Orzo with Feta, Tomato and Haricot Verts


A friend of mine made me something similar to this dish a few years ago and I have continually thought about it over time – which means it must be pretty darn good! This is my version of it – I think I got pretty close.

If you are on a “no pasta” diet (which is just unthinkable in my book) you can substitute the orzo with couscous. But don’t get me started on the fact that couscous really is pasta – cuz… it is. It’s basically semolina rolled into tiny dry pellets. But people keep calling it a grain. Okay, now you got me started. Anyway,  try Israeli couscous for something a little heartier, if you must substitute.

Ingredients
1 lb haricot verts (thin French green beans – fresh)
2 cups orzo
1 medium sweet onion
4 garlic cloves – minced
4 medium vine-ripened tomatoes (I used red and yellow – but red is fine)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley leaves
2 cups crumbled feta
Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation
Get your mise en place ready. Fill a 4 quart pot with salted water for both the orzo and the green beans.

Finely chop onion and mince garlic. Quarter and seed tomatoes. Chop into 1 inch pieces. Trim the ends of the beans and cut in half. You can leave them whole or cut them smaller – it’s all preference here.

Have a bowl of ice and cold water standing by for the blanching of the green beans.

Ready To Cook?
In a large skillet saute onion and garlic in olive oil over medium heat, until translucent. Add tomatoes and cook, stirring continually until softened – about 2 minutes. Remove skillet from heat.

In the boiling salted water blanch beans for 1 minute. With a slotted spoon or spider transfer beans to the ice water so they will stop cooking. This process will keep your beans bright green and they will retain a crunch. If you put them in the dish raw – they will be a rather bitter – but blanching brings out their sweetness. Drain beans well and pat dry.

Add beans to the tomato mixture and return water in the pot to a boil. Boil orzo until al dente (it will continue cooking when added to mixture – so you don’t want to overcook it in the boiling process). Drain orzo and add to mixture. Add the white wine vinegar, parsley, feta and salt and pepper to taste. BE SURE TO TASTE! The feta is pretty salty – so don’t over do it. Toss to combine well.

This is great warm or cold!

The Perfect Bite
Here’s where I love to stack my fork to get a good complex flavor bite. Be sure to get some orzo, tomato, a haricot vert and feta together on your fork or in your spoon. Sweet, salty, creamy and crunchy! It’s truely a perfect bite…

The Perfect Pairing
If you’re serving this dish as a side, try pairing it with roasted chicken breast or pork chop. And try pairing it with a sweet yet oak-y Chardonnay like (sorry mom, but it’s French!) Fat Bastard. Smooth in the mouth with light aromas and a long, toasty finish. It’s  a perfect pairing with a creamy pasta dressed in olive oil and tangy feta.

The Perfect Health
Did you know that Feta cheese contains about 33 percent fewer calories than most cheeses, has a much stronger flavor than many other low-calorie cheeses, such as mozzarella and can aid in the loss of abdominal fat? Read more HERE.

Garden Vegetable Pasta Bake (w/Italian Sausage)


This is one of my favorite go-to meals, especially if unexpected company stops by… which happens frequently at my house. If your pantry is regularly stocked with an assortment of dried pastas and a few fresh garden vegetables (or even better – you have a vegetable garden in your yard!) you can whip this up on the spot… an hour’s time max!

Yields: 4-6 main course servings / 8-10 side dish servings

Ingredients
1 lb Fusilli or Rotini noodles (uncooked – I use Barilla Plus)
3-4 links Sweet Italian Sausage (optional)
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan
1 medium zucchini squash
1 medium yellow squash
1 red bell pepper
1 green bell pepper
1 cup asparagus tips
1 small sweet onion
1 medium red tomato (seeded – rind only)
1 tablespoon of minced garlic
1 pinch each of what I call The Italian Big 5 (dried): thyme, basil, sage, oregano, rosemary
1.5 tablespoon kosher salt (divided)
1 teaspoon pepper as needed
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons butter

Preparation
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

This is where your veggie chopping skills come in. I’m going to list how I chop my vegetables for this dish, but change it up to your own preference!
Zucchini – trim ends and then chop whole zucchini into three 1.5″-2″ rounds. Then take each round and quarter length-wise.
Yellow Squash – slice into 1/8″ dials. If the squash is fairly fat at the end (more than 1.5″) cut dials in half. The goal is bite-size.
Red & Green Bell Peppers – I cut them julienne. Which is a fancy word for skinny strips. Simply trim top and bottom off pepper and discard. Core and remove seeds and spines. Then slices in 1/4″ slivers about 1.5″ long.
Asparagus – I use just the tips because often the center can be a little woody if not cooked long enough. I cut the tips off about 2″ in. Then I reserve the remainder of the stalk for making soups or purees.
Sweet Onion – peel and dice finely… this should be for flavor and not something you want bite-size.
Garlic – same as the onion above.
Tomato – Slice in half and core out seeds and spines. We just want the fleshy part. Cut into 1″ chunks.

Ready To Cook?
Put a large pot of water on medium heat. Drizzle olive oil and add a tablespoon of salt to the water. I use a good amount of salt when cooking pasta… I’ve heard your water should taste like the ocean when you’re done. Infusing your pasta with salt is better than adding salt to your meal later.

Once your water comes to a boil add your pasta and continue cooking until it’s just shy of al dente.  Remember, it’s going to cook a little more in the oven so we don’t want to overdo it. I prefer to use the fasilli or rotini noodles because the corkscrew shape holds the seasonings best… but feel free to use whatever your favorite pasta is – I’ve used to bowtie with this as well, which makes for a festive looking dish.

Next, if adding Italian sausage to this dish, you’ll want to start by taking the casings off of the links. In a large skillet using a wooden spoon, break sausage into small bite-size pieces. Cook over medium heat until browned. You won’t need to worry if they’re completely cooked because they’ll be going in the oven soon and will finish off nicely. Be careful not to overcook. Roughly 3-4 minutes should do it. The recipe calls for 3-4 links, but most packages come with 5 links. So, if you’re like me… you’ll want to cook all 5 to compensate for all the “taste-testing” you’ll do.

Using the same skillet (don’t clean it – you want all those great flavors!), pour in 1/4 cup of olive oil. While bringing it to a medium heat toss in The Italian Big 5 (dried thyme, basil, sage, oregano, rosemary). Once your oil is ready (it sizzles with a drop of water), gently add in your onion and garlic first. Stir well so that the dried herbs are worked through the oil, onions and garlic. Saute for 3 minutes then slowly add the veggies in this order (based on cooking time): Peppers, asparagus, zucchini, squash. Reserve the tomato, which won’t be added until ready to bake. Pour the 1/4 cup of white wine over veggies and continue sauteing for 5-6 minutes or until the zucchini has become tender and can easily be stabbed with a fork.

Drain pasta and transfer to a large baking dish (a lasagna dish works best). Add sausage. Add diced tomatoes. Then pour all the contents from your skillet over the pasta and sausage, including olive oil/wine reduction that’s happened in the pan while sauteing. This is going to be the sauce. TIP: If your pan has become too dry while sauteing, you may have overcooked your veggies. Just add more olive oil and a splash of white wine and de-glaze the bottom of your pan. Add that to your pasta-veggie mix.

Immediately add 2 tablespoons of butter so it can melt. Add half of your Parmesan cheese and mix thoroughly until everything is coated and you can see that the herbs are distributed evenly.

Taste your dish to see if additional salt and pepper is needed. TIP: Don’t assume it needs salt – the sausage and salted pasta may have added plenty. Always taste your food before seasoning!

Sprinkle top with remaining grated Parmesan and bake uncovered on middle rack for 20 minutes (or until cheese starts to brown at edges).

TIP: If making extra to freeze for later, do not bake the portion you want freeze. Freeze after it’s cooled. Should last in freezer up to a month.

The Perfect Bite
This is one of my favorite kind of dishes to get a perfect bite from. I love stacking my fork with a twirly little noodle, a juicy piece of sausage, a buttery bite of zucchini and sweet sliver of red pepper. Oh, my mouth is watering just thinking about it! I love the nutty Parmesan and lightness of this invisible sauce.

The Perfect Pairing
This is a great summer dish so I prefer to pair it with a chilled glass of wine. Now, I’ve long since been a rosé snob. Pink wine? Really? My mind immediately goes to that giant box of Almaden Pink Blush Chablis that sits warm on the edge of my mom’s kitchen counter. Sorry Mom, but really?

However, rosé has come a long way… and I’m starting to warm up to them… well, at least when they’re chilled (again Mom, really?). Try pairing this dish with this French Rosé Note Bleue Cotôs De Provence Rosé 2009 – it’s sweet and earthy. A perfect compliment to the buttery pasta and veggies and peppery sausage. Served chilled, about 47 degrees.

The Perfect Health
Using Barilla Plus, reduces carbs and adds protein to any meal.  It’s made from legumes such as Chickpeas and Lentils as well as Egg Whites, Spelt, Barley, Flaxseed, Oat Fiber, and Oats.  Be sure check the box for cooking instructions – Barilla Plus can take longer to boil. Unlike many wheat or whole grain pastas that taste a little, well, cardboardy. This one is delicious! And I’ve found it holds up better in soups (as in, doesn’t swell and get mushy).  Read more here about its nutritional value.

Butternut Squash Lasagna


It’s a misnomer that butternut squash are just a Winter vegetable. Here in Middle Tennessee we have big beautiful squash year long… especially if you get them from your local Farmer’s Market. Granted, there’s a larger abundance of them in the Winter – but you can still easily find them now.

This recipe is made with a butternut squash puree and a nutmeg & basil rue. Sound a little complicated? Only slightly… but the results are ridiculously tasty and you can make a large batch and freeze the remaining. I’ve also included sweet Italian sausage in in this but you can make it vegetarian-friendly if you prefer.

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 (1 1/2 to 2-pound) butternut squash
1 lb sweet Italian sausage (usually found in links)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup water
3 amaretti cookies, crumbled (optional of you can’t find)
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 1/2 cups whole milk
Pinch nutmeg
3/4 cup (lightly packed) fresh basil leaves
12 no-boil lasagna noodles
2 1/2 cups shredded whole-milk mozzarella cheese
1/3 cup grated Parmesan

The Rue

Melt the butter in a heavy medium-size saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk for 1 minute. Gradually whisk in the milk. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the sauce thickens slightly, whisking often, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the nutmeg. Cool slightly. Transfer half of the sauce to a blender*. Add the basil and blend until smooth. Return the basil sauce to the remaining sauce in the pan and stir to blend. This is your basil-nutmeg rue. Season the rue with salt and pepper, to taste.

The Squash Puree

Cut squash in half lengthwise and scoop out seeds, then quarter if squash is large. Coat in olive oil and place flesh side down on cookie sheet. Roast on top rack of oven at 425ountil tender… roughly 45-50 minutes. Be sure to use a cookie tray with at least a 1/2 inch lip as squash will give off a lot of water.

When squash is done, scoop flesh from peel and put in food processor. Add crumbled amaretti cookies and a pinch of salt. Puree until smooth. TIP: When blending hot liquids – remove liquid from the heat and allow to cool for at least 5 minutes. Transfer liquid to a blender or food processor and fill it no more than halfway. If using a blender, release one corner of the lid. This prevents the vacuum effect that creates heat explosions. Place a towel over the top of the machine, pulse a few times then process on high speed until smooth.

Ready To Cook?
Position the rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees F.

*Saute and brown sausage in a skillet. Break up into 1/2″ pieces.  Drain and set aside.

Lightly butter a 13 by 9 by 2-inch glass baking dish. Spread 3/4 cup of the sauce over the prepared baking dish. Arrange 3 lasagna noodles on the bottom of the pan. Spread 1/3 of the squash puree over the noodles. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup of mozzarella cheese. Drizzle 1/2 cup of rue over the noodles. Repeat layering 3 more times. *Scatter sausage on second layer and cover with the mozzarella.

Tightly cover the baking dish with foil and bake the lasagna for 40 minutes then remove and uncover. Sprinkle the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses over the lasagna. Continue baking uncovered until the sauce bubbles and the top is golden, 15 minutes longer. To firm up, let the lasagna stand for at least 20 minutes before serving.

The Perfect Pairing

It’s a sultry summer – try your hand at making a sangria. Sangria’s come in all types and flavors – check out this great site filled with Sangria recipes.

The Perfect Health

Butternut squash is not just low in fat and calories, but these squash are high in Vitamins A & C and high in Potassium and dietary fiber. It’s also a great source for anti-oxidants and works toward heart and lung health. Read here for more details

Roasted Beefsteak Tomato & Sweet Basil Pasta Sauce


I recently was given 12 large beefsteak tomatoes. Never wanting to refuse such a beautiful gift, I gladly accepted. Until I realized that I had no idea what to do with them and would never be able to consume them before they went bad. So I started scrambling through recipes and kept coming across a myriad of tomato and pasta sauces.  It seems that everyone has “the perfect” homemade recipe!

As much as I hate to admit this… I’ve never tried making my own sauce. And I have to admit that I feel like I’m cheating when I unscrew the pressurized lid of the Ragu jar and hear that familiar pop… and hoping my dinner guests in the other room don’t notice.

So, it’s high time I learned a thing or two about tomato sauce. I am learning that the “takes all day to make” sauce is truly the best kind… but for a quick and easy, and first attempt… I took the short route.

Of course, every recipe I found said that beefsteak tomatoes are not good for sauce… they’re “too acidic” and “too pulpy”. That I should use rich red Roma tomatoes. But never say die… I can make this work! After all, I don’t have Roma tomatoes. I have 12 very large, very ripe, very meaty “maters” that need to become something fast!

I wanted to make a sauce that was completely natural with *no “cans” or “jars” of anything. And I love roasted vegetables… so I decided that roasting the tomatoes would bring a smoky sweetness out of them, and help cut their acidity.

Ingredients (makes 2 quarts)
1 dozen med-large beefsteak tomatoes (or on the vine red tomatoes)
1 large sweet Vidalia onion
6 large garlic cloves
2 Anaheim chilies (seeded)
3/4 cup fresh basil – torn small
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried thyme
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup dry red wine
1/2 cup sherry
2 tablespoons anchovy paste
*2 tablespoons tomato paste (if you are making this in the tomato off-season you may need to add tomato paste to enrich the tomato flavor. But if making July-Sept you should be fine without – just taste and decide!)
1 tsp of sugar (to taste)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Cut veggies into large chucks and toss onto a baking sheet that has at least a 1″ rim. Sprinkle in the dried thyme and oregano. Drizzle extra virgin olive oil across it and toss to coat. Put on top rack of preheated oven at 400 degrees. Roast veggies and spices for about 20 minutes until tender and just start to brown at edges and the skins on the tomatoes burst.

IMG_5213.JPG
Remove tray from oven and scoop vegetables into a large food processor or blender. Or place them straight into the stock pot if you have an immersion blender. Then you can mix it right in the pot. Add 1/2 cup of fresh sweet basil leaves and blend. Once you’ve brought it to a smooth consistency pour it back into the pot. Add the wine, sherry and anchovy paste and let it simmer on low heat for 30-40 minutes until it reaches desired thickening and taste. Add remaining chopped fresh basil right before serving.

TIPS:

1) Be sure to pour all the juices from the roasting tray into the blender as well – so much flavor there! If your sauce seems a little thin initially – keep simmering, it should reduce nicely.

2) If you’re having trouble getting your sauce blended well, try straining it to get the little pieces of tomato skin and seeds out. Just keep in mind that these textures are a sign of a homemade sauce and not one that’s been processed to death.

Keep In Mind: Due to the orange-red color of the beefsteak tomato, your sauce is not going to be a deep, rich red as you see in many of the store-bought brands (of course, they also use “enhancements”). If you prefer a more red hue, use peeled Roma tomatoes (or add a few for color). You can also add roasted red bell pepper… which will also add a spicy-sweet note to your sauce.

The Perfect Bite
Seriously, it’s a sauce. You’re gonna have to give me some grace on this one. But do dip a piece of crunchy toast to taste while cooking!


The Perfect Pairing
As you can see in the top photo, I paired this sauce with my homemade ricotta and topped it all on a bed of Fusili pasta (not homemade – yet). I also included some basil from my potted garden.

I asked my friends at Rumours East for a wine recommendation from their wine list… and here’s what they suggested (be sure to catch their 2 for 1 nights, wine tastings & art shows!):

2006 Villa di Azzano Refosco dal Penduncolo Rosso

“It’s typically a given that Italian foods are paired better with Italian wines, and there is no exception in this case. It’s a full-bodied red, rich and fruitful with hints of plum and almond notes. It delivers a strong, yet not overwhelming acidity level that would compliment the flavor of a homemade red tomato sauce. A good rule of thumb when pairing food and wine is not to overwhelm your taste buds by pairing contrasting acidity levels.

If you can’t get your hands on an exact bottle you are looking for, I would recommend a Zinfandel or a Chianti/Sangiovese. Zinfandels are known to be quite versatile and work well with traditional Italian dishes centered around the tomato.”

The Perfect Health
Typical jars of pasta sauce contain very high amounts of corn syrup (some as high as 25 grams of sugars, per cup!) and preservatives (avg 1100 mg of sodium, per cup!). Most pasta sauce recipes call for using a 6oz can of tomato paste (for thickening)… which still has 21 grams of sugar in it!

Making your own sauce, completely from scratch… makes a significant difference in your sodium & sugar intake. Just using fresh, natural products makes the taste unbelievable too! Per cup, a homemade pasta sauce similar to my above recipe will roughly garner a mere 10 grams of sugars and only 26 mg of sodium! Knowing that’s gonna make it hard to buy ever again.

Spicy Mac & Cheese



This is not your Mama’s macaroni & cheese… but it is a definite crowd pleaser!

I love comfort food… I mean, who doesn’t? It evokes warm memories of home and family and a simpler time… which is why we crave it on rainy, cold days and when life throws us a curve ball.

I love to eat this on its own as a meal, but it’s also great paired with my Drunken Country Ribs… I’ll post that recipe at a later date.

Ingredients
1 pkg Creamette jumbo elbow macaroni
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar
1 cup shredded Mexican blend
1/2 cup  shredded Swiss or Jarlsburg cheese
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 cup whole milk
5 tablespoons butter
2 tsps of salt
1 tsp pepper
Cholula Original hot sauce (or whatever your favorite is – this is one of mine)
salt & pepper to taste
1 sm can Ortega Diced Green Chilies (if you like it really spicy you can use their diced jalapeños instead)
1 sm sweet onion – diced
1/2 cup Panko (Japanese bread crumbs – they’re made from bread after the crust is removed, which gives them a light airy texture. If you can’t find Panko, Corn Bread Crumbs are great)

Preparation

Sauté diced onion in 2 tablespoons butter until translucent. Don’t overcook, they’ll be cooking longer in the oven.

Boil macaroni until tender, drain and put into shallow baking dish (glass or ceramic cake pan works best). While noodles are boiling you can make your bechamel sauce.  In a medium saucepan, heat butter over medium-low heat until melted.  Add the flour and stir until smooth.  Over medium heat, cook until the mixture turns a light, golden sandy color, about 6 to 7 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the milk in a separate pan until just about to boil. Add the hot milk to the butter mixture 1 cup at a time, whisking continuously until very smooth. Bring to a boil. Cook 10 minutes, stirring constantly, then remove from heat. Once removed from heat, slowly add the grated cheeses and continue stirring. NOTE: If you add the cheese while still on the heat it will curdle up and that when you get a grainy gritty texture. You want a smooth, cheesy bechamel! Once all cheese is incorporated, season with salt and pepper.

Fold in bechamel sauce and green chilies and stir until all noodles are covered and ingredients are thoroughly mixed.
Add more salt and pepper if needed and Cholula Hot Sauce to *taste.
*I always take a taste a spoonful before baking to make sure it’s spicy enough or to see if it needs more salt or pepper.

Ready To Cook?
*Sprinkle Panko across the top until evenly, but not completely covered. Bake at 375º for 20 minutes or until cheese is slightly brown & crunchy around edges (you know this is the best part!)

*For a more golden crunchy topping… sprinkle a few drops of olive oil in a bowl and toss panko crumbs until evenly (but lightly) coated. Then sprinkle on mac & cheese.

The Perfect Bite
Who are we kidding? Every bite of this is a perfect bite!

The Perfect Pairing
With its zesty Mexican flavors the perfect beverage for this dish is an ice cold bottle of Negra Modelo.

Did You Know? You can reduce the amount of tears you shed while cutting onions if you use a really sharp knife and a cold onion. A dull knife used on an over-ripe room temp onion will make you cry a river of tears. I always use sweet onions because they’re less tear-inducing than yellow or white onions. Also, for a little more complicated but cry-proof solution… check out this video.