Middle-Aged Pasta

Nope I am not referencing my age – just acknowledging the fact that Lasagna noodles were invented by the Greeks but perfected into the dish we know and love by the Italians as early as the middle ages!

That’s a lot of lasagna over the years!

For some, lasagna is a special dish prepared only on holidays and possibly at Sunday dinners. At my house lasagna is a weeknight treat too! Yup you read that right – weeknight lasagna and I promise it doesn’t take all night!

The key is use the “no-boil” noodles (they are pretty good these days!) and convenience items like jarred sauce, already roasted veggies and pre-cooked meats.

the parts

Pick up precooked meatballs from the deli/prepared foods counter and slice thin for an easy layer of meat. Check out the deli/salad bar for items like roasted mushrooms and caramelized onions. A jar of your favorite red sauce works perfectly. Be sure to pick up a container of grated cheese and some fresh parsley to add to the container of ricotta. (you will also need an egg for the ricotta mixture.)

The key to the no-boil noodle is a generous amount of sauce and a tight foil cover for most of the cooking time. Take the cover off for the last 10-15 mins. The box of no-boil noodles has a good basic recipe you can follow, just use layers of things you want to eat.

I skipped the heavy cheese layers and did 2 layers of the mushroom/onion and 2 layers of the sliced meatball, topping it only with grated cheese since my husband doesn’t love all the gooey cheese like I do. And my waistline thanked me too. I made mine in a very manageable 8×8 dish that fed 2 people with plenty of leftovers for lunch or could feed 4 with a salad on the side.

Not fond of meat? Use a layer of sliced eggplant or zucchini instead of meatballs! As a bonus you can sometimes find sliced zucchini in the salad bar or veggie aisle.

the best part

 

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Co-Workers

My co-workers are a great source of inspiration in many ways but when it comes to food…look out waistline!

First it was the cheesecake, then the purple potato loaded with butter and now some yummy roasted spaghetti squash! True that the spaghetti squash is not new to me. You can see my previous post on this wonder-veggie here.

But she did get me thinking about the many ways to serve it and of course covered in red sauce and cheese immediately came to mind!

But first the roasting…

spaghetti squash

I actually roast mine totally plain. I simply cut it down the middle (careful!) and place it cut face down on a parchment lined cookie sheet. No oil, no salt, no pepper.

The steam from the moist squash innards will cook it perfectly. I like to go about 30-40 minutes in a 400 degree oven until it’s just tender, preferring to under-cook it a bit since it usually gets cooked again in the full recipe.

spaghetti and meatballs

use jar sauce and pre-made meatballs for quick and easy assembly. (I won’t tell!)

Now the tender squash strings are ready for anything you want to throw at them! Butter and fresh herbs perhaps? Maybe a cream sauce? Or as I did recently with red sauce, cheese and yes some meatballs!!

This made for an easy, make-ahead dish that could hang out in the oven till everybody was ready to eat! It could just as easily been wrapped and frozen at this point for another more busy night!

No matter how you serve it, you are sure to win the crowd over. Even the husbands who don’t usually eat vegetables!

 

 

Sully’s Sauce

My husband always said “Sully made the best sauce!”

“Sully” (a nickname for his last name of “Sullivan”) was good friend of my husband’s father and a central figure from the neighborhood back in the day, so when my husband mentioned that Sully’s daughter Karen had recently come across the recipe card for his sauce, I knew immediately I had to make it.

What better way to pay homage to fathers who are no longer with us then by recreating something so special and lost in time?

sullys recipe

I just love the “here’s what’s cookin” part of this card – don’t you?!

I asked if there was a “back-side” to the card that might give away his technique but no such luck. Only Sully knows how it all went together originally, but I took my best guess and here is how I did it…

I used 85/15 blend ground beef and started it browning in a hot, dry pan so that I could decide how much fat I wanted to leave in the pan. I got the meat browned and decided to spoon off most of the fat. I chose to re-hydrate some fat back in the meat in the form of the 2 tablespoons of olive oil. I am not sure at what point in the process Sully would have used the olive oil, perhaps right at the beginning while browning the meat? or maybe he used it to get the onions and garlic started first? Wish I knew.

Anyway after the olive oil went in, I added in a dash of salt/pepper, onions (2 cups!) and garlic and let those soften a bit before I added in the dry spices to toast a minute. After that I added in the tomato paste and gave that a minute to cook a bit. I de-glazed the pan with the wine. (1 whole cup!)

Next up: the tomatoes. I am certain that by Sully noting that these were “imported” he meant the famed “San Marzano” tomatoes so that is what used and I do think it makes a difference. Also I know that everybody has their own texture technique – some squish the canned tomatoes in their hands, some break them up with a spoon, some use scissors. I broke up 4 of the 6 cups with kitchen scissors, cutting up the whole canned tomatoes into small chunks right in their own sauce from the can. For the last 2 cups I actually used my immersion blender to puree it (not too much) so the whole 6 cups I added in ended up being saucy but with small chunks. I hope Sully would approve.

By now the whole creation was thick, yummy and begging to be tasted, so I did and adjusted the salt and pepper and turned the heat down to barely a simmer. I let it simmer with the lid on tight for about an hour. (keeping the lid on keeps things from drying out, but if it looks too dry, just add in a little water) I let it simmer another hour with the lid slightly off to allow it to actually thicken up a bit as mine was pretty juicy.

By then the delicious smell wafting through the house was more than we could take, so we boiled up some pasta and it was time…

sullys sauce

A special thank you to daughter Karen for letting me have the privilege to re-create her father’s famous sauce! And a happy father’s day to all the dads out there – the ones with us and the ones who have left us.

 

Interested in more ‘Irish-Italian” cooking?? Me too… read more about it here!

 

Author’s note: If you don’t want to use the Chianti wine – I would recommend using a cup of low sodium beef stock with a generous splash or two of red wine vinegar to give it that tangy richness that the wine adds.

 

Chicken Paaaarmm

This actually means  “Chicken Parmigiana” in a Boston accent!

I was watching one of the many cooking shows that are on these days and one of the cooks ( I won’t name names since I like her and it isn’t her fault that she doesn’t have good Italian food in the boondocks!) made Chicken Parmigiana. Which of course made me immediately crave it. After all this IS the stick by which I measure all Italian restaurants the first time I visit them. I also found it weird to actually hear it pronounced properly. It has been so long since I have actually heard it fully pronounced that I almost thought it to be a different dish. Even the small local joints around Boston spell it “Chicken Parm” on the signs! But the most interesting thing about watching her make it that day, was she never used any Parmesan cheese in the crust of the chicken! I swear she didn’t use any at all, but when I cross checked the recipe on her website, I noted that she added some to the fresh marina sauce and then as a sprinkle on top. But not on the crust of the chicken.

But no worries – I still like her and it inspired me to do a quick posting to set the record straight.

You must dredge your chicken cutlets in a combination of seasoned breadcrumbs and finely grated Parmesan cheese. ( The good stuff too, don’t cheap out here.) Than you simply pan fry the cutlets in a shallow bit of olive oil or if you are feeling a little like a Boston pizza joint; you drop them into the fryolator. But the goal is a crispy, crispy Parmesan crust. (and fully cooked chicken)

Exhibit A…

crispy chicken

Now you can do a couple of things with this…

You can put it on a nice Italian roll with some Provolone cheese and some red sauce for a “Chicken Parm Sub” or you can serve it with red sauce and your choice of pasta for a “Chicken Parm Dinner.” And yes, we like to melt some Provolone cheese on top too.

Exhibit B….

chick paaarm

You can get fancy and add some fresh chopped herbs on top – but they don’t do that in Boston. Just saying.

Sauce Matters

I made some very tasty meatballs not too long ago. They started with the standard mix of ground beef and ground pork. I added some grated Parmesan cheese, breadcrumbs, onion powder, pinch of hot chili flakes, generous amount of chopped fresh rosemary, salt/pepper and an egg to hold it altogether.

Here is where it gets special: roasted garlic.

Yep – you read that right. Roasted garlic.

I happen to have a head of roasted garlic hanging out in the fridge from a garlic roasting session a few nights before. (garlic mashed potatoes!)

So I thought “why not throw that into the mix?!”
After everything was mixed I even cooked up a little test patty in the skillet to make sure it was as yummy as I imagined it would be. And yes it was.

I proceeded to brown up all the meatball’s carefully and patiently in batches.
Some would be for that night’s dinner and some would go into the freezer.

At this point I made a crucial error.

I decided to pack the meatballs in a casserole dish and pour some red sauce over them and sprinkle the cheese -that way Hubby could just heat them up in the oven while the pasta boiled. Great plan right? Wrong. I was too lazy to make up a quick sauce and all the homemade was frozen solid so I decided to break out the “last resort” pantry jar of sauce. This is the one that I bought on sale on a whim that I keep on hand in case there is absolutely nothing else my husband can manage to make other than boil some pasta and open a jar.  Now I am not going to reveal the brand – but let’s just say it wasn’t a “high end” brand.

Later that night, after following the heating and boiling instructions, he enjoyed a lovely meatball and pasta dinner. He declared the whole thing “delicious!”  And it wasn’t terrible by any means, but when I got home much later to finally enjoy the fruits of my labor, I realized my error. The sauce was really not great.

Lesson Learned:
No matter how great the meatballs, the sauce has got to be nothing short of great!

Labor of Love

It seemed very fitting to spend my labor day making “sauce” for the freezer out of the abundance of tomatoes from the garden this year. Although my plants caught a tomato blight and leaves started turning yellow and spotty in August; I still managed to reap pounds of tomatoes from my 12 plants.

Mostly heirloom varieties (Brandywine, Mortgage Lifters) but a couple common varieties too. (Early Girl, Best Boy)

A lot of folks might swear by the more popular “Roma” variety for their sauce-making. They are prized for the large amount of flesh versus juice, resulting in a thick, rich sauce. But I personally think any tomato is a great tomato. And you can read about my “tomato problem” here. It is all about how much love you put into it.

My recipe is different every time and I don’t measure, but it always includes some basics….

Tomatoes, onion, garlic, a grated carrot or two for extra sweetness and this time I included some mini sweet bell peppers that I happened to have on hand. Also always included but not seen here is: red chili flakes, a small can of tomato paste, a dash of Worcestershire sauce, a parm rind and herbs: oregano, basil and marjoram. Fresh is best but dried works great too! (No the bags of apples and pears were not included – they just made a good backdrop for the photo!)

First the labor…

Some folks blanch/peel the tomatoes first – ummm… too much work for me. Some strain out the seeds – do it if you want. I don’t mind all that extra fiber and I “whiz” it all up at the end anyway. TIP: Drain the scraps as you cut and use the extra “tomato water” in the sauce – no waste!)

Next comes the love….

This is the onions, garlic and finely grated carrots slowly softening in a little olive oil, salt and pepper. Go low and slow; careful not to put too much color on the garlic.  Add in your finely diced sweet bell pepper and saute some more. (This gives it a little undertone of “cacciatore.”) Add in the chili flakes and the tomato paste and let that toast a bit too.  Than add a few generous dashes of Worcestershire sauce (my secret weapon) and a little water to de-glaze the pan. Than you are ready for all those tomatoes!

Cook it slowly for several hours, with a leftover Parmesan cheese rind to add richness.  Tasting and adjusting seasoning along the way. If  using fresh herbs, I like to add in the last hour of simmer AFTER I have used my immersion blender to blend all but the parm rind up. That way the sauce and herbs keeps its “fresh” flavor. If I am using dried herbs I add them way back when I add the tomato paste and chili flakes to sort of “toast” them too.

Now the reward… ( A couple of gallon bags of sauce for the freezer!)

His and Hers

Some couples get “his and hers” bathrobes, some couples get “his and hers” bicycles and some even get “his and hers” pets! In my house we get “his and hers” dinners!

Okay not really…

I really just made a little one for the freezer since I have trouble cooking for less than 20 people. I often wrap and freeze for future dinners when I am cooking. It saves lots of time later on those nights when you just don’t feel like doing anything more than turning on the oven. And of course this is an easy dinner for “Mr. Cabinet Stew” to make on his own.

Conchiglie (shell shaped pasta)

An oldie but a goodie; this came as a rainy Sunday dinner request from my husband recently. As far as I could read, stuffed shells are a post World War II invention and are one of the few (if only) pastas that are machine made – no hand-made option. The filling is commonly creamy cheeses (ricotta, etc) and greens (spinach, etc) and it is usually baked in a simple fresh-style marinara sauce.

My filling was very simple and consisted of only 5 ingredients. I used a 12 oz package of shells and made the two dishes above plus another dish with 10 shells. I also had some “broken shells” that didn’t make it through par-boil and cooling for the cook to enjoy just hot, plain, buttered and delicious.

The filling

32 ounces of part-skim Ricotta

1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese (use Parmesan if you want)

1 large/jumbo egg, lightly beaten

1 tsp black pepper, fine grind

1/2 cup (+/-) fresh torn or chiffonade basil leaves

Mix all together and stuff into freshly boiled shells when shells are cool enough to handle. (Follow package directions for boiling) Each shell will take 2 generous tablespoons (+/-) of filling. Don’t skimp. Place in baking dish filled a 1/4 of the way with fresh, simple marinara sauce. Add optional sausage. Add sauce until it comes just below the level of the shells. Bake 375 degrees 30 minutes, uncovered. At 20 minutes add some shredded mozzarella on top if you want a cheesey, gooey dish. Add additional grated cheese if you want to keep it simple. Add none if you want to keep the calories lower.

Note: I didn’t use any salt because the Romano is pretty salty on its own, but a tsp of salt would not be bad if you wanted a more “seasoned” filling.