BAKED ZITI: A Go-To Favorite!

ziti textBAKED ZITI is, admittedly, not a very pretty dish. But it’s absolutely delicious, and a kid-pleaser, to boot. (With my picky-eater children, this is a huge thing!)

The most time consuming part about BAKED ZITI is preparing the marinara sauce. This takes about 15 minutes for the normal person, and about 25 minutes for obsessive people – like me – who rather than buy canned chopped tomatoes, buy canned whole and then cut out the stem ends, imperfections, and any skin. THEN I chop them. (I’m not sure the companies do all that – I suspect they just wash them and throw them in a machine.)

However, if you like this BAKED ZITI recipe, next time double, triple, etc. the marinara and freeze in portions for future use. The rest of the recipe is very easy and quick.

I guess this would be a good time to acknowledge that while the preparation is fast, the bake time is 1 hour, plus a 20 minute set time. BUT THIS IS ALL HANDS OFF!!!

BAKED ZITI – makes 5-6 servings (unless you have a teenager)

Marinara:

  • 1 T olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 14 oz tomato sauce
  • 8 oz canned whole tomatoes, chopped
  • 1/2 tsp dried or 1½ fresh oregano
  • 1/4 cup + 1 T fresh basil, chopped
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1/8 tsp black pepper

Casserole:

  • 1/2 lb uncooked ziti (or other tubular pasta)
  • 1/2 tsp cornstarch
  • 1/2 cup cream
  • 1 egg
  • 2¼ oz (3/4 cup) Parmesan cheese, grated, divided
  • 1/2 lb whole milk cottage cheese
  • 3½ oz (1 cup) Mozzarella cheese, shredded, divided

If you already have the marinara sauce made, then go straight to the Casserole instructions.

Marinara:  In a large skillet or saucepan heat the olive oil over medium flame. Add in the garlic and sauté about 30 seconds – until fragrant. Turn off heat and add in the tomato sauce, chopped tomatoes, and oregano. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then lower flame to maintain the simmer. Cook, uncovered, for 10 minutes to thicken a bit. lasagna prep15Turn off heat and stir in 1/4 cup basil, sugar, and pepper.

Casserole: Bring 2 quarts of water to a full boil. Add in 1/2 T salt and the ziti. ziti7Cook for 5 minutes. SET A TIMER! You don’t need to cook it fully right now – it will continue to cook in the oven. Pour pasta into a strainer to drain, but don’t shake it to remove water.

While pasta is cooking, combine cornstarch and cream in a small bowl. flour-pasteIn another bowl, beat egg with a fork then mix in 1/2 cup (1.5 oz) Parmesan and cottage cheese. ziti6Once the pasta is draining, pour the cornstarch-cream mixture into the now-empty pot. Over a low heat, bring to boil.ziti8 Immediately turn off flame and stir in the cottage cheese mixture.  ziti9Add in half of the mozzarella and 1/2 cup of the marinara. ziti1Stir in the cooked ziti, breaking up stuck together pasta. ziti2Pour into an 8″ x 8″ casserole dish (or it’s equivalent). ziti3Top with remaining marinara sauce, then sprinkle on remaining mozzarella, followed by the rest of the Parmesan. ziti4Cover with a lid or foil and bake at 350º Fahrenheit for 30 minutes. Remove cover and bake an additional 30 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle on 1 T basil. ziti5Let set 20 minutes before serving.

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PORTOBELLO CHEESE SOUFFLE – Savory & Easy!

souffle topped porto textSometimes advice passed on through the ages is wise and true. BUT, sometimes one needs to re-examine it, thus finding it no longer (if ever) viable.

Which brings me to the SOUFFLE TOPPED PORTOBELLO – a cheese soufflé baked directly on a portobello mushroom. Many people refuse attempting to make a soufflé, having heard they’ll collapse from loud noises or that they need kid-gloves whilst gently folding in the egg whites.

American’s Test Kitchen put those rumors to the test….and debunked them. (I actually screamed “NOOOO!” at the screen when the beaten egg whites were poured into the mixer with the batter.) To my shock and delight, the soufflé rose beautifully.

Yet I was still skeptical when I tried it for myself. I’ve made this recipe 3 times now, and they’ve come out beautifully each time.

Do not be afraid!!! This is a very easy and quick recipe to make.

SOUFFLE TOPPED PORTOBELLO – makes 4

  • 4 large Portobello mushrooms
  • 5 T butter, divided
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, finely grated, divided
  • 2 T shallots, minced
  • 1 large garlic clove, pressed
  • 3 T flour
  • 1/4 tsp paprika
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 tsp white pepper
  • pinch nutmeg
  • 3/4 cup milk, preferably whole milk
  • 5 oz Gruyère cheese, shredded
  • 4 eggs,
  • pinch cream of tartar

Preheat oven to 350º Fahrenheit. This is important!

Thoroughly clean mushrooms, discard stems, and dry gills up. skillet 1In a saucepan, melt 3 T butter. Sauté shallots over medium heat for about 3 minutes. Add in garlic and cook for 30 seconds more, just to bloom the garlic. Remove pan from heat. strata13In a small bowl, mix together the flour, paprika, salt, cayenne, white pepper, and nutmeg. Blend into the butter mixture, smashing out any lumps – this is your only chance to do so! porto souff1Return pan to heat and cook roux (that’s what this paste is called) for 2 minutes over medium/low heat. (This will get rid of the flour taste.) porto souff2Pour in the milk and cook over medium/low until thickened, stirring constantly. Turn off burner but leave pot in place in order to use residual heat. porto souff3Stir in Gruyère and 1/4 cup Parmesan until melted. porto souff4Remove pot from warm burner and let cool 5 minutes.  porto souff5Meanwhile, build a foil cylinder around each mushroom – heavy or regular aluminum foil will work. Cut 4 pieces of foil – 8″ long if using  heavy foil, and 12″ long if using regular. porto souff13For the heavy foil, fold in half lengthwise; for the regular, fold in thirds lengthwise. The goal is to make a 4″ high strip that will surround the Portobello. Grease one side of the strips with the remaining butter (You may not need all of it, but don’t be stingy – this will prevent the soufflé from sticking.) Sprinkle the remaining Parmesan on the greased strips, lightly patting down to make it adhere to the butter. porto souff14Surround each Portobello snuggly with a foil strip, coated side facing the mushroom. Secure it with a paperclip at the top. porto souff7Place mushrooms on a parchment lined cookie sheet and set aside.

Make sure the oven is preheated by now! 

Separate eggs. Stir the yolks together in a small bowl, then mix into the cheese sauce, stirring as you pour. porto souff6Let cool.

Place egg whites in the large bowl of your electric mixer. Begin mixing the whites on medium speed, adding the cream of tartar once they’re foamy. Continue beating on high until stiff peaks form. porto souff9Deep breath! Pour the cheese sauce into the beaten whites. Turn the mixer on low and mix until just combined. porto souff10Pour mixture on top of Portobellos, dividing as equally as you can – don’t get crazy about it, though. porto souff11Bake at 350º F for 25 minutes – don’t open the oven door to check before that time. The soufflé should be golden and jiggly. porto souff12Remove paper clip (take care – it’ll be hot!) and foil collar. Serve immediately.

FOUR CHEESE MACARONI – A Little Something For The Adults!

four cheese mac textFor some reason, Macaroni & Cheese is perceived as a bland, children’s food. (Don’t even get me started on the boxed version!)

But what about we adults? We like cheese. We like pasta. How about a grown-up version of Mac & Cheese?

Not to worry – America’s Test Kitchen has come to the rescue. The combination of cheeses blows the kid stuff out of the water – creamy with a little bite. As if that’s not enough – it’s super easy!

FOUR CHEESE MACARONI

  • 4 slices good quality white sandwich bread
  • 1 oz (1 cup) Parmesan cheese, grated, divided
  • 2 tsp salt, divided
  • 1 lb mini penne pasta (you can use full-sized, if you like)
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 2¾ oz (3/4 cup) Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
  • 4 oz Fontina cheese, shredded
  • 1¼ oz (1/2 cup) Pecorino-Romano cheese, shredded
  • 1 T butter
  • 1 T flour
  • 1½ cup cream

Preheat oven to 500º Fahrenheit.

To make breadcrumb topping, remove and discard crust from bread. Tear into 1″ pieces and place in food processor. breadcrumb1Pulse about 7 times to get small pieces.breadcrumb2 Pour into bowl and add in 1/2 oz (1/2 cup) Parmesan, 1 tsp salt, and black pepper. (It’s easiest to mix with fingers.) Set aside. breadcrumb3Into a large pot, bring 4 quarts of water to a full boil. Add in 1 rounded T salt and the penne. Stir immediately to prevent sticking, then stir every now and then, until al dente. (Don’t overcook – pasta will continue to soften when the cheeses and sauce are added.)

As the pasta is cooking, prepare the cheeses and sauce. In a large bowl, put the remaining 1/2 oz (1/2 cup) Parmesan, the Gorgonzola, the Fontina, and the Pecorino-Romano. Set aside. four cheese mac6In a saucepan melt the butter over low heat. Turn off heat and mix in the flour, making sure you smoosh any lumps – this is your only chance to remove them. Cook 2 minutes over low heat, stirring continuously, to prevent that flour-y taste. four cheese mac7Add in the cream and remaining 1 tsp salt. Increase the heat slightly to medium/low and stir until thickened. four cheese mac2By now, the pasta should be cooked. Drain in colander, but don’t shake strainer. Immediately pour hot pasta over cheeses in bowl. four cheese mac8Pour hot sauce on top. (Don’t stir yet.) Cover – I use a cookie sheet. Let set for 3 minutes to melt the cheeses. Remove cover and stir everything together. four cheese mac3Pour into a casserole dish and sprinkle on breadcrumbs. four cheese mac4Bake at 500º F for about 7 minutes, until breadcrumbs are browned. four cheese mac5Sprinkle on a little chopped parsley, if desired. Can be served immediately.

 

SPINACH-CHEESE STRATA: Perfect Any Time Of Day!

spinach cheese strata textOne thing I love about egg dishes is they can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner – kind of a one-size-fits-all meal of the food world. (Even though one size does NOT fit all in the clothing world!)

This SPINACH-CHEESE STRATA is very fast to prepare…even faster if you take a couple of shortcuts: 1) buy frozen spinach and, 2) buy bread (rather than making it). I’m a little paranoid about the cleanliness of frozen spinach, since I know how dirty fresh can be, so I buy fresh. Also, I like to bake my own bread and often have extra in the freezer. But that’s just me.

Bonus: it’s a make ahead dish – always a plus for me. That way, I can prepare it in the morning (or even the night before), leaving explicit instructions with my husband. Explicit!

SPINACH-CHEESE STRATA – makes about 6 servings

  • about 11  1/2″ slices of day old French bread (or less if it’s a fat loaf)
  • 2 T butter + more for spreading on bread
  • 2 bunches fresh spinach (or 12 oz frozen cut spinach)
  • 1/4 cup shallots, minced
  • 1/2 tsp + 1/8 tsp black pepper, divided
  • 1 tsp + 1/4 tsp salt, divided
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1½ cups (3½ oz) Gruyère cheese, shredded
  • 6 eggs
  • 1¾ cup half & half

The bread should be stale. If you plan ahead you can leave slices on a wire rack overnight. If you didn’t have time to do that, simply bake in the oven at 225º Fahrenheit for about 40 minutes, flipping halfway through. (Don’t toast them – it’s not the same thing!)

Butter one side of all the stale bread slices.strata14If you’re using fresh spinach, thoroughly wash, dry, and coarsely chop. If you’re using frozen, thaw.

Melt the 2 T butter in a Dutch oven (if using frozen spinach, then use a skillet). Add shallots and sauté 3 minutes to soften. strata13Add in spinach, 1/2 tsp black pepper, and 1 tsp salt. strata15Cook over medium heat, stirring until spinach is wilted – about 10 minutes. Transfer to a bowl.strata16In the now empty pan, pour in the white wine. Cook over medium/high to reduce it to 1/4 cup. This happens fairly quickly so keep an eye on it. Remove from heat.

Butter an 8″ x 8″ pan (I use Pyrex). Cover bottom with buttered bread (butter side up).strata9 Spread on half of the spinach. strata10Sprinkle 1/2 cup of the cheese. strata11Add another layer of bread, the remaining spinach, and 1/2 cup cheese.strata6 In a bowl or large measuring cup for easy pouring, whisk the eggs, half & half, reduced wine, 1/4 tsp salt, and 1/8 tsp black pepper. Pour on top of spinach/bread/cheese. strata7Cover with plastic wrap, pressing directly onto food. Weigh it down with whatever will fit. (I use another 8″ x 8″ pan weighted with bowls). strata17Refrigerate at least 1 hour.

To bake, remove plastic wrap. Sprinkle on remaining 1/2 cup cheese. strata2Bake at 325º F for 50-55 minutes, until starting to brown (I bake for 50 minutes). Remove from oven and let set about 15 minutes before serving.strata3

 

 

 

SKILLET PORTOBELLO-BROCCOLI-PASTA DINNER – Easy Clean-up!!!

skillet porto-broc-pasta textI love skillet dinners – everything is cooked in the one pan. They’re generally fast and easy, and this one is particularly tasty!

As so often happens in my kitchen, this recipe began as an America’s Test Kitchen recipe. I changed so many things (including making it vegetarian), that it became virtually unrecognizable. I’m claiming it as my own! (Feel free to tweak to make it your own.)

PORTOBELLO-BROCCOLI-PASTA – serves about 5

  • 2 T vegetable oil, divided
  • 3 Portobello mushrooms
  • 1 tsp salt, divided
  • 1 onion (about 1½ cups), chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 1/4 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 8 oz uncooked pasta (small elbow or mini penne, which I prefer)
  • 1½ cups vegetable stock (to make my recipe, click VEGETABLE STOCK)
  • 2 cups water
  • 2½ cups raw broccoli, bite sized pieces
  • 1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, rinsed & chopped
  • 1/3 cup Kalamata olives, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup cream
  • 1/2 cup (1½ oz) Pecorino-Romano cheese, grated

NOTE:  I prefer mini penne pasta because the tubular shape allows the sauce to be trapped, and the mini version makes it easy to eat with a spoon. However, mini penne (Barilla makes it) isn’t always carried in markets.

ADDITIONAL NOTE:  I like to use Portobello mushrooms so I can cut them in 1″ pieces. But if you can’t find them, use 14½ ounces of crimini mushrooms. Cut them into large pieces – and you can use the stems.

Wash Portobellos and discard stems (they’re too tough to eat, unlike the crimini). skillet 1Cut into 1″ pieces.skillet 2In a 12″ skillet, heat 1 T oil over medium/high flame. Add in mushrooms and sauté for 5 minutes. skillet 4Remove mushrooms and extruded liquid to bowl and set aside. skillet 3Heat remaining 1 T oil in now-empty skillet over medium heat. Add in onions and salt. Sauté 4-5 minutes, until cooked but not browned.skillet 5 Add in garlic and cook another 30 seconds. Turn off heat. Add oregano, red pepper flakes, uncooked pasta, vegetable stock, and the water.skillet 6 Turn heat to high and let cook, uncovered, about 12 minutes (stirring now and then) – until most of liquid has cooked out. skillet 9Add in the broccoli, sun-dried tomatoes, and Kalamata olives. skillet 10Cover and cook over medium/high for 2 minutes to steam broccoli (it will turn bright green). Don’t overcook.skillet 11Decrease flame to low and add in cream and Pecorino. Stir to blend and let cook uncovered about 1 minute to heat through. Turn off heat and taste for seasoning (I like to add 1/2 tsp salt.) Cover, and let set 5 minutes before serving.

BLACK BEAN BURGERS: Firm And Flavorful!

black bean burgers text

The biggest complaint about Black Bean Burgers seems to be that they tend to be mushy. You load up your bun with toppings, take a bite, and immediately the “burger” squirts out the sides.

So I went on yet another quest, this time to firm up the Black Bean Burger. The key was to remove some of the moisture from the beans by quickly heating them in the oven. 4 minutes at 350º F was just right. Any longer and they over-dried. Then I coarsely chopped half of them to expose the creamy insides to act as a binder, and left the other half whole for the heft. I added cornmeal to absorb excess moisture. Finally, the egg acted as a heavy-duty binder.

Note:  The mixture for BLACK BEAN BURGERS freezes very well. If you like this recipe (try it first), next time double or triple it, then freeze in portion sizes for future use. Thaw, and fry as directed.

BLACK BEAN BURGERS – makes 2 patties

  • 1  15-oz can black beans
  • 1/4 cup fine grind cornmeal (if you can’t find fine grind, use medium)black bean burgers2
  • 1 shallot, finely minced
  • 2 T fresh minced cilantro
  • 1 clove garlic, pressed
  • 1/2 tsp hot sauce
  • 1/2 tsp cumin powder
  • 1/4 tsp coriander powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp black ground pepper
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 2 tsp vegetable oil, divided

Preheat oven to 350º Fahrenheit.

Drain and rinse beans. Spread out on a cookie sheet and bake 4 minutes in preheated 350º F oven to remove some of the moisture. Moisture = mushy burgers. (Don’t overbake or the beans will be too dried out.) Immediately pour half (it doesn’t have to be exact) the beans into a mixing bowl and the other half onto a cutting board. Don’t leave them on the cookie sheet or they’ll continue to dry from the heated sheet.  Coarsely chop the beans on the cutting board. black bean burgers7Put the chopped beans in the bowl and add in remaining ingredients. Stir to blend. black bean burgers4Cover and refrigerate at least an hour, preferably several hours.

When it’s time to cook, heat 1 tsp oil on medium/high in a nonstick skillet. Divide mixture into 2  1/2″ thick patties, pressing in on edges so they’re not raggedy. They’re kind of fragile so I find it’s best to place the formed patties on a plate, then nudge them onto the skillet. Cook about 4 minutes, until bottom is well browned. (Don’t lift up to check for browning until 4 minutes or they’ll crumble.)black bean burgers9Flip burgers and add remaining 1 tsp oil to skillet. (I flip them onto another spatula then nudge them onto the skillet.) Cook about another 4 minutes, until well browned. Once both sides are well browned, the crust holds them together.

 

 

TOMATO TART – A Super Shortcut Recipe!

tom tart textSome things are just meant to be.

Normally, I make nearly everything from scratch – yogurt, cakes, cookies, soups, breads. But one thing I’ve never tried is puff pastry. It’s a lot of work and the frozen Pepperidge Farms sheets are so tasty, I doubt I ever will.

I recently watched an episode of America’s Test Kitchen featuring a TOMATO TART using puff pastry sheets instead of the usual pie dough, which can become soggy from the moisture in the tomatoes. Since I had one sheet left in the freezer from ages ago, I decided to try it – halving the recipe.

It was super easy, it was beautiful, it was absolutely delicious. KISMET!

Note: This is the full recipe. If you want a smaller amount (even though TOMATO TART makes for fabulous leftovers), just cut everything in half, skipping the patching together of the 2 sheets since you’ll only need 1.

TOMATO TART

  • 4 Roma tomatoes
  • 1/8 tsp + 1/2 tsp salt, divided
  • 2 sheets frozen puff pastry (I used Pepperidge Farms)tom tart10
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 2 oz (1 cup) Parmesan Cheese, shredded
  • 2 T extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, pressed
  • 1/8 tsp black pepper
  • 8 oz low moisture mozzarella cheese, shredded
  • 2 T fresh basil

Note:  Make sure you use low moisture mozzarella to prevent a soggy crust.mozzarellaSet out package of pastry sheets for an hour or so to thaw. (Overnight in the fridge is best.)

Preheat oven to 425º Fahrenheit.

Slice tomatoes into 1/4″ circles, discarding stem and bottom ends. Lay slices on 3 layers of paper towels and sprinkle with a total of 1/2 tsp salt. (I lay the paper towels on an old terry towel for extra absorbency.) Let set for 30 minutes. This will draw out excess liquid that would make the crust soggy. After 30 minutes, blot tops firmly with another paper towel.tom tart9When pastry sheets are soft enough to unfold, remove them from package. Cut a piece of parchment paper (NOT waxed paper!) to fit a rimmed cookie sheet. Lay just the parchment (not on the cookie sheet yet) on the counter. Very gently unfold one of the pastry sheets and place it on one side of the parchment. (If the pastry tears, repair by pinching dough together with wet fingers.)

Paint a 1″ strip of beaten egg along the side next to the empty part of the parchment.tom tart1Overlap the other square on top. Press dough together firmly with fingers.tom tart2Using a pizza cutter or knife, trim edges so they’re straight. (You may not need to do this step.)

Cut 2  1″ strips down long side and leave in place. Cut 2  1″ strips along short side.tom tart3Paint entire rectangle with egg wash, but not the strips.tom tart4Place long strips on top of long edges and paint them with egg wash. There will be an excess of dough, which will be cut off.tom tart5Place the short strips along short side edges and paint them with egg wash. Cut off and discard overhanging dough strips. To help the border to rise straight upward (as opposed to up and out like mine did), press dough along inside edge of border.

Carefully, scoot the parchment onto a rimmed cookie sheet.

Sprinkle Parmesan evenly on tart, excluding the border strips – these will rise and act as a dam to prevent leakage.tom tart7Using a fork, liberally dock holes through cheese and pastry, excluding the border. You want the border to rise, but not the center.tom tart8 Bake at 425º F for 12 minutes. Remove from oven. If the center has puffed up, deflate by poking it with a sharp knife in a few places and gently pressing dough down with a fork.

In a small bowl, combine olive oil, garlic, 1/8 tsp salt, and pepper. Set aside.tom tart12Sprinkle mozzarella evenly in cooked pastry, excluding the border.tom tart13Layer on the tomato slices. Using a pastry brush, dab tomatoes with all of garlic/olive oil mixture.tom tart14To prevent the borders from over-browning, cover with strips of foil. Bake at 425º F for 13-15 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle with basil. Let set a few minutes before slicing.tom tart18