EASY ONE-POT MACARONI & CHEESE: Hack The Mac!!!

mac & cheese hack textSadly, when we think Mac & Cheese, we often think of Kraft Mac & Cheese. While children seem to love it, one wonders what exactly is that suspicious orange “cheese” and multitude of ingredients that hearken one back to high school chemistry.

Macaroni and cheese is a kid favorite, but I refused to buy the boxed-kind, laden with excess salt and orange stuff that’s supposed to be cheese. Instead, I only served them homemade MAC & CHEESE.  Of course, the best laid plans went by the wayside when they started eating at their friends’ houses and noticed the difference. They still ate mine, but wouldn’t hesitate to inhale the other, given a chance.

Well, we moms have to be sneaky sometimes (it’s for their own good…they’ll thank us later). I found a Macaroni & Cheese recipe from America’s Test Kitchen that is very similar to the boxed kind. If you leave off the bread crumb topping, you may be able to pass it off – just keep an empty box around as a decoy to sit on the counter when you’re serving it.

NOTE:  Don’t buy pre-sliced American cheese unless you absolutely have to. Many stores have a working deli section where they make sandwiches. They’ll probably have a large block of American cheese – both the orange and yellow kind taste fine. Don’t let them slice it, since you’ll want to shred it – tell them to cut about a 3/4 ” block (3¼ oz).

ONE-POT MAC & CHEESE

  • 1½ cups water
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1/2 lb small elbow macaroni
  • 1 cup (3¼ oz) deli cut American cheese (either yellow or orange), shredded
  • 1 cup (2½ oz) extra-sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1/8 tsp cayenne
  • optional topping: 1/3 cup panko crumbs
  •                                 1 T olive oil
  •                                 1/8 tsp salt
  •                                 1/8 tsp ground black pepper
  •                                 2 T Parmesan cheese, grated

In a saucepot, bring water and milk to the boil. mac & cheese hack2Add in pasta and bring to a simmer. mac & cheese hack3Maintaining the simmer, cook uncovered until pasta is just past the al dente stage – about 6 minutes. mac & cheese hack4While pot is still on low heat, stir in American cheese, Dijon and cayenne. Remove from heat and stir in Cheddar. Cover pot and let melt together. Taste for seasoning.mac & cheese hack5 If you want to make the bread crumb topping, toast the panko, olive oil, salt, and pepper in a small skillet until browned. (Keep an eye on it – it only takes a couple of minutes.) Remove from heat and mix in the Parmesan.

 

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MANICOTTI: An Easy Way To Make This Favorite!

manicotti textAnyone’s who made manicotti knows the challenge of trying to stuff cooked tubular pasta without tearing it. If you fill uncooked tubes, then you face the problem of cooking them enough so they’re edible.

Not to worry! Once again America’s Test Kitchen came up with a better idea: use quick-cook lasagna noodles and roll them up. Brilliant!

Note:  As Queen of Freeze, I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t remind you to double or triple the marinara sauce and freeze it for future use. But try it first to be sure you like it.

MANICOTTI – makes 8

  • 1  28-oz can whole tomatoes
  • 1 T extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, pressed
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 3/4 tsp salt, divided
  • 8 no-boil lasagna noodles (this is the brand I use)manicotti1
  • 1 egg
  • 1½ cups whole milk ricotta cheese
  • 4 oz mozzarella cheese, shredded
  • 1 cup (2 oz) Parmesan cheese, divided
  • 2 T basil, chopped, divided
  • 1 T Italian parsley, chopped
  • 1/4 T ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 375º Fahrenheit.

First make a quick marinara sauce:  Remove the stem end and any skin or imperfections from the tomatoes. Either chop them in a food processor or by hand. Heat the oil in a saucepan. Add in the garlic and red pepper flakes – sauté for 30 seconds to bloom. manicotti9Add in the tomatoes and 1/4 tsp salt. Bring to boil, then decrease heat to maintain a simmer. Cook, uncovered, for 15 minutes. Off-heat, stir in 1 T basil. Set aside.pizza8 Place the uncooked noodles in a 8″ x 11″ (or there-abouts) casserole dish. Cover noodles with boiling water, separating them with a fork to make sure they don’t stick together. Let them soak for 5 minutes, moving them around now and then.manicotti11 Place noodles on a tea towel to dry. Discard water and dry pan.

In a mixing bowl, beat the egg. Stir in the ricotta, mozzarella, 1/2 cup (1 oz) of the Parmesan, the remaining 1 T basil, parsley1/2 tsp salt, and pepper. manicotti10Divide the filling evenly amongst the noodles (about 1/4 cup each). Spread filling, leaving a 1/2″ border at one of the short ends. manicotti12Roll up, starting at end where the filling went all the way to the end. (The border is to allow room for the filling to spread as you roll them up.)manicotti5Spread 3/4 cup of the marinara into the pan. manicotti6Lay the manicotti, seam side down. manicotti7Pour on remaining marinara, covering all exposed pasta with the sauce. manicotti8Cover with lid or foil. Bake at 375º F for 40 minutes. Increase oven to 500º F. Sprinkle on remaining 1/2 cup (1 oz) Parmesan. manicotti2Bake, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Sprinkle on more basil, if desired.manicotti3

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 tsp 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.

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.

 

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.

CHEESE LASAGNA – So Good, It’s Hard To Stop!!!

lasagna1 textLasagna is one of those dishes that’s good on many levels: it’s easy to put together, it’s a potluck favorite, it can be made ahead of time, and it’s fabulous leftover.

Queen Of Freeze Tip #1 – I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t mention the marinara sauce can be doubled, tripled, or more, then frozen in portions for future use. I was recently able to extra-quickly make Cheese Lasagna because I already had some marinara in the freezer. However, try the sauce first before increasing the amount – to be sure you like it.

Queen Of Freeze Tip #2 – Save the extra tomato paste in mounds of 1 tablespoons on waxed paper, and place in freezer.  When frozen, store in freezer container for future use.

CHEESE LASAGNA – makes one 9″x13″ casserole

  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1½ tsp sugar
  • 1 onion (about 1½ cups), chopped
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • 3/4 tsp salt, divided
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 42 oz canned whole tomatoes (1 28 oz can, & 1  14 oz can)
  • 6 oz Pecorino Romano cheese, shredded, divided
  • 8 oz whole milk cottage cheese
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 2 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 1 1/8 tsp cornstarch, divided
  • 14 curly edged dried lasagna noodles
  • 2 cups Italian Fontina cheese, shredded
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped

To make the marinara, put the olive oil, sugar, onion, red pepper flakes, oregano, and 1/2 tsp salt in a large saucepan (so it doesn’t splatter).  Cook over medium heat for 5 minutes.lasagna prep8Remove and discard the stem ends, peels, and any imperfections from canned tomatoes. Pulse in food processor or chop by hand. Add to onion mixture along with tomato paste, and 1/2 cup Pecorino (1 1/4 oz). Bring to boil, then lower flame to keep a simmer for 20 minutes UNcovered.lasagna prep15Boil at least 4 cups of water. Place dried noodles in 9″x13″ casserole dish. When water is boiling, pour over noodles so they’re immersed. Gyrate them so they don’t stick. Let set 15 minutes to parcook.lasagna prep10While the noodles are softening and the sauce is cooking, mix together cottage cheese, 4 oz (1½ cups) Pecorino, cream, garlic, remaining 1/4 tsp salt, pepper, and 1 tsp cornstarch. Set aside.lasagna prep16When 15 minutes for the noodles is up, place them on tea towels in a single layer. Pat tops to dry. Cut 2 of them in half widthwise (so they’re each about 5″ long).  Empty and dry casserole dish.lasagna prep11Preheat oven to 375º Fahrenheit.

To assemble lasagna:

LAYER ONE: Spread 1½ cups marinara sauce on bottom. lasagna prep4Lay 3 long noodles, all touching the same short side of casserole. Take one of the short noodles and lay it along the opposite short side. (This will fill in the gap.) lasagna prep5Carefully spread half of the cottage cheese mixture over noodles. Sprinkle on 1/2 cup Fontina.lasagna prep6LAYER TWO: Place 3 long noodles on top, this time touching the opposite short side. Take 1 short noodle and place it along the other short side of casserole. lasagna prep3Pour and spread 1½ cups sauce. Sprinkle on 1/2 cup Fontina.lasagna prep13LAYER THREE: Place 3 long noodles on top, touching the same side as layer one, followed by (you guessed it) 1 short noodle on the opposite side. lasagna prep14Spread on the remaining cottage cheese mixture and sprinkle with 1/2 cup Fontina.lasagna prep2TOP LAYER: Place 3 long noodles touching the same side as layer two, and the remaining short piece on opposite side. lasagna prep7Pour on remaining marinara sauce. With your fingers, mix together the remaining 1/2 cup Fontina with 1/8 tsp cornstarch. Sprinkle on top of sauce. Finally, sprinkle on remaining Pecorino.lasagna prep17Cover with foil and bake at 375ºF for 35 minutes. Increase oven to 500ºF and remove foil. Bake 10 minutes more. Remove from oven and let lasagna rest on stovetop at least 20 minutes to set. Sprinkle on basil.lasagna prep1

 

ORZO ASPARAGUS AMANDINE – A Creamy Delight!

orzo asparagus text

Orzo is a pasta (yes, a pasta!) that I love, but rarely use – mostly because I forget about it. When I want a rice-like ingredient, my mind goes to…rice.

Orzo has the same chew as white rice, and is only slightly bigger. The benefit is it cooks much faster – about 9 minutes. So if you want to make a risotto – which takes a lot of time and attention – consider using orzo. It will be found in the pasta section of the market, of course.

ORZO ASPARAGUS AMANDINE, like many dishes, can be tweaked to your desires and what you have in the house. Switch the asparagus for red pepper, peas, or mushrooms. Cashews can be exchanged for the almonds. And the orzo can be traded for barley, sorghum, or…rice. The possibilities are endless.

NOTE: If you decide to use mushrooms, cook them until most of the liquid evaporates. This will be longer than the 3 minutes for asparagus.

ORZO ASPARAGUS AMANDINE – makes about 2½ cups

  • 3/4 cup uncooked orzo
  • 1 T butter
  • 6 stalks asparagus, sliced into 1/2″ pieces
  • 1 clove garlic, pressed
  • 1 tsp cornstarch
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/8 tsp black pepper
  • 3/4 cup evaporated milk (see NOTE below)
  • 1/2 cup fontina cheese, shredded
  • 1/4 cup slivered almonds, lightly toasted

NOTE: 3/4 cup evaporated milk is half of a 12 oz can. You can freeze the unused half, double the recipe and use the whole can, OR use a 5 oz can and add 3 oz of milk to it (even nonfat).

Boil about 2½ water (it doesn’t need to be exact) and pour in the orzo. Cook until it’s slightly underdone (check after 7 minutes) – it will continue to absorb liquid when mixed with the evaporated milk, so it doesn’t need to be completely cooked. Strain out the excess water using a colander or hand strainer.

While the orzo is cooking, wash and slice the asparagus. Melt butter in a skillet and sauté asparagus for about 3 minutes over medium flame. Add in garlic and cook another 30 seconds. Remove from heat to prevent scorching the garlic.

Add the cornstarch, salt, and pepper to the asparagus, blending well. Pour in the evaporated milk and return to medium flame. Stir until thickened – about 3 minutes. Add in cheese.

When cheese is melted, stir in the cooked orzo. Taste for seasoning, correcting, as needed.

When ready to serve, mix in the almonds. Don’t do this ahead of time or they won’t be as crispy.