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!

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

I attended the second Pop-Up Restaurant this past Friday at The Children’s Center, in Detroit.  What a wonderful time we had!

The chef was, again, Chef Brad Greenhill, and he really outdid himself this time!  He wasn’t the only one though!  The folks at the Children’s Center really stepped up!  The decorations were charming, the menu was eye catching, not to mention mouth watering and the message was compelling!

photo 1

Just look a this lovely centerpiece!

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And this creative use for marshmallows!

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It seemed, when I arrived on a very chilly evening in the D, that this was going to be a United Way reunion night.  There were many current, and several former co-workers, which kind of made the night feel like an unplanned holiday gathering!  I was truly impressed though, at how many of my fellow attendee’s were there because they worked and/or volunteered with the Center.  It does such wonderful work, I am so proud of the people I know helping out there! (More about the Center a little further down in the post!)

I don’t know if you can really see the menu so I will give it to you here.  So yummy!

Carrot Soup, with harissa, hazelnut dukka and yogurt

Charred cauliflower, with fennel, pomegranate, mint and walnut

Maltagliati, with mushrooms, melted leeks, truffle and yolk

Porchetta, with cannellini beans, arugula, lemon and horseradish

Olive oil cake, gelato, citrus and almond

Let me start from the beginning, with the carrot soup.

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Isn’t it pretty?  It was fairly surprising, the harissa, which for those of you that haven’t tried it is a Tunisian hot chilli paste, really gave it some perkiness, and the nuts were just wonderful and crunchy against the smooth sweet soup.  I think it was my favorite dish of the event.

Next up was a delicious charred cauliflower salad, with the very fresh combination of mint and pomegranate, it was sweet and savory and tart all at the same time, delicious, and pretty to boot!

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The next course puzzled some people, and my inner bossiness came out right away.  It was a pasta with what I would say was something like a carbonara sauce, except the egg yolk hadn’t been incorporated.  The hot noodles were enough to cook the yolk and make a creamy sauce, along with the cheese, but you had to stir the yolk in right away, rather than waiting for everyone to be served.  Several people were wondering, I think, why I was rushing them, but it was worth it in the end.  Very silky and tasty!

Before stirring

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And after stirring

photo-7

The main course was porchetta (stuffed and roasted pork, Italian style) which I love, although some people were a bit put off by the rind.  I gobbled it up.  There was a lovely fresh parsley and garlic stuffing, and it was topped by a tart arugula salad, which set off perfectly the fatty roasted pork.  Hidden under the pork was a little gem, a lovely stew of cannellini beans, which was exactly the earthy touch the dish needed.  All in all a success!

photo 7

Last, but sincerely not least was a lovely little surprise.  Any time I have had olive oil cake, it’s always been a yellow cake flavored with orange.  This was a delicious hot chocolate cake, topped with a melted vanilla bean gelato.  It was the perfect end to the dinner, a little chocolate, a little creamy gelato.  So delicious!

After our dinner, Chef Brad came out to take a bow. Can you see him behind the marshmallows?

photo 8

The other, truly wonderful thing about the evening was that there were art pieces by the children who come to the center.  Some of it would break your heart, for example, there was a painting by a boy who had no friends, and was bullied.  It had a big red X painted over it, but he wished that one day he would have a friend!  The artwork was both eye catching and beautiful, as well as making you realize that even today, in this society, children are abused and neglected, sometimes right under our noses.

I signed up at the end of the event for a tour, and I really encourage anyone in the Metro Detroit area to do the same.  The information for The Children’s Center is below.  I hope you have it in your heart to tour the facility and get involved.

The Children’s Center
79 Alexandrine West
Detroit, Michigan 48201
313.831.5535

M-TH: 8 a.m. – 8 p.m.
F: 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
S: 8 a.m. – 2 p.m.

Immediate Assistance
313.262.1212
access@childrensctr.net
M-F: 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.

A big thank you to The Center for the invitation, and for the wonderful company, as well as the chance to see the children’s artwork.  I truly was touched!

 

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.

Hello New Year!

I am ashamed that I haven’t written here in several months, but I do have some very good excuses.  A bout of diverticulitis, a broken bone in my foot that I didn’t know I had, a huge Thanksgiving at our house, and a wonderful drive out, but fraught with snow drive back from New York for Christmas.  In summary, things have been BUSY!

I did however, do quite a bit of cooking over the holidays and the few months before.  I found and modified a great recipe for shortbread that includes rosemary, which was delicious.  I made a family recipe for Irish Christmas cake, which I will not give away, but I was quite impressed with my modifications.  No raisins, so I ended up using all the dried fruit I had in the house, I had no whiskey so I used bourbon, and, I can not believe I am saying this, Tim didn’t have any stout in the house, so I used a delicious and very dark beer he had in the back of the fridge.  It turned out wonderful, and I even had time to age it and bring it to our Christmas at my parents house in NY. 

I have been thinking and thinking about what the heck I was going to share with the blogosphere.  What I suddenly remembered was the brunch we had the weekend before Christmas at our house.  My friend David was in town from California, and staying at our friends Melinda and Keith’s house.  So, they came to us for brunch.  I made a feta dip, and had a lovely cheese platter, but what saved the day was the mini crustless quiches that I made.  David, as it turns out has celiac disease, so pretty much everything I made had gluten, except the quiches.  Thank goodness, he loved them, and could eat them!  As always, you can substitute just about any cheese or filling.  I also made them in jumbo, non-stick muffin tins.  However, buttering them well is essential, so don’t skip that step.

Brunchtime Mini-quiches

6 jumbo (room temperature) eggs
1 cup half and half, or milk, or cream or any combination of the above (I used half and half and creme fraiche)
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
1 cup cheese (I used shredded Jarlsberg, but cheddar or goat or any other are fine)
1.5 cups sauteed spinach

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees
Evenly divide the cheese and spinach between the muffin tins.  Some people put the cheese in the bottom of the cup so it forms a sort of crust.  I didn’t worry about the order.  People also have used ham and lined the cup with that… also a little too much prinking for me.

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, dairy and salt, pepper and cayenne until they are well combined and you can’t see any more eggwhites.  With a ladle, fill the muffin tins to just below the rim.  You should have just enough eggs to fill 6 jumbo tins.  I wouldn’t recommend a smaller size, they will cook and dry out too quickly.  You can also use individual ramekins, I think the capacity is 1.5 cups.  Put the tin on a baking sheet, and bake in the oven for 20 – 25 minutes.  You will know when they are done when the tops are very puffed up and browning.  They may have some jiggle in the middle, but they should not be liquid in the middle.

Now, these will loose their puffiness fairly quickly after coming out of the oven, a bit like little souffles.  The key to unmolding them is running a flexible spatula around the sides of the tins, so they won’t stick.  Place them on a plate and enjoy!

Let me know how they come out!