the edge of the pan and add the garlic and pepper flakes to the cleared center; cook and stir constantly until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir into the sprouts.

4. Add the water to the pan; immediately cover and continue cooking for 2 minutes. Remove the lid, scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan, and let any remaining liquid evaporate.

5. Add the drained pasta, Brussels sprouts mixture, lemon juice, and ½ cup of pasta cooking water to the pot the pasta was cooked in. Stirring continuously, sprinkle the parmesan over the pasta, adding more pasta cooking water if necessary to keep the mixture from drying out. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper if necessary; serve immediately, preferably in warmed bowls.

taco pasta salad

My inclination to overthink was very clearly exhibited with this recipe. I’ve heard approximately eight thousand raving reviews of this pasta salad. And still, I doubted. Salsa mixed with pasta? Cheddar cheese in pasta salad? I wasn’t convinced.

I asked Cara for advice. Really? Salsa? She said she never thinks twice about it, because this dish is always a hit. Shredded yellow cheese? Yes, she said. Stop asking questions and just go make it, she probably wanted to say.

I started slowly, adding only a third of the salsa called for, thinking I’d just mix in extra fresh tomatoes and some red onions and a jalapeno separately if I didn’t like the salsa. And then I realized – yes, salsa mixed with pasta. And I stirred in the rest of the salsa.

Right after those two ingredients were mixed is when I started nibbling. And then I added black beans… cilantro… avocado… tomatoes… cheese… corn… dressing… and I just kept nibbling and nibbling as I went. And the salad just kept getting better and better.  Forget instincts. I should just trust the recipe.

One year ago: Risotto with Swiss Chard
Two years ago: Gazpacho

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Taco Pasta Salad (adapted slightly from Cara’s Cravings)

Serves 8-12

Apparently there’s no wagon wheel pasta in my little town. Bowties worked just fine.

I toasted the spices before mixing them into the dressing. Just heat a small not-nonstick pan over medium heat for a few minutes, then add the spices and stir them around just until they start to smoke, no longer than a minute.

1 pound wagon wheel pasta
salt
1 (10-ounce) package frozen corn
1½ cups salsa
1 (15-ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed
2 medium tomatoes, diced
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
8 ounces (2 cups) shredded cheddar cheese
3-4 tablespoons lime juice
1 large (or 2 small) avocado, peeled, seeded, and diced
1 tablespoon cumin
2 teaspoon chili powder
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced
¼ cup olive oil

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon salt and the pasta. Cook according to the package directions. Drain; stir the frozen corn into the pasta to cool the pasta and defrost the corn. Stir the salsa into the pasta and corn, then add the beans, tomatoes, cilantro, and cheese.

2. Squeeze the lime juice into a small bowl and add the avocado; stir to coat the avocado. Remove the avocado from the lime juice and stir it into the pasta mixture. Add the spices, garlic, and ½ teaspoon salt to the lime juice, then slowly whisk in the oil. Stir the dressing into the salad. Serve immediately or chill for up to 1 day (longer if you don’t add the avocado).

penne alla vodka

People keep asking me how my recent vacation was, and I can’t think of any response other “so, so good.” How else do you sum up a week of playing in the waves, drinking margaritas, snorkeling, baking cookies, swimming with sea lions, watching shooting stars, eating shrimp tacos, and just basically everything that is good. I didn’t even get sunburned. I want to go back.

At least I had an easy meal planned for my first night at home. This is my ‘just got back from vacation’ dish. After traveling all day, I don’t want to spend much time cooking. There’s no time to defrost anything. We haven’t been home, so there isn’t a lot of fresh food around. I’ve been eating out all week on vacation, so I don’t want to get takeout.

This dish solves all those problems. It takes as long to make as it takes pasta to cook. There are only a couple ingredients to chop. It’s fairly healthy. And it uses ingredients that I can buy before I leave and trust that they’ll keep until I get back – pasta, canned tomatoes, onion. And of course, it tastes great.

I bet it would taste even better on vacation. Everything is better on vacation.

One year ago: Potato Tomato Tart
Two years ago: Banana Coconut Muffins

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Penne alla Vodka (from Cooks Illustrated)

You can never go wrong following a Cooks Illustrated recipe precisely. I, however, don’t, in this case. Because I almost always make this after a day of traveling, I simplify it wherever possible. Instead of pureeing half of the tomatoes and dicing the rest, I simply stick a pair of kitchen shears in the tomato can and snip away. I don’t separate the liquid and the tomatoes in order to measure a certain amount; I just pour all of the liquid in to the sauce. I like to use 2 shallots instead of half an onion. If I don’t have cream, I use milk. If I don’t have milk, I skip the dairy. If I don’t have basil, I use parsley. If I don’t have parsley, I skip the herbs or use dried. It’s tomatoes, pasta, and alcohol; it isn’t going to be bad.

1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes, drained, liquid reserved
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ small onion, minced (about ¼ cup)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 2 teaspoons)
¼-½ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
table salt
⅓ cup vodka
½ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil leaves
fresh parmesan cheese, for serving

1. Puree half of the tomatoes in a food processor until smooth. Dice the remaining tomatoes into ½-inch pieces, discarding cores. Combine the pureed and diced tomatoes in a liquid measuring cup (you should have about 1⅔ cups). Add reserved tomato liquid to equal 2 cups.

2. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and tomato paste and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are light golden around the edges, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and pepper flakes; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

3. Stir in the tomatoes and ½ teaspoon salt. Remove the pan from the heat and add the vodka. Return the pan to medium-high heat and simmer briskly until the alcohol flavor is cooked off, 8 to 10 minutes; stir frequently and lower the heat to medium if the simmering becomes too vigorous. Stir in the cream and cook until hot, about 1 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts water to a boil in a large Dutch oven over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon salt and the pasta. Cook until just shy of al dente, then drain the pasta, reserving ¼ cup cooking water, and transfer the pasta back to the Dutch oven. Add the sauce to the pasta and toss over medium heat until the pasta absorbs some of the sauce, 1 to 2 minutes, adding reserved cooking water if sauce is too thick. Stir in the basil and adjust the seasoning with salt. Divide among pasta bowls and serve immediately, passing Parmesan separately.

roasted red pepper pasta salad with peas and beans

I had my doubts about this salad the whole time I was shopping for it, making it, testing it for seasoning, and serving it. But now, weeks later, my doubts are gone and I want some more. Except with better peas.

Most of the doubts came from an unsuccessful shopping trip for ingredients. Sometimes I complain after shopping at my regular grocery store, but in truth, I usually get by just fine with what I can find there. However, it is a 7-minute drive from my house. Walmart, while not my favorite place on earth, is a 2-minute drive. I tried to cut corners, and I paid the price. Walmart didn’t have whole wheat pasta, any sort of fresh pea or bean, frozen petite peas (which are sweeter and less starchy than regular peas), or shallots.

So, yes, frozen petite peas would be better than the larger starchy ones, and fresh peas are so fun, and I would love some sort of fresh beans, and yellow beans would add a nice contrasting color. But one change I was forced to make, skipping the shallots, actually worked out better I think, with some lightly pickled red onions adding tartness to the salad instead.

And even at its simplest, this salad is unique and interesting, with smoky sweet roasted red pepper dressing coating pasta, creamy white beans, and crisp vegetables. Plus I learned a valuable lesson about driving that extra five minutes to the regular grocery store, and how it’s worth every second.

One year ago: Sourdough Bagels
Two years ago: Danish Braids

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Roasted Red Pepper Pasta Salad with Peas and Beans (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

Deb based this salad on one she had in a restaurant, which also included yellow string beans, fava beans, fresh cranberry beans, among other wonderful bean types that simply aren’t available in small desert towns. I would have loved any or all of those, but the salad was wonderful at its most simple as well.

1 pound small pasta
salt
¼ red onion, very thinly sliced
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
4 ounces snow pea pods, ends trimmed, cut on an extreme diagonal
1 cup peas (from about 8 ounces with their shells, if you can find fresh)
1 (15-ounce) can great northern (or navy) beans, drained and rinsed
¾ to 1 cup Roasted Red Pepper Vinaigrette (recipe below)

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil; add the pasta and 1 tablespoon salt and cook according to the package instructions. One minute before the pasta is done, add the peas. Drain the pasta and peas together.

2. Meanwhile, combine the onion, vinegar, and a pinch of salt in a large bowl; set aside for 10 minutes. When the pasta has cooled, add the remaining ingredients and stir thoroughly. Taste and add more salt if necessary, which it probably will be.

Roasted Red Pepper Vinaigrette

Makes about one cup of dressing

1 red bell pepper, roasted, skinned and seeded or the equivalent from a jar, drained
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, plus up to 1 tablespoon more
½ teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper

Combine all of the ingredients in a blender or food processor; process until smooth. Taste and add more salt, pepper, or vinegar if necessary.

pasta with asparagus and goat cheese

I feel like I used to have this room (my life), and it had some stuff in it; mostly stuff I liked (cooking, reading, teaching, gardening), although of course there were things I didn’t (cleaning). My main problem was that it was too empty. There was too much space, and I could never get it arranged in any pleasing way. It made me frustrated and unhappy, and I took less enjoyment even from the things I did like.

Then I added this huge, I don’t know, piece of furniture or some other room-dominating thing (a full-time job). And now the room is too full. I like it more overall, I just don’t know where to put everything. Some things I’m willing to give up (hours mindlessly spent searching the internet), but the rest I’m trying to rearrange. Where does exercise go? What about blogging? Keeping in touch with friends, spending quality time with my husband, learning new things? I know there’s room for them all, I just have to find out how to make it work.

I’m not going to stop cooking, obviously. But I will change the way I cook most nights of the week, keeping things simple. This dish, with only a handful of ingredients and one ingredient to chop, is a perfect example of how easy meals can still be tasty meals. This meal definitely fits into my crowded new room, and it leaves me plenty of space for exercise, a full day of work, a long chat with a friend, and even a batch of brownies. A life too full is certainly better than a life too empty.

Two years ago: Kung Pao Shrimp

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Asparagus, Goat Cheese and Lemon Pasta
(adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

Serves 6

16 ounces pasta
salt and pepper
2 pounds slender asparagus spears, trimmed, cut into 1- to 1½-inch pieces
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon
8 ounces soft goat cheese

1. Bring at least 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add the pasta and 1 tablespoon of salt and cook the pasta until it is almost tender, about 2 minutes short of the package instructions. Add the asparagus and cook until it is crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Reserving 1 cup of the pasta cooking water, drain the pasta and asparagus.

2. Return the pasta and asparagus to the pot and add the oil, zest from the whole lemon, juice from ½ the lemon, goat cheese, a generous grinding of pepper, and ½ cup pasta cooking water; stir until the goat cheese melts. Taste and add salt (you’ll probably need some), freshly ground black pepper, and more lemon juice if necessary. If the sauce becomes thick and sticky, stir in more pasta cooking water.

artichoke ravioli

Spring break was last week. I miss it already.

On the other hand, I’m apparently bad at spring break. I had plans to do all these big things, and then when I didn’t get every single one of them done, to perfection, every day, I got all annoyed. Plus, you know what I did instead of work? Chores. I hate chores, and I like my job, so…forget what I said about missing spring break.

I’m sure it’s a surprise to no one that the one thing I did find time for was cooking. I kept to the mostly-healthy, mostly-vegetarian routine we normally stick to on weekdays instead of going for the all-out, life-is-a-celebration, let’s-eat-meat-and-drink-wine routine we tend toward on the weekends. And I realized that another reason I often stick to vegetarian meals on weekdays is that they’re easier.

Not so with ravioli, of course. Once you mix and knead the pasta dough, roll it out, make your filling, fill the ravioli, cook the ravioli, make your sauce – well, that adds up to a nice project for a day off from work.

Fortunately, the end result of this one is definitely worth avoiding chores over. The artichokes are subtle, but not invisible. The sauce is rich, but not heavy. And the fresh pasta – well, it’s fresh pasta. You can’t go wrong.

It’s meals like this that make me miss spring break.

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

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Artichoke Ravioli With Tomatoes
(adapted from Gourmet via Smitten Kitchen)

4 to 6 servings

This is a good time to utilize your food processor if you have one. I think the best order to process the ingredients in (to avoid cleaning the bowl in between uses) is parmesan, onions, artichoke mixture, tomatoes. You could also make the pasta dough in the food processor, although I’ve had better luck using the stand mixer or kneading by hand.

Ravioli take well to freezing.  Just freeze them in a single layer on a flour-dusted baking sheet.  Once they harden on the pan, transfer them to freezer bags.

Pasta:
6 ounces (1¼ cups) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the work surface
2 large eggs

Filling:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 onion, chopped (½ cup)
2 (14-ounce) cans quartered artichoke hearts, drained
2 ounces (1 cup) finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
½ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 large egg
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Sauce:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 onion, minced
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
2 ounces (1 cup) finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 tablespoons heavy cream

1. For the pasta: Add the flour and egg to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low speed until thoroughly incorporated. Change to the dough hook and knead for 5-6 minutes, until smooth. Add flour as necessary – the dough shouldn’t be sticky.  Shape the dough into a ball and wrap it in plastic wrap. Let the dough rest for at least 30 minutes. (You can also mix and knead the dough by hand. It’s easiest – less messy – in a large, wide bowl.)

2. For the filling: In a 12-inch skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. When the foam subsides, add the onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 6 minutes. Add the artichoke hearts and continue cooking while stirring occasionally, until they’re tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer the artichoke mixture to the food processor (scraping but not washing the pan), and process in pulses until the artichokes are coarsely chopped. Stir in the parmesan, parsley, yolk, salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

3. 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 until the second-to-last setting. Brush it with flour if the dough 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 dishtowels.

4. For the sauce: Melt the butter in the now-empty skillet over medium heat. When the foaming subsides, add the onion and sauté until just golden around the edges, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes with their juice and the salt and simmer over low heat until the sauce is thickened, 15-20 minutes. Stir in the pepper, most of the parmesan and the heavy cream. Set aside.

5. The pasta sheets should be approximately 4 inches across. Place small balls of filling (about one rounded teaspoon each) in a line one inch from the bottom of the pasta sheet. Leave one and one-quarter inches between each ball of filling. Fold over the top of the pasta and line it up with the bottom edge. Seal the bottom and the two open sides with your finger. Use a fluted pastry wheel to cut along the two sides and bottom of the sealed pasta sheet. Run pastry wheel between balls of filling to cut out the ravioli.

6. Bring 4 quarts of water to boil in a large stockpot. Add about a tablespoon of salt and half of the pasta. Cook until doubled edges are al dente, 3-4 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove the ravioli from the pot and transfer them to warmed bowls or plates. Keep warm in a warm oven while the remaining ravioli are boiled. Top the ravioli with sauce and the remaining parmesan; serve immediately.

chicken mushroom spinach lasagna

I’m hardcore – I made an Emeril recipe more complicated. I did skip a few of his steps, so maybe I’m not completely ridiculous.

It’s just that if I’m going to go through all the trouble of making lasagna, with cooking chicken, stirring béchamel, layering and baking, I might as well go all the way – homemade pasta and damn good chicken.

So there was no cooking of boneless skinless chicken breasts in a dry pan – weird, isn’t it, that I’m not a fan of dry tasteless meat. Heck no, I roasted those suckers – bone-in, skin-on, thankyouverymuch. And before that, I brined them – hey, it’s a step that takes about 2 minutes of effort and you ensure fully seasoned, moist meat. Why not do it?

But if I’m going to add homemade pasta and brined, roasted, shredded chicken to an already ambitious recipe, I probably needed to cut some corners somewhere. Since I can’t seem to convince myself to enjoy cooked spinach, I decided to skip the cooking and blanching of the spinach and just add shredded baby spinach directly to the béchamel. I wasn’t able to use quite as much, but that’s okay – it was still a colorful, healthy, easy addition.

Okay, so I guess I only skipped one little step in Emeril’s recipe. Oh wait, I also mixed all the chicken and parmesan into the sauce, so I was really only layering two things – sauce and noodles. That probably saved 30 seconds or so of effort. That’s okay, I had fun making the lasagna, and I was completely confident that the extra bit of work I put into it would give me a perfect result, and, yes, it did.

One year ago: Deli-Style Rye Bread
Two years ago: (Almost) No-Knead Bread

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Chicken, Mushroom and Spinach Alfredo Lasagna (adapted from Emeril Lagasse)

This is how I made the lasagna, but there are some things you could do differently. The original recipe keeps the chicken and some of the parmesan separate from the béchamel, laying pasta-béchamel-cheese-chicken instead of just alternating pasta and chickeny parmesany béchamel, like I did.

Also, the type of pasta you use is entirely up to you. You could use the no-cook dry noodles or buy fresh noodles or make your own. And I don’t know for sure that fresh homemade noodles need to be blanched for lasagna, but the one time I skipped that step was a disaster.

One more thing – the original recipes calls for double these ingredients to be layered into a 9- by 13-inch pan, but I was concerned that I’d have overflow. While my lasagna is a little on the short side, I think twice this height would have been too much for my standard 9- by 13-inch pan. But maybe the quantity of ingredients that I used would make an ideal 8- by 8-inch lasagna?

6 to 8 servings

1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 pound chicken breasts, bone-in, skin-on, trimmed of excess fat and skin
salt and pepper
4 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
8 ounces button mushrooms, thinly sliced
2 large shallots, finely chopped
4 cloves minced garlic
¼ cup all-purpose flour
3½ cups milk
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
4 ounces spinach, stemmed, washed, sliced into ¼-inch ribbons
3 ounces (1½ cups) grated Parmesan, divided
fresh lasagna noodles (if homemade, use 1 egg + ⅔ cup (3.2 ounces) flour, kneaded and rolled to the
next-to-thinnest setting on a pasta roller, blanched as described here)

1. (Optional) Stir 2 tablespoons salt into 2 cups cold water until it dissolves. Add the chicken; refrigerate for 30 minutes, then remove the chicken from the brine and pat it dry.

2. Adjust an oven rack to the middle-low position and heat the oven to 450ºF. Heat a small oven-safe skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan; place the chicken breast in the pan skin-side down. Cook without moving until well-browned, about 5 minutes. Turn the chicken over and move the pan to the oven. Roast until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the chicken measures 160ºF or the juices run clear when small cut is made in the chicken. Remove the pan from the oven and set aside. When the chicken has cooled enough to handle, remove and discard the skin (or eat it, because it’s crisp and delicious!) and shred the meat with your fingers or two forks. Decrease the oven temperature to 375ºF.

3. Béchamel: Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring often, until their liquid has evaporated and the mushrooms are slightly browned, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the shallots to the pan and sauté until soft and translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the garlic and sauté for about 30 seconds, until fragrant. Add the flour and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, to make a light roux, about 1 minute. Whisking constantly, slowly add the milk and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened, 5 minutes. Add ¾ teaspoon of the salt, the pepper, nutmeg, spinach and 2½ ounces (1¼ cups) of the Parmesan and cook, stirring, until thickened, about 2 minutes, then add the shredded chicken. Taste the sauce to decide if it needs more salt. Remove the béchamel from the heat and place a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface until ready to assemble the lasagna.

4. Spray a 9 by 13-inch pan with nonstick spray, and spread about ¼ cup of the béchamel sauce on the bottom of the dish, avoiding any large chunks of chicken. Arrange a single layer of noodles evenly over the sauce. Then alternate layering béchamel and noodles until you run out of noodles – I was able to make 4 layers, I believe. End with the remaining béchamel and sprinkle the top with the remaining parmesan.

5. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking for about 20 minutes, until bubbly. Let the lasagna rest for about 10 minutes before slicing and serving.

pasta with baked ricotta and sweet tomato sauce

I’m all about taking water out of ingredients. Zucchini, eggplant, cabbage, tomatoes, tofu, even bread for French toast. Water doesn’t contribute flavor, so if it isn’t improving texture, I have no use for it.

In this recipe, ricotta is drained in cheesecloth for several hours, then baked. What I thought would happen is the cheese would lose a small but significant portion of water during the draining stage, and then it would brown a little in the oven.

I was wrong. My ricotta actually gave off no liquid during straining, and I’m thinking now that the baking isn’t so much to brown the ricotta as to concentrate flavor by evaporating even more liquid.

The sauce to accompany the baked ricotta is a simple tomato sauce that is sweetened with balsamic vinegar. I used fresh pasta, which when topped with the sauce, ricotta, a handful a parmesan and a sprinkling of basil, made for a great adaptation of a classic pasta and tomato sauce dish.

One year ago: Pot Roast
Two years ago: Comparison of 4 Vanilla Frosting

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Pasta with Sweet Tomato Sauce and Baked Ricotta (adapted from Jamie Oliver via Cate’s World Kitchen)

I used one pound of (store-bought) fresh pasta instead of dried pasta, and it was so good that I think I’ll stick with fresh pasta for this recipe in the future as well.

Serves 4-6

1 (15-ounce) container ricotta
1 teaspoon plus 1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
salt and pepper
½ teaspoon dried oregano, divided
2 large shallots, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes in juice
3 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 pound wide pasta, such as pappardelle or fettucine
a handful of fresh basil, torn
½ cup (1 ounce) freshly grated parmesan

1. Line a fine-mesh strainer with several layers of cheesecloth. Spoon the ricotta into the strainer and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.

2. Adjust a rack to the upper-middle position and heat the oven to 450 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Spread the ricotta onto the baking sheet in a 1-inch layer. Season the ricotta with ¼ teaspoon dried oregano and a generous pinch of both salt and pepper. Rub 1 teaspoon of the olive oil over the seasoned ricotta. Bake for 15 minutes, until dry and slightly browned at the edges.

3. Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in an 8 to 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and sauté, stirring occasionally, until the edges just start to brown, 6-8 minutes. Stir in the garlic and ¼ teaspoon oregano, and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and ½ teaspoon salt; bring to a simmer, then lower the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Use a spoon to crush the tomatoes, of, if you’d like a smooth sauce, transfer the mixture to a blender or use an immersion blender to puree the sauce. Stir the balsamic vinegar into the sauce.

4. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon salt and the pasta to the boiling water and cook according to the package instructions. Drain the pasta, reserving about a cup of the cooking water.

5. Combine the pasta and sauce, thinning the mixture with pasta cooking water if necessary. Fold in the basil and ricotta and top with the parmesan.

butternut squash macaroni and cheese

I don’t think I do too badly with self-control. I can sit at home all day with banana cream pie in the fridge and not even think about it until it’s time for dessert and tea. I don’t drink alcohol on weekdays (those extra calories are saved for dessert), and it isn’t a struggle, even though we have plenty of it around.

But there are two foods that I have no control with – chocolate chip cookie dough and macaroni and cheese. No kidding, I can eat both until I’m feeling not so good, and even that won’t stop me from craving more as soon as I digest a bit. As a result, macaroni and cheese has been allocated to a once-in-a-blue-moon treat.

But…can I make a version of macaroni and cheese that is healthy enough to eat more often, but still worth craving?

Apparently. I’m not saying that this is hardcore health food, but it’s not so bad nutrition-wise. The squash does an admirable job of replacing some of the cream sauce, and it isn’t just a “hide the vegetables” trick, because the flavor is surprisingly complementary. The final dish was sweeter than regular mac and cheese, but that wasn’t a bad thing. And it doesn’t hurt that the golden color of the squash makes the pasta look even cheesier.

I shouldn’t be shoveling this into my maw without abandon any more than I do regular macaroni and cheese, but at least it’s healthy enough to eat more than twice a year.  Tasty enough too.

One year ago: Fish Tacos

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Butternut Squash Macaroni and Cheese (adapted from Branny Boils Over)

You can adapt this in a number of ways. The easiest is by changing the type of cheese, although if you can, using a combination of cheddar and a good melter will give you consistently great results. Branny adds in a couple ounces of cream cheese, which will make the sauce extra creamy, but I decided I could skip it and make this a little healthier.

Most homemade macaroni and cheese recipes call for a final baking step, which I’ve skipped here simply because I wanted to make this as easy as possible for a weeknight dinner. If you prefer your mac and cheese baked, I recommend pouring it into a broiler-safe 8-inch square pan, topping it with bread crumbs made from fresh bread, and heating it about 5 inches from the broiler for a couple of minutes.

Each serving has about 325 calories.

Serves 8

1 small butternut squash
12 ounces elbow macaroni
salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon powdered mustard
2 cups milk
4 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, shredded (1 cup)
4 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (1 cup)

1. Adjust on oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 425 degrees. Cut the squash in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, and lay the halves cut side down on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until a butter knife inserted into the flesh meets no resistance. Scoop 2 cups of flesh from the squash and mash it with a fork, or, if you’re willing to put a bit more effort into it (I wasn’t), puree it in a blender or food processor.

2. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Once it boils, add about a tablespoon of salt and the pasta. Cook the pasta until it’s tender. Drain and return the pasta to the pot.

3. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Once the foaming subsides, add the flour and mustard. Whisk constantly for 1 minute, then gradually whisk in the milk. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat, whisking frequently, then lower the heat to medium-low and simmer for 5-6 minutes, until the mixture has the consistency of heavy cream. Add the cheeses, ½ teaspoon table salt, and the squash, stirring until the cheese melts.

4. Pour the sauce over the drained pasta and stir thoroughly. Serve immediately.

baked ziti

I am officially out of recipes to share. I am now raiding my “Probably Not” folder – the rejects that either didn’t taste good or didn’t photograph well. I’ll spare you that ones that didn’t taste good.

It seems like I could just make something new and blog about it, right? The thing is though, nothing is working quite right for me lately. My delicious banana cream pies keep coming out with a layer of candy armor over the crust; the southwestern pasta salad recipe I patched together was too similar to and probably not quite as good as this one; I never got the ratios right in my cocktail last weekend (despite many attempts), and I forgot to take final photos of my pesto.

I’m just lucky that the photos of the baked ziti aren’t as ugly as I’d remembered. For this is not in the “didn’t taste good” category. With a mixture of pasta, tomatoes, cheese, and herbs, how could it not be delicious?

And although it’s hard to believe, you can make it halfway healthy without sacrificing much in the way of flavor or creaminess. In my experience, good whole wheat pasta (I like Bionaturae) is hardly different from refined versions. I’m perfectly happy with 1% cottage cheese and skim mozzarella. That just leaves the heavy cream to worry about, and with a slight increase in the cornstarch, you can get away with using milk instead.

And you can make it ahead, and it freezes well, and it reheats well, and heck, it isn’t half bad cold if you’re too impatient to bother heating it up. This is certainly worth pulling out of the reject file.

One year ago: Herbed Lima Bean Hummus
Two years ago: Country Crust Bread

Printer Friendly Recipe
Baked Ziti (from Cooks Illustrated)

Serves 8-10

Healthy tricks: Use 1% cottage cheese, whole wheat pasta, part-skim mozzarella, and 2 teaspoons cornstarch plus 1 cup milk instead of ¾ teaspoon cornstarch with 1 cup heavy cream.

1 pound whole milk or 1% cottage cheese
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 ounces parmesan cheese (about 1½ cups), grated
table salt
1 pound ziti pasta
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
5 medium garlic cloves, minced (about 5 teaspoons)
1 (28 ounce) can tomato sauce
1 (14.5 ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves
1 teaspoon sugar
black pepper
¾ teaspoon cornstarch
1 cup heavy cream
8 ounces low-moisture mozzarella cheese, cut into ¼ inch pieces (about 1½ cups)

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350°F. Whisk cottage cheese, eggs and 1 cup Parmesan together in medium bowl; set aside. Bring 4 quarts of water to boil in large Dutch oven over high heat. Stir in 1 tablespoon salt and pasta; cook, stirring occasionally, until pasta begins to soften but is not yet cooked through, 5 to 7 minutes. Drain pasta and leave in colander.

2. Meanwhile, heat oil and garlic in 12-inch skillet over medium heat until garlic is fragrant but not brown. Stir in tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, and oregano; simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes. Off heat, stir in ½ cup basil and sugar, then season with salt and pepper.

3. Stir cornstarch into heavy cream in small bowl, transfer mixture to Dutch oven set over medium heat. Bring to simmer and cook until thickened, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove pot from heat and add cottage cheese mixture, 1 cup tomato sauce and ¾ cup mozzarella, then stir to combine. Add pasta and stir to coat thoroughly with sauce.

4. Transfer pasta mixture to 13- by 9-inch baking dish and spread remaining tomato sauce evenly over pasta. Sprinkle with remaining ¾ cup mozzarella and remaining ½ cup Parmesan over top. Cover baking dish tightly with foil and bake for 30 minutes.

5. Remove foil and continue to cook until cheese is bubbling and beginning to brown, about 30 minutes longer. Cool for 20 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining 3 tablespoons basil and serve.