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.

IMG_1230.jpg

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!

Lentils are good for you, but they actually taste good too!

Happy March everyone!  You’ll notice that I have moved the blog to WordPress.  I heard it was an easier site to work with, and so I am trying it!  Let me know what your thoughts are on the new format and ease of use.

Although this has been the mildest winter I can ever remember, the sun hasn’t been out much here in Michigan, so the dismal look and feel of the winter is still around.  It makes me cook comforting, cold weather food and lentils really fit the bill here. I can honestly say, other than heavy, gloopy canned soup; I haven’t really eaten much in the way of lentils for most of my life.  When I started cooking for a vegetarian, I discovered the ease and variability of cooking with beans and legumes.  Then one day we were exploring around a natural gourmet food store, and I came upon a bin of these beautiful slate green lentils that were so eye-catching to me! I had to have them, so bought 2 pounds and took them home immediately!

If you follow Nigella, as you know I do, you have probably heard of Puy lentils but I had never really researched or experimented with them.  My memories were always the little cylindrical plastic sleeves you see in the supermarkets for “soup mix”.  They always have a solid chunk of lentils in them, right next to the spice that mix that you can never really put your finger on. The Puy lentils are different from them and are actually famed for being “the best”.  Typically, you see them called French green lentils.  They hold up very well to cooking and they don’t go all to mush unless you crush them when you’re cooking them.  Puy’s have a distinctive flavor, very earthy and hardy, with a bit of crunch to them, and I have grown to love them.

There are many other types of lentils, red, yellow and orange which you typically see in Indian foods and are called dal.  All of those types tend to be more tender when you cook them.  In general, lentils are very high in fiber and protein, are very easy to cook and flavor, and even these special “Puy’s” are definitely very inexpensive to buy.  So you get great bang for your buck with them.

Now, this recipe has a great deal of red wine in it, so if you’re cooking for kids, you may want to substitute the wine for some good quality, low salt vegetable broth.  And remember, if you won’t drink it don’t cook with it!  Also, when you start cooking, the liquid seems to be way too much.  It’s exactly the right amount so trust me here.  I typically start checking them at about 35 minutes, because each batch of dried lentils you get is different, so if the liquid is still covering the lentils, continue cooking for another 10 – 15 minutes.  But, once you hit the 40-minute mark, start listening for a dry pan and check every few minutes although you should resist the urge to stir them much. There will be little to no liquid in the pot, and the lentils will easily mash when you press them with a fork.  If you find there is still a lot of liquid, take the lid off, and raise the heat up to medium, and let the extra liquid boil away.  When there is virtually no liquid left, take the pot off the heat and stir in the vinegar, then taste and add salt and pepper if needed.

Puy Lentils in Red Wine

1 cup green French green Puy lentils (or any lentil, except red or yellow)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

2 shallots, finely chopped*

2 garlic cloves, sliced finely

2 bay leaves (optional)

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme (1 teaspoon fresh)

2 cups good red wine (Spanish wine is great here, maybe a nice Tempranillo)

1 ½ cups water

Coarse salt and ground pepper

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar (or apple cider, red wine, balsamic vinegar, anything with nice flavor)

Before you start cooking, rinse the lentils well, pick through them and remove any stones, leaves or stems, then place them in a bowl and cover them by about an inch with hot water and let them soak for about 20 minutes.  Once they’re soaked and slightly soft, drain them, rinse with cold water and set them aside to drain in a colander.

Heat the butter and olive oil in a large heavy pot with a tight fitting cover.  Once it’s melted add the shallots, garlic, bay leaves and thyme. Cook, stirring frequently until the shallots turn golden brown.  Be careful not to burn them, or you will have to start over.  Lower the heat to medium and add in the wine.  Bring the mixture to a boil and allow to cook for 1 minute. Add the drained lentils and then the water, stir well. Allow the pot to come to a rolling boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and simmer until the lentils are tender, about 40 – 45 minutes. There will be little to no liquid in the pot, and the lentils will easily mash when you press them with a fork.  If you find there is still a lot of liquid, take the lid off, and raise the heat up to medium, and the the extra liquid boil away.  When there is virtually not liquid left, take the pot off the heat and stir in the vinegar, then taste and add salt and pepper if needed.

As always, comments are welcome and variations are encouraged!

*Note: If you don’t have shallots, you can use more garlic (2 more cloves) or add a small finely chopped yellow union.

Who doesn’t love pudding?

As hard as it is to believe, it’s winter, and although we have had the mildest winter on record, I still want to hibernate and cook dark, gravy-laden food, food that you have to cook for hours, and can just sit and smell, rather than having to fiddle over.  It’s an inherent drive, I guess!
Last night, Tim and I went out to a nice Italian place we love, and the waitress highly recommended the “wonderful homemade rice pudding”.  Turns out, she made it, so she was all about seeing what everyone thought.  It was wonderful, and reminded me of the rice pudding I use to help my mom make when I was a kid.  As Tim and I sat there and enjoyed it, I realized that I could probably attribute my ability to know when a sauce, custard, pudding or gravy is ready, to being the stirrer of the rice pudding when I was a kid!  I must remember to thank my Mom for that one!  I used to stand there and stir and stir and stir, then suddenly the bottom of the pot got slick and slippery, I knew the alchemy of a thickened food was happening!  To this day, I know that’s the moment when I probably should switch to a whisk, to prevent lumps, and that it’s just about to be ready.
So, in honor of winter and all things yummy and warm, I am going to give you a foolproof chocolate pudding recipe.  You’ll have to stand there and stir, but you will never look at pudding again once you have made your own, I promise you!  As always, you can do this many ways, you can substitute skim milk, you can use half and half, coconut milk, almond or hazelnut milk, rice milk, anything you have in the house. You can use white, milk or bittersweet chocolate, but if you do use white, exclude the cocoa powder. You can spike it with a hazelnut liqueur, rum you name it.
Enjoy it and let me know what you can come up with!
Chocolate Pudding
4 tablespoons corn starch
6 tablespoons sugar (brown sugar is nice here too)
1 ½ tablespoons cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
Pinch of salt
2 ¼ c. heavy cream
1 ¼ c. milk
6 oz. semisweet chocolate
1 ½ tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
In a medium saucepan, whisk together the cornstarch, sugar, cocoa powder, cinnamon and salt.  Make sure they’re well combined and there are no lumps.  In another bowl, mix together the milk and 1 ¼ c of the cream.  Slowly whisk the cream/milk mixture into the dry ingredients, again, making sure there are no lumps. Then put the pot on a medium-high flame and stir constantly until the mixture comes to a boil and is thickened.  Add the chocolate and stir until it’s melted.
Take the mixture off the heat and beat in the butter until it’s melted and combined.  Transfer the whole mixture to a glass bowl and cover with plastic wrap.  Make sure the plastic is touching the entire surface of the pudding, (unless you’re a fan of the pudding skin, then leave it off) and let it cool, for 45 min, it will be ready to eat at that point, and you can serve it with the remaining 1 c. of cream whipped.  Otherwise, cool it completely in the refrigerator, and spoon into serving bowls, then use the remaining cream on top.