stuffed shells are not just for sundays

growing up in a household, complete with an italian grandmother, definitely came with some fantastic culinary advantages. my interest in “all things food” started at a very early age and was fed and cultivated by helping my nana in the kitchen. i learned about rolling out pizza and pasta dough, making the best red sauce and, maybe the most important lesson… the snacking advantages that arise from helping out the cook. there were also some things learned that i have since let go in my adult years. catholic guilt and the idea that any stuffed pasta is an all day affair are high on that list. i think many of us grew up with certain meals that were thought to be difficult, time consuming and reserved for sunday dinner. stuffed shells was one of those exalted treats that i’ve come to realize only takes about 20 minutes to put together and tastes just as sweet on a tuesday! you can certainly use your own marinara sauce for this recipe, but i’ve included a quick cooking version that is perfect for making this a speedy preparation. mangia!

stuffed shells (makes 4 servings)

for the sauce:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 onion, diced
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon dried basil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1- 15oz can crushed tomatoes

for the shells:
20 jumbo pasta shells, cooked al dente
1 lb whole milk ricotta cheese
1 box frozen spinach, thawed and drained well
1 egg
1/4 cup parmesan, grated
1/2 cup mozzarella, grated (reserve 2 tablespoons to sprinkle on top)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper

in a saute pan, cook the onion along with the salt and pepper in the olive oil until just soft, about 5 minutes. add the garlic and basil and cook for another 2 minutes. add the red wine vinegar and saute until all the liquid has disappeared. add the tomatoes and simmer on low while you prepare the shells and stuffing.

preheat oven to 350 degrees.
while your pasta water is coming up to a boil, stir together ricotta, spinach, egg, parmesan, mozzerella and salt and pepper and set aside. when your shells are cooked to al dente (this takes about 7 minutes). drain them and spread them out on a plate to cool (this will prevent them from sticking together). ladle about 1 cup of the sauce in the bottom of a 9×9 inch casserole dish. stuff your cooled shells with the ricotta mixture and place them in one layer on top of the sauce. pour the remaining sauce over the top of the shells and  sprinkle with the extra mozzarella. cover dish with foil and bake for 25 minutes. remove the foil and bake for another 10 minutes. let the shells rest for 5 minutes before serving.

you can put this meal together in no time and have a “sunday dinner” feeling any day of the week. the shells get even tastier the longer they sit so feel free to prepare this the night before and bake it off when you get home from work. i really is that simple!

Posted in cheese, pasta, recipes | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

coconut fish curry

this meatless month has been going along swimmingly. maybe it’s because of all the fish we’ve been eating, lol!  i’ve lost 5 lbs and i’m feeling quite good about starting off the new year in such a positive way. the only obstacle that keeps popping up in the middle of my healthy road is a lack of meatless recipes in my repertoire. my weekly roasted chicken dinner and penne with sausage are not dishes that can simply be made sans meat. i’ve been forced to rethink, not only the way i eat, but the way i shop and cook. using fish as a protein isn’t new to me, but i’m realizing now that my “old standbys” in our weekly menu need to be replaced and rethought. i made a delicious coconut fish curry this week that will definitely be repeated in this month and beyond!

coconut fish curry (serves 2)

1 lb monk fish fillet (or any meaty white fish), cleaned and cubed
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon yellow curry powder
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon chili paste
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon lemongrass, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ginger, grated
1-15oz can coconut milk
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
2 tablespoons italian parsley, chopped

in a large skillet over med high heat, add the canola oil, brown sugar, curry, turmeric, chili paste, fish sauce, lemongrass, and ginger and saute until the sugar has melted and all the spices have melded, around 5 minutes. add the coconut milk and cook until it comes up to a bubble. turn down the heat to medium and add your cubed fish, taking care to cover all the pieces in the coconut milk mixture. cook, uncovered, for about 15 minutes or until your fish is firm and cooked through. off the heat, add your tomatoes and parsley. serve over rice and enjoy!

this quick and tasty curry takes as much time to make as the rice, which makes it a perfect week night meal. you can use halibut or cod or even shrimp for this dish and substitute in light coconut milk to make it even healthier. it would be even better with a nice glass of sauvignon blanc but i’m trying not to think about that!

Posted in recipes, seafood | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

polenta please

my husband and i have decided to start out this new year with an entire month free of meat and booze. it sounded like such a good idea…lose some weight, break some bad habits, teach ourselves some discipline, yadda yadda yadda. to quote every heavy metal band from the eighties…”you don’t know what ya got until it’s gone”. i really didn’t realize how much meat we were consuming until we cut it out of our diets completely. in an effort to stop our minds from wandering to a bad place, i decided to make us a super hearty meal  that wouldn’t have us focusing on what was missing, but instead on how delicious the dish was. creamy polenta with sauteed wild mushrooms quieted the voices and left us satisfied and happy. a chef i used to work with taught me not to fear making creamy polenta by teaching me a simple technique that i will now impart to you… for every cup of polenta (which feeds about 4 people) use 5 cups of liquid. easy enough right? you can cut that down or up by half, depending on the amount of people you’re serving. you can use all sorts of different liquids like stock, milk, water, or a combination there of. just remember the ratio and never leave your pot’s side and your polenta will be flawless every time.

creamy polenta with wild mushrooms (makes 4 servings)

for polenta:

2-1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2-1/2 cups milk
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup medium ground yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated
1/2 stick unsalted butter

for mushrooms:

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 lb wild mushrooms, cleaned and sliced ( i used giant oyster and crimini)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh italian parsley, chopped

in a heavy bottomed saucepan, heat up the stock, milk, salt and pepper until it comes to a boil. turn down the heat to med-low and whisk in the polenta. continue whisking every few minutes over low heat until the polenta has absorbed all the liquid and is smooth and creamy, around 25 minutes. off the heat, stir in the parmesan and butter with a wooden spoon.  while you’re chained to the stove cooking your polenta, in a large saute pan, heat up the olive oil and butter for your mushrooms. once the butter has melted into the olive oil, add your sliced mushrooms, salt and pepper and cook over medium heat until soft and nicely browned, around 10 minutes. off the heat, add the chopped thyme and parsley. plate the polenta and spoon the sauteed mushrooms over. enjoy with some crunchy garlic bread.

this was definitely a meal that had us forgetting about our sacrifices and toasting the new year. of course we were toasting with tall glasses of water but we were still toasting! boy, do i need a nice glass of pinot noir! how many days in january?

Posted in cheese, recipes, side dishes, vegetables | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

gorgeous gougeres

cheese puffs, gourgesone of my favorite appetizer recipes to make has to be my gourges, or cheese puffs for you “non-frenchy” types. after trying several different incarnations from various chefs, i wrote my own version and i’m ready to share it with you. i make these little beauties for cocktail parties, dinner parties, or even a tuesday movie night. they are delicate pillows of cheese heaven and you don’t have to be a french pastry master to make them. i must have made these four times over the holidays so i racked up a few recipe requests. here’s to a new year filled with cheese!

cheese puffs (makes around 60)

1 -1/2 cups whole milk
1-1/2 sticks unsalted butter
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated if you can
1-1/2 cups flour
6 eggs
1 cup gruyere cheese, grated
1/4 cup parmesan cheese, grated
egg wash and finishing salt for the tops

preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

have your grated cheeses and your eggs all ready in a cuisinart fitted with the blade attachment.
in a heavy bottomed saucepan, heat the milk, butter, salt, pepper, and nutmeg over medium heat until it just begins to bubble. turn down the heat to medium low and add the flour all at once. beat it vigorously with a wooden spoon until the mixture comes together and all the flour has been mixed in. cook for around 2 minutes stirring constantly until the flour starts to coat the bottom of the pan. dump the hot mixture right on top of the eggs and cheese in the cuisinart and pulse a few times until the dough is smooth.
spoon the dough into a pastry bag fitted with a large round tip, or use two spoons and make mounds about 2 inches high and 2 inches apart on parchment lined baking sheets. using a wet finger, push down any points on the top of your puffs. brush the puffs with egg wash and sprinkle them with finishing salt (i like pink hawaiian). bake the sheets, one at a time in the center rack of the oven for 15 to 20 minutes until the puffs are golden brown and firm. (if they are not cooked through they with fall flat once they cool)

now you know how to make one of my signature dishes! you can make these puffs a few hours before the party and heat them up for 5 minutes in a 350 degree oven just before serving. i’ve tried making them a day in advance but they never taste quite as good as the day you make them. i really like the little sprinkling of finishing salt on the top of these gougeres. most recipes call for a sprinkling of cheese on top but i feel that the salt brings out the sharpness of the two cheeses in a really lovely and subtle way.

Posted in all recipes, appetizers, cheese, french, recipes, vegetarian | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

a new year a new website

happy holidays everyone! i’m so sorry for the recipe wasteland this december. it was not due to laziness or holiday exhaustion and, i promise, it was well worth it. i was, with the help of my dear friend corey, switching my blog over to wordpress and adding some wonderful new features to my little website. you can now… print my recipes and find them by category, check out what i’m reading ,subscribe to my blog,  follow me on facebook, and pretty soon you’ll also be able to read my reviews of books, restaurants, and kitchen gadgets! i hope you like the 2011 kicked up version of me! and don’t despair… i was busy cooking the whole time!

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

pantry pasta

it’s that time of year when i start storing away pantry items like a gourmet squirrel. it seems like there is never enough time in the day to get everything done and make dinner as well. whenever the holiday season sneaks up on us, it’s so easy to resort to take-out and instant soup, but it doesn’t have to be that way. after years of perfecting my pantry stock-up, i can always have an amazing pasta dish on the table in about as much time as it takes to boil the penne (or spaghetti, or fettuccine, or rigatoni… you get the idea). aside from having a variety of pastas, rice and canned tomatoes on hand, your fridge can serve as an extension to your pantry. stock it with canned crab* (a hidden gem in my opinion. don’t knock it ’til you try it), frozen shrimp and vegetables, cheeses, half & half, and plenty of butter. all of these items have a long shelf-life and are super versatile ingredients for all sorts of quick dinners. i’m usually pretty harried when i’m making one of my fast dinners, so i find it helpful to have all my ingredients laid out on the counter so i don’t miss a step. the following recipe has become a favorite around my house and it couldn’t be simpler.
penne with pink crab sauce (makes 4 servings)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1- 15 oz can of diced tomatoes (slightly drained)- try and get them with no salt added
4 cloves garlic (peeled and chopped)
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 cup half & half
1- 16 oz can of crab claw meat (i usually only use 1/2 the can and save the rest for another dish)
2 tablespoons italian parsley (chopped)
dried penne pasta, enough for 4 (cooked al dente and drained)

heat the butter and olive oil together in a large skillet on medium heat. add the tomatoes and garlic and cook until the tomatoes start to break down and get saucy, around 5 minutes. add the brown sugar, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. cook another 5 minutes to let all the spices mingle and then add the half & half. let the sauce reduce and thicken just enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 5 more minutes. add the crab and parsley and cook just long enough to heat the crab through. add your al dente penne and cook for another 2 minutes or so. serve and enjoy!

a well stocked fridge and pantry can make creating new dishes an enjoyable breeze! i also find that the more adept i become at creating dishes using ingredients like the ones in this recipe, the more money i save on my grocery bills. just a little bonus for you!

*you can find really good canned crab in the refrigerated seafood section at whole foods or trader joe’s for around $10. that sure beats the $25 per pound they try and charge us around here.

Posted in pasta, recipes | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

pretty as a pumpkin dinner rolls

with the holiday fast approaching, many of my friends and family members have been seeking out my advice on their thanksgiving tables. most of them have been asking me the same question… “what should i bring to so-and-so’s house?” and my answer is this… if you don’t or don’t like to cook, bring wine or a nice bottle of booze. if you want to participate in a true pot-luck style and bring something you made, stick with dessert or bread. this way, if the dish fails, nobody is missing a side dish or vegetable that you signed up to make and if it’s successful, hooray for everyone! i mean, really? who wouldn’t like more dessert or bread? since my last two posts have focused on dessert, it’s time to zero in on a good holiday bread recipe. i realize that for many people bread baking can be a terrifying endeavor. i used to be one of those people. since i’m “self taught” in the baking department, you can rest assured that i’ve made all the same mistakes that you have. but, by making all those mistakes, i’ve worked out the kinks for you and written some easy to follow bread recipes and these pumpkin dinner rolls are one of them. i have also come up with a few bread baking tips that will take some of the fear out of rising dough…

1. always proof your yeast in warm water before adding the rest of the ingredients. this way you won’t waste all of the ingredients if your yeast is bad. the water should be the temperature of a gentle bath. test it on your wrist since our hands tend to be slightly desensitized.
2. knead your dough for a solid 5 minutes. set your timer! your dough should be silky and elastic.
3. be patient! let your dough rise to double its size, punch it down, and let it rise again as a roll or a loaf.

pumpkin dinner rolls (makes 24 rolls)

2 packages of active dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup water (it should be the temperature of a nice bath)
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 stick butter, melted and cooled
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1- 15 oz can pumpkin
4 to 5 cups flour

in the bowl of an electric mixer, combine yeast with 1 tablespoon of sugar and warm water, stir, let proof for 5 minutes. (it should be a little foamy)
add brown sugar, butter, salt, pumpkin and the eggs to the yeast mixture and whisk to combine. using the dough hook, turn the mixture on low and add the flour, 1 cup at a time until the dough forms a nice ball and doesn’t stick to the sides of the bowl. this will take around 10 minutes.
turn out onto a floured surface and knead for 5 minutes adding only enough flour to prevent it from sticking to the board. when the dough is smooth and springy, shape it into a ball. place in an oiled bowl and coat the dough lightly with oil (spray canola oil is great for this). cover bowl with a kitchen towel and let sit in a warm place until it doubles in size, about 2 hours.
punch down the dough and shape into 24 balls. place them on 2 cookie sheets that are covered in parchment about 2 inches apart. let rise another 20 minutes.*
preheat oven to 375° .
brush the rolls with an egg wash (an egg beaten with a little water or milk)
bake for 8 to 10 minutes.

*at this point you can put the cookie sheets in the fridge and bake the rolls right before dinner. just bring them up to room temperature and brush with the egg wash before baking.

baking bread has become one of my favorite past times. even the failed attempts don’t get me down because i usually learn something. these rolls have a subtle sweetness that goes wonderfully with turkey. they also make a great vehicle for left-over turkey sandwiches. your holiday host will appreciate your effort in making these homemade rolls and probably request them year after year. have a fabulous thanksgiving everyone! gobble gobble!

Posted in breads, recipes | 1 Comment

easy peasy cherry cheesecake

i am totally getting into the holiday spirit! it’s been so rainy and cold here in the northwest that i’ve been baking way more than usual; experimenting with some new recipes for the upcoming holidays and revisiting old favorites. the following cheesecake recipe would fall under the “old favorites” heading. when i first started baking, cheesecake recipes always seemed so daunting. they instruct you to wrap your pan in foil so your crust won’t burn, beat your egg whites separate from the yolks for a fluffier batter, and to place your pan in a water bath so your cake won’t crack on top. i’m not discounting these methods. depending on the type of cheesecake you’re baking, be it a new york style or light and creamy, many of these instructions go far in creating a wonderful cheesecake. but, as a creamy cheesecake lover, once i created this super easy recipe, i never went back to the more complicated recipes in my cookbooks. i hope it becomes a “go to” recipe for you as well. it would be a nice addition to your thanksgiving dessert table.

cherry cheesecake (makes one 9″ cake- about 8 slices) 

for the cheesecake:
2 -8 oz packages cream cheese
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 eggs

for the crust:
1 stick of butter (melted)
1/4 cup sugar
1 whole sleeve of graham crackers (crushed to crumbs)

for cherry topping:
2 cups of fresh or frozen pitted cherries (if using frozen…defrost and drain)
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 heaping teaspoon of cornstarch mixed with 3 teaspoons water

preheat oven to 350 degrees.
mix all ingredients for crust together and press into a 9″ springform pan. bake for 8 minutes and set aside to cool.
in an electric mixture, beat together the cream cheese, sugar and vanilla until light and fluffy. add the eggs, one at a time until batter is smooth and creamy.
pour the batter into the cooled graham cracker crust and bake on the middle rack for about 30 minutes. (your cake should puff up a little and be void of wet spots on the top)
let your cheesecake cool completely in the pan set on a wire rack. (your cake will deflate slightly)
while your cake is in the oven, you can make your cherry topping…
in a saucepan on medium heat, add the cherries, sugar, vanilla, and lemon juice. cook until the cherries release their juice and come up to a gentle bubble. stir in the cornstarch slurry and cook until the liquid thickens. remove from the heat and let cool completely.
once both the cake and the cherries are cool, spoon the cherry topping onto your cheesecake and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.
release carefully from the springform pan and serve! (on a pretty plate, of course!)


this cheesecake is so easy and versatile. you can use different varieties of fruit if you’re not a cherry fan. strawberries, blueberries, and lemon curd are all great substitutes. by adding 6 oz of melted chocolate (wait for it to cool) to the batter and using fresh whipped cream as a topper, you can transform it all together to a creamy, chocolate lover’s dream. just like i did in creating this easy to make cheesecake, you can experiment with the recipe and make it your own. baking can be a little challenging sometimes but with all the failures come many successes as well. and let’s face it, the failures are usually still good enough to eat!

Posted in desserts, recipes | 1 Comment

carrot cake cuties

ahhhhhh thanksgiving. in my opinion, the king of all holidays. everybody gets a nice long weekend, you don’t have to pick out “the perfect gift for the man who has everything”, and you get to feast on delicious family recipes. but, if your family is anything like mine, thanksgiving day morning starts just like any other day…with a bunch of hungry people wanting breakfast. they are not thwarted by a 20 lb bird in the oven or by the lack of available burners on your stove top. they need sustenance to get them through the long wait until dinnertime. you can send them away to the nearest donut shop or do a little planning ahead and have an easy breakfast treat waiting for them in the fridge. my carrot cake cupcakes with orange cream cheese frosting are just the ticket. they are much healthier than a donut and actually taste better after sitting in the fridge overnight. your thanksgiving day can start out nice and easy with a couple of these carrot cuties and big cup of coffee. crisis averted… until the in-laws show up early and you realize you’ve been cooking your turkey for 2 hours without turning on the oven!

carrot cake cupcakes with orange cream cheese frosting (makes 12-16 cupcakes)

for cupcakes:

1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (freshly grated)
3/4 cup canola oil
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup brown sugar (lightly packed)
2 cups baby carrots (pulverized in the food processor)

preheat oven to 350 degrees. line muffin tin with paper liners.
in a bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg and set aside.
in a large bowl, whisk the canola oil and eggs vigorously until it resembles a loose mayonnaise. add the vanilla and brown sugar and whisk until creamy.
switch to a wooden spoon or spatula and gently stir the flour mixture into the egg mixture until just combined. don’t over mix.
gently fold in the pulverized carrots to the batter.
spoon the batter into prepared muffin tin, filling almost to the top.
cook until wooden pick inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean. 20 to 25 minutes.
cool pan completely on a rack before removing and frosting cupcakes.

for frosting:

1- 8 oz package cream cheese (room temperature)
1/2 stick unsalted butter (room temperature)
2 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
zest and juice of 1 orange

using an electric mixer, blend all ingredients, starting on low and then switching to high, until frosting is creamy and void of lumps.

after frosting, store the cupcakes on a plate in the refrigerator. no need to cover or wrap if you plan to eat them the next morning. if there are any left over, you can store them in an airtight container in the fridge for 3 days.
even for novice cooks, just learning the nuances of thanksgiving dinner, a little planning goes a long way to helping you panic less and enjoy the day more. a glass of wine doesn’t hurt either! we’ve all burned a dish, undercooked our turkey, over-beat our potatoes, made lumpy gravy, or, if you’re like me, set our ovens on fire… but we still come back year after year and try to get it right. it’s still my favorite holiday. gobble gobble!

Posted in desserts, recipes | 1 Comment

simple veggie roast

i stopped blogging awhile back due to life interference. my husband and i were in the middle of buying a house and then i decided to get my real estate license. all interference, aside from my little oscar, has been silenced and i’m ready to get cooking. i’ve been going through a “back to basics” phase lately so i thought i’d ease into my return with a simple technique for roasting all kinds of different vegetables. by simply tossing the veggies in olive oil, butter, and fresh herbs, you can elevate even the humblest of plants to a side dish worth bragging about.
roasted vegetables (serves 4 to 6 as side dish)

8 small thin skinned potatoes, peeled and cut in 1/2
4 ribs celery, cut into 3 inch chunks
1 cup baby carrots
10 whole garlic cloves, peeled
8 large asparagus spears, cut into 3 inch pieces
2 tablespoons flat leaf parsley, chopped fine
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped fine
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
salt and pepper to taste
gray salt to finish

another variation:

1 cup baby carrots
10 stalks broccolini
1 head of cauliflower, broken into large florets
8 small thin skinned potatoes, peeled and cut in 1/2
2 tablespoons flat leaf parsley, chopped fine
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped fine
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
salt and pepper to taste
gray salt to finish

preheat oven to 400 degrees

put all vegetables in a large bowl along with the herbs and salt and pepper. pour over the olive oil and melted butter and toss to coat. spread out onto a large sheet pan in one layer. sprinkle with a small amount of gray salt and roast for 20 to 30 minutes or until just fork tender.

it really is that simple! you can serve your roasted veggies alongside your thanksgiving turkey or a nice grilled steak with chive butter, but you can also keep your meal vegetarian and just make some rice or polenta for a beautiful “meatless monday” dish. the gray salt adds a nice briny crunch to this recipe and if you haven’t delved into the designer salt craze, this is a great place to try one out. i’m happy to be cooking and sharing again. i missed you!

Posted in recipes, vegetables | 3 Comments