Think Outside The Box Spaghetti

Spaghetti with 'Meat' Sauce

Spaghetti with ‘Meat’ Sauce

I’ve mentioned before that my mother was NOT the most adventurous cook. It wasn’t that she was a bad cook – she was just a nervous cook.  Afraid to try new things.  Plus, she was a product of the modern world of boxed, canned, and frozen foods. She bought into the idea of why take the time and trouble to make something yourself when a large corporation (whose only concern was to make a profit) could do the work for you.

We kids didn’t mind.  After all, we could pick out specifically what frozen dinner we each wanted – some of them even had a little dessert! The only fresh vegetable we ever had was corn on the cob – when it was in season. The rest of the time we had canned green beans or peas. I’d never even heard of broccoli or cauliflower before I left home.

Which brings me to my spaghetti story.

As probably most of you know, when you have to start paying your own bills you really take notice of how much things cost. Fortunately, I was born with a dominant frugal gene (yeah- cheap, okay?). I figured out pretty quickly I was going to have to learn how to cook.

One thing my mother made was spaghetti. She used Kraft Spaghetti, which came in a box, and she added ground beef. It was good, and all I knew. So I decided to make spaghetti and bought the box of Kraft, the ground beef, and made my spaghetti. It was good – again, it was all I knew.

Then one day in the supermarket I happened to notice plastic bags full of dried spaghetti noodles.  What the heck was this? Why are these spaghetti noodles all by themselves and not packaged in a box with a can of sauce?, I wondered.  (You’ll be happy to know this was only said in my head…THAT time, anyway.) It took awhile, but it eventually dawned on me:  I could make the sauce FROM SCRATCH and buy as many noodles as I wanted. (It took many more years to figure out I could actually make the pasta, too.) It honestly never occurred to me people made spaghetti sauce.

Once enlightened, I tried various spaghetti sauces through the years. When I became a vegetarian, the problem became that without the meat, it was really just a marinara sauce.  Having grown up with a nice hefty meaty sauce, plain old marinara sauce just seemed kind of empty. It was tough being a vegetarian in the early days.

Fast forward to my discovery of fake meats (‘faux’ to you posh people), which greatly expanded my vegetarian recipe repertoire.  I’d already started using Loma Linda’s Redi-Burger in my ‘Beef’ Salsa Burritos (remember, quote marks denotes FAKE) and my Navajo Tacos. But it didn’t seem like a good choice for my spaghetti sauce.

I guess good things come to those who wait because, low and behold, in the frozen food section I found Morningstar’s Griller’s Recipe Crumbles.  They come in a pouch and are like ground beef that’s already stir fried (minus the fat).  So it’s a snap to use – no frying, no wondering what to do with all the grease.  Just open the pouch and pour out the ‘ground beef’.

Thanks to these Crumbles, my family can now enjoy a delicious Spaghetti With ‘Meat’ Sauce. I’ve come up with a recipe in which I  simply throw everything in the stockpot and cook for an hour.  As always, when I make something that freezes well, I make a vat of it and freeze it in meal sized portions.  No point in cleaning the pot and utensils more than once.  Making a multiple batch is not that much more work.  Once I’m done, I have enough spaghetti sauce for months!

I’ll give you the recipe for both one batch and six batches (that’s what I make).  I would suggest you make the one batch version first, just to make sure you like the recipe.  If you’d like to see my video of me making this dish, click on: Spaghetti With ‘Meat’ Sauce.

NOTE:  If you want to save about 20 minutes, and are NOT obsessive and paranoid like I am, then buy the canned tomatoes diced instead of whole.  I buy the whole so I can inspect each one and cut off any imperfections and the stem end. Also, you can buy garlic already minced in a jar. It took me 35 minutes to put all the ingredients in the stockpot. You can see where most of the time was spent.

ADDITIONAL NOTE:  It doesn’t matter what kind of red wine you choose.  Just make sure it’s a wine you would actually drink because the flavor will come through.  I usually use Black Mountain cabernet sauvignon – it’s reasonably priced and has a nice taste.

WILL SHE EVER STOP TALKING ADDITIONAL NOTE:  You can either buy vegetable stock OR do what I do and make your own.  Click on: Back To Basics: Vegetable Stock for my recipe.


1 BATCH VERSION – makes 3 cups

  • 1 pouch (12 oz / 340 grams) Morningstar Griller’s Recipe Crumbles
  • 1/3 cup (80g) extra virgin olive oil
  • ½ cup (125 ml) vegetable stock
  • 1 clove garlic, pressed
  • 1 tsp each of dried oregano, dried basil, and salt
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ½ cup (122g) tomato paste
  • 2 cups (528 g) canned whole tomatoes
  • ½ cup (125 ml) red wine
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes

6 BATCH VERSION – makes 18 cups

  • 6 pouches (each pouch is 12 oz / 340 grams) Morningstar Griller’s Recipe Crumbles
  • 2 cups (475 ml) extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 cups (720 ml) vegetable stock
  • 2 T minced garlic
  • 2 T each of dried oregano, dried basil, and salt
  • 6 bay leaves
  • 4   6 oz (170g) cans tomato paste
  • 4   28 oz (793g) cans whole peeled tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 bottle red wine (YES – a whole bottle!)
  • 1 T red pepper flakes

Throw everything in a stockpot and bring to a boil. Lower flame enough so the sauce continues simmering. Cook for 1 hour, stirring often – you don’t want the bottom to burn. Done!!!

IMPORTANT NOTE (this is the last note, I promise):  Make sure you remove the bay leaves before serving the ‘Meat’ Sauce.  Actually, I kind of enjoy the fishing expedition I go on trying to find my 6 leaves. (Shows you how exciting my life is!)  The last leaf is always the hardest to find.


Ooo La La! Les Baguettes: Tres Simple!!!

French Bread

French Bread

The smell of freshly baked bread is an attention grabber like no other. It’s universal.  At first whiff, people the world over fall into a Zen-like state…. followed immediately by a growling tummy.

Basking in that intoxicating aroma, we imagine the warmth as we break open a piping hot baguette, slowly pulling it apart, and bringing it up to our eagerly awaiting mouth.  We can taste the melting butter as it oozes into the nooks and crannies.  The crunchy outside, the soft insides. They call it the staff of life for a reason.

And, of course, it looks pretty cool when it’s sticking out of your shopping bag.  Note my photo above.

I have to admit, when my kids were growing up, I MAY have gone a little overboard.  Since I was a stay-at-home mom I decided to make as much from scratch as I could. Including bread. Including yogurt. Including pasta. I thought if they were indoctrinated with homemade everything, the taste of preservatives, sugar, and salt laden foods (like store bought cookies, box mac and cheese, and sugary cereals) might not appeal to them.

Yeah, well – it seemed like a good idea.  Unfortunately, I didn’t anticipate the pull of peer pressure.  Not to mention that sugary/salty foods just plain taste good.  After all, that’s what they’re meant to do to keep people eating them.

It was on the job training for me – my mother was not exactly an adventurous cook.  Lots of roasts, burgers, frozen dinners.  She had no culinary words of wisdom to impart to me, her only daughter. So I read cookbooks and just jumped in. There were surprisingly few failures – cooking really isn’t as difficult as one might think – if you follow the instructions!

The first bread I tried making was whole wheat. What with having kids now, I knew that would be the most important since sandwich making was going to be a daily activity for years to come.  It was a bit tricky and I had to constantly revise my recipe.  The problem was, the healthier the bread, the more it tended to fall apart.  Not a good thing! It got better through the years, but it was never like the OroWheat bread I, admittedly, buy now.  In my defense, I hardly eat sandwiches anymore so I keep a loaf frozen….just in case.

Next, I tried my hand at making French bread.  Ah, ha!  (Or should I say – Voilà!) This was a success from the start. It’s quite easy to make and there are very few ingredients.  I did allow myself the luxury of buying a French bread baking pan.  You can see it in the photo below.  It’s a perforated metal, curved double loaf pan.  The curved sides keep the bread in the traditional round shape, and the perforated metal allows for air circulation. It’s not a necessity, though.  Your loaves will still come out delicious just using a cookie sheet.

Bread dough rising in a perforated French bread pan

Bread dough rising in a perforated French bread pan

NOTE:  I actually bought two bread pans. Back in the days when I was baking lots of French bread, I would make four loaves at once, then freeze what we didn’t eat.  While freshly baked baguettes are best (unintentional alliteration), they still freeze well. You know me – use that freezer!  If you’re going to the trouble of cooking something, make multiple batches and freeze the extras so you can have homemade food even on days you can’t/don’t want to cook AND you only have to wash the cookware once.

YES, French bread is a yeast dough. NO, it’s not difficult.  I promise!!! And, YES, it takes time because the dough has to rise.

BAGUETTE – makes 2 loaves

  • 2¼ tsp dry active yeast (or 1 packet)
  • 1½ cups water
  • 1 T sugar
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 3½ – 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ tsp cornstarch
  • ¼ cup water (separate from water mentioned above)

The first thing to do is to activate the yeast.  To do this, simply heat the 1½ cups of water to about 100º Fahrenheit (hot tap water will do) and stir in the yeast.  Set it aside to proof – it will begin to foam-up.

Into your food processor put 3 cups of the flour (we’ll add the rest as needed), the sugar, and the salt.  Attach the lid. When the yeast is proofed (it takes about 5 minutes and will be foamy on top), turn on the processor and slowly pour in the yeast water through the feed tube.  Once all the water is in, continue to let the machine run for 30 seconds or so to incorporate the flour.

More than likely you’ll need to add more flour.  What you want is the dough to form a ball. With 3 cups of flour, it’s probably still all over the workbowl.  Add in ½ cup more flour and run machine again.  If it still doesn’t form a ball on it’s own, add more flour 1 tablespoon at a time until it does. Give it some time to run when you add in more flour – it takes a few seconds for the new flour to incorporate.

When the dough ball forms, continue to run the machine for 45 seconds to knead it.

NOTE:  If you don’t have a food processor, you’ll have to do all the above steps in a bowl and knead for 10 minutes by hand.  But, honestly, think about buying  one.  I use mine nearly everyday!  It’s a great time saver.  Plus, I HATE sticky dough on my hands. Letting the food processor run for 45 seconds is so much better than kneading dough by hand for 10 minutes!!!

Take the dough ball out of the food processor and smoosh it down into a greased bowl. Then pick up dough ball, flip it, and smoosh down the other side into the bowl.  This greases the whole ball.  Cover with a tea towel and let rise for about 1 hour.

Punch down the dough. If you’ve never heard this term before, you may be thinking I’ve gone a little crazy. Punching down dough simply means taking your fist and punching the risen dough to deflate it. This is my favorite part of bread making. But mind if you’re having a bad day – DON’T punch the tar out of the dough. (He’s not the one who wouldn’t let you in when you forgot you wanted to turn left and were in the wrong lane.) Just a quick love tap will do. Then divide the dough in half.  Take each half and stretch it to the length of baguette you want. Obviously, the longer the bread, the thinner the loaf.  Whichever way you like it is fine.

Lay each stretched out loaf on a groove of your French bread pan or a cookie sheet that been greased and sprinkled with cornmeal. Cover the loaves and let rise for 30 minutes.

In a small saucepan, heat together the ¼ cup water and cornstarch over a low/medium heat.  Stir constantly until the liquid becomes less murky.  This will happen at the boiling point.  Remove from heat.

Preheat oven to 425º.

When dough has risen and oven is preheated, make 2 or 3 diagonal slashes in the raw loaves with a sharp knife or pair of scissors. Brush with cornstarch glaze and bake for 10 minutes.  Brush with glaze again, and continue to bake an additional 15 minutes.  Remove from pan and serve!

Added bonus:  The aroma of freshly baked bread will linger in your house for awhile, reminding your family just how hard you work for them!




Hummus Is The New Onion Dip

Hummus and pita triangles

Hummus and pita triangles

When I was growing up, it was unheard of to have company over without serving Lipton’s Onion Soup Dip and chips.  At that time I had a complete aversion to onions.  But onion dip was an animal of a different sort. ( Just like onion rings.)  I don’t question this – it’s one of the great mysteries of the world.

More than likely onion dip became popular because not only is it tasty, it’s incredibly easy to make:  mix together 1 cup of sour cream and one packet of Lipton’s Dried Onion Soup Mix. Done.  It took a minute to prepare and you could call it homemade….just.  It was so easy, in fact, that this was the job children (like me) were given when they wanted to ‘help’ mommy in the kitchen.

What was not to like?  Sour cream and onion-y/salty bits.  And was it addictive!!!  Much as I love potato chips, if there was onion dip around, the chips actually became an excuse to load up on dip.

Alas, those carefree, eat-whatever-tastes-good days are gone.  I can’t remember the last time I saw onion dip at a party (not that I get out much). Potato chips and Fritos have been replaced by pita chips and raw veggies, and hummus has replaced Lipton’s Onion Soup Dip. So long, old friend.

Hello, hummus!  And just in time.  The bad thing about getting older is I can no longer eat an entire bowl of onion dip shoveled in via an entire bag of potato chips, and then work it off by doing 10 minutes of jumping jacks. But the good thing about getting older is wisdom. I’m now wise enough to really understand that you are what you eat.

Of course, that being said, let’s not get crazy. I’m certainly not advocating refraining from a bag of french fries once in a while, or the odd dessert when you’ve got that craving going on. (Hey, I’m the one who wrote a recent blog about Thick and Chewy Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Cookies!) But what I’ve found is that if you make healthy food yummy enough, it kind of talks you off that ledge hovering over the great junk food beyond. When you’re happily sated, you feel….well, complete.

So hurrah that people are now serving hummus and pita chips to snack on at gatherings. Even my extremely picky youngest child is buying hummus for himself – and actually eating it.  This is the same child who throughout his childhood would order a cheese, mustard, and mayonnaise sandwich when we went to Subway.  (And I don’t mean cheese, mustard, and mayonnaise as extras in one of their selections –  I mean ONLY cheese, mustard, and mayonnaise!)

Nowadays, supermarkets – always ready to cash in on trends – are stocking their refrigerated bins with ready-made tubs of hummus, flavored all sorts of ways.  But if you own a food processor (and if you don’t, BUY ONE!), you really should make your own.  At least give it a try!!!  The markup for the ‘convenience’ of not having to make it is enormous. And, as I keeping saying, when you make things yourself you know what’s in your food (and NOT in your food). Along the same line, why stop at making your own hummus – make the tahini, too. Again, it’s unbelievably easy!

This is one of those recipes that you should make to suit your own taste. More garlic, less garlic.  Spice it up, bland it up. Chunky, pureed.  Whatever you want.

NOTE:  Double, triple, quadruple, etc. your homemade hummus, then freeze it for future use.

HUMMUS – makes 1 cup

  • 2½ T tahini – see recipe below
  • ¾ tsp margarita salt
  • 2 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 1 can garbanzo beans (also called chickpeas) – 15 oz can
  • 3 T lemon juice, fresh or bottled
  • 1 T olive oil

Drain the garbanzo beans, discarding the liquid.  Put half the can in the food processor and pulse until the beans are small chunks.  Pour into a small bowl and set aside. Put the remaining garbanzo beans, salt, garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil into the food processor and purée until smooth.  Mix the purée with the chunky garbanzo beans and serve. Sprinkle a little paprika on top to make it pretty, if you like.

TAHINI – makes about ½ cup

  • ¾ cup sesame seeds
  • 2 T olive oil

Lightly toast the sesame seeds.  Put the seeds and olive oil in the food processor and purée. Stop and scrape, as needed, to make a paste.

Egg Foo Yummm!

Egg Foo Yong

Egg Foo Yong

It isn’t always easy being a vegetarian. Before I changed my carnivorous ways, I had my go-to picks when I went for Chinese food:  won-ton soup, sweet and sour pork, egg rolls, and chicken chow mein.  When I became a vegetarian I found myself carefully examining the menus for meatless choices.  Back in those days I was pretty much limited to stir fried vegetables and rice. This was long before the days when Chinese restaurants started adding tofu – or even removing the meat – from selections on their menus.

I finally spied ‘Egg Foo Yong’ (sometimes spelled ‘yung’ or ‘young’) on the menu and gave it a try.  Mmmmm!  Fortunately, my first sample of egg foo yong was delicious. Since then, I’ve discovered it really depends on the restaurant and the chef.

Egg Foo Yong seemed like a dish I could make at home – I’m always looking for vegetarian recipes AND ways to save money.  Not only can eating out be costly, but I tend to worry if the food preparers are using sanitary precautions.  I admit it – I’m a smidge frugal (okay – I’m cheap) and paranoid.

For those of you who have never heard of Egg Foo Yong, it’s basically an egg pancake with bits of things like mushroom and bean sprouts mixed in, served over sticky rice, and topped with a brown sauce.  I’ll give you the recipe the way I make it, but there’s a lot of room for personalizing. Because these egg patties cook quickly and are best served immediately, I make the brown sauce first, then the sticky rice (and while it’s cooking I get the side dishes going), then I begin the egg pancakes.

The more you can fit on your skillet or griddle the better so the first ones don’t have to sit around too long.  But – word to the wise – don’t crowd them. You’re going to have to flip these babies and, unless you’re a whiz with a spatula, they rarely land where they started. You want to avoid flipping them onto another one.

NOTE:  I use a 13″ All Clad skillet to cook the egg patties and have found that making 3 at a time is the best number.  Perhaps in future, I’ll use my griddle, as well.  That way, I can squeeze in a few more per cooking batch.

BROWN SAUCE – makes 2/3 cup

  • 1½ tsp cornstarch
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp rice vinegar
  • 2½ T soy sauce
  • ½ cup water

In a small saucepan put the cornstarch, sugar, vinegar, and soy sauce.  Stir and mash until you have smooth paste – no lumps. Add in the water and heat over a medium flame until the color changes from coffee-with-cream color to black coffee color, stirring often. At this point the sauce will thicken a bit.  The color and thickness change will occur just before the boiling point.  Once the sauce begins to boil, turn off the heat.

EGG FOO YONG –  makes 8 patties 4″ in diameter

  • 5 eggs
  • ½ T soy sauce
  • 1/3 cup onions, thinly sliced
  • 4 mushrooms, chopped
  • 4 oz bean sprouts (1 cup)
  • ½ T sesame oil
  • canola oil for frying

NOTE:  You don’t have to restrict yourself to onions, mushrooms, and bean sprouts (or even use them at all).  You might try carrots, peas, scallions – whatever you fancy!

In a large skillet heat the sesame oil a bit, then sautè the onions and mushrooms for a few minutes.  Pour the cooked onions and mushrooms into a bowl and set aside to cool. You’re going to be adding these to the beaten eggs – if they’re hot, they’ll start cooking the eggs.

In a medium bowl beat the eggs and soy sauce.  Stir in the bean sprouts and cooled onions and mushrooms.

In the large skillet you used earlier pour in enough canola oil to cover the bottom.  Ladle on the egg mixture like you were making pancakes.  You don’t want to use too much per patty – maybe 1/3 cup.  They spread rapidly and then kind of keep spreading. Try not to have them touch – you don’t want to have to cut them if you can avoid it.  Flip them when they’re well browned on bottom.  Once they’re well browned on both sides transfer to a platter.  Add more canola oil as necessary as you cook the remainder.

Serve them hot over sticky rice, generously pouring the brown sauce on top.

Make A Hot Tomato’s (that’s me!) Stuffed Tomatoes!

Stuffed Tomatoes

Stuffed Tomatoes

I have to confess that until a few months ago I had never eaten a stuffed tomato.  It’s not that I’d never heard of stuffed tomatoes (hey – I’ve been around….well, at least, nearby), it’s just that they never sounded very appealing.  I guess I must have thought they’d be bland and mushy.

For an upcoming dinner party I had planned on making Spinach And Mushrooms Topped Polenta.  This was a mixed group (i.e., vegetarians and carnivores) so I wanted something that appealed to both groups. I always feel like the pressure is on when cooking for carnivores – I want to show them vegetarian cooking is more than tofu and sprouts.

I was racking my brain for the perfect side dish for this entree.  It had to be visually appealing as well as have a taste that complimented the rather bland polenta, spinach, and mushrooms.  Something red, I decided, which pretty much meant carrots, red peppers, or tomatoes.  Tomatoes seemed like a perfect match.  Not only are they a vibrant red, but their flavor would play well against the polenta dish.

In thumbing through several cookbooks (to those of you under 30:  yes, in the old days we used actual books for recipes), I found tomato aspic, soup, stewed, stuffed, and tarts. I honed in on ‘Stuffed’.  Hmmm!  I liked the idea of a contained side dish since the mushrooms were going to be scattered with a brown sauce on top.  A nice, bright, plump tomato would do very well, visually.  Taste-wise, I still had my doubts.

After reading a few stuffed tomato recipes, I came up with own.  Holy Moly!  When I took my first bite, my mouth was aglow with delite.  I actually said, ‘Where has this been all my life?’ I couldn’t believe how powerful the tomato flavor was, balanced perfectly with the garlic, seasoned bread crumbs, spices, and Romano cheese.  Plus these Stuffed Tomatoes formed a perfect marriage with the Spinach And Mushrooms Topped Polenta.

Not only are Stuffed Tomatoes easy to prepare, pretty as a picture, and so tasty you’ll swear you’re hearing angels singing ‘Alleluia’ as you take your first bite, but they can also be prepared (but not baked) ahead of time so that’s one less thing to do as you’re trying to get your meal timed right. (Stay out of my way during the last 20 minutes of dinner prep!)

It doesn’t matter what variety of tomato you choose, but it’s best to use one that’s broader than it is tall.  Tall, thin tomatoes, such as Roma, tend to fall over and spill their contents thus producing an unstuffed Stuffed Tomato.  Not good!  Also, choose ones that are flat on the stem end as this will become the bottom.  For variety, you can also choose a gold or yellow heirloom – what’s life without shaking it up a bit?!

If you’d like to watch me make these delicious Stuffed Tomatoes, click on Stuffed Tomatoes.


  • 2 tomatoes (intact and blemish-free)
  • ½ T olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, pressed
  • 1/4 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/8 tsp dried basil
  • pinch cayenne pepper (also called red pepper spice)
  • 1 small bay leaf or ½ large one
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 2 T seasoned bread crumbs
  • ¼ cup Romano cheese, finely shredded
  • 2 T additional Romano cheese, finely shredded

Slice 1/3″ from BOTTOM of tomatoes.  (The stem end will become the bottom of the Stuffed Tomato). Carefully scoop out and save the pulp, leaving the sides and skin intact. Use a spoon for this task – you don’t want to pierce the sides of the tomato. Clean out all the nooks and crannies of seeds and goo, and give the tomatoes a few good shakes over the sink.  Set aside, letting them drain upside down.

Dice the tomato tops and meatier pulp.

In a small saucepan over a low/medium heat, sautè olive oil, garlic, oregano, basil, cayenne pepper, bay leaf, and salt for 1 minute. Take care not to burn the garlic.  Add in the diced tomatoes, turn up the heat to a medium flame, and cook for about 2 minutes. You want the tomato pieces cooked but not mushy.  What you’ll notice is the pieces have still retained their shape but quite a bit of liquid has been released. Turn off the burner.

Quickly strain the liquid using a small strainer, if you have one, or carefully pouring off as much liquid as you can into the sink (use a lid to prevent solids from slipping through. Empty any solids in the strainer back into the saucepan.  You don’t want to get rid of all of the liquid, just most of it – that’s why you need to do this step quickly.  REMOVE AND DISCARD BAY LEAF!!!

Preheat oven to 350º Fahrenheit.

Stir in the bread crumbs and ¼ cup Romano.  Stuff the tomatoes with the mixture, packing it down.  There should be exactly enough filling for 2 tomatoes.  Top each tomato with 1 T shredded Romano.

Place Stuffed Tomatoes on a greased cookie sheet that has sides (in case of leakage) and bake for 20 minutes. Then turn on broiler (leaving tomatoes where they are) and broil for another 2 minutes, until tops are browned.  Keep an eye on them – you don’t want to burn them! Serve hot.