Category Archives: Main Dishes

A One-Ingredient Pasta Sauce (well, one ingredient plus some water, to be precise)

You’ll need a blender or food processor for this sauce, but little else.  Here’s how to make a one-ingredient pasta sauce, plus some variations.  I’ll include a brief summary for those of you who prefer just a simple overview, and then I’ll provide details for the readers who like a more complete recipe with explanations.

Ingredient: One winter squash.

The quick version:  roast a squash and puree it, adding just enough water to make a smooth consistency.  (A little pasta cooking water is excellent).  Add to hot cooked pasta, stir gently and enjoy!

Variations:  stir in grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and a little freshly grated nutmeg.  Add salt to taste (how much salt you need will depend on the sweetness of the squash you chose, which can only be determined by tasting it).  Instead of fresh water, or water left over from cooking the pasta, use chicken stock for a richer sauce. Top the pasta and roasted squash puree with chopped toasted walnuts, or bacon, or roasted prosciutto.

Now for the detailed version:

You can use an acorn squash, butternut squash, or a pumpkin (make sure it’s a pumpkin grown for baking or for use in recipes, not the large inedible ones intended for carving and decorating only) – almost any winter squash except for a spaghetti squash will work.  Most grocery stores identify the pumpkins that can be cooked as “pie pumpkins” or “sweet pumpkins”, and they call the others “carving pumpkins” or “Jack-O-Lanterns”.  The produce manager can tell you whether the pumpkin is intended for eating or for decorative purposes only.

Line a baking sheet with non-stick foil or parchment paper.  You can either cut the squash in half, remove the seeds and lay the squash halves cut-side down on the pan, or you can simply put the whole squash on the pan.  There’s some debate as to whether a whole squash should be pierced a couple of times prior to baking.  Some cooks say to pierce the squash with a sharp knife or fork, as you would when baking a potato, and some cooks say this allows delicious steam and flavors to escape and they don’t pierce the skin.  I’ve roasted whole winter squashes and I simply make one small knife slit in the skin – I don’t feel like using my oven as an experimental pumpkin explosion testing center.

Anyway, roast a winter squash: halved, seeded and cut-side down, or whole.  Just roast it until the squash is very tender, when a fork inserted into the squash pierces it easily with no resistance.  That will take about 45 minutes to an hour, at 350 degrees, unless you are roasting an unusually large squash, which may take longer.

Let it cool, and then either scrape the flesh from the skin, or cut the whole roasted squash in half and scrape out the seeds and then the flesh.  Transfer just the flesh to a blender or food processor.  Puree it, and add just enough water to make a smooth sauce.  The best choice would be the water left over from cooking pasta: when you drain the pasta just save about a cup of the water.  The goal is to have a sauce that is a similar consistency to a cheese sauce, like when you’re making macaroni and cheese, not too thin and watery, and not too thick.

Now you can use the pureed squash as is – just stir it into hot cooked pasta   Or you can add some grated parmesan cheese and a little nutmeg (freshly grated nutmeg is best).  If the squash was very sweet, you might need some salt, but that’s up to you.  You’ll only know how sweet the squash was by tasting it.

I toasted some prosciutto on a baking sheet until the prosciutto was very crispy and crumbled that over the pasta and squash puree just before serving.  Crumbled cooked bacon would also be good.

Toasted and chopped walnuts or pecans would also be delicious on this pasta, as would chopped dried cranberries, and/or grated Parmigiano cheese.

But, if you just use the roasted and pureed squash, with a little water added to it to make it a smooth puree, you’ll have a very healthy and simple sauce made from just one real food.

A new take on Grilled Cheese

This sandwich is a delicious new way to appreciate avocados, and it’s a fresh idea on the traditional grilled cheese.

Ingredients (for one sandwich)

2 slices firm bread or rustic bread (we used a nice rustic Italian loaf)                                       1 ripe avocado, peeled, pitted and thinly sliced (mashed would be ok too)                           1 large ripe tomato                                                                                                                                              a couple of ounces of good quality blue cheese (your favorite type)                                         a handful of baby arugula leaves, or baby spinach, or mixed greens

Toast or grill one side of each of the slices of bread.  Lay the bread slices, toasted/grilled side down, on a baking sheet or broiler-safe pan.  Preheat the broiler.

Slice the tomato thinly and lay the tomato on one of the bread slices.  Top the other bread slice with the blue cheese.  A nice thick layer of blue cheese would be nice, but how much you use is up to you.

Broil the slices of bread, with their tomato and cheese toppings, just until the cheese is beginning to melt and turn golden.

Remove the bread slices from the oven, and quickly lay the avocado slices and your choice of greens on the tomato side.  Place the cheese side, with the cheese facing the vegetables, on top of the greens, and enjoy!

I took this one step further.  Prior to starting to make the sandwich, I sliced a couple of nice big tomatoes into one-half inch thick slices and spread them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  I drizzled the slices with a little olive oil, sprinkled them with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, and roasted them at about 400 degrees until they were tender and golden.  Instead of fresh tomatoes in the avocado grilled cheese, I used the roasted slices.

If you’re not liking the whole vegetarian feeling of this sandwich, you could slip a few slices of beautiful cooked bacon into it.  Just lay the cooked bacon underneath the tomatoes before you broil it.

I don’t usually prefer Gorgonzola cheese.  My favorite is Stilton, but a nice Amish blue cheese or Danish blue cheese would be great.  The combination of fresh avocado, broiled blue cheese, tomatoes and hearty bread is really delicious!  This is no ordinary grilled cheese!

Stuffed Pasta Shells, lightened up

I happen to love stuffed shells, filled with a rich egg and ricotta and mozzarella mixture, covered in a hearty marinara sauce.  They’re great on a cold winter’s night, and frankly, they’re about the only way most of us eat stuffed shells.

Recently I made a version that would be nice and light for warmer days.

The quick summary:  I made a simple white sauce and added a little grated Parmigiano cheese.  Chopped cooked chicken and chopped frozen broccoli were stirred into the white sauce, stuffed into cooked pasta shells, and baked until hot.

You could substitute peas or corn or your favorite vegetable or a combination of vegetables, for the broccoli.

More detailed directions here:

Make a simple, light white sauce.  Melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a sauce pan and then add 3 tablespoons of flour.  Combine well and stir for about 4 minutes.  Add 2 cups of milk and stir until thickened over medium-low heat.  Add a handful of grated parmesan cheese and stir until the cheese is softened.  Remove from the heat.  By the way, I substituted canola oil for the butter and used skim milk.

To the white sauce, add about a heaping cup of chopped cooked chicken (leftover, or rotisserie) and an equal amount of chopped cooked or frozen vegetables (all one kind or a combination).  Stuff into cooked pasta shells and place in an 8 inch square baking dish.  Bake at about 350 degrees until heated throughout, about 30 minutes.

This amount makes a relatively small dish, not a big family casserole.  It can be doubled (or tripled).

 

 

 

 

Baked Avocados – For an Easy Breakfast or Amazing Nachos!

How does this sound?  Breakfast that you can roast in a fruit and customize in dozens of ways?  No bowl needed, almost no cleanup?  Plus it’s healthy and delicious! (Avocados are technically a fruit).

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First, the basics:  you’ll need an avocado and two eggs.  This works best with a large avocado and smaller eggs.  Since I only had large eggs on hand, I cracked the eggs, one at a time, into a small bowl and poured off about half the egg white (I saved the extra egg whites in a bowl in the fridge to stir into scrambled eggs next time I make them).

Then, halve and pit the avocado.  Don’t do anything else to it.  Into the hollow area of each of the avocado halves, where the pit was, place one egg.  Put the avocados in a small baking dish (you can line it with parchment paper if you want, for easier cleanup).  Bake them at 350 degrees until the eggs are set.   Breakfast is ready!  (You can cook the eggs thoroughly, or you can take them out when the whites are set and the yolks are still a little runny:  your choice, your preference).

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Now, you can just dig a spoon into this and eat it.  The avocado is warm and delicious and smooth, and when you’re done, throw the “bowl” (the avocado peel) away!  No cleanup! Sprinkle with salt and pepper if you like, or cumin, or paprika, or hot sauce.

And here is the part where you can customize this, top it, spice it up, and make nachos!

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On top of the hot avocado and egg, you can add chopped tomatoes and grated cheese, chopped onions, or salsa (extremely mild or devilishly hot), or fresh pico de gallo (or all of those!)  You could top it with cooked crumbled sausage (hot or mild), or chorizo, or even soy chorizo (which is surprisingly good!).   You can keep your choices healthy, or vegetarian, or dairy-free, or make them as spicy and meaty as you like.  Add just a few simple toppings, or bury those avocados in a mountain of extras!

Another option is to make the baked avocados into amazing nachos:

 

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It couldn’t be easier:  spread some tortilla chips on a plate.  Using a spoon, scoop the baked avocados and eggs out of the avocado peel, and place them on the chips.  Just smash the avocados so they spread out on the chips (or, if you want to be neater, use a knife to cube up the avocados).  I topped them with cheese, tomatoes and salsa.  You can add lettuce, cooked black or pinto beans, salsa, fresh vegetables, roasted corn, cooked ground beef or sausage, or just keep it simple.  You could even omit the eggs and bake the avocados with halved cherry or tomatoes instead of the eggs.   Keep it super simple with just good salsa from a jar, or get creative with toppings!  Make it a healthy breakfast, or a delicious dinner!

So what would you put on these Baked Avocado Nachos?  I’d love to hear your ideas!

 

Baked Stuffed Tomato Pies with a Savory Crust

Here’s something new to do with large tomatoes.  You could use a large heirloom tomato, or one of the bigger ones that are still hanging on in your garden.  This can be a side dish, or a hearty entree, depending on the filling you choose and on the size of the tomatoes.

First, prepare a filling.  Really the only rule to follow is that any raw meats or proteins should be cooked before stuffing them into the tomato.

I used mozzarella cheese, some Panko bread crumbs, fresh chopped basil, cooked chopped bacon, grilled corn, salt, pepper and some freshly grated Parmigiano cheese.

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You could use Mexican inspired fillings, like cooked taco-seasoned ground beef, chili peppers, shredded Cheddar cheese, sliced jalapenos, and chopped fresh cilantro.

Another nice choice might be broiled shrimp, chopped or sliced garlic, lemon zest, and chopped scallions, with Panko bread crumbs and just a bit of mayonnaise to moisten the stuffing.  Season with a spicy Cajun seasoning if you like.

Or for a more gourmet choice, how about rare or medium-rare steak (cut into bite-sized pieces), grilled corn, chopped seeded tomatoes and a little blue cheese?

Go completely vegetarian with roasted or grilled chopped vegetables (zucchini, summer squash, corn, tomatoes, mushrooms,and any other seasonal vegetables that are available and affordable)!  Mix the vegetables with a little Panko bread crumbs, some fresh herbs and a little olive oil.

Or make a Greek stuffed tomato, with cooked lamb or beef pieces, chopped red onion, Kalamata olives, chopped tomatoes and crumbled feta cheese, with fresh oregano.

The filling should be moist.  The Panko bread crumbs can be eliminated but they do add a little crunch and texture.  For a gluten-free option, crumble up some lightly toasted gluten-free bread and substitute that for the Panko crumbs.

Completely scoop out the insides of the tomato, and lightly fill with the mixture (don’t pack the filling in).

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Place the tomatoes in a baking dish, or if you’ll be cooking this on an outdoor grill, in a grill-safe pan or dish.  Drizzle with a little olive oil.

You can roast the tomatoes now, or bake them, until the tomatoes are soft and the filling is heated throughout (about a half hour at 375 degrees).

For something extra delicious, top the tomatoes with a savory crust.  I made a basic pie crust with flour, butter and ice water, and added chopped fresh basil to the crust.  I cut out a circle of dough roughly the size of the tomato and baked the tomato with the dough on it.  It was like a fresh tomato pie!  You could use a store-bought crust or even thawed puff pastry crust, and you can omit the basil or substitute another appropriate herb.20140727_175438

 

 

 

 

 

If you need a pie crust refresher course, it’s really easy.  The basic rule is 1 part flour, 1/2 part butter or other shortening (vegetable shortening or lard or a combination of those), and 1/4 part ice water.  So if you use 2 cups flour, use 1 cup shortening and 1/2 cup ice water.  For a smaller recipe, use 1 cup flour, 1/2 cup shortening and 1/4 cup ice water.   Simply place the flour in a bowl, use a pastry cutter or a fork to distribute the shortening into the flour (or pulse in a food processor) until the flour and shortening resemble coarse wet sand and stir in the ice water.  Knead the dough briefly and gently on a lightly floured surface, and form the dough into a disk.  Wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate the dough for about 45 minutes or an hour.  Then roll or pat the dough to the desired thickness and cut to the desired size.

For this tomato pie, I used all butter and kneaded in several large basil leaves that I finely chopped.  I wanted a savory rustic crust and didn’t make the butter pieces too small.  I also sprinkled some coarse salt over the crust before baking the tomato.

Let me know what fillings you can think of for these individual baked tomato pies!

Tomato Mozzarella Pasta

tomatoes

This quick meal is refreshing and simple.  It’s one of my favorite spring and summer suppers.

Ingredients:  

Pasta of your choice – I use a a short pasta rather than a long noodle                                             Fresh tomatoes, seeded (see note below)                                                                                               Fresh mozzarella cheese (not the shredded kind in the package (see note)                                 Fresh basil leaves                                                                                                                                                                 Olive oil, salt and peper

Directions:

Cook pasta so that it’s al dente according to the package directions.  While it’s cooking, chop the tomatoes into bite-size pieces.  Either cube the mozzarella or shred it coarsely with your hands.  Roughly tear the basil leaves, and combine the tomatoes, cheese and basil in a bowl.  Drizzle just about a tablespoon of oil over everything, and sprinkle with salt and pepper to your taste.  When the pasta is done, drain it.  Pour the pasta over the tomato/cheese/basil mixture while the pasta is hot and stir to combine so that the cheese melts just the littlest bit and eat this right away, or you can let it chill it in the fridge and have a cold pasta dish later.    

Notes:

Many dishes that contain tomatoes turn out watery and kind of soggy.  Regular tomatoes often have a lot of seeds (and that gel-like substance that surrounds the seeds) and if you don’t take the seeds out, you can end up with a soupy mess.  It’s easy to seed a tomato.  Just slice the top off so the seeds are visible.  Then hold the tomato upside-down over the sink or a bowl and gently squeeze.  The seeds will begin to fall out (you may need to use your fingers to pull out any seeds that remain).  If the tomato is fresh and if you squeeze gently, you can keep the tomato round and intact and you can then chop it to use in recipes.  I remove the seeds from most every tomato I use, unless it’s an heirloom tomato or one that has very few seeds when I cut it open.

Mozzarella cheese comes in two different forms (other than the shredded stuff in the plastic bags, which often contain an anti-caking agent).  One is freshly made, and comes in a light brine, usually in a round container.  The cheese inside can be one large fresh ball of mozzarella, or several smaller balls or even little tiny balls called “pearls”.  This type of mozzarella contains a lot of moisture.  It’s great for using in pasta dishes, or serving on a platter with meats and olives.  The other type of mozzarella is a little drier.  It comes in a log shape or ball shape tightly sealed in plastic, and doesn’t come in brine.  That’s great for melting on sandwiches, when you don’t want so much moisture.  Either type can be cubed, sliced, or shredded by hand.                                        

 

Asian Lettuce Wraps, Two Ways (meat and vegetarian options)

This is a recipe I created yesterday.

Ground Beef or Turkey Lettuce Wraps

Ingredients:

1 lb ground beef or turkey

4 Tbsp canola or grapeseed or other vegetable oil, divided

1 cup chopped onion

1 cup chopped carrots

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 tsp dried orange peel

8 oz water chestnuts, drained and coarsely chopped or slivered

½ cup cooking sauce (recipe below)

Washed whole lettuce leaves (from Bibb lettuce or green leaf lettuce)

For serving, optional choices:  cooked rice, minced ginger, or slivered almonds, Sriracha sauce or other Asian sauce (soy, hot sauce, whatever your preference)

Directions:

In a large skillet, heat 2 Tbsp of the oil and add the meat.  Cook thoroughly.  For best results, allow the meat to get slightly caramelized, until it’s browned and gets slightly crispy.

Remove the meat to a bowl, add the other 2 Tbsp oil to the same skillet and cook the onion and carrots over medium heat until tender.  Add a little more oil if the vegetables begin to get too dry.  Add the water chestnuts and cook, stirring, for about a minute.  Add the garlic and orange peel and cook for another minute.

Add the meat back in and stir to combine.  Add the cooking sauce and stir until the entire mixture is heated throughout.

Serve in lettuce leaves, either wrapped or in a bowl.  If desired, add a bit of rice to the lettuce before putting the meat mixture in.  Top with almonds or ginger or hot sauce, or all three!

Lettuce Wraps Cooking Sauce:

4 Tbsp oyster sauce (see notes below)

2 Tbsp unseasoned white rice vinegar

1 Tbsp Mirin

1 Tbsp hoisin sauce

1 Tbsp Asian sweet chili sauce

Stir all ingredients together until well combined.

Notes:  Oyster sauce is an extract of oysters with seasonings.  A vegetarian option is available, made from mushrooms.

There are varieties of rice vinegar available, and some are sweetened or seasoned.  This recipe calls for the unsweetened white rice vinegar (there are other varieties available, such as red).  Also, this product is different from rice wine.  So be sure to get the white unsweetened or unseasoned rice vinegar.

Mirin is a sweetened rice wine.

Hoisin sauce is sometimes called Asian BBQ sauce.  If you prefer not to use it, you can use a combination of ½ part soy sauce and ½ part of your favorite BBQ sauce.

Sweet chili sauce is both sweet and a little tangy, with crushed red pepper flakes or finely diced chili peppers in it.

Try to buy the best quality sauces with the simplest ingredients.

 Tofu and Mushroom Lettuce Wraps

Ingredients:

14 – 16 oz firm or extra firm tofu

4 Tbsp canola or grapeseed or other vegetable oil, divided

8 oz mushrooms (preferably cremini), coarsely chopped

1 cup chopped onion

1 cup chopped carrots

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 tsp dried orange peel

½ cup lettuce wrap cooking sauce (recipe above)

¼ cup plum sauce or duck sauce

Washed whole lettuce leaves (from Bibb lettuce or green leaf lettuce)

For serving, optional choices:  cooked rice, minced ginger, or slivered almonds, Sriracha sauce or other Asian sauce (soy, hot sauce, whatever your preference)

Directions:

First, press the tofu.  Tofu is full of water and it must be pressed out.  Place a couple layers of paper towels on a plate.  Remove the tofu from the packaging and put it on the towels.  Cover with another couple of layers of towels, and place a heavy weight on top (a cast iron pan, or bricks wrapped in foil, or heavy books – protect them with waxed paper to keep the water from soaking through the towels into the books).  Leave undisturbed for at least an hour, preferably several hours.  Change the towels if you’re leaving the tofu overnight or all day.

Into a large skillet, put 2 Tbsp oil and sauté the onions and carrots until tender.  Then add the garlic and orange peel and cook quickly, for about a minute.  Remove this mixture to a separate bowl.

In the same skillet, add the rest of the oil.  When it’s hot, crumble the tofu into the pan with your hands and sauté it, stirring frequently, until it’s golden, about 5 – 6 minutes.  Then add the mushrooms to the tofu and sauté for about 2 minutes.

Add the onions and carrots back in, along with ½ cup of the cooking sauce and stir until heated throughout.  Stir in the plum sauce and serve in lettuce cups with rice, almonds, ginger or the sauce of your choice.