No pressure!

How many of you live outside of the Eastern seabord?  Ok, so of you, how many have heard of something called mostaccioli?  Am I wrong when I say that it’s the poor younger brother of baked ziti?  Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a good baked pasta.  My issue here is that the mostaccioli I speak of is a kind of bland, basic, tasteless staple at Michigan weddings, and in hot bars.  Truly, it’s not worth all your effort to turn out something so bland and kinda boring.

So, Michiganders, and Midwesterners, please see below for a few easy, and very tasty tips to turn your mostaccioli into a mouth watering and delicious baked pasta dish.  I am listing them as DO’S and DON’TS.

  • DON’T refrain from salting your pasta water.  The Italian tradition says your pasta water should taste as salty as the sea.  Listen to them, if anyone knows of what they speak, as far as food, it’s the Italians!
  • DO add luscious cheese and some good ricotta to your casserole.  Now, I am making an assumption here that most people know how to make baked ziti, or mostaccioli?  If not, I’ll give you a run down at the end of this list.
  • DON’T over boil your pasta before you put it in the dish. (Self explanatory.)
  • DO add vegetables, and all kinds of meat or proteins to your dish.  As a matter of fact, I use the very best jarred sauce I can find, or you can make your own.  (You hear me?  No sweet, sugary jarred Prego here, please!)
  • DO be liberal with seasoning, with the exception of salt.  Remember, you have made your pasta cooking water “like the sea” so the salt will be an inherent part of your dish.  I usually add ricotta cheese, and salt that rather liberally too, so there is that salt to remember.  Too much salt isn’t what you’re going for here, it’s mellow, cheesy and luscious.  (Maybe I should just call this Luscious Bake.)
  • DO use a large enough pan.  I was lucky enough to be gifted a set of new bakeware this Christmas (Thanks, Pop!) and it is non-stick and comes with silicone inserts, so no need for the pot holders or oven mitts to get it out of the oven!! My point is, even cooking and enough crunchy brown stuff to go around makes for maximum deliciousness!
  • My final DON’T is, DON’T NOT make this!  It’s so good, and so easy, and will feed you and your mid-sized family for several days.  This, a salad, and perhaps a good glass of wine and some bread?  That’s what will keep you warm in these ridiculously cold days!

Sooo, I forgot to mention above, have you heard of ziti?  Don’t we all know what that is?  It’s a tubular pasta, with ridges, although, I have to say that might be rigatoni, I’ll have to check my pasta shapes book.  But, you can use either, you can also use any stuffed pasta, like tortellini  (I would refrain from ravioli, simply because it will bust open and make a mess, trust me on this one)  I am also imagining how great this would be with elbows, spirals, pretty much anything that will catch the filling and sauce.

Here is the basic recipe.  You can add anything you like, but the bake time should remain fairly the same.  If you’re super adventurous, you can use fresh pasta.  In that case cut back the pasta cooking time, but then you’re probably experienced enough to know when fresh pasta is ready to go.

Bep’s All Purpose Baked Pasta (aka Baked Ziti)

Preheat your oven to 350°.  Prep a large baking dish, about 12 inches long by 3 deep.  You can rub it with olive oil, but you really don’t have to.

  • 1 pound uncooked pasta (ziti, rigatoni, etc) Usually one box/bag
  • salt, olive oil
  • 1 large jar spaghetti sauce (or 4 cups of your homemade. I really prefer Newman’s Own, or Barilla here, but it’s up to you) (*Not a paid sponsor)
  • 1 15 oz tub of ricotta cheese (whole or skim, makes no difference)
  • 1 whole egg, per container of ricotta (you can leave out, but it makes a huge flavor difference)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 16 oz shredded mozzarella (I have used provolone too, really good)
  • 8 oz Parmesan, shredded or powdery

Any or all of the below:

  • 1 pint cooked mushrooms (sliced thin, sauteed in olive oil with garlic until soft)
  • 1 jar artichoke hearts, cut into small pieces
  • 1 large bunch fresh spinach (or a packet of baby spinach leaves), washed and sliced fine (if using baby leave, just leave them whole)
  • Bunch of fresh herbs (basil, oregano, thyme, sage, to taste) washed, dried, chopped
  • Meat (1 lb ground meat, chicken cooked, pork sausage diced, you get the idea)

Bring a large pot full of water to the boil.  When it comes to the boil, add enough salt so the water is well and truly briney, taste it (probably about a tablespoon of Kosher, 2 tsp of table salt).  Add a good glug of olive oil, and let it come back to the boil.  Once it’s rolling boiling, add the dried pasta.  Cook it to the packet’s instructions, but my rule of thumb is, stir it until they’re all rolling around in the water.  Once you make the other preparations, it will be ready to drain and sauce (close to 12 minutes.) Now, I said above, don’t overcook it, and I mean that.  You should feel slight resistance when you taste and bit into it, but not crunch, just a nice solid resistance to your teeth.  It should above all be cooked through.

While your pasta is cooking, place your ricotta cheese into a medium sized bowl and add the egg, beaten, and salt and pepper.  Use a fork to beat this until it’s fully incorporated.  Now, you will need to taste it for seasoning.  A little tiny bit of raw egg won’t kill you.  Adjust the salt and pepper so it tastes good to you.  At this point, if you’re using the herbs, add them, and beat again into the ricotta mixture.  Reserve a tablespoon or so for later.  Set this mixture aside.  Prep all the other ingredients you’re adding, if any.  Check if your pasta is done, and if it’s ready, drain it in a large colander. Once the pasta is drained, it’s really just a matter of plonking everything in the baking dish, adding cheese and baking it.

Leave your pasta to drain for a few minutes, and add the sauce to the bottom of your baking dish.  Add the pasta to the baking dish and mix until all the pasta is covered with sauce evenly.  Take 1/3 the ricotta mixture and mix it through the pasta and sauce.  If your using the other ingredients, with the exception of the artichokes, swirl them into the pasta now too.  Once everything in incorporated, add the artichokes to the ricotta and mix well.  Then spread the mixture evenly over the pasta, it doesn’t have to perfect, it will get covered with cheese at this point!.  Sprinkle the Parmesan over it, then cover the whole thing with the mozzarella.

Once everything is done, put it in your oven and bake for 45 minutes, and allow at least 10 minutes of cooling time to be able to cut through it.  If you reserved any herbs, sprinkle them over the plate when you’re serving.  For the two of us, this will make 3 dinners, or at least 2 dinners and 1 lunch.  It’s so good, and honestly, isn’t that easy?  Mostaccioli, FEH!!

This is what ours looked like tonight!

YUMMY!  And so easy!
YUMMY! And so easy!

For all of you that will be getting into Winter Storm Ivan, be safe, and don’t spend much time outside if you don’t absolutely have to!  Cook something instead!

Mushroom Stroganoff

Ok, vegetarians, come on back to the fold!  This post is one I planned to write a while ago, and so the photos are of the old kitchen. But that doesn’t make it any less wonderful!  I wrote a favorite things post a while back, and mentioned one of my go-to’s for easy every night cooking is a mushroom soup base that is vegetarian.  The product is called Better Than Bouillon. It comes in Vegetable Base, No Chicken and No Beef flavors as well, so there are lots of options flavor wise, but to do this stroganoff well, you need a really deep tasting broth.  Just as an aside, they also do kicking Ham, Beef, Clam, Fish and a Lobster Bases that are amazingly good.  And, as an aside, I am not endorsing this product for any other reason than I love it.

So, yes, this recipe is vegetarian, but I wouldn’t recommend it be vegan.  Having said that though, if you can find a vegan sour cream style product, go for it!   For the meat lovers out there, yes, this is the same recipe as beef stroganoff, just with no beef.  If you want to do beef, add browned beef cubes to this, and you’ll be away with yourself!  I often make this for myself, because I love mushrooms, and I don’t add meat, but I sometimes add fake beef strips, to up the level of protein.

I use an array of mushrooms in this, but honestly the lowly button mushroom is also great here.  For mine I used oyster, Shitake and mini portobello mushrooms.  I would stay away from enoki, they really don’t have any flavor.  I also sometimes use dried porcini or morels if I have them handy.

 

Mushroom Stroganoff

3 medium packages of mushrooms, sliced

2 cloves garlic minced finely, or crushed

2 tablespoons olive oil

pinch of salt and pepper to taste

1/4 cup red wine, sherry or marsala (optional)

2 cups good broth (mushroom or vegetable, just make sure it tastes good)

16 oz container of sour cream (low fat, regal, no fat, makes no difference)

1 container/bag beef substitute (I used Gardein Beefless Tips)

1 bag of egg noodles, or rice or couscous, your preference

In a heavy bottomed pan that is cold, place the garlic and oil and turn on the heat to a medium flame.  Once you can smell the garlic, toss in all the mushrooms, and quickly stir to coat them in oil.  The mushrooms will absorb all the oil, but if you sprinkle the salt and pepper over them, stir and clamp a lid on them, they will start to cook and release their juices.  Once this starts to happen, take the lid off the pan and sauté the mushrooms so they are looking limp and cooked.

At this point, I add the wine of you’re using it, and raise the heat up so it bubbles down, all the while stirring.  If you’re not doing that, add the 2 cups of stock, keep the lid off the pan and stir well, then turn up the heat to a low boil, and keep an eye on it, stirring as you go.

IMG_1227

You may want to taste it at this point, for seasoning.  Adjust as you feel is necessary.  After about 10 minutes of high heat, the liquids should be reduced enough that when you stir with your spoon, you should briefly see the bottom of the pan.  Add the fake meat if you’re adding it and stir well.  This will lower the heat in the pan, so cover it and allow it to cook and heat through.  Once you get to that point, take the pot off the heat, and add the sour cream, stirring well to combine.  It may look as though it’s curdling, but it’s not, it’s just a bit shocked.  As you stir, it will all mix and turn a lovely buff color.

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At this point, I would set this aside, on a very low flame, and cook the starch you’re eating with it.  If it’s noodles, once they’re cooked and well drained, add them to the mushroom mixture and stir well.  If you’re using another grain or starch, pile it up on a plate and spoon the mushroom over it.

Yummy!  Enjoy it!

Happy new year everyone!

Yes, I am wishing you a Happy New Year on January 14th… a bit late, and such a long time since my last post, but the wishes are just as sincere now as they were on the day!  Many things have gone on since my last post, chiefly, work, work work… and some pretty awesome cooking too.  It’s flurrying outside today, and I have been so guilty about not posting… I hope you enjoy what I came up with!
We had a truly lovely Thanksgiving at our house this year, as has become the tradition for the Curtis/Suliman/Neal/McLenon/Hennessey house!  We have basically kept all the traditions going that Tim’s mom and aunts started many years ago, including pretty much all of the menu.  I have cut back considerably on all the sugar that they used to use, and I have added a few twists from my life and Tim’s favorites. (A quick side note here, have you ever spatch cooked your turkey??  I have now for 2 years running and I will never go back!  More on that in the next post!)  For Christmas we were off to New York for the Hennessey celebration.  I have to say, I didn’t cook much at all for Christmas, but I did make a genuine Irish fruit cake two months before hand, dutifully doused it with brandy every week or so, and brought it with us.  That also was part of the New Years Day chocolate fondue I made.  My brother Mark, sister in law Carie and their children John and Elsa came for a quick visit to my parents to see us, which was, as always, an utter delight!  Family is so great to have around, and nothing beats it!  The gift I was the most excited about was a Le Creuset oval dutch oven!  I will admit, I asked Santa for it, but it was such a delight to actually unwrap it and take it home!  I have already made a version of vegetarian chili topped with cornbread in it, and was so happy with it, I can’t even describe it!
As for most people, January is usually a busy month for us, not just because it’s the new year and we want to start everything fresh, but also because my father, sister and oldest niece all have birthday’s a few days apart from each other.  Today is my Dad’s turn, and as I was talking to him this morning, he mentioned that, although it’s not really possible, it would be so great to have us living nearer the kids.  I have to admit, I agree with him.  I would love to be able to have the kids drop by, and cook with them, or just sit and talk.  As they (and we) get older, it’s harder to have real ties and relationships to them, they’re discovering who they are, and Aunt Bep (or Libet, or Elizabeth, depending upon the kids) may not be the hip happening person they want to be around all the time.  So, my NYR (new years resolution) is to make the extra effort to be more there for the kiddies, all 8 of them!
How does that work it’s way into this blog?  Here’s how!  I was thinking today about what I would make if I had all the kids to myself and had to occupy them for a while?  The kids range from almost 13 to almost 4 months… quite a spread!  Most of the answers I came up with were either too simplistic for them (or at least for the older ones) or too complicated to do with masses of kids all at the same time.  But, I did prevail.  What do you think most kids would never pass up?  I think brownies fits that bill to a tee!  Now, I know some kids have dietary issues so please understand I am not allowing for that completely in this post.  I will say that the recipe below will do fabulously well with the non-gluten flours on the market, and you can always use soy yogurt or apple sauce or pureed banana’s to substitute for the sour cream or yogurt that I suggest… you get the picture though, it’s fairly easy and as always, you can tweak this a million ways to suit your kids and their needs.  My one and only insistence is that  you NOT use carob.  It’s awful tasting and doesn’t melt the way a decent chocolate does…. if that’s the only option you have, leave the chocolate out or substitute a dried fruit or a nut that the kids like.  Come to think of it, dried pineapple would be SO good in this!  Hmmm… off to the kitchen!

Easy and Delicious Brownies

  • 3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 14 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder (Hershey’s will do fine, or go for the good stuff)
  • 1 & 1/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/3 cup sour cream (or plain Greek yogurt, or plain soy or coconut milk yogurt)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup chopped nuts of your choice or dried fruit or chocolate chips (optional)

Preheat oven to 325°. Line a 9-inch square pan with foil or parchment paper so that 2 inches hang over two opposite sides.

Melt the chocolate and butter in a nonreactive pan or in the microwave. Stir occasionally until melted and smooth. Transfer to a medium bowl and allow to cool slightly. Beat in cocoa powder and sugar until well blended. Add in sour cream and vanilla extract, then add each egg and beat to incorporate fully, then add the next egg. Combine flour and salt well, then slowly add to the chocolate mixture.  Once fully combined, add in the nuts, fruit or chocolate chips.

Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake 40-45 minutes or until done. A toothpick inserted in the center should come out with a few moist crumbs attached. Cool in pan on wire rack.

Makes 16 brownies.

Mushroomy goodness!

That’s our new couch.  Isn’t it beautiful?  I love everything about it, the style, the way it fits perfectly into the space that the previous sofa lived in only better.  I even love the color, a silvery, mushroom brown.  It’s a cross between the color of the gills inside a lovely fresh mushroom and good quality cocoa powder.  (Those of you that know me will know the tug of war we have had over painting and in particular my Beloved’s love of all things beige/brown.)  Tim and I have decided that if we are staying in our house, we are going to make it a place we love.  And so, new couch and plans for painting!!  More on the paint later, but now back to the mushrooms! 
Years ago, when I lived in New York, I was a culinary fiend; I bought cooking magazines like mad and cooked from them often, I had all kinds of quality pans and cooking utensils all packed into a tiny kitchen.  My only problem was I rarely had anyone to try the food out on, which made it a bit boring.  There’s nothing quite like carefully preparing food and then having someone else love it!  Even then, when I cooked meat all the time, I fell in love with mushrooms.  I cooked them a hundred different ways, and they were always wonderful.  My specialty became sautéed mushrooms with polenta.  I still make it today and it’s heavenly, even if I make it vegan.  Imagine my surprise way back then when I came across (I believe in Bon Appetite) a recipe for a mushroom lasagna.  It had no tomato, which immediately intrigued me, and it also didn’t have the tiresome chore of typical lasagna, boiling the noodles and draining them, etc.  I was delighted with it, and immediately started planning!  I made several versions of this, and the recipe below is the easiest, I developed a few tweaks to make it work on a weeknight, so you can eat before midnight!  
My most loved version is below and although it’s slightly more detailed than the recipes I usually share, I wholeheartedly encourage you to make it.  It’s simple and lovely, rich and delicious, but truthfully, I can’t eat more than a small piece at a sitting, it’s that rich.  My recommendation is to make the mushroom sauté in advance and then assemble the entire thing just before you bake it.  Allowing the mushroom mixture to mature overnight does intensify the flavors.  One note here, the recipe here calls for Jarlsberg, but to create this authentically to this recipe, you can use any nutty, semi-soft cheese.  Gruyere comes to mind as a fine substitute.  But, the beauty of this is that you can use any cheese: goat’s, mozzarella, even good-quality cheddar would work.  It’s all up to how it pairs with mushroom.  My one must is that you can’t make the béchamel with skim or lowfat milk without compromising the texture of the lasagna.  That being said though, you can lighten this up by using half skim/low fat and half full fat.  Good luck and Happy Cooking!
E’s Mushroom Lasagna
Mushroom sauté
3 tablespoons of olive oil
6 fat cloves of garlic chopped fine
4 small baskets of mushrooms (can be all white button, or a combinations of several different types)
2 sprigs of fresh thyme, removed from the stems or ½ teaspoon of dried
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup red wine (use something you would also drink, no box wine)
Béchamel sauce
½ cup all purpose flour
1 stick unsalted butter
½ teaspoon nutmeg (or several gratings of fresh)
3 ½ cups whole milk, plus an additional  ½ cup to thin if necessary
3 cups shredded Jarlsberg cheese mixed with ½ cup freshly grated parmesan
1 box no-cook lasagna, or about 1 lb. of fresh lasagna sheets
(optional: ½ cup of breadcrumbs mixed with 1 tablespoon of melted butter)
For the mushroom sauté, roughly chop all your mushrooms, until you have pieces resembling the size of peas, set aside.  In a large non-stick sauté pan, heat the olive oil on a medium high flame and add the chopped garlic.  Sauté until you can smell the garlic and then sprinkle lightly with a scant pinch of salt, this will help the garlic to release some of it’s juice and prevent it from burning.  Continue to cook carefully, making sure it doesn’t burn, for about a minute.  Add in your chopped mushrooms and turn them in the oil until all are coated with it, stir in the thyme.  At this point cover the pan and lower the flame to low, but keep an eye on the mushrooms and stir occasionally so they don’t burn.  Cook covered for about 7 minutes, or until the mushrooms are dark brown and releasing their juices.  Add in the wine and turn up the flame to medium, allow the wine to start to boil and stir until it looks as though all juices and the wine are well combined.  Cover the pan again and allow to cook for about 7 – 8 minutes.  When you lift the lid to check, there will be a great deal of liquid, and that’s perfect.  Now, raise the heat to high and with the lid off, stir and cook until most of the liquids are reabsorbed by the mushrooms and you start to see the bottom of the pan clearly when you are stirring.  Once the mixture has dried up a bit, set the pan aside and let the mixture rest.  Taste the mushrooms and add salt and pepper to your taste.  At this point, you can put the mushroom mixture in the fridge overnight, or just set aside to cool while you prepare the béchamel.
For the bechamel, heat the 3 1/2 cups of milk in a saucepan, just until you see bubbles forming at the sides and it is heated through and set aside off the heat.  In another non-stick deep bottomed saucepan, melt the unsalted butter, don’t let it burn.  Once all the butter is melted, take off the heat and whisk in the flour, then put the pan back on a low flame.  Congratulations, you have now created a roux!  Let the roux cook for a few minutes, to allow it to lose that floury flavor.  It will take on a pale almond color, don’t allow it to color any more than that.  Take the roux off the heat and carefully whisk in a cup of the heated milk.  With your whisk, make sure there are no lumps of flour, then whisk in the second cup of milk, and return the pan to a medium flame.  It will immediately start to thicken, and as you continually whisk, and in the remaining third and a half cups of milk.   One you start to feel resistance with your whisk, and the mixture is the consistency of hummus, you can take it off the heat and add in the nutmeg.  Taste it to adjust seasoning, I usually like some black or white pepper and let it cool a bit.
To assemble the lasagna, use any Pyrex baking dish, or any pan you normally would use for lasagna.  The first thing you layer is a thin coating of the béchamel.  If it has cooled to the point that it’s hard to spread, use the 1/2 cup of milk you reserved to thin it a bit. Then a layer of the lasagna noodles.  Cover that layer with another thin layer of béchamel, a layer of cheese and a layer of mushroom, then béchamel again.  Keep layering until you are at the top of the pan, and have the final layer be béchamel and then cheese.  You can top this with the breadcrumb mixture, but it’s only if you want a bit of crunch on the top of your lasagna.
Bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 – 40 minutes.  You’ll know it’s done when the breadcrumbs, or cheese are lightly toasted and you can see the béchamel bubbling up at the sides of the pan.  Remove from the oven and allow to rest and cool for at least 15 minutes.
Enjoy, and let me know what variations you try!